Revealing Researcher’s Positionality and Perception

Wanda B. Knight
The Pennsylvania State University, USA

Karen Keifer-Boyd
The Pennsylvania State University, USA

Citation: Knight, W. B., & Keifer-Boyd, K. (2019). Revealing researcher’s positionality and perception. Transdisciplinary Inquiry, Practice, and Possibilities in Art Education. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Libraries Open Publishing. DOI: 10.26209/arted50-07

Abstract: In this paper we look back to the 1965 Seminar in Art Education for Research and Curriculum Development, which shifted the focus of art education from psychologically grounded, developmental approaches to teaching and researching, to a more self-conscious stance as part of the humanities and interdisciplinary scholarship. Two colleagues, Wanda B. Knight and Karen Keifer-Boyd, both of whom are in art education and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Penn State, discuss positionality and perception in relation to June King McFee’s perception-delineation theory.

Visual Arts Research: Looking back, looking forward

The 2016 special issue of Visual Arts Research (known as VAR) has a theme of “Looking Back and Looking Forward.”[1] VAR provides a forum for historical, critical, cultural, psychological, educational, and conceptual research in visual arts and aesthetic education. In the following essay based on our roundtable presentations, both the Senior Guest Editor (Wanda B. Knight) and the Associate Guest Editor (Karen Keifer-Boyd) share content from their articles published in Visual Arts Research, volume 42, number 2.

In looking back on the 1965 Seminar, Eurocentric paradigms, based on the thinking of both Penn State and Ohio State elites, dominated research and teaching perspectives. Further, research and teaching in art education were broadly generalized with minor considerations for difference. Conventional research methods, typically, are not valid for researching different racial/cultural groups because the researcher — marked by gender, race/ethnicity, sexual identity, social class, and other identity markers — influences research. Further, being born and reared in a particular culture can result in patterns of thought that reflect one’s culture as normal. Therefore, it may be difficult to look at the behaviors of individuals from a different culture based on the viewpoints of that culture.

Culture is the rarely questioned system of beliefs, values, and practices that forms one’s life. Research in arts education can use the cultural standpoints of both the researcher and the researched as a framework for theoretical research design, methods of data collection, and methods of interpretation. This statement means that the research focus, paradigms, and the methodologies ought to be considered from a multicultural perspective rather than from a Eurocentric, pseudo-neutral, universalistic perspective or notion of research. A multicultural perspective privileges the cultural standpoints of persons who experience the social, political, educational, and economic consequences of unequal power relations over the assumed knowledge of those who are positioned outside of these experiences.

Researchers make assumptions based on their positionality (Ladson-Billings, 2000). We challenge three general premises assumed in much of the art education research in the United States:

  1. The White-middle class “American” is the standard by which others should be measured.
  2. The instruments used for assessing differences are universally applicable across groups, with perhaps minimal adjustments for culturally diverse populations.
  3. Sources of potential variances, such as social class, gender, race/ethnicity, and proficiency in English, are nuances that can later be discarded.

In this essay, we suggest strategies to recognize epistemological bias in conjunction with these assumptions and consider some of the methodological difficulties that warrant consideration in the design, collection, and interpretation of research results.


We all have experiences that shape our perspectives. Therefore, we each bring unique life experiences to our work. Positionality is based on situating, locating, and positioning self. Our position is a political point of departure. It is not fixed, but relational, “a constant moving context that constitutes our reality” (Geiger, 1990, p. 171). How does who we are and where we are positioned (e.g., as dominant/subordinate, marginal/center, empowered/powerless) in relation to a dominant culture impact our work? We cannot escape the influence of our positionality.

We have varied positionalities. Delineating our positions supports the notion that our position may influence facets of our teaching and our research, such as what we incorporate into our lessons or what types of information we gather in our inquiry and how we interpret it.

Linda Alcoff (1988) defines positionality as the “knower’s specific position within any given context, a position always defined by gender, race, class, and other socially significant dimensions” (p. 22). However, Salzman (2002) has criticized positionality as using general social characteristics such as those above outlined by Alcoff, characteristics that may not reveal much about the real viewpoints of the individual. On the other hand, Robertson (2002) supports the notion of positionality, although not as generic fixed categories, or as “ready to wear” products of identity politics (p. 788).

In other words, race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion, among other distinctions can be useful in positioning self, “but only if they are not left self-evident as essentialized qualities that are magically synonymous with self-consciousness, or, for that matter, with intellectual engagement and theoretical rigor” (Robertson, 2002, p. 790). This expression means that positionality is only useful if we articulate and reflect upon our position concerning its impact on our teaching and our research. David Takacs (2003) notes, “few things are more difficult than to see outside the bounds of your own perspective­­­­­–to be able to identify assumptions that you take as universal truths but which, instead, have been crafted by your own unique identity and experience in the world” (p. 27).

