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Moral location, location, location - on thinking about your (and others') position

Why, as I worked on my MSc research, did I keep picturing a cowboy on horseback looking down from a hilltop?

Why that picture exactly remains a mystery (something buried deep into my subconscious perhaps..), as it could have been a picture of someone looking out from the top a skyscraper onto a city, or even Simba and Mufasa looking down on the plain from Pride Rock.

What all of these help visualise is a concept I used for my research: "subject position". I used it in the context of my Foucauldian Discourse Analysis, following guidance from a few scholars who defined proposed approaches to this method, to analyse the way in which Defence industry employees positioned themselves when discussing the moral aspect of working in the sector. I would argue that it is a helpful concept to consider in broader sets of circumstances.

A subject position defines the vantage point, in terms of social structures, life experiences, belief systems, power relationships, etc., from which someone approaches a particular topic. As Arribas-Ayllon & Walkerdine (2017) specify, it helps to define the "cultural repertoire of discourses available to speakers" They go on to write: "They are not only positions on which to ground one’s claims of truth or responsibility, but they allow individuals to manage, in quite complex and subtle ways, their moral location within social interaction".

Using the analogy of the cowboy picture, if there is a question to be debated about the forest below, the cowboy comes at it from an outsider perspective, has a view of the entire forest, but only superficial, and will only experience any change to the forest from a distance. Someone else could be in the heart of the forest, have always lived in there, even perhaps always remained close to a few particular trees, having therefore a narrower knowledge of the forest, yet more in-depth; someone else could be on the periphery of the forest, looking both inwards and outwards, with knowledge on the depth of the forest and an eye on the hill from below.. In all these different positions, people have a set repertoire of knowledge and perspectives available to them when debating a question related to the forest.

In the case of my research on moral conflict in the defence industry, I identified various positions from which employees interviewed considered this moral conflict, including those positioning themselves as outsiders - spectators of the dynamics in the industry, yet not getting directly involved and focusing on their jobs instead – others positioned as industry insiders, inwardly focused and aligned with the industry’s purpose and mission, typically with prior connections with the industry (family members, local community); others positioned as insiders, but aware of, and sympathetic to, those looking from the outside. These positions impacted the way they approached the moral aspect of working in Defence, extent to which they might feel conflicted, and what moral justification they might have to provide.

Why does it matter? Because people’s positions open up or restrict the ways in which they can consider, reason and talk about a particular topic or challenge. It reflects their moral location, in other words what they consider “the right thing to do” to look like, and helps understand why every person’s “right thing” looks different, what other background, experiences and personal history feeds into it, and might narrow the range of perspectives they may be able to express.

Practically, in broader and less academic terms, I find it a helpful concept to bear in mind when reading or listening to someone's perspective on an issue or particular topic. It helps to take a moment and think about the vantage point from which they position themselves, as a way to understand better why they might think and express themselves the way they do, before forming an opinion or potentially responding. Indeed, their position may be influenced by a variety of factors:

  • The culture in which they grew up, and associated sets of values or rules

  • Their lived experiences with regards to a particular topic, and how these directly affected them

  • The knowledge and opinions they have been exposed to throughout their lives

  • Their role in an organisation or more widely in society, and specific interests they serve

There are of course many other aspects playing a part, and as for many things, it comes down to trying to understand a person, or at least appreciate the many facets of their individuality and identity, before judging or challenging their opinions. It helps engaging into richer and more constructive debates and exchanges, with a greater emphasis on inclusion and respect.


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