Positionality for Reality: Getting Ourselves Oriented

Orientation refers to the relative position of something or someone. To be properly oriented in the world of ordinary reality, then, is to have a sound sense of where you fit in the bigger picture relative to other beings, objects, and processes.

Proper orientation is essential for being able to move in one’s intended direction.

In terms of our potential today to be well-oriented, we have a lot going for us. Scientific knowledge, at least in principle, makes understanding our place in the world (and even the universe) possible in ways it has not been before.

From the sociological sciences, concepts like “positionality” (concerned with the ways that our social positions shape our identities and opportunities) help situate us, making it difficult to maintain the delusion that we are independent self-made persons.

Despite these aids, many of us still have a difficult time knowing where we belong and how we fit in the grand scheme of things.

Competing narratives can distort or overpower scientific knowledge. Sociological concepts can be taken up and used in ways that reify social constructs, leading to more confusion as we treat them and the identities we fashion around them as more solid than they are.

Combine all this with the unprecedented quantity and complexity of social relations we’re embedded in today and you have a recipe for pervasive dis-orientation.

Where are We?

dis·o·ri·en·ta·tion   /disˌôrēənˈtāSH(ə)n/

noun: mental confusion and the condition of having lost one’s sense of direction

We live at a time when even the most basic human activities place us in inordinately long, complicated, and mostly invisible chains of relations, obscuring our connections with other people and the world.

Take the simple act of eating. In contrast with the more direct relationships people had with food and the land from whence it comes throughout virtually the whole of human history, our relational patterns concerning food might look  something like this.

Global Food System Map, Source: ShiftN, 2009

And eating is just one facet of our lives. It is within similarly complex patterns of interdependence which we also seek to satisfy other needs in modern-techno industrial (MTI) societies.

It’s no wonder we’re confused.

Unable to accurately place ourselves within these webs of relations, it’s difficult to identify the sources of the pushes and pulls we feel on our lives.

And yet, driven by a need to understand, we devise ways to make sense of them. We may wrongly attribute credit or blame to some “other”—a person or group pulling the strings behind the scenes. We may assume a false sense of autonomy. Or we may chalk it all up, in nihilistic fashion, to random chance.

Either way, we’re not seeing the whole picture and we’re not seeing very clearly.

Not only is the resulting disorientation at the root of much of the malaise we moderns experience, it also blocks our ability to effectively address problems and get moving in a better direction—toward healthier environmental and social systems, greater well-being, more satisfying lives.

It’s like trying to run a race without understanding the most fundamental principles. Which direction to run. What the rules are. What the terrain is like. Without knowing these things, there’s not much hope of reaching the desired “finish” line, or at least not in time.

The Race to Transition

In a very real sense, our collective effort toward Transition is a race, only we can’t see the finish line and there’s not going to be any one winner or loser.

It’s a long distance relay, and we’re all running for the same team.

The best we can do, each in our turn, is to receive the baton handed to us and then run as well as we can before passing it on.

This is all we humans can ever really do, but present circumstances demand that we do it with greater awareness and skill. For one thing, that means knowing we don’t run solo.

We are on the receiving end of certain conditions and conditioning. We should know that we are running with all that in hand, and that our performance will shape the conditions and conditioning of those who come next. Learning to recognize this—our positions relative not only to others, but to others in time—is paramount.

But we need to take this idea of positionality even further.

Beyond our social and historical contexts are more fundamental conditions: the biophysical reality comprising our terrain and furnishing the non-negotiable rules of the game. We need to be able to position ourselves more accurately there.

Training to develop this ability is critical. Ultimately, the long-term results of our actions will be shaped by the degree to which we can meet the needs of the times with ideas that align with reality. As sociologist Norbert Elias put it,

“We can only clarify our actions, our goals and ideas of what ought to be, if we better understand what is.” [1]

Meeting Reality With Reality

In terms of our actions, goals, and ideas of what ought to be, the stakes are pretty high at the moment. Most notably, our disoriented misunderstanding of what is has profound implications for our prospects for a meaningful transition away from certain known dangers.

“Clearly, for the transition to succeed, the denizens of MTI cultures must consciously abandon and evolve beyond the core paradigms which define their present way of being in the world.” [2]

A central aspect of those core paradigms is an erroneous sense of our place in the world.

“The first step in clearing up that confusion is to locate people, their activities, and all social phenomena firmly in their native ground, the physical and biological processes they happen in and through.”  [3]

Recognizing our disorientation and the need for this deeper kind of positionality constitutes the warm-up. Now it’s time to get moving.

In order to keep moving, and to build momentum in the right direction, we need a mentality for reality—the subject of the next post.


Want to bring these ideas to life in the classroom and beyond? Click below to access “In Practice,” a pdf containing some questions and exercises aimed at helping us practice our way into a new paradigm.


[1] Elias, Norbert. 1991, p. 11. The Society of Individuals. New York and London: Continuum. 

[2] Rees, William. 2021. “Growth Through Contraction: Conceiving an Eco-Economy.” Real-World Economics Review 96:110.

[3] Kasper, Debbie. 2021, p. 76. Beyond the Knowledge Crisis: A Synthesis Framework for Socio-Environmental Studies and Guide to Social Change. Palgrave Macmillan.

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