Positionality and the Hydra

Posted on: September 18, 2022 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Hydra "privileging forces"

‘…the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…     

-from the first sentence of the Preamble to the 1948  Universal Declaration of Human Rights



Positionality and the Hydra
In my continuing journey to expand on what I have been calling ‘critical Hydra theory’ and to better understand privileging forces I have been thinking a good deal about positionality. Dimensions of our identity influence how we both see and are seen by others. Positionality can be defined as

“… the social and political context that creates our identity in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability status. Positionality also describes how your identity influences, and potentially biases, your understanding of and outlook on the world. Positionality asks people to understand and describe how gender and other identity markers [your status set] inform how we see the world around us.”

Though I agree completely with the wording in the above definition, I would expand it to include our age, colonial status, and our anthropocentrism. Understanding positionality is an absolute essential for effectively understanding and using critical Hydra theory on a personal level.

All humans have socially constructed status sets that are comprised of both ascribed (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender, age) and achieved statues (e.g., education, marital status) which change over time and situation. According to the Hydra model our most salient ascribed statuses include gender/gender identity, race/ethnicity, colonial status, sexuality, social class, ability (including physical, mental, and cognitive), age, and our status as humans. We are a social species largely defined by the cultural milieus in which we developed our sense of self and in which we currently exist. Social status is just that, a status defined by our society; self and society are two heads of the same coin.

In my classical theory class each fall I spend some time on G.H. Mead’s Mind, Self, and Society‘, the  canonical work in the study of the interaction between self and society. In this work Mead talks about ‘taking the role of the other’, putting oneself in the position of the other and hence generating some degree of empathy. Awareness of one’s positionality, I believe, is an exercise in reflecting on our personal sense of how we are socially created and sustained beings. This awareness comes though constantly ‘taking the role of the other.’ That empathy is part of human nature perhaps explains the existence of a ‘Golden Rule’ ethos in virtually all world religions and thought systems.

Extending the concept of ‘taking the role of the other’ one of Mead’s colleagues named George H. Cooley coined the phrase ‘looking-glass self’. He argues that at least in part one’s self identity comes from:

(1) imagining what others see when they see you
(2) imagining how they evaluate or judge what they see
(3) incorporating these observations into one’s sense of self.

This ‘looking glass’ process supports the argument that self and society (those around us) are experientially connected. One hurdle is fully understanding this idea is that we tend to think of our self identity as more or less fixed and totally under our control. It is not.

Empathy is not unique to humans. We know from both human and non-human behavioral studies is that the level of empathic capacity displayed by one individual can vary a good deal from others. Like many inherited traits (think height), research evidence indicates that the capacity for empathy varies along a bell curve with most people within one standard deviation from the norm but with some two or more standard deviations from the norm; some people have an innately high capacity for empathy, some, just the opposite, have a very low capacity for empathy. The cultures in which our minds develop do impact our behavior in terms of empathy, and tend to positively reinforce displays of empathy, though this is highly variable and varies greatly from one culture to the next. Indeed, human behavior can best be understood by looking at the complex interplay between our biology (‘human nature’) and cultural learning (nurture).

A brother of my own blood
Late this summer I attended my Covid delayed 50th (+2) high school reunion. Of the items on display at our dinner event were copies of ‘Potpourri’, our high school’s yearly literary magazine. In the edition published during my sophomore year, 1968, I found a short writing of mine I had long forgotten. I had found a what amounts to positionality statement from over five decades ago. As a 15 year old raised in northeastern Ohio here were my thoughts:

Sadly the pace of social change is at times glacial, and minus the dated language what I wrote in 1968 reflects almost exactly my thoughts now in 2022.The county where I live in North Carolina still has a Confederate monument on the courthouse square.

I include this personal example to illustrate the point I made above, namely that we all ‘take the role of the other’ in most social encounters and are aware of our positionality almost constantly. What I assumed in that moment was that what the other person (the “Negro”) saw was a white person and had every reason to believe that this white person was racist and hence felt superior and had every right to marginalize him with any manner of subtle or not-so-subtle verbal or non-verbal communication. As it was in 1968 it still is now in 2022. Truly sad.

More notes on positionality
The Hydra model can be a useful tool when attempting to think and act more mindfully in a world characterized by systemic marginalization of so many populations in every corner of the globe. Peacebuilding and working for social justice go hand in hand.

Those who are aware of their own positionality and the privileging forces at play in their daily lives will be better equipped to integrate positive humanitarian principles into their own lives. More deeply reflective and self aware individuals will thus be directly addressing and even confronting the many forms of toxic othering which fuel privileging forces and permeate virtually every social encounter.