When we critically reflect upon how we know what we know, we realize that we are simultaneously empowered and disempowered as experts in our fields of endeavor. We are empowered because we recognize that we have unique claims to knowledge that others do not. However, we are disempowered as experts because others, too, can lay claims to knowledge that we do not have. As such, we start to “question the ‘correctness’ of our own position, as we come to learn that our views may be constrained by the limitations of our own experiences” (Takacs, 2003, p. 29). When conducting research, rather than the researcher positioning self as expert and sole holder of knowledge to make meaning, the researcher might start from the position of the researched. Only by listening to the researched can we gain a deep awareness of our positionality and biased filters concerning the experiences that have shaped the identities of those we research.

Looking forward, teachers and researchers need to respect the unique life experiences that each person brings. “[B]y asserting that the broadest possible set of experiences is crucial to help each of us understand the topic at hand as completely as possible — we empower all&ellip; as knowledge makers” (Takacs, 2003, p. 27). Moreover, we let each person “assert individualized knowledge that contributes to a collective understanding. Rather than ‘tolerating’ difference, we move to respect difference, as difference helps us understand” our world and our worldview (Takacs, 2003, p. 27). The upcoming section considers positionality and perception relative to June King McFee’s Perception-Delineation Theory.

June King McFee’s Perception-Delineation Theory Concerning Positionality

At the 1965 Seminar in Art Education for Research and Curriculum Development, June King McFee’s[2] invited lecture “Society, Art, and Education” promoted a sociological perspective to the philosophical and psychological aspects of art and art education curriculum discussed at the seminar. Looking back nearly 20 years later in a comparison to the 1983 Getty Institute, which McFee noted was prescriptive concerning the disciplines that inform visual arts, she described: “The Penn State Seminar grew out of the need for quality research in art education. It was generative in nature, structured on invitational papers from nationally recognized scholars. Art was viewed in a broad, interdisciplinary context” (McFee, 1984, p. 276). She summarized: “At Penn State the nature of art as a content area was not focused into a specific discipline-based subject, but was being explored in its many social and educational aspects” (McFee, 1984, p. 277). More specifically, at the 1965 Penn State Seminar, the “foundational areas of art education” were identified as “art, aesthetics, art criticism and history, the psychological and social foundations of education, curriculum development, and research methodology” (McFee, 1984, p. 277). McFee continued throughout her career advocating that art educators study the work of “specialists: ecologists, artists, designers, architects, engineers, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, art critics" (1978, p. 12). She maintained, “by its very name art education is interdisciplinary” (1984, p. 280). In looking back to the 1965 Seminar held at Penn State, she believed that the Seminar

provided a comprehensive interdisciplinary base that sets art education within the broad subject of art, as it is operant in the psycho-social, philosophical, and curricular base of education, as education fits within the workings and functions of society and culture. In this respect it is timeless and supersedes the particular political period it was in. (McFee, 1984, p. 280)

Her work inspired future generations to approach art education as transdisciplinary visual culture from a cultural anthropological perspective (Marantz, 1991; Blandy, 2008; Bolin & Blandy, 2011), and she “is one of the most influential art educators to advocate for social reconstruction and the democratization of art” (Tavin, 2005, p. 8).

At the 1965 Seminar, the sociologist Melvin Tumin and McFee, who specialized in the “socio-psychological foundations of art education, address[ed] social change and social differences in relation to teaching and learning art” (McFee, 1984, p. 277). Arthur Efland (1984), in his retrospective evaluation of the 1965 Penn State Seminar, noted: “generally there were two papers on each topic, one by a scholar from outside of art education and the other by an individual from within the field” (p. 205). While McFee did not directly refer to her perception-delineation theory, introduced in the book, Preparation for Art (McFee, 1961) published four years prior, the theory underlies the points she made in her speech that built on the civil rights momentum and President Johnson’s promise to put an “end to poverty and racial injustice” (Wasserman, 1983, p. 193). McFee’s perception-delineation theory is developed further as teaching practice in the book Art, Culture, and Environment: A Catalyst for Teaching, co-authored with Rogena Degge (McFee & Degge, 1977).[3]

The focus, here, is on McFee’s perception-delineation theory in relation to researcher positionality, specifically psycho-social positionality and place-based positionality. The four components of perception-delineation theory include the psycho-social that envelopes each person, the particular environments in which individuals are situated, the perceptual discernment of the visual contextualized from cultural and environmental perspectives, and sensory abilities to make sense of the world aesthetically. McFee advocated for art curricula that consider these four areas.

Psycho-social positionality

Art educator Graeme Chalmer (1999) used June King McFee’s 1960 framework of art education as a field of inquiry and practice to introduce “the work of four men” in art education (p. 3). McFee “identified the contributing fields of art education as:

  • The study of art in human experience
  • The nature of human creativity and behavior in art
  • The educative process, and
  • The utilization of these fields in curriculum development” (Chalmers, 1999, p. 3).

