Reflexivity in Ethnographic Research and Writing

Reflexivity in Ethnographic Research and Writing

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Reflexivity in Ethnographic Research and Writing


The role of reflexivity in ethnographic research and writing has certain advantages and limits, as it gives the discipline of anthropology another form of interpreting ethnographies. Reflexivity, in terms of work of anthropology, is to insist that anthropologists systematically and rigorously reveal their methodology and themselves as the instrument of data generation. It is the self-consciousness or the work's ability to see itself as a work. There are various styles of reflexivity in ethnographic writing and Dorinne Kondo, Renato Rosaldo, and George Marcus are three anthropologists that influenced the role of reflexivity through their ethnographies.

George Marcus describes reflexivity as the “self-critique, the personal quest, playing on the subjective, the experiential, and the idea of empathy” (Marcus 193). In Ethnography through thick and thin, Marcus writes that the emergence of the different styles of reflexivity in ethnographic writing has come to stand for the influence of postmodernism. In brief, according to the Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology (1996), post-modernism is defined as an eclectic movement, originating in aesthetics- architecture and philosophy. Postmodernism espouses a systematic skepticism of grounded theoretical perspective. It concentrates on the tensions of difference and similarity erupting from the globalization processes: circulation via people, cross-cultural interaction, interaction of local and global knowledge. Postmodernism manifests historical perspective of modernism and modernity.

Reflexivity emphasizes the point of theoretical and practical questioning, changing the ethnographers view of themselves and their work. There is an increased awareness of the collection of data and the limitation of methodological systems. This idea becomes inherent in the postmodernists study of the culture of the anthropologist/ethnographer. In much of his essay, Marcus shows that reflexivity is an immense area of comment and interest by questioning: Is reflexivity a license or a method? Furthermore, he writes that reflexivity opens up “the possibility for the so-called polyphonic text or the completely collaborative project, but more often than not, it merely reinforces the perspective and voice of the lone, introspective fieldworker without challenging the paradigm of ethnographic research at all (Marcus 193).

Marcus categorizes reflexivity into three parts: feminist, sociological, and anthropological. Although all are important in understanding Marcus’ work, I will discuss the anthropological reflexivity. Marcus believes that the most interesting form of self-critical reflexivity in anthropology is one that “emphasizes the intertextual or diverse fields of representation that any contemporary project of ethnography enters and crosses in order to establish its own subject and to define its own voice” (Marcus 196).

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This “revision” of ethnography changes the understanding of what “traditional” ethnography is all about because in the past, ethnography dealt with discovery or explaining (is description) a specific group of people who have never been studied before. Marcus explains that “restudying such groups has not been the norm in anthropology, and the full matrix of existing representations within which an ethnographer produces his own text has always been downplayed” (Marcus 196). In traditional anthropology, it has always persisted as the “one tribe, one ethnographer” ideology in which it was a clear, sensitive etiquette about not working on another anthropologist’s people. It was an anthropological rule not to interfere or operate with another anthropologist’s group of people.

The “revision” of ethnography which goes against the old form depends on not being the “first account, on not discovering, but it remakes, re-presents, other representation. It depends on preexisting, more conventional narrative treatments and is parasitic on them. Marcus adds that such ethnography is a comment on, a remaking of, a more standard, realist account” (Marcus 197). I think that this approach is much more “efficient” although others might argue against this claim, because it acknowledges the fact that mistakes could have been made in previous ethnographies. By re-studying the same culture or a group of people, a different anthropologist is able to obtain more valuable information about a culture that was previously studied and can explain certain explanations interpreted by the previous anthropologist through different contexts. I believe that this unconventional form of anthropology greatly influences the discipline as it “forgoes the nostalgic idea that there are literally unknown worlds to be discovered. Rather, in full, reflexive awareness of the historical connections that already link it to its subject matter, it makes historically sensitive revisions of the ethnographic archive while remaining conscious of the complex ways that diverse representations have constituted its subject matter. Such representations indeed become an integral part of modernist fieldwork” (Marcus 197).

