Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Embracing Positionality in Research

Lynette J. Chua, Mark Fathi Massoud

“The law is reason, free from passion.” This statement, attributed to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, suggests that judges, lawyers, and scholars must examine the law objectively, without succumbing to the influence of personal emotions or experiences. But might our emotions, experiences, and identities actually influence how we approach the law? And, if so, is there anything wrong with that? We embrace the aphorism that what one sees depends on where one sits. This central idea – that our emotions and experiences can matter as much as our ideas do – is the driving force behind the new book, Out of Place: Fieldwork and Positionality in Law and Society.

Drawing on the research experiences of a globally diverse group of scholars, Out of Place tells a new history of the field of law and society. What is law and society? It is an interdisciplinary field that connects the study of law with empirical research in the social sciences and humanities. By connecting law with lived experience, law and society scholarship shifts attention away from law’s rules and onto the people who make and are subjected to those rules. Law and society scholars (sometimes called socio-legal scholars) find ways to study how law shapes and is shaped by politics, culture, religion, memories, language, the histories of a place and its people, and more.

A crucial component of much law and society scholarship is therefore fieldwork, which includes things like ethnography, in-depth qualitative interviews, and historical or archival research. These methods typically require scholars to leave their desks and travel – not just physically but often emotionally – to difficult places. A research population, for instance, may be difficult to reach due to political or social sensitivities as when the subject matter concerns the plight of populations experiencing violence. Or the research may connect with a researcher’s own lived experience or trauma. These physical and emotional places where law and society researchers go – inside and outside of them – require adequate reflection on positionality, that is, how one’s class, gender, racial or other social attributes, experiences, and privileges influenced the research and writing process.

In putting together this book, we learned that scholars who are gendered, racialized, working class, immigrant, queer, disabled, and otherwise marginalized sometimes themselves study other marginalized people or places. What is more, our study of the field’s oldest journals reveals that marginalized scholars are more likely than people in the majority to demonstrate methodological self-consciousness by reflecting on positionality. Such developments comport with a cultural turn that has been taking place over the past few decades in journalism, the humanities, and the social sciences.

This cultural turn, which is a subjective one, has opened up space for authors to reflect on themselves and, in some cases, has empowered authors to insert themselves and their personal histories into their research. Being attentive to positionality enables scholars – especially those who go “out of place” and who feel “out of place” in their research sites or in the academy – to glean new insights from their fieldwork. Furthermore, their statements of positionality in a research publication can enhance the validity of their empirical data as well as their theoretical contributions.

But positionality is a two-edged sword. For its many benefits, self-disclosure of positionality also puts scholars in a vulnerable position. It is not easy for anyone to reflect upon positionality. This may explain why today only a small minority of researchers are disproportionately carrying the burdens of positionality. These scholars, our data reveal, largely self-identify as women, ethnic minorities, or both. As the field of law and society is becoming more diverse and an interest in identity grows, scholars have a long way to go toward recognizing the implications of this methodological turn toward positionality.

Out of Place represents our effort to change the direction of the field of law and society by turning the spotlight on what it means to be out of place, how being out of place influences fieldwork, and how empirical legal research with attention to positionality shapes what we know about legal power. The book is seven years in the making. We started with our shared joy for fieldwork – Chua in different parts of Asia and Massoud in different parts of Africa and Europe – and an awareness of the influence that this type of research has had on our scholarship, our health, and our lives. Inspired by our conversations, friendship, and support for each other, we embarked upon this study that culminates with Out of Place.

The book began with an invitation to a group of law and society scholars from around the world to participate in a workshop where they presented essays on their “out-of-placeness” and its influence on their study of law. Collectively, they conducted research on law and society in Australia, China, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Singapore, South Africa, Sudan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, among other places. The chapters that they produced are reflections on how life at the margins of a discipline or fieldwork site – an “out of place” positionality – allowed them to see what those at the center did not see. Their work demonstrates an intentional awareness of the effects of self-identifications, experiences of marginalization, and professional privileges on research and writing about the law. In each chapter, the authors discuss how their research changed them during their fieldwork and across sometimes decades-long careers, and how they went on to shape the field of law and society as a result of their individual journeys.

We are all “out of place” to varying degrees. Out of Place is an invitation to law and society scholars to embrace our multiple, conditional, and out-of-place identities, and the confusion that comes with doing so. Instead of trying to fall back on absolutes where they may seem most efficient or necessary, or succumbing to disciplinary assimilation, we hope readers will muster the courage to share where they sit in order to explain what and how they see – just as the contributors in Out of Place have done. Accepting this invitation to embrace a “position sensibility” will transform law and society for the better – and it will help the field shape the disciplines from which it emerged.

The full book PDF of Out of Place is available via Open Access on Cambridge Core.

Out of Place by Lynette J. Chua and Mark Fathi Massoud

About The Authors

Lynette J. Chua

Lynette J. Chua is Professor of Law at National University of Singapore and Head of Studies for the Law-Liberal Arts Double-Degree Programme at Yale-NUS College. She is the author ...

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Mark Fathi Massoud

Mark Fathi Massoud is Professor of Politics and Director of Legal Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is also a Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford F...

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