This is part of a blog series I am writing called Everyday Anthropology. The goal of this series is to introduce concepts of anthropology that can be seen in everyday life, in a way that a wide audience of readers can understand and relate to. Let’s dive right in! Hope you enjoy.
If reflexivity were an object, it would be a mirror.
The idea behind reflexivity is that the researcher (in this case, the anthropologist) should reflect on their identity and the role that this identity plays in the society that they are researching within. In other words, research in anthropology is not just about observing others, but also yourself.
Reflexivity involves examining your relationships with informants; the people who give you the data and insights you need for your research. It also involves taking into consideration the traits that you have, and how these traits shape the way others may see you. Some traits that anthropologists may consider when reflecting on themselves include gender identity, sexual identity, race, socioeconomic status, level of education, religious affiliation, family background and nationality. Anthropologists know that each of these characteristics has different meaning depending on social context. Social context is the setting of each social situation—who is there, where they are, what they believe and how they interact.
Reflexivity is especially important when it comes to raising awareness of power dynamics. For example, research participants may view a researcher with a certain level of authority because of the researcher’s educational background or employment with organizations like a university or the government. Because they view the researcher as an authority figure, participants may not want to reveal certain information that they think could get them in trouble. Even if the researcher assures participants that the information given will be kept confidential, the fear of being exposed may still be there. I think it is safe to say that this fear is not necessarily unreasonable or unfounded. Promises of confidentiality have been broken before in devastating ways. Being reflexive is one way that anthropologists can try to better understand and respect the participants they are doing research with.
Reflexivity is also an important part of knowing one’s biases. Researchers may hold certain prejudices or assumptions about the topic they are researching because of their personal background. These biases can unconsciously shape the types of observation the researcher makes and the questions they ask participants, which in turn changes the research outcomes. Anthropologists can practice reflexivity by recording and then questioning their immediate reactions to events and information. If your immediate reaction to observing something is disgust, why? If hearing a certain story from a participant makes you smile, why? These types of simple questions can help reveal biases in research.
This is not to say that anthropologists must take on a completely objective way of researching and writing. In fact, part of being reflexive is acknowledging that it is almost impossible to be 100% objective in every aspect of research. Explaining your own role in the research you do paints a more complete picture of the topic you are researching and the circumstances that surround that topic.
So how does reflexivity relate to the “everyday?”
Reflexivity is basically self-reflection applied to research.
People practice a form of reflexivity in their everyday when they reflect on how their actions or traits may be viewed by other people. This is usually done on an individual to individual basis.
You can take the idea of reflexivity a step further by considering your potential role in the bigger society that you live in. This may not be a pleasant experience. Realizing that the way others see you could be based in a larger system of inequality or bias is not comfortable, whether your position gives you an advantage or not. For people who are generally viewed or treated as higher members of a society, this could be called “checking your privilege”.
But I believe the more we are aware of ourselves and our relationship to the culture or society we live in, the more we can seek to change things for the better. This doesn’t mean that we must let go of the idea of ourselves and others as individuals. Instead, we can recognize the way individuals’ experiences are shaped by the labels that societies put on them, for better or for worse.