Stepping Back: Reflexivity in the Field

Back in Klubi, Lake Sebu, after a full month. The sound of rain falling on leaves, the earth, and on our roof, is so sweet! I often take for granted small, yet profound details like this back in the city. (Personal Field Notes, 1 May 2013)

Often, we read (or made to read, as in the case of students) ethnographic writings as rigidly objective and ‘dry’ as sudoku boxes. We fight mouthful of yawns as big as the Niagara just to finish these ethnographies. They are spartan, martial in the writing style. In between lacunae of yawns, I ask why this damn book is making me drowsy: is it the writing style – bulleted, methodical, playing to the cadence of an invisible bugle? Is it the absence of people I can relate to? Is it because we are bombarded with alien and cold facts? Is it the all-knowing tone of the author? I am not sure. But there is one book, though, I read from beginning to end, with the gusto of a hungry hyena; the book beating with the tempo of an adventure novel. It was Bruce Knauft’s The Gebusi.

A conversation I had with Fr. Cabayao recently reminded me of this book, and made me reflect on what makes The Gebusi, spellbindingly readable. The subject matter was interesting, that’s one reason. But the other reason is that it resounds with the humanity not just of the Gebusi people of Papua New Guinea, but also of the writer-ethnographer, each page containing a part of Knauft himself, as if we the readers are with him in his thoughts. It was reflexive.

What does it mean to be reflexive in the study and writing of Anthropology? To begin a discussion on reflexivity, a definition is in order. But there are many definitions of the word ‘reflexivity’ being used in the social sciences and other disciplines, and that is one of the problems encountered by Michael Lynch in “Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge.”

An exploration of its etymological source may be a good starting point. Tabitha Ross[1], in a graduate essay wrote that “the word ‘reflexive’ comes from the Latin ‘reflexus’, meaning ‘bent back,’ which in turn comes from ‘reflectere’; ‘to reflect’.” She further adds:

Reflexivity requires reflection in terms of deep and extended thought, and it is implied that one is reflecting back upon the past. A mirror, pool or text reflect the world in shimmering images; reflexive study is typified by a concern with images and representations, the fluid and constructed nature of meaning, and whether one can really get beyond representations to an ultimate signified or truth. In grammar, reflexivity means having an identical subject and direct object (as in the phrase ‘she watched herself’), and reflexive study implies that focus is bent back upon the anthropologist and the production of anthropological knowledge, rather than a purely external ‘other’…Finally, adding yet another dimension to this hall of mirrors of meaning, reflex is an ‘immediate involuntary response’, suggesting that reflexivity is something inherent in human nature, and perhaps also, in this context, in anthropology.

Michael Lynch further classified several ‘reflexivities’[2] used in different disciplines:

  1. Mechanical Reflexivity.
‘A kind of recursive process that involves feedback (Lynch:27); a habitual, almost automatic response to stimuli, which nonetheless remains inclusive of the monitoring of action by self and other. Further categorized as
    1. Knee-jerk reflexivity
    2. Cybernetic loopiness
    3. Reflections ad infinitum
  2. Substantive Reflexivity.
Seen as emblematic of late modernity, substantive reflexivity involves a somewhat calculating monitoring of costs and risks as offset against perceived benefits. Such monitoring is said to be socially constructed and inter‐subjective (ibid:28).
    1. Systemic-reflexivity
    2. Reflexive social construction
  3. Methodological Reflexivity. Defined as ‘philosophical introspection, [and] an inward‐looking, sometimes confessional… examination of one’s own beliefs and assumptions’ (ibid:29), methodological reflexivity oscillates between self‐criticism and self‐ congratulation, and is commonly expressed as both a personal virtue.
    1. Philosophical self-reflection
    2. Methodological self-consciousness
    3. Methodological self-criticism
    4. Methodological self-congratulation
  4. Meta-theoretical Reflexivity. Reflection upon, or interrogation of, all those ‘taken for granted assumptions’ (ibid:30) that form the basis of academic practices of knowledge production. Such interrogation is made possible by a kind of intentional ‘detachment’ or ‘stepping back’, thereby gaining a critical perspective on the modes of thought through which we come to know the world and accept that knowledge as ‘true’.
    1. Reflexive obejctification
    2. Standpoint reflexivity
    3. Breaking frame
  5. Interpretative Reflexivity. As ‘a style of interpretation that imagines and identifies non‐obvious alternatives to habitual ways of thinking and acting’ (ibid:32), interpretative reflexivity is a project in hermeneutics. By investigating the limits of textual analysis, such reflexivity closely resembles ‘literary exegesis’ (ibid).
    1. Hermeneutic reflexivity
    2. Radical referential reflexivity
  6. Ethnomethodological Reflexivity. Described variously as ‘ubiquitous’, ‘unremarkable’, ‘essential’ and ‘uninteresting’, ethnomethodological reflexivity ‘alludes to the embodied practices through which persons singly and together, retrospectively and prospectively, produce account­able states of affairs’ (ibid:33). Where ethnomethodology is the study of all those social practices that create an ordered experience of the ‘everyday’, ethnomethodological reflexivity attempts a systematic analysis of ‘background understandings of the normal, but unstudied, operations of the ordinary society’ (ibid:34).

