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Positionality and reflexivity in marketing

Todd Haskell | September 17, 2020

In my last post, I talked about the idea that each of has a lens through which we see the world, and that the lens of someone working inside a business can be quite different than the lens of your customers. If you don't take this into account, it is very easy to mix up "what the customer wants" with "what I want." The thing is, it's natural for us to think our our own lens as "normal" and everyone else's lens as some kind of deviation from normal. As the proverb says, a fish doesn't know that it's wet. For most people, most of the time, it requires a conscious, intentional effort to recognize and adjust for our personal lens. However, doing so can be incredibly rewarding, not only in terms of being more successful as a marketer, but for having deeper, more meaningful connections with those your business seeks to serve. And there are well-established strategies that really aren't so hard to use, especially after you've practiced them a bit. In this post I'll be describing two concepts that are commonly utilized in qualitative research, specifically, positionality and reflexivity.

In a nutshell, positionality is where you stand relative to the system you're dealing with. Let's take property taxes used to fund schools as an example. I am a homeowner, and I also have a child attending a public school. So, I am both a payer of the taxes, and someone who benefits from what they fund. Four years from now, my child will have graduated. I will still pay the taxes, but will no longer directly benefit from the schools. At that time, my position with respect to the system of property taxes will shift. Going several years back, my family used to rent rather than own our own home. That represents yet another position. Another thing that affects my position is that I and my wife both have good jobs. If we were unemployed or retired, that would change our position again. To connect back to my last post, positionality influences what lens you have.

Reflexivity is being aware of how your positionality impacts your thinking about and interaction with the system. Note that this is a different kind of reflexivity than reflexivity theory in economics, though the two are related. Suppose there is a bond initiative on the local ballot to provide funding for reducing class sizes. When I talk to my retired neighbor up the street, he is indignant about it. He moved into the neighborhood 20 years ago, when houses cost a third of what they do today. His property taxes are currently far higher than his mortgage payments. If property taxes keep going up, he may be forced to move outside of town where real estate is cheaper. So, he opposes the initiative, which is entirely sensible and rational from his perspective.

Now, my positionality is very different from that of my neighbor. Suppose that because I stand in a very different place than him with respect to public schools, I support the initiative. Also sensible and rational from my perspective. But what happens when I start thinking about my neighbor's views? Does my positionality influence that thinking? Perhaps I conclude that my neighbor is a bit of a curmudgeon. Or that he doesn't value education that much. Reflexivity involves recognizing that my negative evaluation might be as much about me as about him.

The whole point of reflexivity is recognizing that there's an important difference between facts and data, and the stories we tell about those facts. In drawing conclusions about my neighbor, I am creating a story to try to make sense of his opinion about the bond initiative. It is difficult for me to imagine that someone who truly cares about education would oppose the initiative, so I decide that he must not really care about education. That's not a fact, it's an inference I make for the sake of the story. It could be accurate, but I don't really know. And someone with a different positionality than myself might come up with a different story, and make a different inference.

This matters for market research because the essence of market research is developing a story about your customers and their needs. And it matters for marketing because the essence of marketing is telling a story about the intersection of the customer and your product. If either story is systematically distorted by our positionality, we've got a problem. This means that a failure to be reflexive can seriously undermine the success of a product or even a whole company.

There are two parts to reflexivity. One part is what psychologists call cognitive - that means it involves thinking. The other part is what psychologists call affective - that means it involves feelings. There are systematic ways to approach the cognitive part, and I already started illustrating that above with the bond issue. What are some things about me that make me different from other people? And which of those things could impact how a person sees this situation? If you're not sure where to start, you can usually get a lot of mileage out of demographic and psychographic variables. For example, parent versus non-parent is likely to be important when it comes to views on school funding. Height? Probably not so much. But that might matter a lot for other things, like clothes shopping.

The affective part can be a little trickier. Research in psychology shows that often people's attitudes and actions are driven by their gut feelings more than by a rational analysis of what would be best. But we usually don't want to admit that - not just to other people, but even to ourselves. So we come up with a rationalization after the fact. When my neighbor says they don't support the bond initiative, the first that happens is I have a negative feeling - I don't like this neighbor! Then the rational part of my brain kicks in, and tells me that it's unreasonable to dislike someone just because they have a different positionality than I do. But what if I say they are selfish - unwilling to contribute to the common good. Well, that seems like a more solid reason for disliking them. So that's the story I tell myself. The problem is, that story might be a lie.

Here's a strategy that I use in my teaching to help students identify these kinds of ad hoc justifications. Come up with another scenario where the same logical reasoning could apply, but where your positionality changes in a substantial way. So in this case, my argument is about contributing to the common good. Can I think of a different kind of bond initiative that is also about the common good? In my case, if I think back a few years, there was an initiative to improve first responder services to people living outside of city limits. They had to wait considerably longer for an ambulance or fire truck to arrive in response to a 911 call than those of us living in town. The bond initiative was aimed at reducing that discrepancy. I can then think about how I voted on that measure, and what my reasoning was. Did I still follow the "common good" argument and vote for the measure? If not, that suggests my positionality might be having an impact. Maybe it's not really "common good" I support but "my good," and I just tell myself it's about the common good because that sounds better.

If you have the good fortune to work with a diverse team, and your workplace culture permits everyone to truly be comfortable and honest in stating how things look from where they stand, then your coworkers can also help you be more reflexive by respectfully questioning and challenging you. This sounds easy in principle but can be difficult in practice. The reality is that historically some groups of people have done more questioning and challenging and other people have spent more time being questioned and challenged. If you don't acknowledge that, and act as if there's a level playing field from the start, this approach is likely to fail. For that reason, this strategy works best when combined with the previous one, especially if you're a middle class white guy like me. In my case, that means I focus a lot of energy on challenging myself, try to be mindful of how much I'm challenging others, and don't expect the Black woman in the room to do all the work of helping me identify my blind spots. Or at least that's the goal - I'm reflexive enough to realize that, as an ordinary, flawed human being, I sometimes fall short in my own efforts toward reflexivity.

That last observation was pretty meta. But I think it also brings up one last point that seems like a good one to end on. There's a lot of pressure in the business world for everyone to constantly be better and do better. To get people to fully embrace the idea of reflexivity, there can't be a penalty for admitting when you got it wrong. "Do better" needs to be defined as recognizing and acknowledging what's holding you back rather than ignoring it. In the long run, businesses that care about getting the story right are going to be more successful than those that care about propping up the story management wants to be true.