Positioning theory illuminates our understanding of rights, duties, expectations and vulnerabilities. It addresses the dynamics of power and control and is a potent tool for understanding the self, the individual in the context of others, relationships, and social institutions. It even transcends the distinction between people and objects and has profound implications for the development of artificial intelligence.
Where do you stand?
Are you sitting down? Maybe you are in London, or Paris or Malaga. And maybe it’s 4pm on Saturday 11th November 2017 where you are. So, that locates you (or rather me) in place and time. And in exactly the same way, you can also be ‘positioned’ with respect to your attitudes and opinions. Are you to ‘the right’ or to ‘the left’, for example.
There is a theory that can help you understand where you are, and it’s not just ‘left’ or ‘right’. Pretty well every word you say and every action you take, creates a ‘position’. Read on to see how you cannot avoid taking positions and how positions confer rights and responsibilities on you and others, reveal vulnerabilities and determine the power relationships between us. Even objects, both natural and the ones we create have positions, both in the sense of where they are located, but also in the way they affect your actions. Re-thinking the world from the point of view of positioning theory can be a revelation.
Part of the appeal of positioning theory is that it is easy to understand, and it is easy to understand because it builds on a basic psychological process that we use all the time. This is the process of navigating around a space.
Youtube Video, Spatial Navigation – Neil Burgess, Serious Science, December 2016, 12:41 minutes
Positioning theory can be applied to all sorts of things. It can be used between individuals to help understand each other and resolve differences. It can be used in organisations to help effect organisational change. It can be used by therapists to help families understand and adjust the way they think about the main influences in their lives, and help alter their circumstances. It can be used in international relations to help nations and cultures understand each other and resolve their differences. It can also be used manipulatively to sell you things you didn’t want and to restrict your freedom, even without you being consciously aware of it.
In one sense, positioning theory is such a simple idea that it can seem obvious. It can be thought of as ‘the position you take on a particular issue’. For example, you may take the position on animal rights, that an animal has the same right to live as a person. But positions need not be so grand or political. You might take the position that two sugars are too many to have in tea or that it’s better not to walk on the cracks between stones on the pavement. Even ascribing attributes to people or objects is to take a position. So to say that somebody is ‘kind’ or ‘annoyed’ is to take a position about how to interpret their behaviour.
What is common to positions is that they derive from some kind of evaluation within a context of beliefs and they can influence action (or at least the propensity for action). Label someone as ‘violent’ or ‘stupid’, for example, and you may easily affect other people’s behaviours with respect to that person, as well as your own. And, of course, if that person is aware of the label, they may well live up to it.
Despite being a simple concept, positions are so pervasive and integrated into thought, language, dialogue, actions and everyday life that it is only relatively recently (i.e. in the post-modern era from about the mid 20th century onwards) that ‘positioning theory’ has emerged and ‘positions’ have become identified as having explicit ‘identities’ in their own right. However, this understanding of positioning has had impact all the way across the social sciences.
Youtube Video, Rom Harré Positioning Theory Symposium Bruges, July 2015, 1:06:27 hours
If I take the position that ‘people should not be allowed to carry guns’, I am placing myself at a particular location on a line or scale, the other end of which is that ‘people should be allowed to carry guns’. The extremes of this scale might be ‘people should never under any circumstances be allowed to carry guns’ and ‘people should always under all circumstances be allowed to carry guns’.
Should not be allowed – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Should be allowed
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .^. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . A possible position . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Once you start to assess particular circumstances, then you are taking intermediate points along the scale. Thinking of positions as lines, or scales, along which you can locate yourself and others, and potentially travel from place to place, helps everybody understand where they are and where others are coming from.
Positioning the self
It can be argued that the notion of ‘the self’ is no more than the set of positions you take up, and that these positions define your identity in a psychological sense. You can imagine a long list of attitude scales with your position marked on each, and that the overall profile (where you are located on each scale) defines your unique identity. However, it’s not so simple. You are more than your attitudes. Your physical characteristics, your genetics, your background, your memories and experiences, your skills etc., will all influence your attitudes, but are distinct from them. Also, your attitudes are not fixed. They change over time and they change in response to circumstances.
Roles, the self, and identity
There is another closely related sense of ‘position’ that goes beyond your own opinions on particular issues. This is how others (and you) position yourself in society. This is looking at you from the outside in rather than the inside out.
A position is not just where you are located on some dimension but it also implies a set of rights, responsibilities and expectations. A child is in a different position to an adult. A doctor is in a different position to a teacher or a taxi driver. We have different expectation of them, accord them different privileges and hold them to account according to different criteria.
