EASA, 2008: EASA08: Experiencing diversity and mutuality

Ljubljana, 26/08/2008 – 29/08/2008


Reflecting on reflexivity in anthropology and social science

Location 410
Date and Start Time 28 Aug, 2008 at 09:00


Terry Evens (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) email
Christopher Roberts (Reed College) email
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Short Abstract

This workshop aims to critically assess the theoretical and practical value of reflexivity in the context of social science, especially anthropology.

Long Abstract

In contemporary social scientific discourse, reflexivity has become a lightning rod for polemical debates on diverse epistemological, ontological, aesthetic and moral issues. An ongoing epistemological critique of objectivity in the social sciences has fostered a heightened reflexivity in which researchers turn back on themselves in order to assess the impact of their positions, as experts and socio-political beings, on the subjects of their research. This workshop aims to critically assess the theoretical and practical value of reflexivity in the context of social science, especially anthropology. The principal aim, then, is not to forge a reflexive anthropology as such or to illustrate reflexive analysis in first-order ethnographic research, but rather to scrutinise reflexivity itself, reflexively. The prescriptive theme is that however one comes to terms with the critique of objectivity as a historically specific paradigm, one has to turn the lessons of this critique back on reflexivity itself.

Chair: Don Handelman


Cosmopolitan reflexivity: towards a transmodal analysis of rituals

Author: Koenraad Stroeken (Ghent University)  email
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Long Abstract

There is no way of telling reflexive from non-reflexive thought. I argue that reflexivity refers not to an evolved cognitive mode but to a particular organization of cognitive as much as social and bodily modes of being. Such code, defined as a visceral reality, requires a 'transmodal' analysis, in terms of values, not mechanisms. Comparing critical social theory to the Sukuma diviner's discourse, I show that reflexive meanings adopt an intrusive structure: transgression of institutionalized separations (e.g., between inside/ outside, between semantic domains, between historical moments, between moral values, between cultures). Reflexivity is enfleshed as pain, intersubjectively shared as crisis, and thought as subversive. The reflexive flow takes one of three forms: sustaining the intrusion, terminating it, or synchronizing with it. The first flow is ritualized in witchcraft discourse, the second in initiation, the third in spirit possession, also in greeting and joking, and in the majini spirits of muslim healers. We call the third form cosmopolitan. The paper pushes the exercise in cultural comparison a little further when dealing with the tension between imperialist and cosmopolitan types of Islam in Swahili Africa. We situate relativist reflexivity (incl Latour's symmetry) and its claim of a-moral purity (a position beyond good/ bad). Just when social scientists think to have learned from the mistakes of imperialism it seems they are advocating a form of reflexivity that sustains crisis - producing a pleasure of its own, but divisive and obstructing avenues to cosmopolitan reflexivity.

Intercultural borderlinking, intersubjectivity and self-knowing

Author: René Devisch (University of Leuven)  email
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Long Abstract

Hypothetically, my own intergenerational and intercultural self-reflection as I describe it here has developed along fours tracks. There is first (i) the traumatic family memory of the impact in my home region of World Wars I & II that I came to embody and carry on, in particular through the intergenerational recycling of my name René ("the reborn"). I venture to argue that the memory carried by my name led me to become (ii) a psychoanalyst and (iii-iv) an anthropologist along a double track. The positions of psychoanalyst and anthropologist provide different self-reflexive hermeneutical perspectives on the intercorporeal and intersubjective dynamics by which I am being interwoven with my host community in RD Congo, a former Belgian colony. My sustained effort to fine-tune myself to that community by means of asymmetrical mirrorings and otherings relates in particular to the following two self-critical modalities: (iii) my co-implication in contexts implying both incommensurable life worlds and a transsubjective gnosis that exceeds western-borne ratio; and (iv) my looking from 'there' to 'here as if it were there,' a stance which equally comprised both my self-conscious unravelling of the repressed in the civilizational clash as well as my assessment of the failure in the intercultural social sciences with regard to thinking the invisible in both its epiphanous and uncanny dimensions.

Perfect praxis in Aikidō - take II: a reflexive body

Author: Einat Bar-On Cohen (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)  email
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Long Abstract

The students of aikidō - a pacifistic martial art - transform the aggressive relationship between them, which always sets out with an attack, into smooth circular movement, annihilating the effects of violence. In view of the simple characteristics of a typical aikidō exercise, this paper sets out to explore the potential embedded in the reflexive mode revealed through aikidō. First, since aikidō is utterly embodied, what does it mean to be reflexive with one's entire body? Secondly, given that aikidō has an ethical pacific project, embedded in body movement alone, what does non-discursive ethical reflexivity mean? and finally, forming the sociality of aikidō and its project does not depend on representations or discourse, reflexivity on the other hand, is often understood in relation to discourse, what then does a non-discursive reflexivity amount to? I will engage with these questions in Deleuzian terms.

Reflexive anthropology and social activism

Author: Terry Evens (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)  email
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Long Abstract

In recent decades ethnographic science, consonant with 20th century physical science, has come to acknowledge that there is no observed in which the observer is not participant. If the beholder shares in the determination of the beheld, then she cannot lay claim to a view from nowhere, a completely objective perspective. Given the inevitability of a particular and hence biased perspective, it can become ethnographically attractive to choose one's bias in a considered manner directed primarily at not so much doing 'good research' as, simply, doing 'good'. This paper suggests that there has been too little thought given in the discipline to the implications, for ethnography and social activism, of the critical truth that the view from nowhere is indeed pie in the sky. The paper argues that the vital fact of the beholder's share relativizes and complicates, but does not collapse, the distinction between research and activism, and that in the absence of attending diligently to the relative force of this distinction, activist anthropology risks, ironically, failing to take advantage of the faculty of reflexivity and to reflect on it critically enough.

