REFLEXIVITY is a potent and popular concept; it is also a problematic and paradoxical one. The term is problematic because it is so popular today; it is used in several different disciplines to refer to a wide variety of mental, verbal, and performative phenomena that nonetheless share a family resemblance. Reflexivity is a paradoxical concept because the type of self-referential activity—consciousness of self-consciousness—that it denotes involves the epistemological paradox so well discussed by Gregory Bateson (1972, pp. 177–193) and Rosalie L. Colie (1966, pp. 6–8), in which the mind by its own operation attempts to say something about its operation—an activity difficult both to contemplate and to describe without conceptual vertigo and verbal entanglements.
In the most general sense, the terms reflexive, reflexivity, and reflexiveness "describe the capacity of language and of thought—of any system of signification—to turn or bend back upon itself, to become an object to itself, and to refer to itself" (Babcock, 1980, p. 4). This is anything but the rarefied activity it might at first seem, for reflexivity has come to be regarded as a sine qua non of human communication. When, for example, Kenneth Burke defines humanity in the first chapter of Language as Symbolic Action (1966), he describes as "characteristically human" this "'second-level' aspect of symbolicity or 'reflexive' capacity to develop highly complex symbol systems about symbol systems, the pattern of which is indicated in Aristotle's definition of God as 'thought of thought,' or in Hegel's dialectics of 'self-consciousness'" (p. 24).
The adjective reflexive first appeared in English in 1588; it was used as early as 1640 to refer to the capacity of mental operations to be "turned or directed back upon the mind itself." Regarding things grammatical, reflexive has been used since 1837 to describe pronouns, verbs, and their significations that are, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, "characterized by, or denote, a reflex action on the subject of the clause or sentence." With reference to mental operations, the adjective is frequently confused and used interchangeably with its near synonym, reflective. To be reflexive is to be reflective; but one is not necessarily reflexive when one is reflective, for to reflect is simply to think about something, but to be reflexive is to think about the process of thinking itself. In its present usage, reflection does not possess the self-referential and second-level characteristics of reflexivity. Such was not always the case, and the terminological confusion arises because Locke, Spinoza, and Leibniz, as well as subsequent philosophers, used the term reflection to denote the knowledge that the mind has of itself and its operations, in contrast to mere "thinking" about matters external to the mind itself.
A related confusion occurs with the term self-consciousness, which denotes primary awareness of self rather than the consciousness of self-consciousness characteristic of reflexivity—what Fichte described as the "ability to raise oneself above oneself," in contrast to "vain self-reflection." The latter phrase raises yet another terminological tangle and, in this instance, a negative connotation that must needs be dispensed with: the association of reflexivity with narcissism and solipsism. By definition, both involve self-reference and self-consciousness, but both are forms of "vain self-reflection" without any second-level awareness of that self-absorption. Unlike reflexivity, neither narcissism nor solipsism partakes of epistemological paradox, ironic detachment, or, hence, the ability to laugh at oneself. Reflexivity involves what Maurice Natanson defines as "methodological solipsism," that is, the examination of all experience from the perspective of the self-aware ego, in contrast to "metaphysical solipsism," which claims that the individual is the sole reality (1974b, pp. 241–243). As Merleau-Ponty pointed out in a discussion of modern painting in Signs (Evanston, 1964), reflexivity "presents a problem completely different from that of the return to the individual." Rather, like Husserl's concept of the transcendental ego, it involves the problem of knowing how one thinks and communicates, of "knowing how we are grafted to the universal by that which is most our own" (p. 52).