Work roles are often known as ‘positions’. You apply for a position. Roles, like that of teacher, policeman, nurse, supervisor, colleague, judge or dogsbody can be seen as sets of rights, duties and expectations that are externally validated – i.e. that are commonly agreed amongst people other than (and including) the occupier of the role. Roles like parent and friend also confer rights and responsibilities. When you position somebody as ‘a friend’ you confer on them the right to know more about you than other people do and the duty to act in your best interests.
BBC Radio 4, In Our Time: Friendship, March 2006, 41:42 minutes
Our relationships with different people position us in different ways. To one person we may be a pupil while to another a teacher, to one a benefactor while to another a dependent, to one a comedian while to another deadly serious. As we move in and out of different social situations these different facets to our identities come to the fore or recede. It is as if our bodies contain multiple versions of the self, each triggered by particular circumstances or situations.
When you position your own rights and duties you are helping to define your ‘self’. If you believe that it is your duty to help the homeless or volunteer for unpaid jobs in the community, you are defining yourself as a particular type of public-spirited person. If you believe that you have the ‘right’ to use fear and violence to control others and justify this in terms of your duty to your country then, like Hitler or Assad, you are again defining your ‘self’.
We can distinguish between the list of rights and duties that are self-defined and part is that defined by others. In childhood your role is largely defined by others – in the family, in school etc. As you move into adulthood you increasingly define your own positions. In principle, you have control over how you define yourself, but in practice it is very hard to do this independently of the expectations of others and how they position you. Significant mismatches between your own definitions, and those of others, creates tension and even more significant stresses occur when there is a mismatch between your own perceptions of yourself and what you feel they ought to be.
One or many selves?
Our naïve assumption is that we have just one identity in the same way as we have only one body (and even that is constantly being renewed such that ever cell in our bodies may be different from what it was a few years before). In fact, it is difficult to identify what remains constant over a lifetime.
Youtube Video, Personal Identity: Crash Course Philosophy #19, CrashCourse, June 2016, 8:32 minutes
But just as we can have multiple roles we simultaneously maintain multiple identities. You may, for example, find yourself carrying on some internal debate (an inner dialogue) when making a decision. Take a difficult decision, like buying a car, moving house or making a career move. It is as if each ‘self’ is arguing the case for each option. It adopts a particular position (or set of positions) then loosely keeps track of it’s pre-requisites and implications. It can then engage in dialogue with, and be influenced by, other positions
A: I want the red sports car
B: It’ll be expensive to run
A: But it would be worth it if …
C: What kind of fool are you wanting a sports car at your age
This suggests that, not only do you change in response to circumstances, constantly re-configuring your positions to adjust to various pressures and concerns, but opens the possibility that you are made up on many different ‘selves’ all vying to have their voices heard.
Youtube Video, What Causes The Voice In Your Head?, Thoughty2, August 2015, 6:57 minutes
And even those selves are not simply stored on the shelf waiting to be activated, but are constructed on the fly to meet the needs of a constant stream of changing circumstances and discussion with the other ‘selves’.
BBC Radio 4, The Human Zoo: The Improvising Mind, June 2015, 27:37 minutes
These selves are normally related to each other. They may be constructed from the same ‘materials’ but they can be seen as distinct and to make up the ‘society of minds’ as discussed in the blog posting ‘Policy regulates behaviour’ in the section ‘who is shouting the loudest’.
Maintaining consistency of the self
Normally we seek to be consistent across our positions and this provides some stability. We strive to be internally consistent in our own view of the world and form small systems of belief that are mutually self-supporting.
Some systems of belief are easy to maintain because they are closely tied to our observations about reality. If I believe it’s night-time then I will expect it to be dark-outside, the clock to read a certain time, certain people to be present or absent, particular programmes to be on TV or radio and so on. This belief system is easy to maintain because we can expect all the observable evidence to point in much the same direction.
Beliefs about the self, by contrast are rather more fragile but nevertheless still require consistency.
Without consistency there is no stability and without stability there is unpredictability and chaos.
You need to know where you are – your position, in order to function effectively and achieve your intentions (See Knowledge is Power to Control). Maintaining a consistent model of yourself is, therefore, something of a priority. This is why we spend a good deal of or mental energy spotting inconsistencies and anomalies in the positions we take and finding ways of correcting them.
Much of what drives us as individuals is the mismatch between how we position ourselves and how we believe others, and ourselves, position us in terms of our duties, rights and expectations. We are constantly monitoring and evaluating how our own feelings, thoughts and behaviours align, and how these align with what we believe other people feel, think and behave in relation to us. If somebody unexpectedly slights us (or gives us an unexpected gift) we cannot help looking for an explanation – i.e. aligning our own belief system with what we believe others are doing and thinking. This is not necessarily to say that we are very good at getting it right and there are a whole host of ways in which we achieve alignment on spurious grounds. These are cognitive biases and their discussion underpins much of what is written in these blog postings.
