Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Reflexivity

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‘Reflexivity’ is about acknowledging the relationship between a researcher and their subject, and to what degree the researcher influences the outcome of their research (whether in social sciences or natural sciences) (Salzman, 2002). Within anthropology this requires reflecting on the biases and impact of the researcher, as an active social actor, in the field. Reflexivity, or the ‘reflexive turn’, in the discipline emerged out of criticisms of the supposed scientific objectivity of mainstream anthropology, primarily by postcolonial and feminist scholars in the 1970s and 80s (Salzman, 2002). The kinds of questions that reflexivity asks include:

  • To what degree does an ethnographer shape the actions of their informants?
  • In what ways does the history, and identity, of the ethnographer influence what they see as important (or see at all) in the field?
  • Are there things that researchers are unable to see in their field because of their gender, for example, or class?
  • Is objectivity possible? Or does it just reflect the views of the writer (historically white and European).
  • Does the attempt to achieve objectivity, or the authoritative voice, perpetuate power relationships between ethnographer and informants, and in doing so maintain colonial relationships?
  • Can writing truly describe a culture or social system?

Reflexive research has become the norm in contemporary social science, but how one goes about achieving reflexivity, as well as the relative weight of objectivity/subjectivity that is possible, is still a grey area to be negotiated by every anthropologist. There is an argument that ‘reflexive’ research can become narcissistic and self-defeating if it just consists of a subjective reflection by the researcher, (Madden, 2010, p. 26). Madden argues for a reflexivity that has a commitment to producing better research data (by factoring in the researcher’s effect on the field) while also dealing with the identity and socio-political position of the researcher:

“The overall point I want to make about reflexivity in ethnography is that, despite the strict meaning of the term, reflexivity is not really about ‘you, the ethnography’; it’s still about ‘them, the participants.’” (2010, p. 26)


References:

Madden, R., 2010. Being Ethnographic: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Ethnography. SAGE.

Salzman, P.C., 2002. On Reflexivity. American Anthropologist 104, 805–813.

For classic examples of ethnographic reflexivity see also:

Behar, R., Gordon, D.A., 1995. Women Writing Culture. University of California Press.

Clifford, J., Marcus, G.E., 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. University of California Press.

Geertz, C., 1988. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford University Press.

Maton, K., 2003. Reflexivity, Relationism, & Research: Pierre Bourdieu and the Epistemic Conditions of Social Scientific Knowledge. Space and Culture 6, 52–65.

Rabinow, P., 1977. Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco. University of California Press.

Rosaldo, R., 1980. Ilongot Headhunting, 1883-1974: A Study in Society and History. Stanford University Press.

Sangren, P.S., 2007. Anthropology of Anthropology?: Further Reflections on Reflexivity. Anthropology Today 23, 13–16.

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