Ritualization and the reflexive critique of scientism

Author: Christopher Roberts (Reed College)  email
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Long Abstract

This paper begins with the premise that the study of ritual depends upon a reflexive practice that acknowledges the scholar\'s dependence upon the phenomena that s/he would scrutinize. As ritual studies has come to encompass reinterpretations of ritual as formalization, performance, and, the objectification of ritualization as strategic practice, this history provides the resources for constructing a post-theoretical perspective that rejects the reifications intrinsic to scientism. Such an auto-critical perspective overcomes scientism by addressing the myriad ways that scholars depend upon ritualization even as they take it as an object of scrutiny. If one draws upon the ethnographic and historical work of Bruno Latour and the Edinburgh Science Studies Unit, one can see that ritualization and scientific research differ not in kind but in degree, for both deploy the strategic weaving of received behavior with innovation to produce desired outcomes (felicitous ritual performances, successful experiments) and reproduce ritual or scientific agents. Ritualization thus brings the field into direct conflict with scientism and all other theories that depend upon singular epistemological breaks to separate a given field from its religious, ritual, or ideological antecedents. The putatively objective nature of ritual studies -- and by extension, scholarly practice as a whole -- shifts to become a mode of involvement, for instead of encoding ritual phenomena into a non-ritual metalanguage, we now have the charged interface between different ritual systems and conflicting ritual expectations.

The ethic of being wrong: Levinas in the field

Author: Don Handelman (Hebrew University, Jerusalem)  email
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Long Abstract

Fieldwork anthropology is a unique discipline in academia because it desires and often requires unmediated contact between anthropologist-as-subject and native other-as subject: subject to subject. The ethics of Levinas encourage me to argue that what I call 'the ethic of being wrong' is a special virtue in anthropology. Anthropology begins with the other as subject. This is why the ethics of anthropology should be positioned at this conjuncture of self and other, where the anthropologist as subject learns from the other as subject.An inquiry that begins with other as foreground must first be wrong about otherness, and may well continue to be wrong, not as nihilistic pessimism, but as an accurate refraction of human social and cultural formations and confusions and their relations to self-ness - a refraction of the human-ess of Human Being. Consider being wrong, in terms of Levinas' ethics. Levinasian ethics emphasizes the unmediated relatedness of self and other, face-to-face, the priority of other over self, the ethical demand made by other, the unmediated demand that cannot be known, and the necessary response of self to the unknown. The anthropologist tries to relate to others he does not know, others who have priority because they are living their lives in their own habitus in which the anthropologist is an interloper. If he is going to learn, he must put the other before himself, because he can only learn from others in their life. In Levinasian ethics, it is in being wrong that the anthropologist opens and makes space for otherness.

Where is anthropology when you need it?

Author: Robert Daniels (University of North Carolina)  email
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Long Abstract

Anthropology, while claiming a global sweep and evolutionary time scale, is ultimately rooted, not in objective knowledge, but the appreciation of shared understandings. We are drawn to highly localized, in-depth long-term research. The result is a concern with the reflexive nature of our knowledge, an appreciation that what we have learned is inseparable from how we have learned it, that our knowledge. Along the way, anthropology has failed to also develop its promise of a global perspective.

It is now being recognized that the human species has entered a new era. The interlocked problems of non-renewable resource depletion, accumulating industrial waste, biosphere degradation and climate change lead expert and lay observers to postulate extreme predictions about the foreseeable future: e.g. the collapse of industrialized food production and a "die off" of human population from 7 billion to less than 3 billion in the next 150-200 years. Many political commentators see these crises as the underlying explanation for the current geopolitical situation.

Surely nothing could be of more central concern to anthropology. I do not know any anthropologist who is not deeply concerned; many are alarmed. Yet those discussing the possible futures of humanity are natural scientists, independent authors, and journalists, not anthropologists.

Anthropology lacks a solid paradigm on which to start a predictive theory and, it seems, is about to be rendered irrelevant by truly global transformations occurring to its own subject.

Wittgenstein and the ethical reflexivity of anthropological discourse

Author: Horacio Ortiz (East China Normal University)  email
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Long Abstract

In his late writings, Wittgenstein analyzes the description of action in terms of rules by applying it to his own writings. He remarks that using the language of rules when describing someone else's action, like anthropologist do, is not to neutrally represent phenomenal reality in the realm of words, but to engage in a relation with the reader of the description. By analyzing its own practice in its own terms, anthropological discourse can thus develop a specific ethical reflexivity. Pierre Bourdieu and Michel de Certeau have explicitly taken up this approach from Wittgenstein. Like him, both authors use their own method of describing action in terms of rules to describe the practice of anthropological discourse itself. This leads them to spell an anthropological understanding of the relation between their own practice and those to which it is addressed. For Bourdieu the ethical import of his own discourse consists in its critical potential. De Certeau insists on the ethical importance of the creative potential of a description that would place the reader in the situation of action. Drawing from two examples from my research on contemporary finance, I will try to show that this ethical reflexivity helps us to stabilize the objects that we study, since it clarifies our relation to them, which is always also a relation to our potential readers. While the ethical and the objective content of anthropological discourse are not related in a simple way, the clarification of each helps the clarification of the other.