Reflexivity

Have you ever had one of those days where you were wondering what life is all about, what your life is all about? I have. I call it my reflexive mode. As you might know, reflection reports are a big part of my studies. Well, they were in my Bachelor’s anyway. Whenever we had a course on advising, working together, even while writing my Bachelor thesis: one part of the grade consisted of writing a reflection report. Never really knew what their use was. Until now that is. Yesterday we had the postmodern class on Reflexivity and Responsibility (look at our performance here).

So anyway, I think I know a bit more about reflexivity and what it is good for, so I would like to share this with you. I have told you before about the dominant approach to science, we called it post-positivist, which takes the basis for knowledge as taken for granted and something which does not need to be questioned (Bentz & Shapiro, 31). This is an ontological issue: you assume that what there is to know is evident. Postmodernism has a whole different view: it challenges that what there is to know is not so evident. I can hear you think: yes this sounds familiar by now, but what does this have to do with reflexivity? Well, if you are conscious about this basis of knowledge claims, you need to be explicit about the choice you make regarding these knowledge claims and therefore you need to be reflexive. If you don’t take for granted any more the basis of knowledge, you need to become your own philosopher, in a sense. When you commit to the reflexive mode, it means that you take responsibility for what is considered knowledge and why (Betnz & Shapiro, 33).

The reason Bentz and Shapiro argue for us to be a ‘mindful inquirer’, and the reason that positivism encounters problems, is that we are, at this point in time, at a historical turning point. This makes it necessary to be reflexive about the assumptions of knowledge, to be responsible. The taken-for-granted approach to inquiry is no longer valid in this turning-point and questions are raised.

For a long time, the ontological assumptions of positivism dominated the organizational sciences. However, lately there have been authors that adopt a more reflexive approach to organization and management research and theory (Such as Chia and Gergen). They all pay ample attention to reflexivity and the ontological underpinnings because these are central to a postmodern approach. Especially Chia has done a lot of work on this. I can give you an example of a reflexivity issue that he addresses. A while a go, we also had to write a paper using this meta-theorizing, for the course on Organization and Management. Well, what we did there was look at several authors and try to distil theit philosophical positions (either epistemological or ontological) from the texts they wrote. This meta-theorizing, taking a high viewpoint to discuss the assumptions of authors and then box them within some philosophical approach, is something that is highly problematic according to Chia. And with highly problematic he means: there is a paradox of reflexivity. The problem is that meta-theorists are reflecting on the position of others while they are not reflecting upon their own position, as if they were outside of this reflexivity issue. Is this possible? It assumes that others need to reflect upon their position because it influences how and what they make to be science, but that the meta-theorists themselves don’t have that problem. Indeed problematic I would say. Meta-theorists use these rhetorical strategies to maintain coherence and plausibility of their own theory-building. Chia calls this ontological gerrymandering: trying to view other theories from some higher viewpoint to meta-theorize them, thereby trying to escape from the question of reflexivity

All nice and well, but is there any way out of this paradox. It sounds like it is nearly impossible or at least very hard to do. Fortunately, Chia offers a solution for the confusion that you might be feeling right now. First of all you need to reconsider your ontological assumptions. The assumptions held by meta-theorists as described above, is called being-realism by Chia. It refers to a static and thingness reality that pre-exists to our inquiry. Another set of assumptions is becoming-realism, which gives primacy to a processual view of reality. By adopting this set of assumptions you will be able to take the paradox of reflexivity serious and engage in second-order reflexivity. Whereas first-order reflexivity only takes into account the reflexivity of the subjects, second-order reflexivity also takes into account the constructed nature of the research writing itself. According to Chia, it means writing a text in such a way that it is not believed too much. The best step to achieve this is to adopt the ontological assumptions of becoming-realism. Reality is in perpetual flux and transformation.

Well, I’d say that is enough for now, I also have to start preparing for my own research, the Master thesis track presentation is tomorrow! I might come back to this reflexivity issue later. But for now, let’s end with some ancient wisdom:

–Only wisdom achieved through critical reflection allows us to comprehend the one in the many –

Heraclitus


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2 Responses to Reflexivity

  1. Tom says:

    I like your ideas about reflexivity. Even understandable for someone who is not into postmodernism ;). I had one question though, what on earth do you mean by this historical turning point?

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