Reflexivity, Positionality, Shifting Subjectivities & Situated Knowledges (Some Background, Perspectives & Historical Context)
Reflexivity can be understood as the constant awareness and assessment of an anthropologist regarding his or her own contribution and influence on research and the consequent findings. Philip Carl Salzman provides a brief recent history of reflexivity in his critique of the concept. According to Salzman (2002), the concept of reflexivity began developing in the 1960s and 1970s, and became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, when reflexivity began to be widely accepted and was frequently evident in the works of anthropologists. The value of reflexivity in anthropology has become widely accepted in the past two decades. Robertson (2002) also notes that reflexivity is now commonplace.
Bob Scholte, in Toward a Reflexive and Critical Anthropology, argues for the use of reflexivity on the basis that anthropology is never only scientific, but always has presuppositions regarding culture. He argues that we must subject scientific traditions to “further reflexive understanding, hermeneutic mediation, and philosophical critique.” (Scholte 1972:431) Scholte (1972) also saw reflexivity as part of a paradigm shift: from a scientific to interpretive approach, from objectivist to relativist, and from value neutrality to normative interests.
A number of researchers claim that reflexivity allows better research. In her classic ethnography, Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family, Jean Briggs (1970), argues that observing and thinking about her own feelings, assumptions, personality, and actions have been invaluable sources of data. Salzman (2002) agrees with Briggs, in that reflexively considering ones own feelings and reactions will give impressions and ideas about the happenings in the societies being studied. Renato Rosaldo (2000), in his work on grief in headhunting societies notes that reflexivity provides insight into emotions that are not available by observations or other means. In addition to the benefits of reflexivity in research, it also has benefits for the listener or reader. Salzman (2002) has pointed out that reflexivity provides the listener or reader of ethnographic reports with the necessary information for assessing their validity: the reader can see the angle and viewpoints from which the research was conducted.
Ways of knowing: Objectivity, Subjectivities, Positionality…Some Definitions.
(Skip to “Shifting Subjectivities & Situated Knowledges” if you already know all this.)
Objectivism is the philosophical doctrine that knowledge is reliably based on observations of an objective, external reality. Empiricism is simply the doctrine that knowledge is derived from sensory experience. Realism is the doctrine that the existence of objects perceived in the external world is independent of one’s perception of these objects. Positivism is a form of empiricism, in which all knowledge should be based on perceptual experience rather than intuition or revelation. In terms of language, for objectivists/modernists, language is simply a system for transmitting real knowledge about the external word (Baker 1990).
Douglas Kellner (1999), in summarizing the debates between modern and postmodern theory, has described postmodernism as challenging the modern conceptions of society, history, and politics, and as advocating new approaches, discourses and practices. He describes postmodern as contested terrain, or as ‘a force-field of struggle between those who would define and occupy it, and those who would discredit or demolish it.’ (Kellner 1999:639) Kellner (1999) and Salzman (2004) describe postmodern theory as dedicated to such concepts as epistemological relativism, perspectivism, positionality, subjectivity, and moral and political commitment. Baker (1990) in his discussion of postmodernist epistemology and the postmodern condition also mentions one other consideration in terms of epistemology: the relationship between language and knowledge.
Epistemology is the study the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge, and as such, epistemological relativism indicates the belief that knowledge is relative, and as such, there can be no absolute truth. Adherents to epistemological relativism hold that there is no one universal truth that can be known objectively as inherent in some external world, but rather, truth is relative.
One other aspect of epistemology is postmodern theory is the relationship between language and knowledge. Baker (1990) discusses the place of rhetoric in postmodern theory, stating that in the postmodern perspective, language determines knowledge. Language is not seen for many postmodernists as symbols that convey an exterior truth, but rather that the origins of knowledge can be found in acts of naming by humans. In this way social reality is thus seen as constructed by humans symbolically (Baker 1990). Baker states, “Therefore humans enact or construct truth rhetorically through persuasive symbolic action at the individual, social, and cultural levels, both in the moment and across epochs” (Baker 1990: 233).
Perspectivism is related to epistemological relativism, and can be traced back to Nietzsche. Briefly, perspectivism is the doctrine that there is no one absolute truth, and reality is best known through as many perspectives, or points of view as possible.
Shifting Subjectivities & Situated Knowledges
Positionality is the practice of a writer or theorist delineating his or her own position in relation to the study, with the implication that this position may influence aspects of the study, such as the types of information collected, or the way in which it is interpreted. Positionality has been criticized as using general characteristics, such as gender, religion, class, or race—characteristics that may or may not say much about the actual perspective of any particular individual (Salzman 2002). Others argue for the usefulness of positionality. For example, Robertson, though she is critical of positionality as generic fixed categories, or as “ready to wear” products of identity politics (2002:788), also states that:
“Family history, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, and religion, among other distinctions, can be usefully woven into an ethnographic narrative, but only if they are not left self-evident as essentialized qualities that are magically synonymous with self-consciousness, or, for that matter, with intellectual engagement and theoretical rigour. Their usefulness must be articulated and demonstrated because such distinctions are not fixed points but emerge and shift in the contiguous processes of doing and writing about fieldwork.” (Robertson 2002: 790)
In other words, then, positionality is only useful if one’s position is reflected upon, and articulated with respect to its influence in terms of fieldwork.
Feminist scholarship builds on the debate about positionality and the usefulness of using fixed, essentialized markers to delineate how one’s position influences the production of knowledge. I find Donna Haraway’s “politics and epistemology of locations” particularly useful (1991:195). Diane Wolf has the clearest and most concise summary of this that I have ever read, so I won’t bother to paraphrase:
This politics and epistemology is based on situating, location, and positioning, “where partiality and not universality” is the basis for knowledge claims. “Situated knowledges” are “marked knowledges” that produce “maps of consciousness” reflecting the various categories of gender, class, race, and nationality of the researcher (Haraway, 1991:111). They reflect our locationality (historical, national, generational) and positionality (race, gender, class, nationality, sexuality), acknowledging how the dynamics of where we are always affects our viewpoint and the production of knowledge without privileging one particular position over another…Our positionality is not fixed, but relational, a “constantly moving context that constitutes our reality and the place from which values are interpreted and constructed” (Geiger, 1990, 171).
“Feminist objectivity is about limited location and situated knowledge” (Haraway 1991: 188), which allows for a multiplicity of viewpoints. This perspective not only allows and encourages feminist researchers to bring their own particular location and position into the research, but makes it imperative for them to do so before any discussion of another’s reality can be introduced (see Bhavnani, 1991:97-98). This approach goes beyond…and encourages us to think in terms of multiple perspectives and mobile subjectivities, of forging collaborations and alliances and juxtaposing different viewpoints. (Wolf 1996, 14-15)