Using positioning theory in early childhood research

By Ute Ward -  Senior Lecturer, School of Education, University of Hertfordshire


In this paper I reflect on the use of positioning theory as a theoretical framework for my doctoral thesis and for education more widely.  The paper opens with an introduction to some core concepts of positioning theory focussing on prepositioning and accountive positioning (Langenhove & Harré,1999). My doctoral research is then used to show the application of positioning theory in early childhood (EC) research. My research aimed to explore parents’ understanding of their interactions with EC practitioners and their beliefs and expectations regarding practitioner roles and responsibilities.

The research project employed a sequential mixed methods design consisting of a quantitative stage followed by a qualitative stage.  Quantitative data was gained through 97 questionnaires and led to a deeper understanding of how parents prepositioned themselves and practitioners through the allocation of rights, duties and responsibilities.  These prepositions were then explored further in interviews with 11 parents to discover how parents made sense of their prepositionings and their interactions with early childhood practitioners.

The research was carried out in accordance with BERA guidelines and received ethical approval from King’s College, London.

The findings indicated that parents understood themselves as being ultimately responsible for their children’s development and learning. Using positioning theory led to new insights into how parents enact this responsibility.  Equally parents’ narratives highlighted that practitioners were understood as resources for parents to help them meet their responsibilities.  Furthermore, parents wished to engage in a ‘caring partnership’ with practitioners.

This paper concludes with a reflection on the usefulness of positioning theory and the potential to apply it to lecturer-student relationships in the School of Education.

A brief introduction to positioning theory

I have long been interested in the relationship between EC practitioners and parents stretching back to my work in pre-schools, Sure Start local programmes and children’s centres.  It was therefore only natural to focus on this relationship for my doctoral research. My experiences as a lecturer in early childhood education enforced this choice as I am repeatedly struck by the dismissive and condescending stance some pre-service and in-service practitioners take towards parents.  In parts this reflects government guidance and regulatory discourses which portray parents as lacking knowledge, interest or motivation and as passive in their children’s learning and development (for example, Bate, 2017).  At the same time, researchers continue to point out the ineffectiveness of practitioner-parent interactions and the discrepancy between rhetoric and reality (Hakyemez-Paul et al, 2018; Hadley, 2014; Hornby and Lafaele, 2011).   To examine causes and suggest improvements, a growing body of research now studies parents’ and practitioners’ beliefs and expectations, and their understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities (Rogers, 2018; Hadley, 2014; Freeman et al., 2008).  One theoretical framework used in this context is role theory. Hoover-Dempsey et al explain that

“Parental role construction is defined as parents’ beliefs about what they are supposed to do in relation to their children’s education and the patterns of parental behaviour that follow those beliefs.” (Hoover-Dempsey et al, 2005, 107)

Roles are seen as sets of expectations which are influenced by societal norms.  The resulting behaviour characterises individuals or groups (Hoover-Dempsey and Sandler, 1997), and although parents’ role constructions change over time, especially as children grow older, on a day-to-day basis, roles remain stable.

Research building on role theory has made valuable contributions to understanding parents’ and practitioners’ beliefs and actions, both in schools and in EC settings (Galindo and Sheldon, 2012; Bakker and Denenssen, 2007; Hoover-Dempsey et al, 2005).  Although role theory explains how practitioner and parent encounter each other and how they behave in their relationships, it does not serve well to consider the day-to-day variations in and experiences of interactions. Lawrence-Lightfoot (2003) argues that teachers and parents approach their interactions with their histories, experiences and beliefs at the back of their minds and that teacher-parent conversations cannot be effective if we ignore what people ‘bring to the conversation’. Her views led me to explore in more detail parents’ preconceived ideas, their thought-processes and the ways in which they make sense of their own lived experience when talking to their children’s practitioners.   Role theory seemed insufficient for this, and I was struggling to find a suitable theoretical framing for my research until I encountered a small number of articles using positioning theory (Sims-Schouten, 2015; Freeman, 2010). This approach argues that variations in behaviour and misunderstandings in interactions arise from the ways in which individuals make sense of their experiences and how they rationalise their actions (Harré and Langenhove, 2010).   Positioning itself is describes as

“the assignment of fluid ‘parts’ or ‘roles’ to speakers in the discursive construction of personal stories that make a person’s actions intelligible and relatively determinate as social acts.” (Harré and Langenhove, 2010, 218)

This definition locates positioning in the thinking that occurs in interactions between two people.  A position arises from the subjective history of an individual person and reflects their experiences, emotions and beliefs (Harré et al 2009; Harré and Davies, 1990). It can be described as a cluster of beliefs which expresses the normative assumptions of rights and duties that are allocated to the different participants in this interaction (Harré et al, 2009). Positioning theory is therefore well-placed to capture the nuances in interpersonal encounters and provides a theoretical framework to gain a deeper understanding of differences in people’s perspectives and beliefs.  It can reveal

