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Reflexivity first entered into anthropological discourse in the late 1970s in response to several problematics that had emerged in the previous decade, but its use in the humanities and in sociology has a longer history. In the words of Barbara Myerhoff and Jay Ruby, two of its advocates, reflexivity "describes the capacity of any system of signification to turn back on itself, to make itself its own object by referring to itself" (p. 2). In the fields of literature, theater, and film, the term is used to describe formal devices by which cultural artifacts call attention to their own production. In the early twentieth century, reflexivity (also known as self-reflexivity, metaliterature, or metatheater) was particularly associated with experimental attempts to undermine the realist conventions of mainstream productions by inserting films (or film production) within films, having literary characters address their readers, and so on. Important early examples would include the work of Samuel Beckett (19061989), Luigi Pirandello's (18671936) Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), or Dziga Vertov's (18961954) film The Man with a Movie Camera (1929). While it is still associated primarily with experimental works, reflexivity is also found in mainstream cinema and theater.

Reflexivity in Sociology

The term's history in the social sciences has been somewhat more complex, as it has been used by different theorists to refer to different phenomena according to what both the object and subject of reflection is understood to be. The concept of reflexivity has a longer history in sociology than in anthropology. As a sociological term, it first appears in the work of Talcott Parsons where it refers to the capacity of social actors in modern societies to be conscious and able to give accounts of their actions. This usage was further developed by Anthony Giddens, who argues that one of the main characteristics of late modernity is a heightened importance of reflexivity in this sense, both at the individual and the societal level. In late modernity, he argues, most aspects of social activity are subject to constant revision in the light of new information or knowledge (sociology itself is a major source of such reflexivity at the level of the society). Individual social actors likewise must constantly revise their identities in light of the changing social categories at hand. A second meaning of the term in sociology is traceable to the work of Harold Garfinkel who used the term to mean the process by which social order is created through ad hoc instances of conversational practice. A third sense of the term is in the context of "reflexive sociology." The term was coined by Parsons's student Alvin Gouldner, who called for a sociological examination of the discipline itself as part of a liberatory "radical sociology." The theorist most closely associated with reflexive sociology in this sense is Pierre Bourdieu. In his work, reflexivity is understood as a strategic agenda, that of utilizing the tools of the discipline in order to demystify sociology as a power saturated social practice.

Reflexivity in Anthropology

Although reflexivity appears somewhat later in anthropology than it does in sociology, its impact has been far greater. It became a central theoretical (and practical) concern during the mid-1980s in response to a distinctive conjunction of events both within and outside of the discipline, which problematized the production of ethnographic texts. Like sociological reflexivity, reflexivity in anthropology encompasses several distinct, identifiable but related styles.

The first of these, chronologically speaking, is associated with Victor Turner and his students, and focuses on the study of reflexive moments in social life. Turner was interested in the ways in which social action was accomplished through the manipulation of symbols. Reflexivity, in Turner's sense, refers to moments in which social actors become conscious of and can reflect upon social life in ritual and other cultural performances which are "reflexive in the sense of showing ourselves ourselves arousing consciousness of ourselves as we see ourselves." (Myerhoff, p. 105; italics in original). Of greater influence within the discipline, however, have been styles of reflexivity, broadly associated postmodernism that reflect upon the disciplinary practices of anthropology.

The so-called reflexive turn in anthropology came as the outcome of three distinct disciplinary crises, beginning in the early 1970s. The first crisis came out of the recognition and subsequent critique of the discipline's complicity with structures of inequality wrought by European colonial expansion and its aftermath. These concerns were articulated in two publications of the period, Dell Hymes's collection Reinventing Anthropology in the United States and Talal Asad's Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter in Britain. Bob Scholte's contribution to the former (echoing Gouldner's call for a reflexive sociology) called for anthropologists to analyze the practice of ethnography as an instantiation of colonial power relations.

The second crisis was produced by the intersection of the feminist movement with anthropology. The feminist critique of the discipline's androcentric bias problematized the notion of the objective, neutral observer. The feminist intervention in particular led to an emphasis on positionalitythat is, a reflexivity that is enacted through the explicit acknowledgment and theoreticization of the "situatedness and partiality of all claims to knowledge" (Marcus, p. 198) and the ethnographers position in relation to his or her interlocutors. This has been particularly important in the work of "halfie" anthropologistsanthropologists working in communities in which they have ambivalent claims of membership (or at least commonality).

