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).

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).

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

VIDEO: Professor Rom Harré speaking about the history and trajectory of positioning theory, at the inaugural event in 2015.

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.