“the explicit and implicit patterns of reasoning that are linked to the way that people act towards each other and how they construct themselves and their own position within this.” (Sims-Schouten, 2015, 3)

Inherent in positioning theory is the understanding that individuals are active agents in their social interactions as they can choose and shape their own positions, influence the positioning of others and co-construct positions when talking with others (Harré and Davies, 1990). This also means that individuals can reject or challenge a position that others ascribe to them (Harré and Davies, 1990).  The agentic nature of positions distinguishes them from roles which offer an expression of static social structures (Harré and Davies, 1990) and lack the dynamic nature of positions.  As agentic contributors, individuals make choices regarding the positionings that seem relevant to them in an interaction. To make sense of positions and positionings, individuals develop, either consciously or subconsciously, narratives that offer a consistent, unitary understanding of themselves (Harré and Davies, 1990).  This understanding is located in the moment; at a different time or in a different context an individual may use similar positionings but construct a different narrative (Harré and Davies, 1990).  The situatedness in time and space which builds on individual histories, beliefs and experiences contributes to positioning theory as a theoretical framework. It allows for a detailed understanding of social phenomena and lends itself to the investigation of the relationship between EC practitioners and parents.

Positioning processes

To accommodate different actions and intentions in conversations, positioning theory distinguishes a range of positioning types.  ‘Prepositioning’ highlights the attributes, character traits and assumptions about rights and duties which people hold before they enter into a dialogue (Harré et al, 2009).  Both positioning and prepositioning take place in relation to the self (self-positioning) and to others (other-positioning); they can be tacit and implied or intentional and explicit ((Harré and Langenhove, 2010). The concept of prepositioning suggests that practitioner and parent encounter each other with existing beliefs and expectations rather than with an open mind and without preconceived ideas. This aspect of positioning theory in particular facilitates the examination of ‘what parents bring to the conversation’.

In addition to positioning and prepositioning, Harré and Langenhove (2010) distinguish three different orders of positioning:

“First order positioning refers to the way persons locate themselves and others within an essentially moral space by using several categories and storylines” (Harré and Langenhove, 2010, 220).

Second order positioning occurs when a person questions how others position them and renegotiates this positioning.

Third order positioning takes place after the original encounter when a person thinks or talks about their experience and tries to make sense of it. (Langenhove and Harré, 1999)

Importantly, it is not just individuals who position themselves and others; groups, organisations and governments also position people.  Therefore, first order positioning may be evident in government documents about education or parenting, which teachers or parents may attempt to contest (second order positioning) (Langenhove and Harré, 1999). In the parent-practitioner relationship, second order positioning may occur when a parent rejects the practitioners’ attempt to position parents as passive bystanders in children’s learning and, instead, asks for greater involvement in planning for their child’s learning.

A further type of positioning is accountive positioning which refers to ‘talk about talk’ or accounting for positionings that have been experienced.   This is third order positionings as narratives are shared with others about an earlier interaction (Langenhove and Harré, 1999).  As such, accountive positioning includes an element of reflection on the original discourse which may lead to ‘repositioning’: adjusting a positioning in order to make sense of events and to (re)construct a coherent and unitary self (Harré et al, 2009).  Accountive positioning also occurs when a researcher invites interviewees to recount experiences of interactions with other people.

Researching parents’ positionings

My research project used prepositioning and accountive positioning to explore parents’ views, beliefs and attitudes and to gain an in-depth understanding of parents’ reasoning and sense-making regarding their interactions with practitioners.  I used a sequential mixed methods approach consisting of a quantitative stage followed by a qualitative stage (Creswell, 2014).  The quantitative stage used questionnaires and provided an overview of which roles and responsibilities parents allocated to themselves and to practitioners, which practitioner attributes and characteristics they valued and what type of relationship they envisaged for parents and practitioners.  The questionnaires were completed by 97 parents with children under the age of 5 years from eight EC settings in the private, voluntary and maintained sectors. The resulting data was analysed using non-parametric statistics and revealed parents’ prepositionings of themselves as competent and responsible agents in their children’s lives.  Practitioners were positioned as caring and knowledgeable professionals, and parents showed a clear preference for a partnership with practitioners. These insights were used to develop the interview schedule for the second stage which consequently explored parents’ lived experiences and their reasonings for their positionings.  The qualitative stage consisted of three paired and five individual interviews with 11 parents from three different settings.  This was a self-selected sample from the questionnaire participants. The interviews focused on accountive positioning to gain parents’ narratives and reasonings which were analysed using thematic analysis (Boyatzis, 1998).  The interviews extended the questionnaire data with greater detail on how parents enact their responsibility towards their children, on practitioners’ interactions with children and their support for parents, and on how parents describe their partnership with practitioners.

