The term ‘self-study’ refers to any of a number of learning methods that are deliberately applied for the purpose of attempting to better understand one’s self – with an intention to share or apply the resulting insights, for the ultimate benefit of all. Broadly speaking, activities such as contemplation (Haynes 2005), meditation (Goldstein 1976), mindfulness (Hanh 2019), reflection (Jersild 1956), the pedagogical practice of ‘noticing’ (Mason 2002), auto/biography (Keating 2008), any of a number of creative/artistic explorations, and scholarly research might all be classified as ‘self-study’ in the right circumstances (Dinkelman 2003; Mitchell et al. 2005; Critten 2008).
What, then, is the ‘self’ that these techniques uncover? Definitions vary substantially both within and across disciplines. In recognition of the fact that humans are biological beings, it seems logical to apply frameworks emerging from neuropsychological research, which consider the self a discrete, boundaried organism with distinct needs and activities associated with basic life regulation (Damasio 2000).
However, the human organism is a social one, which is why more sociological definitions of ‘self’ can also be helpful in understand what it is, exactly, that ‘self-study’ might explore. These definitions might, for example, take into account the importance of roles (e.g., ‘friend’, ‘daughter’, ‘teacher’) and positions (e.g., ‘leader’, ‘troublemaker’, ‘visionary’) that emerge as a result of interpersonal interactions, as well as broad cultural differences (e.g., ‘East’ vs ‘West’, ‘indigenous’ vs ‘Eurocentric’) (McAdams and Cox 2010; Baumeister 2011). Animal behaviour research provides still further possibilities: Qualities such as ‘disposition’, ‘temperament’, and ‘personality’ capture the ‘flavour’ of individual manifestations of the various self/identity categories listed above. Inspired by Nagel’s musings on consciousness – that it is present when we can imagine ‘what it is like to be’ something (1974) – we might simply describe the self phenomenologically as ‘the being that experiences this particular, unique set of conditions’.
Given the incredible variety found both within and among human beings, there are probably infinite ways to capture ‘what it is like to be me’, infinite questions that could be asked to uncover this experience, and infinite answers that might provide insights into various aspects of that way of being. You might, for instance, explore whether you make decisions using your head or your heart – using rationality or instinct. Perhaps you might consider how you approach cooking, or putting together IKEA furniture: Do you follow instructions or just wing it? You could ponder what makes you feel awe, and consider what the resulting answers say about your worldview, spirituality, or sense of connectedness.
While you may find it interesting to discover answers to questions such as these, they may not seem like the sorts of insights that could have a significant bearing on ‘positionality’ – but this is yet another term that deserves a closer look; what is it, really? The University of British Columbia’s Centre for Teaching, Learning, and Technology (CTLT) write that ‘positionality refers to how differences in social position and power shape identities and access across society’ (2022; emphasis added here and below). Duarte says that we can observe ‘degrees of privilege through factors of race, class, educational attainment, income, ability, gender, and citizenship, among others’ (2017; emphasis added). According to Chiseri-Strater, ‘some aspects of positionality are culturally ascribed or generally regarded as being fixed, for example, gender, race, skin-color, nationality. Others, such as political views, personal life-history, and experiences, are more fluid, subjective, and contextual’ (1996; emphasis added).
This last definition implicitly acknowledges the effect and implication of being the biological organisms that we are, in the social context in which we live. There is an endless feedback loop whereby our physical selves (meaning both body and brain) influence our emotional and mental selves and our interactions with others – which, in turn, have an effect (sometimes permanent) on our emotional, mental, and physical state (Seth 2021).
To put this another way, those nearly infinite characteristics we each possess are influenced both proximally and ultimately by physical and social factors. If we have n number of traits, then, at any given time, we are positioned somewhere distinct in n-dimensional space – at a point representing the confluence of all the ways that it is like to be our self. ‘At any given time’ is an important distinction to make because the self is always evolving; with every new experience, we can become more or less of a thing, take on a new role, shed a particular trait altogether, and so on. Moment by moment, our location in the n-dimensional space changes – ‘fluidly’, to use Chiseri-Strater’s word – as a result of our ‘personal life-history and experiences’. This shift in our position impacts our outlook on the world, the foundation on which we base our decisions, the ways in which we interact with others.
Amongst all the traits found in n, we can find things like ‘social position and power…identities and access’, along with the ‘degrees of privilege’ these confer, as well as the many characteristics that both contribute to and arise from these axes – e.g., ‘gender, race, skin-color, nationality’, plus factors like what makes you feel awe and whether you follow a recipe while cooking. Every single one of those aspects is somewhere in the cloud of characteristics – and since they are all in the cloud together, all contributing to the intersecting ‘line of best fit’ that determines your position at any given time, then any one of them can provide the key you need to begin to unlock your self.
Take, for example, the question of your approach to cooking. Why might someone follow a recipe exactly, as opposed to using one for inspiration only? Perhaps the recipes in question are those of a beloved great, great grandmother, and are therefore felt to be sacrosanct. This reflects a particular attitude about ancestors and tradition; this attitude likely influences not just cooking, but other behaviours and decisions. What might these be? Where did this value system come from, and what are its impacts? What other people share this approach, and which people do not – is this a widely accepted view in society or does it place you at the margins? Exploring these questions – with an intent to share with others or even just to use the information to have more mindful interactions in the future – is self-study. The answers to the latter questions in particular have obvious, direct implications for understanding positionality. They key here is not simply to stop after asking yourself the first question, but to keep asking ‘why?’ and ‘so what?’, extrapolating and making connections as you go.
Defining positionality more expansively, as above, is not meant to minimise its importance or distract from the vital discussion of power or privilege that it facilitates. Rather, it is meant to recognise that each of us comprises a vast number of qualities that are all connected simply because they are all confluent in us; any one of them will eventually lead you to the others, so being open to all of them offers more opportunities to see, to understand, to deconstruct, and to act on this knowledge.
If some of those traits are easier and more comfortable to explore, this should not be seen as a drawback, or an easy way out. It is widely recognised in the antiracism, decolonisation, and social justice literature that truly honest self-reflection is uncomfortable and difficult (Fleming 2018; DiAngelo 2019; Kendi 2019). On top of this, it is a practice completely unfamiliar to a large number of people who, because it is so foreign and new, are all the more likely to walk away from it as soon as it becomes challenging and awkward. For these individuals in particular, self-study options that are welcoming and even fun can build a solid foundation and offer a gateway to perhaps more unsettling methods or outcomes later. For beginners and more experienced people alike, seeing self-study opportunities in all activities and encounters can facilitate not just a state change, but a trait change, towards a permanently more mindful, receptive way of living – allowing for greater attunement to one’s self and one’s positionality.
This, in turn, has both personal and societal benefits. Knowing who you are fosters authenticity, self-actualisation, and resilience, which, in turn, support personal wellbeing and a feeling that life is worth living (Grosz 2013; Kross 2020; Ross 2020; Beck 2021; Kemp 2022). They have also been linked to increased compassion towards others and greater efficacy in and dedication to social roles (e.g., in the workplace, as a mentor) and community initiatives (e.g., litter collection, social activism) (Brach 2020; Rodgers 2020). All of these, by contributing to social and environmental justice and combatting the imbalances inherent in and introduced widely by European colonialism, are therefore an important – if not foundational – element in the decolonisation project.
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