Saturday, October 19, 2002

Reflexivity and transparency

The anthropological turn to reflexivity drew attention to the writing of culture, or the contexts in which knowledge is produced. But qualitative methodology and academic publishing conventions still provide insufficient means to render this transparent. A classic example is the differences between Malinowski's famous (published) ethnographies on the Trobriand Islanders and his (until recently unpublished) field notes or diaries. In his personal writings, we find evidence of his biases and desires, including those of the ethnocentric variety that draw attention to relationships of power between subjects and objects in anthropological inquiry. Now, the question is if these views are relevant to his interpretation of the Trobrianders, or more generally, if it is relevant that a researcher holds particular opinions of, or commits particular actions in, the world (be they offensive or not). My immediate response is that of course it is relevant, but the challenge remains to explain how so.

If we read an ethnography - or any account - that presents a world and way of life as it really is, we are not given the opportunity to evaluate the contexts in which these conclusions emerged. Maybe we could start publishing field notes with all formal ethnographies, but that would surely undermine the researcher's claim to authority on a subject. We tend to want to keep our discomforts and uncertainties to ourselves - otherwise anybody could be an anthropologist.

One of my classmates once referred to blogs as "reified confessions," or a type of exhibitionism. But I tend to use my blog, and this site in general, as a way of keeping field-notes. I highly doubt that anyone reading my papers is interested in my taste in music or socio-political views, but maybe they should be ;) After all, my research - the production of "official" knowledge - takes place in these broader contexts. A small, but potentially interesting example, stems from my father's position that it is my privilege to have the time and means to ask, and attempt to answer, so many questions. The vast majority of people have no such luxury. But do I really exist in such a separate space? As much as I think they'd hate being reduced to such, my close friends have always been my ties to the "real world." Left to my own devices, I would pretty much exist in what I call head-space, or the place of mind. And a little self-awareness tells me that is not entirely good; I don't want to be a brain-in-a-vat. Long story short, I think this has something to do with my concerns over locating the body in the data.

So here is the record for myself, and anyone else who wants to know how I work through ideas - and how, or even if, I am able to carry them through to my embodied existence in the world. In part, this is a question of experiential or phenomenological knowledge: am I describing something abstract or tangible, and what difference does that make?

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