Youtube Video, Identity and Positioning Theory, rx scabin, January 2013, 7:56 minutes
Re-writing the self
The world is not a totally predictable place, and more so the people we encounter in our lives. As a consequence, we are constantly creating and re-writing the story-line of our own lives in the light of changes in how we position ourselves with respect to others, and how we want or feel we ought to be positioned (see ‘The Story of Your Life’).
Although inconsistency tends to create tension and a drive to minimise it, this is something of a thankless and never-ending task. However much we work at it, there is always a new interpretation that seems to be more satisfactory if we care to look for it. Either new ‘evidence’ appears that we need to account for or we may see a new way of looking at things that makes more sense than a previous interpretation.
In a classic experiment in psychology (Festinger et al 1959) students were given either $1 or $20 to lie to other students about how interesting a task was. They were then asked about their own attitude to the task. Contrary to what you might expect, the students who were paid only $1 to lie, had a more positive attitude to the task. Festinger explains this in terms of maintaining consistency between the lie and ones own attitude when not receiving sufficient payment to lie.
Youtube Video, Testing cognitive consistency, PSYC1030x Series – Introduction to Developmental, Social & Clinical Psychology, April 2017, 3:28 minutes
The blog post called ‘It’s like this’ introduced the work of the psychologists George Kelly who set out the theory of personal constructs. Kelly uses the notion of constructs to explain how people develop the way in which they ‘see’ the world. Kelly’s personal construct theory provides a more common-sense and accessible way of understanding some of the ideas of ‘constructivism’ than some of the later, more obscure post-modernist accounts based in linguistics. George Kelly developed his theory of ‘personal constructs’ way back in 1955 and explores this view of people as ‘personal scientists’, constantly trying to make sense of the world through observation, theory and experiment.
Youtube Video, PCP film 1 Personal Construct Psychology and Qualitative Grids, Harry Procter, September 2014, 28:53 minutes
In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world (see: https://www.tothepointatwork.com/article/vuca-world/ ) it is impossible to keep up with aligning ones own positions with what we experience. This is true on the macro scale (the world at large) and in respect of every small detail (i.e. ‘positioning’ what even one other person thinks of you at any given moment).
Thankfully, to some extent, there is stability. Much of the world stays much the same from moment to moment and even from year to year. Stability means predictability, and when there is predictability we formulate routines and habits of thinking (e.g. Khaneman’s system 1 thinking). Routines of thought and behaviour require little mental effort to maintain. We are often reluctant to move away from established habits because apart from providing some degree of security and predictability, it takes effort to change. In the same way, there is inertia to changing ones position on some issue and we will tend to defend it, even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary.
This is particularly true in relation to the ‘self’. We don’t like to admit we are wrong to others or to ourselves. We don’t like to be accused of being inconsistent. The confirmation bias is particularly strong leading us to seek evidence in support of our view and ignore evidence that does not fit. If something happens that forces us to change our world view – we lose our job, a relationship ends, or we lose a court case – then the consequences can cause a great deal of psychological pain as we are forced to change positions on a wide range of issues, particularly those related to our own self-perception and evaluation of our self-worth.
Youtube Video, Cognitive dissonance (Dissonant & Justified), Brad Wray, April 2011,4:31 minutes
Where there isn’t stability, fortunately we can live with a great deal of ambiguity and uncertainty. Our tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty enables us to hold some quite inconsistent, anomalous or hypocritical positions without being unduly concerns and indeed often without even being particularly aware of it. This is partly because our positions are not necessarily fixed or even known.
We can easily construct new positions, especially when we are trying to justify an emotional reaction to something. This is another example of trying to minimise dissonance and inconsistency but this time the difference we seek to minimise is between our emotional reaction and our reasoning mind. We have similar problems keeping our behaviours consistent with our emotions and thoughts.
We can construct positions ‘on the fly’ to suit circumstances and support the courses of action we want to take. We can post-rationalise to support courses of action we have taken in the past. We can toy with positions and say ‘what would it be like if’ I took such and such a position, just to see how we feel about it. In fact, each one of our multiple selves, so to speak, can construct quite elaborate scenarios in our ‘minds eye(s)’, together with related thoughts, plans and even feelings.
It is in the nature of the human condition that we ‘duck and dive’ and those that are best able to duck and dive tend to be those that can achieve their goals most successfully. Tolerance of ambiguity, and the ability to quickly evaluate and adjust to new circumstances and interpretations, is a great virtue from the point of view of survival.
Furthermore, our realities are socially constructed. We learn from others what to note and what to ignore. Our friends, families, organisations, the media and culture shape what we perceive, interpret and how we act in response. It is our social environment that largely determines the ‘positions’ that we see as being available and the ones that we choose for ourselves.