Human experience, McFee argued, is also culture-bound. She stated:

We, ourselves, are culture bound—that is, we have learned to see, think, value, organize and behave in large part from the cultural background we have had. These taken for granted ways of thinking and valuing underlie our responses to art. They also affect how we teach and evaluate others’ art. (Congdon, Degge, & Keifer-Boyd, 1995)

McFee challenged psychological theories of child development that did not include the socialization of children’s lives (Efland, 1967). In her book, Preparation for Art, McFee (1961), emphasized individual differences and the diversity of conditions in children’s reactions to visual phenomena and visual arts. She also stressed that art educators should reflect on their biases, challenge stereotypes and prejudices, and develop empathy with diverse ethnic groups (McFee, 1961, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1988, 1995, 1998). She stated in her 1965 Seminar lecture, “We cannot begin to explore the relationships between art and society without assessing our basic assumptions about art, for these assumptions condition our inquiry” (McFee, 1966, p. 122). June King McFee advocated for discerning, disclosing, and discussing intersectional, entangled positionality in research and teaching.

Place-based positionality

The environment, McFee posited, influences our identity formation. June King McFee reflected on her early influences in the video titled Conversations with June King McFee (Congdon, McFee, & Keifer-Boyd, 1995). She stated:

I grew up on Puget Sound…. When you live in Puget Sound big ships come in from all over the world. You have a sense that you live on a portal to the world, particularly looking east…. That marvelous environment and openness to the rest of the world was a very important thing and I think the natural environment probably played as big a factor as we spent all our summers at the beach. (Congdon, McFee, & Keifer-Boyd, 1995, n.p.)

From McFee’s perspective, where we have lived, especially during our childhood, in part, forms our positionality. Considering the pedagogy of places that humans inhabit, therefore, is a critical component of research and teaching in art education. Along with study on the influence of culture, McFee’s teaching and research emphasized social responsibility about designing environments that are inclusive of diversity (McFee 1974, 1975, 1978, 1984; McFee & Degge, 1977; Degge, 1997). For example, in McFee’s (1971) study of 4th-grade students from six different cities, she theorized from the cultural standpoint of the students’ that their social concerns were integrally related to their visual and physical environments and the socio-economic racist politics of the cities. June King McFee’s perception-delineation theory encompasses revealing the entanglements of psycho-social positionality with place-based positionality.


In sum, each person brings unique life experiences that impact perception. Reflexive praxis using concepts concerning positionality allow teacher-researchers to interrogate how their cultural perceptions affect what they see, hear, know, and document. Through recognition and analysis of the cultures in which teacher-researchers are positioned, “we come to know the world more fully by knowing how we know the world” (Takacs, 2003, p. 29). With this brief introduction to positionality and McFee’s perception-delineation theory concerning positionality, we hope readers will consider their positionality and how it impacts their art education research and teaching praxis.


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[1] This essay is based on presentations given on April 2, 2016, that later became the basis for articles by Knight and Deng (2016) and by Keifer-Boyd et al. (2016).

[2] Dr. June King McFee (1917- 2008) was Professor and Head of the Department of Art Education at the University of Oregon from 1965-1983. She is best known for advancing cultural understanding through the arts. She wrote about cultural diversity, visual culture, and the human-built environment from a feminist social theory perspective. (Keifer-Boyd, Bailey, Blandy, Congdon, Degge, & Staples, 2016, p. 74)

[3] The First Edition had two printings between 1977-1980 by Wadsworth Publishing Company in Belmont, California; three printings between 1980-1990, and a revision in 1993 published by Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, Dubuque, Iowa.

Wanda B. Knight and Karen Keifer-Boyd

Wanda B. Knight, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Art Education and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at The Pennsylvania State University. Besides university level teaching, she has served as a certified art teacher (PreK-12), an art museum educator and registrar, plus an elementary and secondary school principal. A previous editor of the Journal of Social Theory in Art Education and guest editor of Visual Arts Research and School Arts, her work concerning teacher education, culturally competent teaching, identity development, and gender, class, and race-related social inequities and their entanglement is published widely, and her presentations span national and international locations. Her awards include the Pennsylvania Art Education Association Outstanding Higher Education Art Educator Award, the NAEA J. Eugene Grigsby Jr. Award for outstanding contributions to the field of art education and the Kenneth Marantz Distinguished Alumni Award from The Ohio State University.

Karen T. Keifer-Boyd, Ph.D., is Professor of Art Education and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at The Pennsylvania State University. She is the 2015 Outstanding Research Awardee from the National Art Education Association (NAEA) Art Education and Technology Issue Group, the NAEA Distinguished Fellow Class of 2013, the United States Society of Art Education’s 2013 Ziegfeld Awardee, the 2012 Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Gender Studies at Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt, Austria, and Fulbright awardee for research in Finland in 2006. She co-founded the journal Visual Culture & Gender in 2005. Her writings on feminist pedagogy, visual culture, inclusion, cyberart activism, transcultural dialogues, action research, social justice arts-based research, and identity are in more than 50 peer-reviewed research publications, and translated into several languages. She co-authored Including Difference (NAEA, 2013); InCITE, InSIGHT, InSITE (NAEA, 2008); Engaging Visual Culture (Davis, 2007); co-edited Real-World Readings in Art Education (Falmer, 2000).