Reflexive anthroplology

Published 28 Feb 2017

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Anthropology is commonly understood as the study of allied features of human society in all its facets, be it cultural, historical or physical. Anthropological research is best undertaken through personal observations and examinations by researchers of a subject population. This facet of the subject combined with its being a study of the science of human nature, research in anthropology is said to be frequently influenced by personal proclivities. The aim of scientific research is objective observation; the personalisation of observations is feared to lead to dissonance. The initial focus as the science emerged into its own in the 19th Century was said to be objectivity. However this was found to be increasingly impractical and anthropologists seem to be influenced by their own preferences in all aspects of their research leading to the school of reflexive anthropology. Reflexivity is indicated to be a process of self reflection. Such a process should result in modification of beliefs and consequently the actions which one undertakes. (Bilton, 1998). Davies (1999) on the other hand has defined reflexivity as a means of looking back upon oneself by self referencing. For the anthropologist, this creates a dilemma, as in case he subjects each observation to personal reference there is bound to be distortion. Objectivity is the essence of a scientific study; however reflexive anthropology deliberately accepts the significance of influence of the self on research. A study of its evolution and current predominance is thus considered essential.

Understanding Reflexive Anthropology.

Anthropology examines the bonds of social relationship between humans and how this has led to growth of societies and communities. Thus this is a vast field which has had significant impact on development of human society. It is a study of human social behaviour to include archaeological exploration as well as data from examination of the behaviour of non literate peoples. (Anthropology, 2003). The roots of anthropology as a science are relatively recent dating back to the 19th Century and have relied on other older sciences as archaeology, biology, psychology and even linguistics. (Anthropology, 2003). Philosophy has also had a major impact on anthropology in that it has led to a number of speculations about Enlightenment on the origins of human society. The interconnectivity of anthropology with its originating sciences thus provides it the rigour of scientific rectitude.

Over the years there have been two broad divisions of anthropology physical and cultural. The physical anthropology as the name suggests includes dealing with the problem of human evolution to include palaeontology, the build of the body as well as the constitution. (Anthropology, 2003). Methods used in this form are anthropometry, physiology, ecology and even genetics. On the other hand the branch of cultural anthropology has indicated study of the cultures not just the present but also historical orientations including the prehistoric and extinct cultures, ethnography, archaeology and so on. Linguistics is also a major aspect of cultural anthropological study. (Anthropology, 2003). While there is limited scope for subjectivity in physical anthropology as it entails observation and recording of physical data, the study of cultural anthropology indicates that there is scope for differing variations based on subjective factors.

It was thus natural that the initial studies in anthropology in the 19th Century were deeply concerned about objectivity in conduct of research including the means of collection and particularly about presenting the findings of research during which stage distortions arising from cultural inclination of the observer could have emerged. As these observations initially were done by travellers rather than scientists they were considered as distorted, biased towards their own culture and community. However gradually with researchers increasingly entering the field, greater objectivity came about and it was accepted that an anthropologist in his study should be free of a bias towards any race. Scientific societies such as British Association for Advancement of Science have also indicated as early as in 1874 that anthropologists should collect information which is not prejudiced. For this purpose in some cases even a set of pre written questionnaire and a format for notes was created. The objectivity school thus was predominant during this time. Over the years forward looking anthropologists also came to propose that the people who were being studied particularly subjects of colonialism were not a different race as such but only removed from western civilisations in terms of some generations. The trend of objectivity and equity was thus to lead to emergence of reflexive thought in anthropology.

As anthropological research in many ways involves individual observation it is said to affect the researcher personally in many ways. It could be his own personal preferences, individual history and socio cultural environment in which he has operated earlier which may have an impact. As a researcher works closely with his chosen subjects, there develops a relationship between the two which also needs to be considered on the influence it will have on observations made. Reflexive anthropology envisages the likely impact of these factors on the researchers. At the same time it needs to be understood that this self reflectivity of the researcher is different from that of the subjects under scrutiny though both indicate that there has to be a context between the people being studied and those studying them.

As more and more anthropologists were willing to examine their own cultural context and the perspective from which there had been conducting the research, the emergence of reflexive anthropology was inevitable. This is not necessarily a modern or post modern phenomenon and early anthropologists as Frank Hamilton Cushing who lived amongst American Indians in the later part of the 19th Century had propagated participant-observation as a method of close observation despite being accused by fellow scientists of being a savage for living amongst the subjects of study. (Hensley, 1981). However reflexive anthropology as a body of thought has only emerged in recent times.

Factors Contributing to Change

The emergence of reflexive anthropology is a result of the process of social as well as political changes that took place in the 1960’s. Some explicate these to the processes of decolonisation where in having overcome the inhibitions imposed by the colonial era, anthropologists could frankly question the impact that their personal beliefs had on their study of the subject. The key as per Asad (1973) arose from an ethical concern amongst the researchers that by neglecting the reflexive aspect of their research they may have perpetuated many erroneous deductions about the people who had been colonised. This underlines the acceptance that Western colonial studies of subjects did not take into account the differing and alternative views of the principals under study and believes these to be perfectly rational. Thus there was a transformation from the structural-fundamentalist view of a rigid approach which had separated the researcher from the subject of study. The cultural interaction became more sympathetic rather than antagonistic or to say the least objective.