YouTube Video, positioning theory in systemic family therapy, CMNtraining, July 2015, 33:10 minutes
Positioning and epistemology
Although we strive for consistency between our beliefs and what we take to be external reality, in fact the relationship can be quire tenuous. You might, for example, take the position that you are a good driver. Then, one day you have an accident, but instead of changing your belief about yourself, you believe that it was the fault of another driver. A second accident is blamed on the weather. A third is put down to poor lighting on the road, and a fourth to road-works. You have now built up a mini system of beliefs about the factors that lead to accidents that could, more than likely and more easily, be explained by you being a poor driver. It is not until one day you are charged with careless driving, that you finally have to revise this somewhat fragile belief system.
Belief systems can be a bit like bubbles. They can grow larger as more supporting beliefs are brought in to sustain an original position. Then other beliefs must prop up the supporting beliefs and so on. If the original position had no support in reality the whole system will be fragile, eventually become unsustainable and burst leaving nothing in its place.
In contrast, belief systems that have a stronger foundation do not need propping up with other fragile positions. Each position can stand-alone and therefore can re-enforce others it is related to. This results in a stable belief system with mutually re-enforcing positions and even if one falls away, the rest of the structure will still stand.
Having said that, no belief system is invulnerable. Even the most ‘solid’ of belief systems such as Einsteinian physics came under attack from quantum mechanics. The way in which science progresses is not by gradual accumulation of ‘facts’ but, as Kuhn observed in 1963, is more to do with the eventual replacement of established paradigms by new ones, only once the old paradigm becomes completely unsustainable. This model probably also applies to the belief systems of individuals where established systems are clung to for as long as can be sustained.
As we move towards the development of artificial intelligence and robots it will be increasingly necessary to understand the logic and mathematics of belief systems.
Noah Friedkin (2017) has developed a mathematical model of how belief systems change in response to new evidence and illustrates this with how beliefs change amongst the US public as new evidence emerged in relation to the Iraq war. http://www.uvm.edu/~cdanfort/csc-reading-group/friedkin-science-2016.pdf
How will robots build their belief systems and change them in the light of evidence? This is one of the issues examined at www.robotethics.co.uk .
The naive theory of knowledge is that our knowledge and perceptions are simply a mirror of reality. However, the more we think about it the more we understand that what we take to be reality is very much a function of how we perceive and interpret it.
Some animals, for example, can detect frequencies of sound and light that people cannot detect – they literally live in a different world. In the same way, one person may ‘see’ or ‘interpret’ what they perceive very differently from another person. They are ‘sensitive’ to quite different features of the world. A skilled football player may see a foul or an offside, while to a non-player ignorant of the rules just sees the players aimlessly kicking a ball around. Also, we are highly selective in what we attend to. When we look at a clock, we see the time, but afterwards often cannot say whether the clock had numbers or marks, let alone the colour of the clock-face. In the post-modern view of the world, reality is ‘constructed’ from the meaning we actively seek and project onto it, rather than what we passively receive or record.
Positioning in relationships
The term ‘relationship’ can include personal relationships, work relationships, relationships between organisations, relationships between the citizen and the state, relationships between countries and many more. It can be easier to think in terms of personal relationships first and then go on to apply the principles to other types of relationship.
Relationships reveal an important characteristic of positioning. If I take one position, I may necessarily force you into another, whether you like it or not. So, if I take the position that you are ‘lazy’, for example, then you either have to agree or challenge that position. One way or another, ‘laziness’ has become a construct within our relationship and it is quite difficult to dismiss or ignore it, especially if you are frequently being labelled as ‘lazy’ at every opportunity. It is quite difficult to live with another person’s positioning of you that you do not agree with yourself. It is a kind of assault on your own judgement. We not only seek internal consistency but also consistency with others’ perceptions. Any dissonance or discrepancy will create some tension that motivates a desire to resolve it.
There is also a more subtle form of positioning. This is not necessarily positioning with respect to a particular issue but a more general sense in which you relate to a particular person, society in general, a job, or indeed more or less anything you care to think about. Are you close to or distant from it; behind it or ahead or it; on top of it or is it on top of you? Here positioning is being used as a metaphor for how you generally relate to something.
Youtube Video, Relationship Position – Metaphors with Andrew T. Austin, Andrew T. Austin, July 2012, 13:34 minutes
Another interesting idea, related to spatial positioning in relationships, is Lewin’s Force/Field Theory in which the forces ‘for’ and ‘again’ some change are assessed. If, for example, in some relationship there are some attracting forces and some repelling forces (an approach/avoidance conflict) then a party to the relationship may find some optimal distance between them where the forces balance. If the other party has a different optimal distance at any point in time, then we leave Lewin’s theory and are into negotiation.