Another anthropologist that used the role of reflexivity in their ethnography is Dorinne Kondo. Kondo explains that “an anthropologist’s experience in the field is conditioned by her/his culturally and biographically mediated way of seeing one’s distance from one’s informants and the inevitable prejudices forming one’s baggage of cultural assumptions” (Kondo 74). I think it is important for the anthropological field that Kondo wrote this ethnography because she acknowledges the fact that in an ethnography, one’s assumptions can arise from experiences as a particular individual from a particular society and thus, inevitably enter into one’s interpretations. As a Japanese American young woman doing fieldwork in Japan, Kondo writes that the “other” was not totally “other” for her. Because she looked Japanese and the notion that Japanese have of foreigners (usually not very open to strangers), Kondo felt it necessary to blend in and to avoid being unmasked as a foreigner.

Kondo definitely felt the advantage of being a “Japanese” American and thus saw it to her advantage in this particular ethnography. She writes, “during my stay with the Sakamotos, I did my best to conform to what I thought their expectations of a daughter might be. This in turn seemed to please them and reinforced my tendency toward behaving in terms of and identifying with, my Japanese role” (Kondo 77). Later, the family told Kondo that she would never have allowed a “true American” to live with them because someone who is only Japanese descent is able to adjust to the Japanese style of living.

I, too, believe that there is some advantage for someone like Kondo who is ethnically Japanese to learn about the culture and write an ethnography through reflexivity. She is able to distinguish between what is being said and what is really meant by when an informant is giving information to an anthropologist. I find it problematic for an anthropologist to mislead the audience by misinterpreting what is really meant by what is said, then stating it as the absolute truth. Kondo, through reflexivity, has the advantage over the rest of the discipline in writing an ethnography of this form. However, there are some disadvantages also because there may be biases in her ethnography due to assumptions from being a part of that culture.

Renato Rosaldo also uses the role of reflexivity in explaining why Ilongot men cuts off human heads in Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Originally, he went to Philippines as an outsider trying to learn the culture of Northern Luzon in which the people cut off human heads because “rage, born of grief, impels him to kill his fellow human beings” (Rosaldo 1). Because this ideology is not universal throughout the world, Rosaldo was interested in understanding why the Ilongot’s did this. Although the Ilongot men claim to cut off human heads because they need a place to carry their anger, Rosaldo was unable to reflect their response to anything he knew since killing human is not an accepted behavior in many other societies. Thus, his initial claim for the rage in headhunting was explained as something you understand it or you don’t and for a long time, Rosaldo admits that he did not understand.

As mentioned above, one of the main reasons why Rosaldo was unable to understand the concept of headhunting was because he could not relate their reasons to any other culture. In fact, he thought that their “one-line” accounts were “too simple, think, opaque, implausible, stereotypical or otherwise unsatisfying” (Rosaldo 3). He acknowledges the fact that it was probably his fault for naively equating grief with sadness. It was his own “inability to conceive the force of anger in grief that led him to seek out another level of analysis that could provide a deeper explanation for older men’s desire to headhunt” (Rosaldo 3). Although he knew that there needed to be more verbal elaboration or another analytical level that could better explain older men’s motives for headhunting, it was not until the death of his wife, Michelle Rosaldo, that he grasped what was meant precisely when the Ilongot men described the anger in bereavement as the source of their desire to cut off human heads. He was able to understand the “deeper” explanation of headhunting, a means of coping with grief or a way of venting his wrath to lessen his grief.

Rosaldo feels that good ethnographers have their limits, and their analyses are always incomplete. He believes that one should “recognize that ethnographic knowledge tends to have the strengths and limitations given by the relative youth of field-workers who, for the most part, have not suffered serious losses and could have, for example, no personal knowledge of how devastating the loss of a long-term partner can be for the survivor. Although I feel that in one sense Rosaldo is absolutely right in that one needs some experience to analyze certain situations to understand the reasons for a particular action. However, this certainly does not mean that an anthropologist can say that he/she is able to fully understand the meaning of another cultures practice such as headhunting. An ethnographer may understand the feelings that one goes through by experience but this does not necessarily give the power to state that he/she fully understands a culture’s ritual.
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