The 1967 publication of Bronislaw Malinowski's field diaries (A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term ) constituted a third disciplinary crisis insofar as they undermined the seeming transparency of the relationship between fieldwork practice and the production of ethnographic texts. In this spirit, a strain of ethnography more directly concerned with experiments in rhetorical styles emerged by the end of the 1970s. Three ethnographies in particular, Paul Rabinow's Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco, Vincent Crapanzano's Tuhami and Kevin Dwyer's Moroccan Dialogues utilized writing strategies that challenged the conventional distinction between subjective and objective styles of writing. These were followed by two 1986 collections, Michael Fisher and George Marcus's Anthropology as Cultural Critique and James Clifford and Marcus's Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, which focused attention on rhetorical strategies by which ethnographies produce their effects and called for a re-thinking of, and reflexive experimentation with writing strategies such as dialogue, pastiche, and memoir.

Reactions to the reflexive turn varied, even among its advocates. Marcus and Clifford, for example, were critical of the lack of formal experimentation in writings by feminist anthropologists. Feminist anthropologists, such as Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon, responded, accusing them of insufficient reflexivity regarding their positionality. Others in the discipline, such as Clifford Geertz and Nancy Scheper-Hughes, expressed the following concern: the fact that ethnographic authority is constructed through rhetorical strategies is, ultimately, of limited relevance to the anthropological project (Geertz), and too much attention to the politics of representation could lead to a sort of politico-ethical paralysis on the ground (Scheper-Hughes). By the 1990s, however, most elements of the reflexive critique had been incorporated into the mainstream of U.S. cultural anthropology. At minimum, this consisted of the convention of introducing ethnographic works with brief biographical statements, designed to lay out the ethnographer's personal history and stakes in his or her problem or subject. Other works incorporated reflexive concerns or strategies to broader ends, using them to interrogate the relationship between writing and theory or to problematize the role of ethnography in the construction of ethnographic subjects.

See also Anthropology ; Cinema ; Ethnography ; Theater and Performance .


Asad, Talal, ed. Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1973.

Behar, Ruth, and Deborah Gordon, eds. Women Writing Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Clifford, James, and George E. Marcus, eds. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Crapanzano, Vincent. Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Dwyer, Kevin. Moroccan Dialogues: Anthropology in Question. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Press, 1999.

Fisher, Michael M. J., and George E. Marcus, eds. Anthropology as Cultural Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Geertz, Clifford. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Hymes, Dell, ed. Reinventing Anthropology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Marcus, George E. Ethnography through Thick and Thin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Myerhoff, Barbara. "Life History Among the Elderly." In The Cracked Mirror: Reflexive Perspectives in Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Myerhoff, Barbara, and Jay Ruby, eds. The Cracked Mirror: Reflexive Perspectives in Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Rabinow, Paul. Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. "The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology." Current Anthropology 36 (1995): 409440.

Scholte, Bob. "Toward a Reflexive and Critical Anthropology." In Reinventing Anthropology, edited by Dell Hymes. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Heather Levi

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Individuals, institutions, and societies are reflexive: They turn back upon themselves to observe, reference, describe, predict, assess and explain their own ways and workings. Reflexive turns are not mere adjuncts to social life: They make it possible and increasingly comprise its very fabric. Selfhood, mind, and agency are constituted through the human capacity to reflexively make an object of oneself. Individuals interact with one another in light of their reflexive understanding of the contexts and consequences of their actions. Innumerable professionalssocial scientists among themaudit, analyze, and forecast the functioning of organizations, institutions, and the society itself. Reflexive turns, then, are implicated in the very construction of social actors, social actions, and the disciplines and professions that study and monitor them.

Reflexive turns are complexly related to the circumstances from which they emerge. First, rather than mirror a preexistent domain, reflexive turns are constitutively entwined with the form, dynamics, and even existence of what is observed or described. Self-fulfilling prophecies illustrate one way reflexive knowledge about circumstances affects their development. In the classic example of self-fulfilling prophecies provided by R. K. Merton in 1948, rumors of insolvency precipitate a run on a financially sound bank culminating in actual insolvency. Second, while reflexive turns may claim an objective vantage point from which to observe, analyze, and explain, they are embedded in and informed by the embodied, interactional, organizational, and cultural contexts from which they emerge. A perspicuous example of the embeddedness of reflexive explanations is provided by E. E. Evans-Pritchards 1937 study of Azande beliefs regarding magic, witchcraft, and oracles. Azande explanations of the occasional failure of oracles to correctly predict future events were predicated on the cultural assumptions that contributed to belief in the efficacy of oracles in the first place. Finally, reflexive turns efface their own embeddedness and entwining. Forgetful of both their origins and contributions to what they discover, reflexive turns (including this description of reflexive turns) treat the phenomena they discern as preexistent independent objects and themselves as (mere) observation, revelation, or representation.


