The Role of Reflexivity in Ethnography

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The Role of Reflexivity in Ethnography

Reflexivity, as I understand it, is very well named.It is the practice of reflecting upon oneself and one’s work, of being self-aware and self-critical. In anthropology, it is well exemplified by the work of Renato Rosaldo, Ruth Behar, and Dorinne Kondo, among others. In its most obvious form (or at least the form most obvious to me), reflexivity is manifest in the practice of an ethnographer including herself in her own ethnographic research---seeing herself not as an “unbiased, impartial” (Malinowski 18) observer, but as an essential and un-removable part of her study. The effect of reflexivity on ethnographic writing has been, however, much broader than just that. It signals “a departure from the ideology of objectivity [and] distance” which for so long pervaded ethnography (Marcus 189). For those who choose to employ it, reflexivity offers the (often daunting) liberty of not presuming to have all the answers. While this obviously presents logistical problems for anthropology (such as: If we can’t ever come to an answer, then what’s the point?), reflexivity has had a hand in producing some of the most compelling, unassuming texts that I’ve read.

Anthropology is, in my opinion, not a science.It’s simply not that static. Culture is not something that can be understood the way one can understand gravity or electricity.It is open for interpretation, open for many different interpretations, and I like it that way. I’m immediately turned off by an ethnographer who claims to know the truth about his subject: frankly, I don’t believe it. And even if something is “true” for a given culture at a given time, who’s to say it won’t have completely changed in five years? I think that formulating a...

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...e only one, and that no one ethnographer can prove that they’ve “gotten” a culture any more than any one else (197).

Again, this brings me back to the “then what’s the point?” problem. In my opinion, what we need are more interpretations of cultures. In that case, there is even more of a need for the work that we do as ethnographers. The “point” is actually larger now than it was before. How much would critical thinking be facilitated if we had something compare with and be critical about? Any interpretation of culture is worth looking at because, since a human thought it up, it’s within our realm of study. As Rosaldo writes, “the truth of objectivism---absolute, universal, and timeless--- has lost its monopoly status” (21). The goal now is to find a reflexive, self-critical medium between objectivism and self-indulgence. I feel like we might actually get there.

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