Youtube Video, Lewin, headlessprofessor, November 2015, 5:35 minutes
In a relationship, one way of resolving a discrepancy is to argue the case. So I may argue that I am not lazy and support this by evidence – ‘look at all the things I do…’. Another way is to ‘live up to’ the positioning. So, if you describe me as ‘kind’, I may start to exhibit kinder behaviours, and if you position me as ‘lazy’ I may be more likely to stay on the couch. Both ‘arguing the case’ and ‘living up to’ can be seen as an attempt to resolve a positioning discrepancy – to seek consistency and to simplify.
However, people being intelligent as they are, can often predict or at least guess at each others positions, and can then use this knowledge to alter their own actual or declared positions. A positive use of this would be to act in a way that supports or cooperates with another person’s position. So, if I can guess that you would not want to go out to see some of our friends tonight, to save time or argument I might say that I don’t want to go out either, even if I would want to.
Sometimes this will involve negotiation. We may not want the same things but we may well be prepared to ‘trade’. A good trade is where both parties can change their position on something that costs little to them but gives a lot of value to the other. I might say ‘if we go out we can get a take-away’ on the way back, knowing that this will make the proposition more attractive to you.
Alternatively, I might exaggerate the extent to which I think going would be a good thing, knowing that we might then settle on going for a short time (which is what I really want). However, once we get into this type of ‘hidden’ positioning everything starts to get more complicated as we both try to out-guess what the other really wants. Trades are made considerably easier if both parties trust each other to be honest about their own costs and values. Negotiation will start to get difficult as soon as one or both parties hide information about cost and value in an attempt to seek advantage (e.g. by pretending that something is of no value to them when it is).
It is useful to distinguish between one’s ‘position’ and one’s ‘interest’. One’s position in a negotiation is what you say publicly to the other party, whereas one’s interest is often hidden. One’s interest can be thought about as the reason you hold a particular position. This reason may be ‘because I want to get the most for myself out of this transaction as possible’, and we often (sometimes unjustifiably) attribute this interest to the other party. But as often as not the reason may be quite different. It might even be that the other party wants you to gain as much as possible out of the transaction, but your natural suspicion precludes you seeing their genuine motive. Equally, the other person’s interest might be nothing to do with how much each gets out of it. You may not want to go out because it’s cold outside. If this ‘interest’ is revealed it can open up new solutions – ‘we can take the car’ (when the default assumption was that we would walk).
Youtube video, Interests and Positions in Negotiation – Noam Ebner with Vanessa Seyman, Noam Ebner, February 2015, 15:03 minutes
Although it is possible to hold hidden positions to seek advantage or manipulatively, much of what goes on in negotiation is more to do with understanding our own and an other’s interests. A lot of the time we only have vague ideas about where we stand in our interests and positions. We have even less information about where somebody else stands. We need to test possible positions as they apply to particular circumstances before we can make up our minds. I need to say ‘let’s go out tonight’ before I know how either you are I will actually feel about it, and as we debate the various factors that will influence the decision we may both sway around from one position to another, also taking the other’s reactions and uncertain interests and position into account, before settling on our own position, let alone a mutual one.
However, through the informal use of positioning theory in everyday life, we can identify and make explicit what the various dimensions are. We can reveal where each party places themselves and the other on these dimensions and where the differences lie. This takes an important step towards arriving at decisions that we can agree on.
Positioning, power and control
The rights and responsibilities that we confer on each other, and accept for ourselves, determine the power relationships between us. Studies of power amongst college students in the US suggest that power is granted to individuals by others rather than grabbed. Certain people are positioned by others to rise in the social hierarchy because they are seen to benefit a social group.
Youtube video, Social Science & Power Dynamics | UC Berkeley Executive Education, berkeleyexeced, May 2016, 3:43 minutes
Donald Trumps rise to power can be read within this framework as power granted by the manoeuvrings of the republican party in its candidate selection process and the growing group of economically disenfranchised workers in the US. Similarly, the rise to prominence of the UKIP party in the UK can be read as having followed a similar pattern.
In the power relationships between individuals, often very little is spelt out, and rights and duties between individuals can be in constant flux. In principle it is possible to formalise the positions of the parties in a relationship in a contract. Marriage is a high level contract, the terms of which have been ‘normalised’ by society, mainly in the interest of maintaining the stability and hence the predictability of the social structure. Many of the detailed terms are left undefined and are themselves a matter for negotiation, as the need arises, such that the structures holding the relationship between two individuals together can flex a great deal. Many of the terms are implied by social convention within the immediate culture and circumstances of the parties. Some terms may be explicitly discussed and negotiated, especially when one party feels there has been a breach on the part of the other party. As people and circumstances change, terms may be re-negotiated. It may take major, repeated or pro-longed imbalances or breaches of implied terms to break the ‘contract’.