In Western philosophy, reflexivity has been recognized at least since Socrates as an inevitable if not always welcome companion of thought. A human being is not only an animal who thinks, but who also—certainly if a philosopher—thinks about thinking, and thinks of him or her self as a thinker: "to be a questioner in reality is to locate oneself as part of the questionable and also as the source of questions" (Natanson, 1974a, p. 233). Philosophers have tended to explain this paradoxical state of affairs in two related ways. The first and most familiar is "the two-in-one that Socrates discovered as the essence of thought and Plato translated into conceptual language as the soundless dialogue eme emauto —between me and myself" (Arendt, 1977, p. 185). While the participants in this dialogue have been variously named—me and myself, I and me, self and other, self and soul, "naked self" and "selfsame," I and Thou—philosophers from Socrates to Arendt have similarly described the dynamics of thinking as an exchange between an experiential or perceiving self and a reflexive or conceptual self. In all cases, the viewpoint of the latter is regarded as a higher form of consciousness, and it is frequently regarded as transcendent, if not explicitly divine. Hence, the second mode of explaining reflexivity and its seeming transcendence of human symbol systems—its thought-trains by which one could take one's way out of the world—is to equate it with the divine. To give but a few examples: In Platonic dialectic, a movement toward the abstract was equated with a movement toward the divine; Aristotle similarly defined God as "thought of thought"; Augustine's reflexive or "selfsame" self is the mind illuminated by God; and, for Kant and Hegel, ultimate meaning, if not divine, is nonetheless described respectively as "transcendental reflection" and "absolute knowledge." While acknowledging this affinity between reflexivity and the higher forms of consciousness in religion, philosophers since Hegel have argued that reflexivity is beyond any particular system of belief, that "thinking is equally dangerous to all creeds" (Arendt, 1977, p. 176).
More recently, phenomenological philosophers such as Schutz and Merleau-Ponty have "grounded" reflexivity by conceiving of it as embodied institution tied to temporality and situation, rather than as transcendental constitution. Far from being a philosopher's prerogative, reflexivity so conceived is nothing more nor less than the process of rendering experience meaningful—the inevitable and necessary "framing" that everyone engages in. Phenomenological discussions of reflexivity as a series of exchanges between subject and object, or between individual consciousness and social reality, recall not only the Socratic conception of thought as internal dialogue but also the conception of the self as reciprocal, dialogical, and reflexive as formulated by American pragmatic philosophers and psychologists, notably Peirce, James, Mead, and Cooley.
In Mind, Self, and Society (1962), social psychologist George Herbert Mead defines reflexiveness as "the turning back of experience of the individual upon himself," asserting that "it is by means of reflexiveness that the whole social process is brought into the experience of the individuals involved in it" and that "reflexiveness, then, is the essential condition, within the social process, for the development of mind" (p. 134). Mead's concept of "reflexiveness" as a dialogue between a personal "I" and a social "me" is closely related to Cooley's formulation of the "looking-glass self" and to Jacques Lacan's more recent description of "le stade du miroir," for Mead indicates that the achievement of identity involves mirroring, or the assumption of a specular image; the individual "becomes a self in so far as he can take the attitude of others and act toward himself as others act" (p. 171). The self, therefore, "as that which can be an object to itself, is essentially a social structure" (p. 140); or, in Charles Sanders Peirce's terms, it is a semiotic construct: "When we think, then, we ourselves, as we are at that moment, appear as a sign" (Philosophical Writings of Peirce, New York, 1955, p. 233). Thus described, the self, like the world, is a text embedded in and constituted by (as well as constitutive of) interconnected systems of signs, of which the most important and most representative is language.
While Peirce asserts that reflexivity is perforce semiotic, subsequent semioticians, linguists, and philosophers have argued that all systems of signification are inherently and necessarily reflexive. As Fredric Jameson summarizes in The Prison House of Language (Princeton, 1972), "Every enunciation involves a kind of lateral statement about language, about itself, and includes a kind of self-designation within its very structure" (p. 202). Because of its descriptive usefulness, the metalinguistic or metacommunicative model has become pervasive in discussions of all forms of reflexivity. It would be wrong, however, to regard linguistic self-reference as either the cause or the explanation of reflexivity. As Robert Nozick has recently pointed out, reflexive self-knowledge is a basic phenomenon without which neither cognition nor communication is possible, and it is pointless to argue which comes first (1981, p. 82).
