Reflexivity—The Eternal Echo.

Reflexivity has become a major topic in the philosophy, sociology, and politics of science. Reflexivity, as a tool, it is able to elucidate the processes of scientific methods. The tool of reflexivity is designed to elucidate both the scientist and the scientific study. Reflexivity is an exceptional tool to analyze the framework of paradigms. This essay will explain what is meant by reflexivity, and why is it regarded as so important in the aftermath of Thomas Kuhn’s work. First, I will briefly explain Kuhn’s concept of paradigms. Then, I will explain reflexivity, why it has become a major topic in the philosophy, sociology, and politics of science, and why is it regarded as so important today.

Kuhn described scientific revolutions as “extraordinary episodes in which that shift of professional commitment occurs” (Kuhn, 6). Kuhn regarded each professional commitment as a paradigm. For example, “Aristotelian dynamics” or “Ptolemaic astronomy” are paradigms—they are frameworks of science that the scientist must learn. Once a new scientist disrupts the competence of a field, such as Einstein’s impact via quantum mechanics upon physics, then the paradigm(s) will shift. Kuhn articulated, “These transformations of the paradigms… are scientific revolutions, and the successive transition from one paradigm to another via revolution is the usual developmental pattern of mature science” (Kuhn, 12).

Bourdieu found that in doing social science, “pure science” is “perfectly autonomous and develops according to own internal logic” (45). From this pure science, the “scientific community” arises (Bourdieu, 45). But science is not pure. Said differently, no one scientist may claim to be “pure” or be designated as “pure” by the scientific community because of factual reality. To be sure, scientists are often engaged in “ferocious struggles” to compete within structure of science for the award of “monopoly” to handle “scientific goods” (Ibid). The scientist that wins recognition will be studied by students of science. Students will be told the winner’s “correct method, the correct finding, the correct definition of the ends, objects and methods of science (Ibid).

Bourdieu focused on how reflexivity may examine the method(s) of science. He defined a discipline as a possession of collective capital of specialized methods and concepts (Bourdieu, 65). Reflexivity produces the disciplinary habitus. Reflexivity is like “a permanent mirror effect: every word that can be uttered about scientific practice can be turned back on the person that utters it” (Bourdieu, italics added, 4). If science is not pure in reality, then perhaps the scientist may approach the pure via reflexivity. Reflexivity may not be the new information that disrupts normal science; however, reflexivity is important because it is a tool that begs the scientist to eternally consider weaknesses in their knowledge, methods, and findings.

Habitus describes the scientist in social space or the object of study in space. With respect to the scientist, reflexivity may be used to shed light on the social and psychological traits of the scientists—including prejudices and power relations. Habitus may be stable, but not completely stable through time and space. Habitus is not deterministic (Bourdieu, 44). Statistical data may clarify the objective structures of the social world, or of paradigms. And statistics often change through space and time. The scientist’s habitus is clearly composed of his or her education; both professional and social. Reflexivity as a tool will enable the scientist to acquire the most correct disposition of habitus within his or her field.

The scientist may use reflexivity to update his or her historical transcendental framework (get-up-to-date habitus), system of schemes of perception (habitus identified and appears stable), system self censors (clean habitus denies entry to muddy habitus), and scientific imagination (imagine your habitus) (Bourdieu, 37). These concepts all poke at Kuhn’s normal science and are critical tools for scientific development. Bourdieu designed that the presuppositions of doing science were predicated upon competence (51).

Competence means that the successful scientist must have a mastery of existing knowledge in his or her field. He or she must incorporate all theoretical-experimental resources from previous research, transform the former points into practical sense of the game (or paradigm) and convert them into reflexes (ready for Kuhn’s revolutionary break). Thus, reflexivity may assist the scientist to locate anomalies in his or her competence. And reflexivity is the active tool necessary for objective discovery.

