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An introduction
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Reflexivity is vital in social research projects, but there remains relatively little advice on how to execute it in practice. This book provides social science researchers with both a strong rationale for the importance of thinking reflexively and a practical guide to doing reflexivity within their research. The first book on the subject to build primarily on the theoretical and empirical contributions of Pierre Bourdieu’s reflexive work, it combines academic analysis with practical examples and case studies, drawing both on recent reflexive research projects and original empirical data from new projects conducted by the author. Written in an engaging and accessible style, the book will be of interest to researchers from all career stages and disciplinary backgrounds, but especially early-career researchers and students who are struggling with subjectivity, positionality, and the realities of being reflexive.

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I know a scrupulous adherence to rules of method will not lead to objective truth. Surely this is in part because being a social scientist does not preclude having strong opinions, values, or feelings. But here it demands a willingness to be public about the way they affect one’s standards and the claims one makes. One of the great barriers to maintaining standards is the strong attachment one develops with one’s subjects, which can lead to emotions that make the idea of social science less than realistic. Riding downtown on the subway with Ovie that morning, I was full of passion for the vendors and their sidewalk life. But I tried, with both success and failure during my ride, to remain detached. (Duneier, 1999: 79)

Social research requires us to account for our humanness. Indeed, as Steven Deutsch (1971) wrote nearly half a century ago, social research is too often the work of humans who have failed to account for their humanness while attempting to objectify other humans for study (Gouldner, 1970). Reflexivity offers us a route out. This book aims to help social science researchers to plot a course when operationalising (doing) reflexivity within their research. Building primarily on the theoretical and empirical contributions of Pierre Bourdieu, it addresses an issue all researchers face. While it has been the qualitative methods literature in which the importance of reflexivity has figured most strongly, through using a broad range of examples from eclectic disciplines and fields of study, I hope to show how vital reflexivity can be to all areas of (social) scientific enquiry.

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The goal of sociology is to uncover the most profoundly buried structures of the various social worlds which constitute the social universe, as well as the ‘mechanisms’ which tend to ensure their reproduction or their transformation. (Bourdieu, 1996: 1)

This chapter serves to provide an overview of Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological project: his focus on social and cultural inequality, his development of habitus as an explanation for the logic of practice, and his personal biography, and examine how these elements entwined throughout his sociological career. It will give the reader an account of Bourdieu’s theoretical and empirical work, and, in order to underscore the main methodological message of the book, provide a clear case study example to the reader of the relationship between research and personal experience. While overviews of Bourdieu’s work are legion and varying in their approach and focus (see Harker et al., 1990; Jenkins, 1992; Fowler, 2000; Everett, 2002; Grenfell, 2004, 2008; Calhoun, 2010, Thatcher et al., 2016, among many others) the following section will briefly introduce several of Bourdieu’s key concepts, specifically those that will aid us in understanding the development of his reflexive sociology. What this chapter and the next aim to add is a focus on the ways in which Bourdieu’s academic work mirrored his personal experiences, a notion always slightly below the surface (for exceptions, see Jenkins, 2006; Frangie, 2009).

Bourdieu’s studies of the Algerian war (in which he was a soldier), the social and family practices of rural France (in which he grew up and was socialised), the French elite (which he entered), the French university system (in which he came to dominate), the media (in which he came to be a frequent presence), and in other areas serve to foreground the often deep relationship between a researcher and their research.

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Bourdieusian reflexivity can be read first as the requirement for researchers to be aware of their own habitus, such as their own predispositions, knowledges, and competences while undertaking research, in order to produce if not objective, then honest and open research. This adherence to or belief in epistemic reflexivity is presented as a regulative idea which should undergird intellectual and methodological practice. For example, in The Weight of the World Bourdieu and colleagues (1999) argued that understanding and taking account of the nature of the interview–interviewee relationship was of key importance in conducting an interview and eliciting a meaningful response. This reflexive approach is central to being able to evaluate the findings of the research, and is best served through what is called ‘active and methodical listening’. This apparently contradictory process requires an empathic, supportive, and in some cases imitative relationship, allied with ensuring that the interviewee feels that they are in control of the interaction. Such a recommendation is about ensuring that research never becomes unthinking and complacent.

The obsession with reflexivity, obvious in the latter half of Bourdieu’s career, is neither an obsession with himself (or the self of the researcher), nor an obsession with words and theory, but an obsession with doing science right:

It fastens not upon the private person of the sociologist in her idiosyncratic intimacy but on the concatenations of acts and operations she effectuates as part of her work and on the collective unconscious inscribed in them. Far from encouraging narcissism and solipsism, epistemic reflexivity invites intellectuals to recognize and to work to neutralize the specific determinisms to which their innermost thoughts are subjected and it informs a conception of the craft of research designed to strengthen its epistemological moorings.

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In 2015, I published a piece of research on how potential charity donors see homeless people (Dean, 2015). Utilising a creative visual method of drawing, I gave participants pens and paper and asked them to ‘draw what homelessness looks like’. Their images overwhelmingly showed dishevelled men, sleeping rough or begging on the streets: stereotypical depictions of scenes of homelessness which we know represent only a small element of the huge and growing problem that is homelessness in the UK and around the world. The project aimed to explore the common perceptions of the problem of homelessness in the minds of potential donors, stemming from other research (Breeze and Dean, 2012, 2013) exploring the representation of homeless people in fundraising literature. I like to think of it as a simple and yet interesting project, where a creative method was justified in exploring a problem which would not work through purely verbal or textual methods. But the story of where the idea came from does say something about the individuality of researchers and the randomness of doing research.