Both the idea that reflexivity consists of the self representing itself to itself and the notion that all forms of representation involve self-reference or reflexivity are present in the plural in the concepts of collective representations and cultural performances, as defined and discussed by sociologists and anthropologists since Durkheim. In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915), Durkheim defined collective representations, such as a clan's mythic ancestor, as forms in which the group "represents itself to itself," implying that the collective symbolization process as expressed in myths and rituals includes within its operations consciousness of itself. In recent decades, Claude Lévi-Strauss has argued not only that myths are sociocultural metacommentaries but that all myth is "meta-" insofar as its implicit if not explicit subject is the emergence of language or communication. In his earlier work on ritual and ritual symbols, Victor Turner (1974) suggested that liminal periods are reflexive moments when society "takes cognizance of itself" and reflects on the order of things through symbolic disordering, through the "analysis and recombination of the factors of culture into any and every possible pattern" (p. 255). In later works (1979, 1982, 1984), Turner argued that all genres of cultural performance (ritual, myth, theater, narrative, games, etc.) are instances of plural reflexivity because they are self-critiques and reflections upon, rather than simply reflections of, the structures and strictures of the everyday world. Clifford Geertz (1973) has similarly asserted not only that religion is a reflexive cultural system that provides "models of" and "models for" self and society but that illicit, secular cultural performances such as Balinese cockfights are stories that a group "tells itself about itself" (pp. 93, 448). While not all collective representations—verbal, visual, and performative—are religious, it is no surprise that many of them are, for as Robert Bellah states in Beyond Belief (New York, 1970), religion has been "the traditional mode by which men interpreted their world to themselves" (p. 246)—the "pattern of patterns" or epitome of plural reflexivity.
If, as has already been implied, it is difficult to discuss reflexivity without discussing religion, the reverse is equally true. Regardless of whether one considers religion as a system of belief and body of texts or as praxis and experience, one is concerned with the interpretation of the moral complexities and paradoxes of human social and individual life—thus, with signs about signs, with reflexive self-reference. In myths, humans not only render an account of themselves and their world, they testify to the power of language to make a world and to create gods. In rituals and sacred symbols, humans embody and reenact these comprehensive ideas of order, and every time sacred words and deeds are retold and represented, these primal interpretations are interpreted and criticized yet again.
Quite apart from the metadiscourse about religion—explicit reflexivity—that has developed in the great religious traditions in the form of systematic theology, religious history, and textual hermeneutics, every religious system is implicitly reflexive. The communication of the highest truths and the most sacred order of things is invariably accompanied by the subversive self-commentary of aporiae (liminal disorder in such diverse forms as Ndembu monsters, Sinhala demons, Zen koan s, Pueblo clowns, Midrash tales, and Christ's parables). Such ambiguous and paradoxical elements generate reflexive processes that redirect thoughtful attention to the faulty or limited structures not only of thought, language, and society but of religion itself (cf. Colie, 1966, p. 7).
In addition to this ineluctable reflexivity of religion's collective representations and plural expressions, many singular religious practices are explicitly reflexive. Contemplation, meditation, prayer, and confession all have in common a withdrawal from the world and a bending back toward the self. Frequently, the reflexive character of such practices is marked by their literal or figurative association with mirrors, with specula, reminding us not only that mirrors reflect the essence of things and are crucial to the achievement of identity (Fernandez, 1980, pp. 34–35) but that "as in mirror images, self-reference begins an endless oscillation between the thing itself and the thing reflected, begins an infinite regress [or progress]" (Colie, 1966, p. 355). Such mirroring frequently occurs as well in language itself, for careful analysis of sacred discourse reveals a markedly higher proportion of metalinguistic verbs in contrast to everyday speech.
In sum, reflexivity is not a consequence of social complexity or the degree of religious articulateness; it is an essential and inevitable dimension of all religious experience. The power of religious consciousness that humans keep trying to explain is probably not its prescriptive, descriptive, or explanatory force but its reflexiveness—religion offers a system of interpretation of existence that is itself subject to interpretation, and that is infinitely compelling.
Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind, vol. 1, Thinking. New York, 1978. Arendt's final work is a rich, challenging analysis of humanity's mental activity; it brings together and reflects upon the major insights of the Western philosophical tradition into the nature of thought and its reflexive and dialogic structure.
Babcock, Barbara A., ed. Signs about Signs: The Semiotics of Self-Reference. Special issue of Semiotica 30 (1980). An interdisciplinary collection of essays that examine reflexive forms and processes in a variety of genres and cultural traditions, with an introduction that summarizes the meanings and uses of reflexivity.
Bateson, Gregory. "A Theory of Play and Fantasy." In Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York, 1972. This seminal formulation of the paradoxical metacommunicative or reflexive frame essential to all forms of play has inspired much subsequent work on metacommunication and framing, notably Erving Goffman's Frame Analysis (New York, 1974).