Bourdieu wrote that “one’s social past is particularly burdensome when it comes to doing social science” (113). Mainly, scientists’ social past often ignores aspects of active reflexivity. The objectivation of the subject, the position of subject in social space, his or her position and trajectory (because of professional and social past), and membership to social-religious groups may cause distortion within the scientist and, thus, the scientific study (Bourdieu, 94).

Further distortions regarding the objectivation of the scientific position in the scientists’ field occurs via differentiated traditions and particularities, habits of thought, rituals, and censorship. The objectivation of everything in the scholastic universe creates an illusion or absence of illusion, and best found through a disinterested point of view (94). Reflexivity certainly is an objective aura—without interests of power and domination. Reflexivity is the tool to reach objectivity in the field.

Reflexivity, for example, led Bourdieu to examine the day-to-day life of the scientist. Through reflection, he found that the social scientist’s “…perception, this vision [of subject], varies according to the agents dispositions” (Bourdieu, 59). The social scientist “may rule out some sectors, disdaining them as uninteresting or unimportant” (Bourdieu, 59). The social scientist may feel he understands a community, that he “attune[d] himself to everyone else” (Bourdieu, 74). The social scientist has special ambition “to utter the truth, or worse, to define the conditions in which one can utter the truth” (Bourdieu, 87). The social scientist may be “narcissistic”—a “complacent looking-back by the researcher on his own experience,” which is not useful to science (Bourdieu, 89).

Bourdieu wrote that reflexivity could create “a kind of epistemological prudence” (91). In this manner, the tool of reflexivity can “make it possible to anticipate the probable chances of error” (Bourdieu, 91). This might expose the “ tendencies and temptations inherent in a system of dispositions” (Bourdieu, 91). Bourdieu provides an example regarding Charles Soulie, and his analysis of people that write dissertations. Bourdieu shows that other studies may lead the observer to hesitate in accepting Soulie’s thesis (Bourdieu, 91). Thus, reflexivity may vastly improve quality of knowledge as opposed to quantity of knowledge.

Reflexivity is a type of socioanalysis—an analysis of the scientific mind (113). One who engages in reflectivity will benefit from lucidity, because lucidity constantly feeds upon itself. Reflexivity allows the scientist to explore more profoundly the social unconscious, and gain a keener intuition. Social experience (crisis, conversions, reconversions) may be converted from handicap to capital. Reflexivity may free participants from biases linked to his or her positions or dispositions (114).

Finally, Bourdieu focused reflexivity on the field—the field of forces—and competition of positions in the field for power. Bourdieu found that scientific investigation in the field (space in which possibilities are defined) is not opposed to Kuhn’s focus on anomaly and commensurability to have normal science and radical science. For Bourdieu, the field provided the structure for the practice of science but he did not find Kuhn’s explanation for scientific change convincing. For Kuhn, knowledge is articulated and then justified. For Bourdieu, reflexivity is a powerful tool at the scientist’s disposal—a habitus—a habitus that manifests itself. And reflexivity as a tool will very likely impact the field and scientific results. It will make them more objective and lucid. In time, fields may radically change due to reflexivity. Reflexivity may help alter paradigms.

In conclusion, reflexivity, aimed at objectivating the transcendental unconscious—aimed at enabling a pure habitus—has become a major topic in the philosophy, sociology, and politics of science. Reflexivity enables the scientist to objectively reflect upon his field, his competence, his findings, and his future. Reflexivity as a tool requests that the scientist keep an open mind—a mind ready for scientific revolution. Reflexivity is simply today’s best tool to engage Kuhn’s “shift of professional commitment” (Kuhn, 6).

Gerard Delanty & Piet Strydom, eds., Philosophies of Social Science: The Classic and Contemporary Readings (McGraw-Hill 2003).

Michael Martin & Lee C. McIntyre, eds., Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science (MIT Press 2001).

Pierre Bourdieu, Science of Science and Reflexivity (Chicago 2004).

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago 2nd ed. 1970).


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