The removal of the boundaries of colonialism also freed researchers from its context and thus the earlier inclination of the researcher primarily observing, “subjects” from a position of authority disappeared. Anthropologists increasingly were aware of their own role in colonising and this self awareness also led to what can be called as reflexive anthropology. The other factor of significance in growth of reflexive anthropology is the large number of researchers who entered this field in the modern and post modern eras, thus there was greater debate amongst the researchers as also the research they had carried out. In this process it was but natural that a researcher’s inclinations were discussed along with his conclusions. The tendency to analyse the research itself led to greater need for reflection by the researchers on their conclusions contributing to development of this relatively new field.

A dilemma was also posed due to validity of a perspective in the post modern era. Thus if findings of one researcher were considered to be true, then these have to be placed in perspective. Frequently such a perspective was seen to be narrowed down to the researchers own reflexivity rather than an objective interpretation of his findings. In the process all anthropological research came to be viewed as relativist in which all perspectives were seen to be relatively relevant. (Caplan, 1986). The other aspect is that of acceptance of the preconceptions of the observer as an integral part of the research. This also led to a school which indicated that having accepted the inclinations of the researcher, it was possible to be objective; however the reflexive school remained predominant. The complexity of anthropological research can be understood most appropriately by a shift in perception with the personal changes in the lives of researchers. This is exemplified by the example provided by Caplan who found that there was a shift in perspective as she herself progressed from being a single woman to a married one and also a mother with children as she made anthropological observations on Swahili women in all these various stages of her own life. (Caplan, 1986). However this dilemma is not new and is prevalent in some other fields of research as well.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Change

The advantages of the change to reflexive anthropology have been considerable. It has placed the entire debate of research based on personal observation into perspective. Since anthropology is a subject which involves human dimension rather than the physical context of other sciences, there is no doubt that an element of subjectivity would creep in even in a highly objective research. A researcher cannot be expected to consider his subject in total detachment. Thus by valuing the personal context of the researcher it has brought in more objectivity to the research. The next advantage accrued is that its having established an evenness in power relationship between the researcher and the researched which had assumed a superior – subject relationship earlier in some ways. By placing the researcher also in the bounds of scrutiny a semblance of order seems to have been obtained.

The disadvantages of the change and focus on reflexive anthropology are also not far to seek. These primarily relate to self obsession that comes about in researchers. Thus in some cases anthropologists came to write more about themselves than the societies or people which were being examined. Some researchers as Lawless (1992) have indicated that since the subject being studied is analysed, there is a need to allow him to respond, thereby what has emerged is a long winded account of relationships between two individuals, rather than about the evolution of the subject in its various forms as was expected from an anthropologists study. Thus such research assumes a general rather than a focused anthropological perspective. Though a number of researchers as Fabian attempted to tone down their own role in the narrative as done in examination of Tshibumba, a Zairian artist who is allowed to present the history of his country in the way he interpreted it, this has resulted as per Fabians’s own admission to his personal impact in these narrations in many ways. (FAbian, 1996). These and other reflexive researchers could some times be accused of attempting to manipulate the narrative rather than merely indicating their own role in the research.


There is a common acknowledgement amongst anthropologists that true objectivity cannot be achieved in a research which is involving two or more individuals and where deductions have to proceed through observation. While resorting to formal questionnaires and notes for the sake of objectivity, anthropologists were devoid of the advantage of recording natural observations and thus the quality of research was seen to suffer. On the other hand reflexivity perhaps went to the extreme where researchers tend to give prominence to their own reactions in equal if not actually greater measure than that of the subject of study. Reflexive anthropology is seen to continue to attempt to draw a mean between total objectivity and a personalised approach to the study of human behaviour.


  • Bilton, Tony et al. 1996. Introductory Sociology, 3rd edition. London, Macmillan.
  • Anthropology. 2003. The Columbia Electronic Encyclopaedia, Sixth Edition .Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press.
  • Caplan, P. 1988. Engendering Knowledge: The Politics of Ethnography, Part 1, Anthropology Today, 4 (5), Oct 1988.
  • Lawless, E. 1992. I was Afraid Someone like You…. An Outsider… would Misunderstand: Negotiating Interpretive Differences between Ethnographers and Subjects. The Journal of American Folklore, 105 (417), Summer 1992.
  • Fabian, T. 1996. Remembering the Present: Painting and popular history in Zaire, 1996.
  • Hinsley, C.M. 1981. Savages and Scientists: The Smithsonian Institution and the Development of American Anthropology, 1846-1910. Smithsonian Institution Press.
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