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Reflexivity - Reflexivity In Anthropology

press university reflexive writing

Although reflexivity appears somewhat later in anthropology than it does in sociology, its impact has been far greater. It became a central theoretical (and practical) concern during the mid-1980s in response to a distinctive conjunction of events both within and outside of the discipline, which problematized the production of ethnographic texts. Like sociological reflexivity, reflexivity in anthropology encompasses several distinct, identifiable but related styles.

The first of these, chronologically speaking, is associated with Victor Turner and his students, and focuses on the study of reflexive moments in social life. Turner was interested in the ways in which social action was accomplished through the manipulation of symbols. Reflexivity, in Turner's sense, refers to moments in which social actors become conscious of and can reflect upon social life in ritual and other cultural performances which are "reflexive in the sense of showing ourselves ourselves … arousing consciousness of ourselves as we see ourselves." (Myerhoff, p. 105; italics in original). Of greater influence within the discipline, however, have been styles of reflexivity, broadly associated postmodernism that reflect upon the disciplinary practices of anthropology.

The so-called reflexive turn in anthropology came as the outcome of three distinct disciplinary crises, beginning in the early 1970s. The first crisis came out of the recognition and subsequent critique of the discipline's complicity with structures of inequality wrought by European colonial expansion and its aftermath. These concerns were articulated in two publications of the period, Dell Hymes's collection Reinventing Anthropology in the United States and Talal Asad's Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter in Britain. Bob Scholte's contribution to the former (echoing Gouldner's call for a reflexive sociology) called for anthropologists to analyze the practice of ethnography as an instantiation of colonial power relations.

The second crisis was produced by the intersection of the feminist movement with anthropology. The feminist critique of the discipline's androcentric bias problematized the notion of the objective, neutral observer. The feminist intervention in particular led to an emphasis on positionality—that is, a reflexivity that is enacted through the explicit acknowledgment and theoreticization of the "situatedness and partiality of all claims to knowledge" (Marcus, p. 198) and the ethnographers position in relation to his or her interlocutors. This has been particularly important in the work of "halfie" anthropologists—anthropologists working in communities in which they have ambivalent claims of membership (or at least commonality).

The 1967 publication of Bronislaw Malinowski's field diaries (A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term) constituted a third disciplinary crisis insofar as they undermined the seeming transparency of the relationship between fieldwork practice and the production of ethnographic texts. In this spirit, a strain of ethnography more directly concerned with experiments in rhetorical styles emerged by the end of the 1970s. Three ethnographies in particular, Paul Rabinow's Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco, Vincent Crapanzano's Tuhami and Kevin Dwyer's Moroccan Dialogues utilized writing strategies that challenged the conventional distinction between subjective and objective styles of writing. These were followed by two 1986 collections, Michael Fisher and George Marcus's Anthropology as Cultural Critique and James Clifford and Marcus's Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, which focused attention on rhetorical strategies by which ethnographies produce their effects and called for a re-thinking of, and reflexive experimentation with writing strategies such as dialogue, pastiche, and memoir.

Reactions to the reflexive turn varied, even among its advocates. Marcus and Clifford, for example, were critical of the lack of formal experimentation in writings by feminist anthropologists. Feminist anthropologists, such as Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon, responded, accusing them of insufficient reflexivity regarding their positionality. Others in the discipline, such as Clifford Geertz and Nancy Scheper-Hughes, expressed the following concern: the fact that ethnographic authority is constructed through rhetorical strategies is, ultimately, of limited relevance to the anthropological project (Geertz), and too much attention to the politics of representation could lead to a sort of politico-ethical paralysis on the ground (Scheper-Hughes). By the 1990s, however, most elements of the reflexive critique had been incorporated into the mainstream of U.S. cultural anthropology. At minimum, this consisted of the convention of introducing ethnographic works with brief biographical statements, designed to lay out the ethnographer's personal history and stakes in his or her problem or subject. Other works incorporated reflexive concerns or strategies to broader ends, using them to interrogate the relationship between writing and theory or to problematize the role of ethnography in the construction of ethnographic subjects.


Asad, Talal, ed. Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1973.

Behar, Ruth, and Deborah Gordon, eds. Women Writing Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Clifford, James, and George E. Marcus, eds. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Crapanzano, Vincent. Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Dwyer, Kevin. Moroccan Dialogues: Anthropology in Question. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Press, 1999.

Fisher, Michael M. J., and George E. Marcus, eds. Anthropology as Cultural Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Geertz, Clifford. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Hymes, Dell, ed. Reinventing Anthropology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Marcus, George E. Ethnography through Thick and Thin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Myerhoff, Barbara. "Life History Among the Elderly." In The Cracked Mirror: Reflexive Perspectives in Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Myerhoff, Barbara, and Jay Ruby, eds. The Cracked Mirror: Reflexive Perspectives in Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Rabinow, Paul. Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. "The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology." Current Anthropology 36 (1995): 409–440.

Scholte, Bob. "Toward a Reflexive and Critical Anthropology." In Reinventing Anthropology, edited by Dell Hymes. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Heather Levi

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almost 9 years ago

Not all anthropologists have bought into the necessity or validity of reflexivity. Feel free to cite, as a contra-reflexivity voice, my paper: Salzman, Philip Carl, “On Reflexivity,” AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST 104(3):805-813, 2002.