Use of Reflexivity in Ethnographic Research


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Use of Reflexivity in Ethnographic Research
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The use of reflexivity in ethnographic research and writing is used to insist that the anthropologist has systematically and rigorously revealed their methodology and their self as the instrument of data collection and generation. Reflexivity can play a variety of roles in ethnographic writings as observed in the works of Renato Rosaldo, Dorinne Kondo, and Ruth Behar. These three anthropologists all use reflexivity in different ways to convey their findings and feelings. The three works, however, also point out the advantages and the limits of ethnographic reflexivity.

Renato Rosaldo in his article “Grief and a Headhunters Rage” uses ethnographic reflexivity to show how in the beginning of his fieldwork he “was not yet in a position to comprehend the force of anger possible in bereavement” (Rosaldo, 7) and that it wasn’t until fourteen years later when he experienced the loss of his wife that he could comprehend what the Ilongots had told him about grief, rage, and headhunting. Rosaldo then writes “I began to fathom the force of what Ilongots had been telling me about their losses through my own loss, and not through any systematic preparation for field research” (Rosaldo, 8). Renato Rosaldo’s own experiences had helped him to understand and empathize with the Ilongots, who fourteen years earlier, he was not able to understand that the Ilongot’s statement that “Rage, born of grief, impels him to kill his fellow human beings.” (Rosaldo, 1)Rosaldo’s writings point out that having similar experiences allows the anthropologist to understand and empathize with the people they are studying. This comprehension on the anthropologist’s behalf allows for easier accessibility and transcription to the general public. Shared experiences, however, allow for more biases and interpretations to seep into the anthropologist’s writing. It is more likely that the anthropologist will use his or her own experiences and interpretations when writing on the culture. Renato Rosaldo addresses this issue when he writes, “by invoking personal experience as an analytical category one risks easy dismissal” (Rosaldo, 11).

In the article “Dissolution and Reconstitution of Self: Implications for Anthropological Epistemology”, Dorinne Kondo uses ethnographic reflexivity to discuss her research in Japan, being a Japanese-American, and the expectations of being Japanese. Dorinne Kondo was torn between the American culture she was accustomed to and the Japanese culture she was studying and tried to associate with.

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Kondo writes “As anthropologist, I was there to “study” these people, and yet I was also a young woman in a relationship of dependency. Wanting to participate in “real” Japanese life, and having certain fore understandings and predictions that could be attributed to socialization as a Japanese American.” (Kondo, 79) Kondo then writes “My informants, at this stage, were able to force me into their own definition of Japaneseness. In a sense, I was their text, to write in Japanese by erasing all traces of Americanness.” (Kondo, 79) The fragmentation of the self was caused by Dorinne Kondo’s own participation and by the actions of her informants. Kondo effectively uses ethnographic reflexivity to show her convergence into the Japanese culture and then the attempted loss of her American culture, resulting in the fragmentation of self and the confusion of identity. Kondo’s submersion into her fieldwork caused her to question herself and step back from her fieldwork. By stepping back she was able to reflect upon her own experiences and her informant’s experiences. Dorinne Kondo’s distancing from the Japanese culture allowed her to gain her composure and gain a greater understanding of the culture. The closing sentences of “Dissolution and Reconstitution of Self…” sum up Kondo’s writings and make a poignant statement. Dorinne Kondo writes “To merely observe the Other as exotic specimen, or equally unacceptable, to see the Other as a clone of the Self, is the worst sort of projection. Instead we must constantly aim for a critical awareness of our assumptions and those of our informants, to trace the parameters, the limits, and the possibilities of our located understandings. To do otherwise would be to gaze in fascination at our own reflected image, only to mistake it for the face of the Other.” (Kondo, 86)

In contrast to Renato Rosaldo and Dorinne Kondo, Ruth Behar in the article “The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart” uses ethnographic reflexivity to recount a day at a meeting of the American Ethnological Society. Ruth Behar states that she is at the meeting to “defend the kind of anthropology that matters to me” (Behar, 161) What matters to Behar is that “Latina/Latino anthropologists are highly visible in the program.” (Behar, 162) Behar also addresses the importance of Renato Rosaldo’s reflexive work in “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage.” Renato Rosaldo’s work and the death of Michelle Rosaldo had an impact in Ruth Behar, and so Behar’s writing points out the influence Rosaldo had. Ruth Behar uses her won writing and personal accounts to show the good aspects of ethnological reflexivity and it’s importance in the anthropological field. Behar writes about reflexivity as “I think what we are seeing are efforts to map an intermediate space we can’t quite define yet, a borderland between passion and intellect, analysis and subjectivity, ethnography and autobiography, art and life.” (Behar, 174) Behar writes from the heart, and in this aspect it makes anthropology more personable and thus more understandable. However, by making anthropology more personable it loses the wanted characteristic of a science—something so many anthropologists want and strive for.

Ethnological reflexivity is something needed in the field of anthropology. For so long anthropology was solely on the concept of the other and cultural differences. Reflexivity allows for the “Self as Other” and the “Other as Self” and allows for a larger spectrum of study that includes the anthropologist’s own voice. While reflexivity does involve interpretation and biases, doing ethnographic reflexivity has more benefits than drawbacks. It is nice to be in the field of anthropology when the anthropologist can actually be heard.


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