What is Positioning Theory?

In 2012, Professor Rom Harré defined positioning theory as being “…based on the principle that not everyone involved in a social episode has equal access to rights and duties to perform particular kinds of meaningful actions at that moment and with those people. In many interesting cases, the rights and duties determine who can use a certain discourse mode…A cluster of short-term disputable rights, obligations and duties is called a ‘position’” (2012, p. 193).

Video: Rom Harré | Positioning Theory Symposium, Bruges | July 8, 2015

VIDEO: At the inaugural Positioning Theory Symposium in 2015, Professor Rom Harré spoke on the history and trajectory of positioning theory.

Moghaddam and Harré (2010, p. 2) stated that positioning theory is about “how people use words (and discourse of all types) to locate themselves and others”. Further, that is “it is with words that we ascribe rights and claim them for ourselves and place duties on others” (p. 3). Positioning has direct moral implications, such as some person or group being located as ‘trusted’ or ‘distrusted’, ‘with us’ or ‘against us’, ‘to be saved’ or ‘to be wiped out’” (Moghaddam & Harré, 2010, p. 2).

Positioning theory is a social constructionist approach (Slocum & Van Langenhove, 2003) that began to emerge in the 1980s primarily in the area of gender studies, including the work of Brownwyn Davies (Davies & Harré,1990a).                                 

“Davies also drew from post-structuralist theory and feminist scholars to discuss subjectivity, storyline and narrative, all of which figure prominently in Positioning Theory. There is also a very strong connection between Davies’ interests and perspectives and those of Hollway [1984], who is generally credited with introducing “position” and “positioning” in her work on gender relations and sexuality (Van Langenhove & Harré, 1999a, p. 16), influencing the writings of Davies and Harré (1990a,b) and other positioning theorists” (McVee, Silvestri, Barrett, & Haq, 2019, p. 386).

Following the publication of work by Davies and Harré further work in developing and refining Positioning Theory has been carried out predominantly by  Rom Harré, Ali Moghaddam, and Luk van Langenhove (Harré  & Moghaddam, 2003; Harré & van Langenhove, 1991, 1999; Moghaddam, 1999; Moghaddam, Harré, & Lee, 2008); van Langenove & Harré, 1994; van Langenhove, 2017) and numerous other works.

Since the late 1990s, Positioning Theory has been seen to allow “for a very natural expansion of scale, from the analysis of person-to-person encounters to the unfolding of interactions between nation states” (Harré, Moghaddam, Pilkerton Cairnie, Rothbart & Sabat, 2009, p. 6).

Although originating in the field of social psychology it has had widespread application over the last decade or so (Moghaddam & Harré, 2010). It has especially been taken up in the field of education (McVee, Brock & Glazier, 2011, Redman, 2008) but has also included research in areas as varied as anthropology (e.g. Handelman, 2008), communication studies (Hirvonen, (2013), midwifery (Phillips, Fawns, & Hays, 2002), workplace agency (Redman, 2013), political identity studies (e.g. Slocum-Bradley, 2008), and public relations and strategic communication (e.g. James 2014; Wise & James, 2013) among others.


Davies, B., & Harré, R. (1990a). Positionings: The discursive production of selves In B. Davies (Ed.), A body of writing (pp. 87-106). New York: AltaMira Press.

Davies, B., & Harrè, R. (1990b). Positioning:  The discursive production of selves. Journal for Davies, B., & Harrè, R. (1990b). Positioning:  The discursive production of selves. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 20(1), 43-63.

Handelman, D (2008). Afterword: Returning to cosmology – thoughts on the positioning of beliefSocial Analysis, 52(1): 181–95.

Harré, R. (2012) Positioning theory: moral dimensions of social-cultural psychology. In J. Valsiner (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Culture and Psychology. New York: Oxford University, pp. 191–206.

Harré, R., & Moghaddam, F. M. (Eds.). (2003). The self and others. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Harré, R., & van Langenhove, L. (1991). Varieties of positioning. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 21(4), 393-407.

Harré, R., & van Langenhove, L. (Eds.). (1999). Positioning theory: Moral contexts of intentional action Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Harré, R., Moghaddam, F., Pilkerton Cairnie, T., Rothbart, D. and Sabat, S. (2009) Recent advances in positioning theory. Theory and Psychology, 19(1): 5–31. doi: 10.1177/0959354308101417.

Harré, R. and Van Langenhove, L. (1999) Positioning Theory: Moral contexts of intentional action. Oxford: Blackwell.

Herbel-Eisenmann, B. A., Wagner, D., Johnson, K. R., Suh, H. & Figueras, H. (2015). Positioning in mathematics education: Revelations on an imported theory. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 89(2), 185-204.

Hirvonen, P. (2013) Positioning in an Inter-Professional Team Meeting: Examining Positioning Theory as a Methodological Tool for Micro-Cultural Group Studies. Qualitative Sociology Review 9(4), 100-114.

Hollway, W. (1984). Gender difference and the production of subjectivity. In J. Henriques, W. Hollway, C. Urwin, C. Venn, & V. Walkerdine (Eds.), Changing the subject (pp. 223-261). New York: Routledge.

James, M. (2014). Positioning Theory and Strategic Communications: A new approach to public relations research and practice. London: Routledge.

McVee, M. B., Brock, C. H., & Glazier, J. A. (Eds.). (2011). Sociocultural positioning in literacy: Exploring culture, discourse, narrative, and power in diverse educational contexts. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

McVee, M. B., Silvestri, K. N., Barrett, N., & Haq, K. S. (2019). Positioning Theory. In D. E. Alvermann, N. J. Unrau, M. Sailors, & R. Ruddell (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of literacy (7th ed., pp. 381-400). New York: Routledge.

Moghaddam, F. M. (1999). Reflexive positioning:  Culture and private discourse. In R. Harré & L. Van Langenhove (Eds.), Positioning theory: Moral contexts of intentional action (pp. 74-86). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Moghaddam, F. M., Harré, R., & Lee, N. (Eds.). (2008). Global conflict resolution through positioning analysis. New York: Springer.

Moghaddam, F. and Harré, R. (2010) Words, conflicts and political processes. In F. Moghaddam and R. Harré (eds) Words of Conflict, Words of War: How the language weuse in political processes sparks fighting. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Phillips, D., Fawns, R., & Hayes, B. (2002). From personal reflection to social positioning: The development of a transformational model of professional education in midwifery. Nursing Inquiry, 9(4), 239-249.

Redman, C. (2008). The Research planning meeting. In R. Harré, F. Moghaddam and N. Lee (Eds.), Global Conflict Resolution Through Positioning Analysis. Springer New York, pp. 95-112.

Redman, C. (Ed.) (2013). Planning for Science Learning Using the 5E’s: Incorporating ICT with Purpose and Confidence. In Successful Science Education Practices: Exploring what, why and how they worked (pp. 17-3), New York: NOVA Science publishers.

Slocum-Bradley, N. (Ed.) (2008). Promoting conflict or peace through identity. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

Van Langenove, L. (2017). Varieties of moral orders and the dual structure of society: A perspective from positioning theory. Frontiers in Society, 2(9)http://doi.org/10.3389/fsoc.2017.00009Frontiers in Sociology, 2(9), np. doi:10.3389/fsoc.2017.00009

Van Langenhove, L., & Harrè, R. (1994). Cultural stereotypes and positioning theory. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 24(4), 359-372.

Wise, D. & James, M. (2013). Positioning a price on carbon: Applying a proposed hybrid method of positioning discourse analysis for public relations. Public Relations Inquiry. doi: 10.1177/2046147X13494966, vol. 2, no. 3, 327-353. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2046147x13494966