The combined analyses led to the following findings: Firstly, parents reiterated their overall responsibility for their children’s development and learning and positioned themselves as competent and confident parents.  Parents described two main ways in which they enacted their responsibility for their children in the context of early childhood settings: Initially, they carefully selected the setting and then they asked for advice from practitioners when they needed it.  The former bears some resemblance to being a customer and emphasises parents’ purchasing power but parents did not understand choosing a nursery as a commercial transaction.  Equally, changing settings mid-term was first and foremost described as taking responsibility for the child’s well-being and acting on perceived or real differences between parental expectations and setting provision.  The second way to enact their responsibility, asking for advice, may be interpreted as parents lacking knowledge which would confirm a deficit view of parents; however, parents did not focus on their perceived deficit but on their agency in addressing any lack of knowledge demonstrating their acceptance of their responsibility for their children’s development and learning.

Implicit in the way parents positioned themselves was the positioning of their children’s practitioners as a resource for parents.  Practitioners were seen as experienced professionals with expert knowledge of children and child development, and parents frequently drew on this expertise to help them in their own parenting.  This contrasts with the positioning of parents as a resource for schools and teachers in some of the parent involvement literature, for example, when parents are positioned as volunteers in the classroom or as fundraisers for the school (National College, 2011; Epstein and Sanders, 2002).

Overall, parents wanted to engage in ‘caring partnerships’ with their children’s practitioners.  Emerging from the questionnaires and repeated in the interviews was the request for caring practitioners where ‘caring’ described both the act of caring and the personal characteristic of caring.  Through the emphasis on caring this research added the parents’ voice to the findings from practitioner-based research and academic writing that described ‘caring’ as an element of early childhood professionalism (Ward, 2018; Page, 2018; Osgood, 2010).   Equally, parents asked for a partnership with practitioners which built on mutuality and collaboration to support children’s development and learning. Consequently, the findings provided some detail for the frequently used but rarely described concept of ‘partnership with parents’.

When the findings were considered alongside practitioners’ views and perceptions presented in earlier research (Ward, 2018; Osgood, 2010) a mismatch in positioning and reasoning became apparent. Where parents enacted responsibility by choosing or changing settings, practitioners perceived customer behaviour; where parents sought advice to make sound parenting decisions, practitioners saw a lack of understanding; where parents made difficult parenting decisions after consultation with experts in the setting, practitioners noticed a dismissal of their professional knowledge.  While parents and practitioners maintain contrasting positions and narratives, there is little overlap in the spheres they allocate to themselves and each other (Figure 1).  The ensuing mismatch makes it unlikely that parent and practitioner can create the mutual understanding and respect that are pre-requisites for caring partnerships.

Figure 1: Mismatch in positioning leading to minimal caring partnership.

However, the caring partnership grows when practitioner and parent position themselves and each other in similar ways and when there is considerable overlap in their respective spheres of duties, rights and responsibilities (Figure 2).  This consensus supports the development of reciprocal, respectful interactions which allow the caring partnership to flourish and grow.  This in turn will lead to consistent, harmonious care for young children in their early childhood setting and at home. (Sylva et al, 2010).

Figure 2: Consensus in positioning leading to flourishing caring partnership.

The value of positioning theory in education

The exploration of positionings in parents’ interactions with practitioners has allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of their motivations and intentions.  The finding that parents are responsible for their children is not new and can be identified from parents’ actions and behaviours.  However, the detail of how they see themselves enacting their responsibility would not have been accessible, for example, through role theory. It is the capture of preconceptions, narratives and storylines that facilitates insights into sense-making which in turn can explain subtle shifts and changes in behaviour.  Equally, both parent and practitioner may employ the storyline of the responsible parent, but there is potential for a mismatch between practitioners’ interpretation and parents’ interpretation because they allocate different positions to each other.

Harré outlines how positioning theory can be used to analyse tensions or conflict between individuals and between groups of people (Harré et al, 2009; Langenhove and Harré, 1999; Harré and Davies, 1990).  Building on his writing and the small number of research projects using positioning theory in education has enabled me to gain a deeper understanding of one aspect of parent-practitioner relationships.  This leads me to wonder whether positioning theory may also provide a tool for lecturers to reflect on interactions with students.  How do we position students?  As keen, curious, focused on academic achievement? How do they position us? As knowledgeable experts, a resource for their learning, authority figures?  When there are issues for students in placements, could these be grounded in school staff positioning students as practitioners rather than as learners? The experience with my research project leads me to suggest that we need to make our positionings more explicit and invite others to do the same.  To get things right for our students, an open approach to and respectful consideration of each other’s meanings, narratives and storylines seems to be essential.  In the School of Education (and in our University more widely), the terms ‘storyline’, ‘learner journey’ or ‘programme narrative’ have become prevalent.  These discourses seem to focus on what we are presenting to students or refer to perceived storylines.  There may be a danger that we group students together, for example, as ‘commuting students’ or as ‘BAME students’, which may reinforce prepositionings without actually entering into a dialogue with individuals to explore each other’s storylines and meaning.   I would suggest that only a closer alignment of student and tutor positionings can lead us to the collegiate learning community we want to create.


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