Abstract: MSW Students' Experiences and Understanding of Social Location: The Development of a Positionality Measure (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

MSW Students' Experiences and Understanding of Social Location: The Development of a Positionality Measure

Friday, January 15, 2016: 10:15 AM
Meeting Room Level-Meeting Room 6 (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Susanne Klawetter, PhD Candidate, Doctoral Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Stephanie Lechuga Peńa, PhD Candidate, Doctoral Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Stephanie Begun, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Samantha M. Brown, MA, Doctoral Candidate, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Background and Purpose

Extant research has examined social privilege among social service providers and counselors in practice. However, a gap in the literature exists regarding MSW students’ understanding of positionality within the context of field practice settings. Positionality refers to one’s social location and worldview which influences how one responds to power differentials in various contexts. This construct is important for social work, as one’s positionality impacts how one approaches work with clients, community engagement, and policy-making. As such, this pilot study aimed to: 1) test the initial construction of a positionality measure, and 2) assess how MSW students understand and respond to issues related to power, privilege and oppression in field practice settings.


To assist with initial measurement development, items were selected after a thorough review of the literature and consultation with two expert reviewers. Next, cognitive interviews were conducted with two MSW students in an effort to improve the relevance, appropriateness, and clarity of the items. This resulted in 95 items, which were distributed via a web-based survey to MSW students (N=103) from a social work program in the Rocky Mountain region to examine initial measurement construction. Students’ eligibility in the study required active enrollment in both a field practice setting and either foundation, concentration, or advanced standing status. After consenting to study participation, students were asked to rate each item on a 4-point scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. After conducting an initial item analysis and subsequently recoding and deleting items, the final item analysis was conducted with 89 items, resulting in a Cronbach’s alpha of .938.


Findings indicated that approximately 25% of the sample had never heard of positionality prior to the administration of the survey, yet many participants indicated understanding of related concepts such as privilege and discrimination based on social identity (e.g., race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status). Although participants acknowledged that their identities are often more valued than many of their clients’ identities, many participants indicated discomfort responding to power differentials related to positionality and approximately half  (53.4%) indicated they felt “guilty” about their positionality when working with clients in field practice settings.

Conclusion & Implications

Results from this study support further examination of the positionality measure to assess its psychometric properties in various social work programs. If understanding one’s social position is important to culturally-responsive social work practice, then social work programs should examine the extent to which positionality is addressed through curricula including practice settings. Additionally, the experience of “guilt” in response to social privilege is a finding consistent with the literature and should be explored further to determine if feelings of guilt are an appropriate or useful response to social work practice. Future iterations of this study would benefit from administering this preliminarily-refined measure to a broader sample size such that exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses may be employed to further validate and strengthen this measure.