For example, if your position is that I have a duty to supply you with your dinner when you come home from work, and I accept that you have a right to that position, then we have established a power relationship between us. If I do not cook your dinner one evening then your right has been breached and you may take the position that you have a right of redress. Perhaps it has created an obligation that I should do something that provides an equivalent value to you, and in that sense, I am in your debt. Or perhaps it gives you the right to complain. Alternatively, I may take the position that while you have that right in general, I have the right to a night off once in a while, and then we may be into a negotiation about how much notice I may be expected to give, how often and so on. The rights and duties with respect to cooking dinner will be just one of many terms in the implied contract between us. It may be that I accept your right to be provided with dinner on the basis that you pay for the food. And this is only the start. There may be a long and complicated list of implied terms, understood circumstances of breach and possible remedies to rectify breaches.
Ultimately, to maintain the relationship we must both expect to have a net benefit over the longer term. We may be prepared to concede positions in the short term either by negotiating for something else of immediate value, or the value may be deferred as a form of social ‘debt’ with the confidence and expectation that the books will be balanced one day. However, the precise balancing of the books doesn’t matter much so long as the relationship confers a net benefit.
Coercive, financial and other forms of power
Descriptions of power in terms of rights, duties, laws, and social norms refer to the type of power we are used to in democratic society. In some relationships the flexibility to change or negotiate a change in position is severely limited. An authoritarian state may maintain power using the police and the army. An authoritarian person, narcissist or psychopath will also demonstrate an inflexibility over positioning. The authoritarian state or individual may use coercive power. The narcissist and the psychopath may have difficulty in empathising with another person’s position.
Wealth also confers power. People and organisations can be paid to take up particular positions – both in the sense of jobs or in the sense of attitudes. Pay for a marketing campaign and you can change people’s positions on whether they will buy something or vote some way. In modern market-based societies, wealth is legitimised as an acceptable way of granting power to people and organisations that are seen to confer benefit on society. However, wealth can easily be used both subtilely and coercively to change people’s positions to align with value systems that are not their own.
Youtube video, How to understand power – Eric Liu, TED-Ed, November 2014, 7:01 minutes
Positioning in organisations
Just as important are the positions taken within an organisation and the various dilemmas and tensions that these reveal. For example, for most organisations there is a constant tension between quality and cost. Some parts of the organisation will be striving to keep costs down while others are striving to maintain quality. Exactly how this plays out, and how it matches to the demand in the market, may determine a products success or failure. The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK is a classic example of a publicly funded organisation that is in a constant struggle to maintain quality standards within cost constraints.
Different parts of the organisation will take different positions on the importance of various stakeholders. The board may be concerned about shareholder value, the management concerned to satisfy customers and the workers concerned for the welfare of the staff. The R&D department may be more concerned about innovation and the sales force more concerned about the success of the current product lines. Again, by making explicit the positions of each group, it is possible to identify differences, debate the trade-offs and more readily arrive at policies and actions that are agreed to serve their mutual interests. Where tensions cannot be resolved at lower levels in the organisation, they can become the concern of the executive (see ‘The Executive Function’).
Another type of positioning has an important role to play in organisations. A commercial company may spend a lot of effort identifying and maintaining its brand and market positioning. This is its position with respect to its competitors and it’s customers, and helps define its unique selling points (USPs).
Youtube Video, Marketing: Segmentation – Targeting – Positioning, tutor2u, April 2016, 4:08 minutes
‘Don’t ask for permission ask for forgiveness’ is a mantra chanted by people and companies that put a premium on innovation. How we each act is not only determined by what we can do. It is a matter of both what we can do and what we are permitted to do. We can be ‘permitted by others’ that confer on us the right to do it, and by the rights we confer on ourselves. If we seek forgiveness rather than permission we are conferring on ourselves the right to take risks then respond to the errors we make that cross the boundaries of the rights and duties other people confer on us.
We live in a competitive social world where we may have some choice over our trades in rights and duties. If I take the position that employer X is not paying me enough for the job I do, I can potential go to employer Y instead. However, there are costs and uncertainties in switching that make social systems relatively stable. The distribution of power is therefore constrained to some extent by the ‘free market’ in the trading of rights and duties.
Positioning in language and culture
Positioning can involve ascribing attributes to people (e.g. she is strong, he is kind etc.).
Every time you label something you are taking a position.
Linguistic labels can have a powerful influence within a culture because they can come heavily laden with expectations about rights and responsibilities. Ascribing the attribute ‘disabled’ or ‘migrant’, for example, may confer rights to benefits, and may confer a duty on others to help the vulnerable overcome their difficulties. Ascribing the attribute ‘female’, until relatively recently, assigned different legal rights and duties to the attribute ‘male’. However, the positioning can extend far beyond legal rights and duties to a whole range of less explicit rights and duties that can be instrumental in determining power relationships.
It is not always appreciated that the labels put on people, positions them to such an extent with respect to both explicit and implicit rights and duties, and it is easy to use labels without a full appreciation of the consequences. The labels we put on people are not isolated judgements or positions. Through leaned associations, they come in clusters. So to label somebody as ‘intelligent’ is also to imply that they are knowledgeable and reasonable. It even implies that there is a good chance that they will wear glasses. The label brings to mind a whole stereotype that may involve many detailed characteristics.