An exercise
Here is an exercise intended to introduce you to the concept of positionality.

Describe your position within your family? Siblings? Ages? Genders? How many generations in the household? You have a unique position within your family and it influences how you act and how others in your family interact with you. Most people would not speak in the same way to a parent as they would to a younger sibling of the opposite gender, for example. Though they may not think about it consciously, everyone is keenly aware of their positionality within the family and act accordingly.

Just as you must be aware of your positionality within the context of your family, we all need to be aware of our positionality vis-a-vis co-workers, for example, and in all our social encounters. As discussed above, all humans have the capacity for empathy and just other capacities this varies within any human population; some people are more empathetic than others. In sociology we use the phrase ‘taking the role of the other’ to describe the process of empathy. Empathy leads to an awareness of one’s positionality in the work setting, and, just as in the family, this happens naturally, but typically not explicitly or even consciously.

A general principle of positionality awareness is that those who are in the status inferior [aka marginalized] positions tend to be more aware of their positionality than those in status superior positions. For example, in many workplace settings females tend to be very aware of misogynic or sexist behaviors while at the same time most males will be oblivious.

Awareness of one’s positionality allows for a greater awareness about how we may be engaging in behavior which marginalizes others and/or how our own behavior may have the impact of marginalizing others. Microaggressions are for the most part subtle but can have a huge impact on those being marginalized. An effective advocate for social justice is one who is sensitive to microaggressions and/or other acts of marginalization both as the victim and the perpetrator.

In mixed social settings it is very likely that an individual can be both an oppressor and a victim of oppression. For example, a BIPOC male can be committing microaggressions toward females in the room when simultaneously having microaggressions being directed at him by non-BIPOC in the room. Being a good ally means constant vigilance regarding one’s status set and positionality and acting in a proactive manner to address all instances where marginalizing behavior is exhibited, both by oneself and others present.

Additional thoughts about positionality and social justice
Intersectionality, a term coined by and popularized by American legal scholar Kimberle Crewshaw, must also be considered when raising one’s awareness of their status set and positionality. Crenshaw first used the term to describe the interaction between race and gender, but in her more recent writings she has stressed that all of our ascribed social statuses intersect as well (e.g., race and class, class and gender, etc.). The voices of those who are multiply marginalized are the best source for understanding this multi-layered intersectionality.

In the words of American author Ijeoma Oluo,

“The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to be free of racism to be anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself.”

Using the tool of CHT it may be useful to expand Oluo’s statement to include all of the toxic othering ‘isms’ including (but not limited to) sexism, colorism, homo/transphobia, classism, ageism, ableism, paternalism, and so on. Consider replacing the word ‘anti-racism’ in Oluo’s statement with, for example, sexism or classism. Indeed, replace ‘anti-racism with any of the privileging forces represented by the heads of the Hydra. The reality is that frequently we are both the oppressed and the oppressor, even in the same social situation. It is key to remember that we must fight oppression and marginalization as social forces and avoid focusing all our energies demonizing a specific ‘other’ who may be perpetuating the oppression. Our efforts should always be focused on addressing any false consciousness we may have (in other writing I refer to this as ‘baked in’ biases) and working to be anti-racist and ‘anti’ all of the other ‘isms’ mentioned above. One’s positionality fully considered always means understanding and addressing relevant forces of oppression at play in each social interaction, especially when asymmetries of power are a major factor.

As humanity goes deeper into the 21st-century, the idea of most people having virtual identities and hence virtual status sets has become a reality. We face a very uncertain future in terms of how the coming ‘metaverse’ will impact all of us regarding the various privileging forces and the process of toxic othering. One’s online presence is clearly a sophisticated product of impression management where an individual highlights typically or situationally positive aspects and dimensions of their social status and downplays others. This is an attempt to get a favorable relative positionality in whatever virtual social setting in which this person’s particular avatar exists. Of important note, and certainly relevant to my field of sociology, is that people can and do fabricate identities that may be quite unlike their real face to face identities they present in the ‘real’ world of social interaction.

In any case, my hope for the future is that technology and specifically online personalities and identities can serve as a force to mitigate toxic othering and not to enhance it. Only those with an accurate crystal ball can know for sure what the future holds in terms of how technology may impact social interaction and hence the forces which perpetuate oppression and marginalization. Being aware of one’s status set and how privileging forces are everywhere and impacting every human is difficult but important work. It is the work of those fighting for social justice.

My journey in using critical Hydra theory (CHT) and understanding toxic othering began with the observation that no human is inherently better than any other human. Working for a more just world where we all contribute to social conditions which preserve “…the inherent dignity … [and]  the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family…” is my goal and I hope that it is yours as well.




Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022.

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