Being reflexive then, in Anthropology, means acknowledging one’s own subjectivity and the part the anthropologist plays in his or her work. For example, an anthropologist may study a culture and interpret their behaviors and customs. But as a reflexive anthropologist, they would also describe their own background and the way in which they interacted with the people they study. We have learned that anthropological knowledge is situated– your interpretation depends on whether you’re a native or outsider, your gender, race or national background, your personal involvement with the people you study, your political views, and so on. Reflexive anthropology means foregrounding the researcher and admitting that anthropology (or any knowledge) can never be completely objective.

This stepping back, as excellently exemplified by Bruce Knauft in writing about the Gebusi of Papua New Guinea, allows the anthropologist to check the contexts at play, both from within him/her and from outside – the community being studied and the other forces dynamically at play. In this way, through reflexive analysis, the anthropologist may be able to “reveal forgotten choices, expose hidden alternatives, lay bare epistemological limits and empower voices which had been subjugated by objective discourse” (ibid: 36).

One such example of this stepping back is the entry narrative at the beginning of most ethnographies. In the Gebusi, Knauft narrated the gift-giving encounter (of plaintains) and how he was accepted in the Gebusi tribe. He also narrated and explained the concept of kogwayay.  Most importantly he also stepped back from the ongoing moment, and confessed how he felt – anxious, nervous, and narrating how tiring and arduous the long trek was. Instead of the ‘old’ entry narratives in which the ethnographer describes how he came to the place, what are the houses made of, what are the arrangements, etc., in the Gebusi, there was a sense of ‘how did I feel?’ It was a methodological reflexivity, a confession, a criticism that is palpable in the words. The particular entry narrative in Gebusi was, all at the same time, personal, self‐absorbed, melodramatic, self‐pitying, self‐congratulatory and self‐ transforming.

Reflexive writing also confesses the flaws and the limits of the ethnographer, and as such, of anthropology. As being there but not entirely them, the anthropologist who cannot fully be one of the people he or she is studying needs to admit where he or she is coming from; prejudices, biases, ideologies cannot be fully tamed in objectivity. Joseph Webster[3] writes that “by ‘lifting the veil’, anthropology seeks to reinforce its own authority by making certain truth claims about its practice: “Look, I’m not a fake; I know what I know because I was there – I saw these things, and spoke to these people, and I’ve already admitted I made a few mistakes, but look, what I’ve told you is basically sound”. So goes the avowal of the methodologically reflexive anthropologist.” (Webster: 69)

Reflexivity in anthropology allows for a critical bridge between the study of anthropology and its application to development works. Through reflexive analysis, the anthropologist who is there but also here, has the bi-focal vision that allows for a wider appreciation of issues and struggles affecting his or her traditional research partners. This dual vision and the “intersubjective context of the fieldwork”[4] also focuses attention to the discourse of ‘development’ where the Indigenous Community stands in the middle of oftentimes opposing notions. The anthropologist, reflecting on the two worlds he or she inhabits has the vantage point.  Ross asserted that “reflexivity turns attention upon anthropology and upon development and says: know thyself.” (7)

Webster, in concluding his article, defended the reflexive approach of anthropology:

Reflexivity is not about self‐reflection or self‐awareness, or about role distance, or about introspection, or about confession, nor is it about a social awareness of the everyday functioning of “ethno‐methods”. In sum, reflexivity is not a ‘sense of honour’ to be defended, but a ‘principle of practice’ to be deployed – not a moral principle based on virtue, or an essentialised principle based on unavoidability, but a principle of practice based on the historically contingent nature of knowledge production. (75)

My initial quote, from my field notes among the T’boli S’bu of Lake Sebu, is also an attempt at this stepping back. Although lacking the poetry and wit of Knauft, it is still a stepping back from the initial shock of the ‘entry’, and a retreat to the background of consciousness. From among the shadows and lights of this background, we try to collect ourselves, to check where we stand, to nudge our heads to look at another direction. For are not backgrounds and contexts the steel frames upon which to build the canvass of ethnographies?




Joseph Webster. “Establishing the ‘Truth of the Matter: Confessional Reflexivity as Introspection and Avowal,” Psychology & Society 1, no. 1 (2008): 65-76.

Michael Lynch. “Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge,” Theory, Culture & Society 17, no. 3 (2000): 27-34.

Peter Hervik. “Shared Reasoning in the Field: Reflexivity beyond the Author,” In Eristen Hastrup and Peter Hervik (Eds.), Social Experience and Anthropological Knowledge, London: Routledge (1994): 59-75.

Tabitha Ross. Restudy and Reflexivity in Anthropology and Development. Accessed 2 August 2013.


[1] Tabitha Ross, Restudy and Reflexivity in Anthropology and Development, accessed 2 August 2013,

[2] Michael Lynch, “Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge,” Theory, Culture & Society 17, no. 3 (2000): 27-34.

[3] Joseph Webster, “Establishing the ‘Truth of the Matter: Confessional Reflexivity as Introspection and Avowal,” Psychology & Society 1, no. 1 (2008): 65-76.

[4] Peter Hervik, “Shared Reasoning in the Field: Reflexivity beyond the Author,” In Eristen Hastrup and Peter Hervik (Eds.), Social Experience and Anthropological Knowledge, London: Routledge (1994): 59-75.



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