This is both useful and problematic. It is useful because it prepares us to expect certain things, and that saves us having to work out everything from detailed observation and first principles. It is a problem because no particular instance is likely to conform to the stereotype and there is a good chance that we will misinterpret their actions or intentions in particular situations. Particularly pernicious is when, through stereotyping, we position somebody along the dimensions ‘friend or foe’ (or ‘inferior – superior’) because of the numerous implications for the way in which we infer rights and duties from this, and hence how we behave in relation to them.
Particularly pernicious is when language is use to mislead. This is often the case in the language of politics and the language of advertising.
The terms used to describe a policy or product can create highly misleading expectations.
Youtube video, Language of Politics – Noam Chomsky, Serious Science, September 2014, 12:45 minutes
George Orwell in his book ‘1984’ understood only too well how language can be used to influence and constrain thought.
Youtube Video, George Orwell 1984 Newspeak, alawooz, June 2013, 23:08 minutes
Positions, rights and duties
Much of our conversation concerns categorising things and then either implicitly or explicitly ascribing rights and responsibilities. So we may gossip on the bus about whether a schoolmate is a bully, whether a person is having an affair or if someone is a good neighbour. In so doing we are making evaluations – or, in other words, taking positions.
The bully has no right to act as they do and confers on others the right to punish. Similarly, the person having an affair may be seen as neglecting a duty of fidelity and therefore also relinquishing rights. The good neighbour may be going beyond their duty and attracting the right of respect.
Between two individuals much discussion involves negotiation over rights and duties and what constitutes fair trade-offs, both in principle and in practice. If one person does something for another, an implicit principle of fairness through reciprocation, creates an obligation (a duty that can be deferred) to do something of equal value (but not necessarily at equal cost) in return. A perceived failure to perform a duty may create a storyline of victimisation in the mind of one party that the other party may be blissfully unaware of, unless conversation takes place to resolve it.
When you have a duty, it is generally to another person or organisation. Typically, you have a duty when you have the power to overcome another person’s vulnerability. So if a person is too short to reach something on a high shelf, and you are tall enough to reach it, people tend to believe that you have a duty to do so.
To claim a right is to admit a vulnerability and to assert that somebody with the power to address that vulnerability, will do so.
The right to a fair trial admits a vulnerability to the rushed judgement of the crowd (or the monarch), and confers a duty on the judicial system to protect you from this. The right to citizenship and healthcare admits to vulnerabilities with regard to security and health and confers a duty on the state to provide it.
Youtube video, What Are Rights? Duty & The Law | Philosophy Tube, Philosophy Tube, January 2016, 6:41 minutes
Positioning, ethics and morality
Psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg, in 1958, developed a test of moral reasoning and proposed a number of stages of development in being able to take moral positions. The higher the level the greater the ability to take into account a range of moral positions. A small child may focus on only one aspect of a moral problem. At later stages a person will take into account the positions of different interests – the family, the community, the law and so on. At stage 4 there is an understanding of social order. At stage 6 (a stage that very few people reach) a person is able to reason through a complete range of moral positions. Most adults operate at levels 3 or 4. Kohlberg methods have since been questioned and elaborated. One theory is that we act morally because of our emotional reactions to a situation and that moral reasoning is more of a social act when persuading other people. There are also cultural differences in the importance attributed to moral positions.
BBC Radio 4, Mind Changers: The Heinz Dilemma, September 2008, 27:32 minutes
Positioning in international relations
International relations are nearly always set within the context of multiple parties. Even when considering Arab / Israeli or US/Mexico there is a context that involves many other parties and positions are held in the light of alignments with close ‘allies’. In fact the context can be quite entangled and confusing as in the case of Syria (involving the Syrian regime, the Syrian people, the Islamic State, the Russians and the US as well as many other factions let alone international groupings such as the United Nations and charities). Most importantly any government or regime may have to square its position on the international stage with it’s position within its own country. All these factors considerably reduce the flexibility of re-positioning, except when circumstances configure in such a way that there is a window of opportunity.
Examples of international conflicts can be found at:
Often in international relations it is difficult to establish a parties true costs and true values because parties may hide or exaggerate these to seek a negotiation advantage. It is a matter of working out for each party where there is least rigidity on a set of relevant positions, defining small changes from one (set of) position to another and then working out how to present this change to different parties in terms of their own values, language and objectives.
Youtube video, Negotiations | Model Diplomacy, Council on Foreign Relations, November 2016, 4:57 minutes
It can be important to have a neutral or otherwise acceptable party present propositions or lead negotiations. In terms of how it will be received, the source of a communication can be more influential than the communication itself.
