Reflexivity, in ethnography, has come to mean thinking carefully about who has done the research and how, under what conditions, how it was written, by whom, and what impact these might have on the value of the ethnography produced.
Prior to what has become known as ‘the reflexive turn’, ethnographers did their research without being self-critical, without thinking about their own role or their own impact, without reflecting on the various conditions under which the research was done (such as who was paying for it or who gave access to whom), and without taking much time to think about how to write up findings. It was if the ethnographer merely had to capture the, usually exotic, societies they studied, and then tell everyone else what they were like. It is still the same in much documentary film-making. We rarely get to see the photographer, the ways the sets were arranged, what happened before and after filming, how the film-maker decided what to put in and leave out, and so on. Yet few of us still believe ‘the camera never lies’.
The reflexive turn
‘The reflexive turn’ refers to a fairly dramatic change of perspective that occurred during the 1980s affecting many social sciences, especially social anthropology and its main method, ethnography. The ideas behind it came from philosophy and politics (including critical theory and feminism), and were also being debated and having their effect in other areas like textual criticism, cultural theory, and literary theory. To put it very simply (and crudely), the very nature of reality and how we can understand it as scientists came into question. Scholars were asking how we can know anything for sure when different scientists come up with different ideas. Many things we think we understand are not ever really seen, like atoms and gravity, so they rely on trust. Science is subject to fashions and fads. It relies heavily on the ability to predict the future based on the past, but that is nothing more than a mind game. Science appears to have failed in its promise to find answers to society’s problems.
The problem was seen to be even worse for social scientists because we are part of the world we study and thus can never truly be objective. The individuals we try to understand are not predictable; they have free will and can make choices, unlike natural phenomena. Everything we try to understand is filtered through personal experience and our own way of seeing the world. We always have to interpret what people mean when they tell us things, and we may get it entirely wrong. We are always in danger of being ethnocentric, of making sense of the world by relating it to what we already know and believe.
As a result of the reflexive turn, ethnographers began to look more critically at the ways in which ethnographic fieldwork had been (and was being) produced and written. They revealed that ethnographers had often been members of a colonial power studying those colonised, or were middle class people studying working class, or men trying to understand women. In many cases the relationship was an unequal one. But more than that, there was a tendency to portray the people being studied as somewhat exotic, backward or quaint. They studied the way ethnographies were written and noted how clever rhetorical devices were used to persuade the reader and that the ethnographies could indeed be seen as fiction rather than fact
One response to the reflexive turn has been the postmodern ethnography. This refuses to give power to the ethnographer and instead accepts and celebrates the complex, ambiguous, messy nature of the social world and of ethnographic research. Postmodern ethnography self-consciously abandons the attempt to provide a neat, ordered narrative account written with a single authoritative voice. Instead they experiment with layered accounts, poetry, film, dance and other performances, or other approaches such as autobiography. Their goal is to challenge the view that there is a reality that exists external to the way we think about and experience it. Have a look at the work of Carol Rambo for example.
I find the postmodern response exciting but somewhat defeatist. It is true that our relationship to our research has changed as a result of this intellectual movement and it is no longer possible to pretend we are not part of the world we study. However, this does not mean abandoning any sense that there is a real world we wish to learn about, and which our research participants live in, experience, feel constrained by, and help create. A less defeatist response has been to claim some authority for the academic ethnographer, while remembering that ethnographic studies are put together by human beings who make choices about what to research, interpret what they see and hear, decide what to write and how, and that they do all this in the context of their own personal biographies and often ensconced in scientific and disciplinary environments. Reflexive ethnographers think carefully about who has the power to say what about whom, and make sure that research participants (not subjects) have some influence or say over the research and how it is presented. They think carefully about what they write and read. They include some analysis of wider structures of power and control. They try to be honest about who has what influence over their work. They describe the context of the research and their place in that context, and perhaps provide some autobiographical details to help the reader understand their perspective better. They engage in conversations with research participants, rather than subjecting respondents to interviews. They learn from their own experiences, and build their analyses in interaction with the field, in an iterative-inductive way. Finally, they provide accounts that they realise are fragments, just part of a picture, fallible, and imperfect, (but still better than none). I discuss this more in my books on ethnography.