The embedded and entwined features of reflexive turns are topics of social scientific inquiry. Studies of social interaction, for example, highlight how discourse and background knowledge about a social setting contributes to its collaborative construction. Studies in economic sociology and kindred fields identify how lay and professional economic reasoning shapes financial markets and even the reasoners themselves. In examining how economic theories are appropriated by the society, Fabrizio Ferraro, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Robert I. Sutton in 2005 suggested that as the model of homo economicus of classical economics infiltrates the discourse, norms, and circumstances of society, individuals increasingly invoke, conform to and thereby validate the model intended to explain their behavior. Analysts of major sociohistorical developments suggest that late-modern social life is marked by unprecedented levels of institutional and individual reflexive monitoring. Modern life requires, as Anthony Giddens observed in 1991, that the question, How shall I live? has to be answered in day-to-day decisions about how to behave, what to wear and what to eat (Giddens 1991, p. 14).

In addition to being a topic for social science, reflexive turns are also challenges to social science. Nourished by the sociology of knowledge and amplified by the heightened reflexivity of late modernity, a panoply of voices asserts that the social (and natural) sciences have yet to recognize the full extent of their own embedding in and entwining with the processes they study. Calls for reflexive inquiry (in contrast to inquiry into reflexivity) challenge social scientists to explicate how they themselves and their projects, perspectives, operations, and findings are embedded in a nexus of enabling and constraining relationships, presuppositions, interests, and practices whose operation and effects escape the delimited self-reflection of conventional inquiry.

Reflexive inquiry bids researchers to address themselves, their inquiries, and the inquiries products in terms of the processes found elsewhere in social life. On the micro level, reflexive inquiry focuses on tacit practices of categorization, interpretation, interaction, and textualization through which research is conducted. On the institutional level, reflexive inquiry examines how various contexts or fields foster intellectual dispositions and prejudgments that form what Pierre Bourdieu in 1992 referred to as the collective scientific unconscious (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). On the structural level, reflexive inquiry invites self-examination in terms of how the process and products of inquiry are shaped by the researchers social location in political, economic, ethnic, or gender hierarchies.


Promising to deepen and even improve research, reflexive inquiry may give rise to unsettling problems. Reflexive inquiry tends to blur the very distinctions between observer and observed and between representation and reality upon which conventional inquiry is predicated. Further, explication of the embedded and entwined features of social scientific inquiry threatens to initiate an infinite regress in which each successive reflexive turn calls forth yet another to explicate its predecessor. Moreover, reflexive inquiry may so divest itself of analytic concepts (treating them as phenomena to be reflexively explicated) that it threatens to devolve into a vacuous exercise. Finally, the extent to which reflexive inquiry can access and explicate the effaced background of research is uncertain. Unsurprisingly, social scientists vary in their enthusiasm for taking the reflexive turn and exposing themselves to these (and other) problems.

The ways persons, institutions, and societies take account of themselves are constitutive processes of social life. The social sciences are themselves reflexive turns and thus are charged not only with inquiry into reflexivity but also with reflexive inquiry, that is, with explicating their own embeddedness in and entwining with the affairs they purport to illuminate. The dividends of reflexive inquiry include insight into the constitutive role of observation, description, and analysis and the practices and prejudgments implicated in such activities. As daunting as they may be, the unsettling problems of reflexive inquiry, in the very ways they unsettle, are potent resources for discerning fundamental assumptions, practices, and limits of social science.

SEE ALSO Anthropology; Ethnography; Ethnology and Folklore; Observation, Participant; Primitivism


Ashmore, Malcolm. 1989. The Reflexive Thesis: Wrighting Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 2004. Science of Science and Reflexivity. Trans. Richard Nice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Loic J. D. Wacquant. 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1937. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. London: Oxford University Press.

Ferraro, Fabrizio, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Robert I. Sutton. 2005. Economics, Language, and Assumptions: How Theories Can Become Self-Fulfilling. Academy of Management Review 30 (1): 8-24.

Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Giddens, Anthony. 1991. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lynch, Michael. 2000. Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge. Theory, Culture, and Society 17 (3): 26-54.

Mannheim, Karl. 1968. Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. Trans. Louis Wirth and Edward Shils. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World.

Mead, George H. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, ed. Charles W. Morris. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Merton, R. K. 1948. The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. Antioch Review 8: 193-210.

Pollner, Melvin. 1987. Mundane Reason: Reality in Everyday and Sociological Discourse. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Woolgar, Steve, ed. 1988. Knowledge and Reflexivity: New Frontiers in the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Sage.

Melvin Pollner

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