Separating out the underlying reality and logic of the positions from how they are presented and by whom is a first step in resolving conflict. However, throw in unpredictable factors, like a US president failing to follow any previous logic or process, and any such model can break down.
The hidden positions of designed objects and procedures
All artifacts contain embedded positions. So, a door handle embeds the position that it is ok to open the door and a microphone embeds the position that it is ok to record or amplify sound. Even more subtle, is that merely making one thing more readily available that another can embed a position. So, if there is a piano in a bar or a railway station, then it automatically raises the possibility that it may be ok to play it.
This characteristic of all objects and artifacts has a specific name within psychology. It is called ‘affordance’. The door handle affords opening and the piano in a public place affords playing.
Youtube video, Universal Design Principles 272 – Affordance, anna gustafsson, October 2014, 2:10 minutes
Looking at things from this point of view may be difficult to grasp but it has massive implications. These positions are, in one sense obvious, but in another they are difficult to see. They can be so obvious that they go unquestioned and are effectively hidden from scrutiny. They can easily be used to manipulate and exert power, without people being particularly aware of it.
There are several examples that apply to the design of procedures:
• A corporation, for example, may make it very easy for you to buy a service but difficult for you to discontinue it (e.g. subscriptions that automatically renew that require you to contact the right person with the right subscription information, both of which are hard to find, before you can cancel).
• A government may have you complete a long form and meet many requirements in order to claim benefits, while providing many small reasons for a benefit to be taken away.
• Another classic and more obvious example is how, in the UK, energy companies offer a range of time limited tariffs and switch you to a more expensive tariff at the end of the period, requiring you to make the effort to switch suppliers or pay substantially more (as much as 50% extra) for energy.
These subtle affordances are often just accepted or overlooked as just being ‘the way things work’, but when all one’s energy is taken up dealing with the trivia of everyday life, they turn out to be a powerful force that ‘keeps you in your place’ (whether or not they are deliberately designed to do so).
Positioning and technology
It is already becoming apparent that any computer algorithm is not neutral with respect to position. An algorithm that scores my credit worthiness, for example, can have significant impact on my life even though it is only using an a small sample of indicators in making its judgment. These may, for example, might include debts that I dispute and might exclude a long-term history of credit and trustworthiness. The algorithm takes its position from a particular set of indicators that constitutes ‘its world’ of understanding. However I might easily question that it is not looking at the right things, or that it is quite likely using that information in a misleading way. And like any set of metrics, they can be manipulated once you know the algorithm.
These are algorithms that are explicitly programmed into the software on various decision-making systems. When it comes to more advanced technology based on machine learning, it is also already apparent that we are building into our artificially intelligent devices all kinds of default positions without even realizing it. So, if an AI programme selects staff for interview on the basis of data across which it has run its machine learning algorithms, it will simply replicate biases that are deeply entrenched but that go unquestioned. For example it might build in biases against gender, race or many other factors that we might call into question if they were explicit.
Youtube Vide, Cathy O’Neil | Weapons of Math Destruction, PdF YouTube, June 2015, 12:15 minutes
As we develop artificial intelligences in all sorts of situations and in many different manifestations from credit rating algorithms to robots we can easily embed positions that that cause harm. Sometimes this will be unwittingly and sometimes it will deliberate. See www.robotethics.co.uk for a fuller account of this topic.
Positioning and narrative
An utterance in a conversation can mean entirely different things depending upon the context. So if I ask ‘Did you pass the paper?’ I will mean quite different things if I am referring to an incident where somebody left a newspaper on a train, to if we had been talking about a recent exam, to if we had been talking about a paper being considered by a committee.
The storyline is different in each case and the position I take in asking the question may also be different. My question may be simple curiosity, the expression of a hope or may determine my intention to act in a particular way, also depending on the context or storyline. In fact, my position will probably be unclear unless I explain it. It is more than likely that you will interpret it one way, in accordance with your theory about what’s going on, while I mean it a different way, according to my own. Furthermore we may never realise it and be quite surprised should we compare our accounts of the conversation at a later date.
Youtube Video, Positioning Theory, ScienceEdResearch, July 2017, 6:02 minutes
By contrast, the blog post called ‘It’s like this’ notes how ‘the single story’ (a fixed and commonly held interpretation or position) can trap whole groups of people into a particular way in which others see them and how they themselves see the world. One way or another ‘position’ has a powerful influence.
Positioning theory integrates
This tour around the many applications of ‘positioning theory’ shows how it integrates many of the concepts being put forward in this series of blog postings. It is a powerful tool for understanding the individual, the individual in the context of others, social institutions in relation to each other and institutions in relation to the individual. In its relation to rights and duties it addresses some of the dynamics of power and control. It even transcends the distinction between people and objects, and has profound implications for the development of artificial intelligence.
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