Colie, Rosalie Littell. Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox. Princeton, 1966. This stunning and comprehensive study of paradox is especially important for illuminating both the reflexive self-reference of paradoxes and the paradoxical nature of self-referential operations.
Fernandez, James W. "Reflections on Looking into Mirrors." Signs about Signs, special issue of Semiotica 30 (1980): 27–40. An especially important discussion of the African use of mirrors and a speculation on the ritual and symbolic significance of this magical object cross-culturally.
Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York, 1973. A selection of this interpretive anthropologist's most important essays on the concept of culture, which are notable for their analysis of cultural systems, institutions, symbols, and performances as reflexive forms and processes.
Hofstadter, Douglas R. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York, 1979.
Hofstadter, Douglas R., and Daniel C. Dennett. The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul. New York, 1981. Like Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, this is an important and unconventional meditation on the paradoxical and reflexive nature of thought processes and on the problem of self and self-consciousness.
Mead, George Herbert. Mind, Self, and Society (1934). Edited by Charles W. Morris. Reprint, Chicago, 1963. This edition of Mead's lectures presents the outlines of his system of social psychology and his classic formulation of the self as reflexive, as a social construct.
Natanson, Maurice. Phenomenology, Role, and Reason: Essays on the Coherence and Deformation of Social Reality. Springfield, Ill., 1974. (Cited in text as Natanson, 1974a.) This book and Natanson's article cited below are summaries of the major issues in social phenomenology, including the central conception of reflexivity.
Natanson, Maurice. "Solipsism and Sociality." New Literary History 5 (1974): 237–244. (Cited in text as Natanson, 1974b.)
Nozick, Robert. Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge, Mass., 1981. This speculation on philosophical issues contains a superb chapter, "The Identity of the Self," and the best single, summary discussion available of reflexivity.
Singer, Milton. "Signs of the Self: An Exploration in Semiotic Anthropology." American Anthropologist 82 (September 1980): 485–507. The single most important discussion of Peirce's conception of the self as semiotic and reflexive.
Turner, Victor. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca, N.Y., 1974. This collection contains several essays that summarize Turner's view of liminality and liminal symbols and their implicit reflexivity.
Turner, Victor. Process, Performance, and Pilgrimage: A Study in Comparative Symbology. New Delhi, 1979. Contains several essays that extend the notion of liminality beyond tribal ritual and examine the public and plural reflexivity of cultural performances.
Turner, Victor. "Dramatic Ritual/Ritual Drama: Performative and Reflexive Anthropology." In A Crack in the Mirror: Reflexive Perspectives in Anthropology, edited by Jay Ruby, pp. 83–98. Philadelphia, 1982.
Turner, Victor. "Liminality and the Performative Genres." In Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle: Rehearsals toward a Theory of Cultural Performance, edited by John J. MacAloon, pp. 19–41. Philadelphia, 1984. Like Turner's "Dramatic Ritual/Ritual Drama," this essay expands upon the concepts of liminality and reflexivity and examines a variety of genres of cultural performance as instances of and occasions for metasocial commentary, for public and plural reflexivity.
Turner, Victor, ed. Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual. Washington, D.C., 1982. An interdisciplinary collection of essays that explore the reflexivity of human celebrations through the medium of ceremonial objects.
Adams, Matthew. "The Reflexive Self and Culture: A Critique." British Journal of Sociology 54 (June 2003): 221–239.
Gumperz, John, and Stephen Levinson. Rethinking Linguistic Relativity. New York, 1996.
Kripal, Jeffrey John. Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism. Chicago, 2001.
Lockie, Robert. "Relativism and Reflexivity." International Journal of Philosophical Studies 11 (Sept. 2003): 319–340.
Schirato, Tony. "Bourdieu's Concept of Reflexivity as Metaliteracy." Cultural Studies 17 (May 2003): 539–554.
Smart, Barry. Facing Modernity: Ambivalence, Reflexivity, and Morality. Thousand Oaks, Calif., 1999.
Barbara A. Babcock (1987)
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 (1906–1989), Luigi Pirandello's (1867–1936) Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), or Dziga Vertov's (1896–1954) 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 positionality—that 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" anthropologists—anthropologists 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.
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.
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): 409–440.
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 professionals—social scientists among them—audit, 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-Pritchard’s 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 researcher’s 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.
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