Epistemic reflexivity

Reflexivity has become, in other words, a hegemonic value of the social scientific field and a weapon in struggles over status and resources within the intellectual field (Lynch, 2000).

Just reading a fascinating article by Karl Maton working at the University of Cambridge: Maton, K. (2003) Reflexivity, relationism and research: Pierre Bourdieu and the epistemic conditions of social scientific knowledge, Space & Culture, 6(1): 52-65. What’s it about?

Pierre Bourdieu’s “epistemic reflexivity” is the cornerstone of his intellectual enterprise, underpinning his claims to provide distinctive and scientific knowledge of the social world. This article considers what this notion offers for research and how it needs to be developed further to underpin progress in social science. Many reflexive research practices are sociological, individualistic, and narcissistic, and the article contrasts this to Bourdieu’s conception of reflexivity as epistemological, collective, and objective. The author then illustrates how, despite Bourdieu’s intentions, this conception when enacted tends toward the very pitfalls it is intended to avoid. Building on a developing conceptualization of the relations of knowledge, the author identifies this problem as intrinsic to Bourdieu’s framework, showing how it bypasses the significance of knowledge structures and so provides the social but not the epistemological conditions for social scientific knowledge. Bourdieu’s reflexivity objectifies objectification but needs development to help achieve objective knowledge. The article concludes by introducing the notion of “epistemic capital” as a first step toward developing a properly epistemic reflexivity and so realizing the potential of Bourdieu’s enterprise.

My notes
The author talks about different forms of reflexivity. He highlights the role of what he calls enacted reflexivity in the social sciences – which sounds fairly fake to me – which includes autobiographical reflection, the reflective practitioners, hermeneutic narcissism and authorship denial. I liked his description of authorship denial:

Here, reflexivity is enacted as a game of hide-and-seek; one may in effect play “hunt the author” amid the textual play of voices (or, where these voices are all the author’s own, one may have difficulty ascertaining the author’s position). Both forms [this also refers to hermeneutic narcissism] thereby begin by recognising objectification but end by denying it, either through self-absorption or self-denial. (p. 55)

He argues that all these sorts of reflexivity are sociological, individual and narcissistic:

In short, these types of reflexivity in research represent what one could call reflectivity (Turner, 1981;Woolgar, 1988). (p. 56)

Reflexivity has typically been proclaimed as critical and progressive. However, by reducing reflexivity to individualised reflection, the above research practices represent strategies for maximising symbolic capital within the intellectual field at minimal cost. They emphasise individual status (particularly when allied to claims about the “unreflexive” nature of past work in the field) without disturbing the social position and structure of the field as a whole. Ironically, such practices are thereby more oriented toward conserving the status quo than their frequently professed “critical” appellations might suggest. (p. 56)

In Bourdieu’s critique of the academic field, he argues that actors try to impose their own viewpoint on others in struggles for status and resources (Bourdieu 1988a, p. 26). Maton asks how it is possible to ‘overcome the gravitational effects of the intellectual field’ (p. 57) by developing analysis which represents more than the means of acquisition of economic and symbolic capital. For Bourdieu, epistemic reflexivity is the way to do this because it underwrites rather than undermines scientific knowledge. What is epistemic reflexivity? According to Thomas Ryan in the paper When you reflect are you also being reflexive? (undated):

… the constant analysis of your own lived experience as well as your own theoretical and methodological presuppositions (Coghlan and Brannick 2005, p. 62)

Three relations of knowledge
Maton argues that Bourdieu’s distinctive contribution can be breaking knowledge down into three relations (see Fig. 1):

Bourdieu’s main innovation was in looking at the ‘objectifying relation.’ Objectifying objectification underpins reflexivity that is collective and non-narcissistic. Bourdieu (1999, 2000) argues that there are three potential biases in knowledge claims: social origins of the researcher; the researcher’s position in the intellectual field; and viewing the world as a spectacle. But it is not the individual researcher who is of interest to Bourdieu but rather the intellectual field and revealing the ‘collective scientific unconscious’ (p. 58). Maton argues that the intellectual field is not just about maximizing capital that there are other issues at stake, namely: the recognition of the role of non-social interest in producing knowledge which Maton calls ‘the will to truth’ or ‘cognitive interests’  (p. 61) and the recognition of the importance of epistemic capital, or the ability to better understand the social world, aiming for epistemic profits.

2003Space_Culture (Maton 2003)

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