Struggling with Subject Positioning as an Activist Scholar

This semester, I'll be writing a paper on performance theory, activism, and scholarship using the work of a few well-known activist scholars but primarily that of Dwight Conquergood. My research question, while not fully formed yet, will have something to do with positioning the self in scholarship when the topic is familiar, or even dear to the researcher. I'm presently in this position and will continue to be so throughout the remainder of my PhD research and writing, since I'll be studying the beliefs and performances of animal rights activists in Canada.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the idea of subject positioning, Bronwyn Davies and Rom Harre define it as:

...the discursive process whereby selves are located in conversations as observably and subjectively coherent participants in jointly produced story lines. There can be interactive positioning in which what one person says positions another. And there can be reflexive positioning in which one positions oneself (Davies and Harre 1990).

In straightforward language, it's the placement of the self as a participant in any group situation. Sometimes that placement is intentional, and sometimes it's unintentional, but we always occupy a place in the groups we interact with, and it's never a static one. It's a "discursive process."

You might contrast this with the idea of academic objectivity, where the researcher is expected to place herself outside the group she's studying. In many disciplines in the humanities, this is still the ideal position of the scholar, but my Folklore studies have taught me that this is an artificial and rarely achievable placement of the self. David Hufford writes that it can even be dangerous:

If we obtain the appearance of objectivity by leaving ourselves out of our accounts, we simply leave the subjective realities of our work uncontrolled. If we manage to make our facts speak for themselves, those "facts" cease to be evidence in an argument, and we become ventriloquists instead of scholars (Hufford 1995)."

What the Folklore discipline is teaching me is to instead reflexively position myself in the scholarship I undertake. This means I should understand that whatever I might be studying, I (and all of the ideas and opinions that "I" entails) am present in that work. So since I'm already there, it's important to carefully negotiate my presence; with myself, with the topic and participants I'm studying, and with my readers when I write about my research. Part of that careful negotiation is critical interrogation of my position so that I'm able to approach material with a properly academic gaze even when I have strong personal opinions about it.

Perhaps you're coming to understand my struggle now. I've been vegan for over ten years, and I've engaged in animal rights activism of various kinds since then. I've always been careful to remain respectful of the people I interact with on social media (friends, acquaintances, and the like) as I undertook that activism. I don't mind making people a little uncomfortable, because interrogating our unquestioned beliefs is a thorny process, and eating animals is the unquestioned (and I would argue hegemonic) cultural norm. But I've tried to keep the worst everyday abuses of animals out of my social media feeds because I believe they can create online echo chambers. Non-vegans and non-activists become horrified and unfollow accounts where they are likely to see pictures of animal abuse, so vegan animal rights activists end up singing to the choir. I don't want that sort of engagement, so I've endeavored to integrate what I hope have been thoughtful pieces on veganism and animal rights activism into my social media presence. I was reflexively positioning myself as the "reasonable vegan," and it's a position I like, though in the interest of full disclosure I would hasten to add that underneath that position lies a set of strong moral and ethical convictions.

But now I'm embarking on something new. Over the course of the next three years and likely thereafter, I'll be participating in, documenting, and writing scholarship about animal rights demonstrations. I care a great deal about this topic, and I'm fortunate to have good supervisors and professors behind my work who have more experience than I do positioning themselves in research. I'll be trusting them to provide me with guidance while I go forward into my first major academic project. But again, beneath the "academic vegan" lies a specific moral and ethical position, deeply held. Beyond that, there is the rest of the academy and especially scholars in the humanities who are still striving for a kind of objectivity I have come to find problematic. How will they receive the work of a vegan, animal rights activist who does scholarship in animal rights activism? I don't know.

However, much as I never wanted to sing to the social media choir and hoped to offer my friends and acquaintances challenging but thoughtful pieces on veganism and animal rights, I know that my academic production of knowledge on this topic will be useless if I don't rigorously and consistently interrogate my position while I'm researching and writing about it. So while I don't presently know what shape that interrogation will take or how it will be received, at least I have a good tool set now and a direction forward. And finally, this isn't a struggle I'll ever be able to put down. Rather, my job is to earnestly engage with it as I work to produce knowledge about the aspects of human culture that brought me to the academy in the first place.

Works Cited

Davies, Bronwyn, and Rom Harre. n.d. “Positioning: The Discursive Production of Selves.” Accessed January 28, 2018.

Hufford, David J. 1995. “The Scholarly Voice and the Personal Voice: Reflexivity in Belief Studies.” Western Folklore 54 (1): 57–76.