I presented our initial research findings on fundraising literature at a large non-profit and voluntary sector research conference in Toronto in 2011. While there, I got very annoyed at what I felt were an unbelievably boring set of oddly repetitive and characterless conference presentations. To compensate for this (and because I was an over-privileged, know-it-all British PhD student), I got a bit drunk and complained loudly about the rather lousy conference to someone I’d just met, who must have thought I was rather terrible.

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So far, our examination of reflexivity has stayed largely theoretical and structural. In focusing on Bourdieu, the feminist contribution to method, and various other examples, the previous chapters have sought to provide the reader with a concrete rationale for doing reflexivity, to highlight how it is a potentially political process within research, and to introduce some of the myriad ways it can emerge as a research issue. This chapter, however, moves on to more empirical material. It draws on recent in-depth social science research to demonstrate how reflexive issues can arise in social research and how different researchers negotiate these issues. As proposed in Hammersley’s (2013) and Dixon and Singleton’s (2013) recent explanatory work, one of the best ways to communicate methodological issues and approaches is to use well-rounded and fully fleshed out examples to show how problems and opportunities arise in the research process and are dealt with. Therefore this chapter presents four recent social science research projects and discusses how, in each case, the author struggled with and tackled the issues raised by being reflexive, while managing potential biases and subjectivities. The four pieces of research, two by British academics and two by American academics, are:

  • Mitchell Duneier, Sidewalk

  • Hannah Jones, Negotiating Cohesion, Inequality and Change

  • Lisa Mckenzie, Getting By

  • Shamus Rahman Khan, Privilege

Just as in Homo Academicus, where Bourdieu’s inherent cognizance of the universe under study was both a research asset and an obstacle (Wacquant, 1989), in each of these books the author grapples with negotiating their personal position, and their knowledges and absences, while carrying out excellent academic research.

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In a recent study from fivethirtyeight.com, the analytical news website founded by the American statistician and election pollster Nate Silver (who famously correctly predicted the winner in 50 out of 50 states in the US Presidential election of 2012), the major discrepancies which can be found in quantitative research are made apparent. The study was part of a concerted effort by the science writer Christie Aschwanden (2015) to show how difficult science can be, but also to defend the choices of rational yet subjective actors against accusations of scientific fraud.

In the study, website users are given the opportunity to explore whether the US economy does better under Republican or Democratic leadership. The site first unpicks the two obvious problems with such a research question: how is ‘better’ measured, and what counts as ‘leadership’? An online tool gives users the opportunity to play around with the statistics. By ticking various boxes on economic measurement – GDP growth, level of employment, levels of inflation, or stock market success – and choosing whether leadership should be measured through holding the presidency, or being in control of the Senate, the House of Representatives, or a majority of state governorships, or a combination of all four, users are able to input a huge variety of data, and draw a wide variety of conclusions. To put it simply, you can get whatever result you want. It is possible to propose through statistical probability, with the common probability measure of p<0.05 (i.e. that there is less than a 1 in 20 chance of this variable relationship being a coincidence or of your hypothesis being wrong),1 that the US economy does ‘better’ under Republican leadership and badly under Democratic leadership and vice versa.

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To find the source of trouble we must look into our own heads. (Saul Bellow) In Shamus Khan’s (2011) research at St. Paul’s there was an instant where he went from being a figure of suspicion, to being accepted and rewarded with access. Khan only found himself on the side of his colleagues after several months in the field when he stood up to school management and demanded staff reject a new policy on grounds of academic inadequacy. By chance, it enabled a bond of trust to be built. In one encounter in my own research, I found myself given insider status rather more quickly but in a more public fashion. A youth volunteering worker called Jill had made contact with me, inviting me to speak at a celebration event, as an ‘expert’ in youth volunteering and as someone who had worked with national volunteering charities. There were many potential interviewees in the room, youth volunteering workers, charity managers, staff from local government, but before I spoke I was having trouble relating to people. They were too busy to talk to me, and perhaps I failed to adequately explain who I was. Eventually, I was invited on the to the stage by Jill as ‘Jon Dean from the University of Kent who is going to talk about the national youth volunteering projects’ and I got up to indifferent applause from about a hundred people. I spoke about who I was, my own history of volunteering and why I thought it was important, why certain youth volunteering projects such as v (the young volunteers’ service) were set up, and the threats they faced from the government cuts and the Big Society policy agenda, which I populistly called ‘rubbish’ garnering my biggest round of applause and laughter.

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This concluding chapter seeks to do three main things. The issue of narcissism has arisen throughout this book, and it will be tackled head on, offering a stern rebuke to the accusation that at the root of reflexivity sits the researcher keen to do little more than talk about herself or himself. It will then ask how we can build spaces for reflexivity, looking at how the internet and the form and practice of academic writing and publishing can be altered so that reflexive work can be incorporated into our contributions to knowledge. And it will offer some final thoughts on reflexivity as a mindset to embrace, not something to be afraid of. But first, this concluding section wants to examine in detail one final case study, Alice Goffman’s (2014) On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, a story still unfolding at the time of writing, but one it seems will enter the pantheon of teaching and doing reflexivity, for good and bad. While it may seem odd to bring in a new case in the conclusion, I believe that when it comes to thinking about and doing reflexivity and ethics, social researchers are now operating in a post-Goffman environment.

On the Run did that rare thing in social science literature: it started a debate. A vivid and impassioned, yet bleak portrait of a section of black America which is invisible to the vast majority, it details how the constant rotation of encounters with law enforcement, judicial institutions, and social services, intermixed with gang violence and immensely difficult personal lives, merge to exacerbate the difficulties of an already precarious life for poor young black men, who have to combine eking out an existence with avoiding the police.

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