Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Andrew Finlay (1999) ''Whatever You Say Say Nothing': An Ethnographic Encounter in Northern Ireland and its Sequel '
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 3, <>

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Received: 12/5/1999      Accepted: 15/9/1999      Published: 30/9/1999


When strangers in Northern Ireland meet, they draw upon a variety of cues in an attempt to ascertain each other's religio-political identity and, depending on the outcome, enter into what Burton (1978) terms 'systematically distorted' or 'pseudo-communication'. After Burton, the process has come to be known as Telling. The article discusses how Telling manifested itself in an interview which the author conducted nearly 15 years ago. This experience is used to suggest that Telling raises issues for ethnographic and interview-based research that go well beyond the familiar problem of 'reactive effects', to stress the importance of reflexivity as a means of dealing with these issues, and to discuss the difficulties of reflexivity in the context of a cultural reticence which has developed as a way of managing the sectarian alienation arising from a national conflict. The article discusses various forms of reflexivity, and concludes that 'analytical reflexivity', based on a politics of location or practice of positioning, offers a potential way forward.

Reflexivity, Ethnic Identity, Inter-Cultural Communication, Conflict, Sociology of Emotion, Northern Ireland, Derry/Londonderry, Sectarianism, Trade unionism.

'I'll tell you this much now, and I don't care if you are recording it or not. I'm not a bit ashamed. Now I don't want to hurt your feelings, [but] if you were a Protestant and no matter what mistake you made it was overlooked. Now I'm being honest and truthful... anything... anywhere in the factory, if you made a mistake, no matter how big it was, that was overlooked. But if you were a Catholic you were put out on your mouth and nose in the street if you made a mistake. And they had Protestants in high up jobs and [they] hadn't a brain in their head. And I'll tell you that much, making more mistakes than enough that people on the ground then... rectified when it came to our Department... They [i.e. Protestant workers] hadn't a call for a trade union you see. The firm was their trade union, they were their stand by'.

The Encounter

The above quote is from an interview that I conducted fifteen years ago when I was a postgraduate student of social anthropology. I was researching trade unionism and sectarianism in the Derry shirt industry (Finlay: 1989). My respondent was a retired trade union activist; Ms Cosgrave was the pseudonym I gave her at the time. The focus of my research was a series of conflicts between Protestant and Catholic workers that took place in the 1950s. The proximate origin of the conflicts was in the secession of the local branch of the National Union of Tailor and Garment Workers. The secessionists initially constituted themselves as an independent union, but soon transferred to the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. At this point, trade unionists in the shirt industry divided according to their sectarian identities: the local branch of the Irish Transport Union became exclusively Catholic in its composition, and the British based Tailor and Garment Workers Union became mostly Protestant. The subsequent rivalry between the two unions gave rise to strikes, walkouts and physical confrontations between groups of Catholic and Protestant workers, most of them women. Ms Cosgrave had been an activist in the Irish-based union. Her generalisation about Protestant workers was prompted by a question that I had asked about why so few Protestants had been unionised prior to the breakaway.

Ms Cosgrave's response troubled me. At the time, I can remember recoiling inwardly from the bitterness of her feelings towards Protestant workers. But it was not primarily the bitterness that I found troubling; on the contrary, her frankness flattered my pretensions as an interviewer. I was more troubled by the way she prefaced her comment about Protestant workers:

'I'll tell you this much now, and I don't care if you are recording it or not. I'm not a bit ashamed. Now I don't want to hurt your feelings... [but] if you were a Protestant and no matter what mistake you made it was overlooked. Now I'm being honest and truthful...'.

This was a tortuous challenge to the neutral role that I had cast for myself in the course of my research. Her prefatory remarks made me uncomfortably aware that my identity as someone from a Belfast Protestant background might have influenced what she and other respondents had said in previous interviews or, more importantly, not said.

Having grown-up in Northern Ireland I was instinctively aware of the cultural protocols governing communication between strangers. I was also familiar with RosemaryHarris's (1986) and Frank Burton's (1978) influential analyses of these protocols. First published in 1972, Harris's book is based on fieldwork conducted in rural Northern Ireland before the onset of the recent Troubles. She notes that Protestants and Catholics 'have close relationships whilst remaining essentially separate' (1986: ix) and discusses the various mechanisms through which distance is maintained even in close relationships. She argues that 'all social relationships are pervaded by a consciousness of the religious dichotomy' (1986: xi) and that

'so important is it... to be able to determine the allegiances of strangers that many Ulster people seem to have developed an extreme sensitivity to signs other than explicit badges that denote the affiliations of those that they meet. Each looks automatically for slight indications from another's name, physical appearance, expression and manner, style of dress and speech idiom to provide the clues that will enable the correct categorisation to be made.' (1986: 148)

The indicators described by Harris are used to 'tell' whether the strangers we encounter are Catholic or Protestant, and Burton later defined the process as Telling (1978: 37). Both Harris and Burton agree that the divide between Catholics and Protestants, maintained through Telling and other mechanisms, is such that inter-cultural communication is problematic. According to Burton, the sectarian consciousness 'seems to lead to a form of social relations which have almost a congenital inability to communicate across religious boundaries as each side inures itself to dialogue, making only "pseudo communication", or what Habermas... has called "systematically distorted communication', possible' (1978: 67).

Harris and Burton are not alone in noting the centrality of Telling to social relations in Northern Ireland and its implications for intercultural communication. Seamus Heaney encapsulates the phenomena in the eponymous poem, Whatever You Say Say Nothing, first published in North (1975). The following is an extract.

'Religion's never mentioned here,' of course.
'You know them by their eyes,' and hold your tongue.
'One side's as bad as the other,' never worse.
Christ, it's near time that some small leak was sprung

In the great Dykes the Dutchman made
To dam the dangerous tide that followed Seamus.
Yet for all this art and sedentary trade
I am incapable. The famous

Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the 'wee six' I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing.

Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:
manoeuvrings to find out name and school,
Subtle discrimination by addresses
With hardly an exception to the rule

That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled prod
And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap,' (Heaney, 1990: 79).[1]

Although Ms Cosgrave confronted me with the possible implications of Telling for interview-based research, I did not reflect long on the issues that she raised. My response was to pay more careful attention to the discrepancies between the accounts that different respondents gave me of the same events and to compare the oral record of those events with the contemporary documentary record in trade union minutes and local newspapers. Placing my confidence in the capacity of textbookish triangulation to yield something close to the truth of the matters that I was investigating, and mindful of the then hotly contested debate about the extent to which Protestant workers constituted a labour aristocracy, I argued that while it might be true that the attitude of some Protestant workers to trade unionism was coloured by their position in the workforce and their relationship with managers, most of whom were also Protestant, the poor representation of Protestants in the Garment Workers Union prior to the breakaway could not be explained in terms of some generalised hostility to trade unionism inherent in the Protestant condition, but rather could only be understood as a historical process constructed through the practices of actual individuals operating in a particular social milieu (see Finlay, 1989:183-189)

Ms Cosgrave was not to be so easily dismissed. My experience of researching sectarianism and trade unionism had been an extended process of disillusionment, the encounter with Ms Cosgrave was somehow bound-up with that process. I left Northern Ireland as soon as my PhD was finished, and embarked on a new and entirely different programme of research that was driven more by the priorities of the policy-maker than of personal interest. Nevertheless, the memory of my encounter with Ms Cosgrave and doubts about the adequacy of my response to it, continued to trouble me. Having recently regained an appetite for Irish cultural and political affairs, I felt compelled to return to my encounter with Ms Cosgrave as unfinished business and a necessary (c.f. Stanley 1996) prelude to further work. My initial purpose was to discover why this particular encounter had affected me in the way that it did, but I hope that it might also illuminate issues of more general interest to do with the importance, and difficulties, of reflexivity in the study of ethnic and national conflicts.

My lack of reflexivity at the time is, I think, understandable if not excusable. If my memory is correct, concern within social anthropology about the researcher's identity was then focussed on the political and moral implications of white, metropolitans doing fieldwork in former colonies (e.g. Asad, 1973). I thought that by studying my own society I had avoided this dilemma[2].

Excusable or not, my lack of reflexivity was not unusual in the prevailing conditions of Northern Ireland. Liam O'Dowd (1990) and Bill Rolston (1998a) have written about the pressures on social researchers, exerted from within sociology and the Northern Ireland academy more generally, to maintain a distance from, and certainly not to take sides in, the Troubles. Marie Smyth and Ruth Moore (1996) go further to argue that researchers in Northern Ireland have hidden 'behind the veil of academic language and method... laying claim to scientific objectivity claiming scholarly or scientific detachment', and that the corresponding lack of reflexivity has been detrimental in two ways. Firstly, they argue that the 'academic community largely unreflexively mirrors and re-enacts the divisions occurring in the society it is observing and writing about' (1996 : 17)[3]. Secondly, they note a 'resistance to the exploration of personal experiences and emotions in relation to sectarian division' (1996: 12). The lack of reflexivity on the part of researchers has meant that the subjective and emotional aspect of conflict has been neglected: 'The possibilities or implications of incorporating subjectivity into traditional methodological approaches in research and writing on sectarianism would entail the writer declarating (sic) his or her position, and/or... providing data on his or her socialisation in relation to the sectarian divide' (1996 :18).

Smyth and Moore's claim that social researchers in Northern Ireland have failed to be reflexive is overstated. An early example of self-criticism is provided by Hastings Donnan and Graham McFarlane's (1983) review of qualitative research on sectarianism. They note the 'coexistence of different views on [Northern Irish] society' (1983: 134) or two sets of assumptions among researchers interested in the micro-sociology of Catholic-Protestant relations:

'One set, usually held by sociologists, is that Northern Ireland has a core problem which hides beneath a veneer of superficial good relations. This core problem erupts at certain times and in certain places, and subsides beneath the veneer at others. The other set of assumptions, seemingly shared by most social anthropologists, is that Northern Irish society has a reasonable balance at its core, which is only temporarily disrupted by dramatic events.' (1983: 135)

They offer two potential explanations for the coexistence of these different views. Firstly, they suggest that, 'the small community or network of people whose affairs are investigated are not representative of Northern Irish society' (1983: 134). Secondly, they suggest that the discrepancy,

'might derive from inappropriate methods. We pointed out in our introduction that we were not going to discuss research which used questionnaire surveys because they are too unreliable. However, even in the research carried out by more personalised methods, there are certain to be differences in emphasis. It is perfectly reasonable to conjecture that the tolerance and harmony to be found in many reports is simply a product of using interviews more than any research tool. Everyone in Northern Ireland knows that few people are willing to be frank and open about their strong opposition to the other side, especially seemingly educated researchers. The solution here is probably to carry out more research using the more informal methods and to be more explicit about the methods which are used'. (1983: 134-5).

I would suggest that what matters most is not the researcher's educational status, but that interviewers and interviewees both engage in Telling and, depending on the outcome of the process, may never, or only rarely, get beyond the bland, superficial, coded communication described by Heaney, Harris and Burton.

Telling is confronted more directly in two recent monographs, but still there is a tendency to dismiss or minimise the problems it poses for researchers. Madeleine Leonard (1994) mentions that her interviews 'were often preceded by attempts by respondents to pry into my background.' However, she grew-up close to the locale she was researching, and 'Once it was established that I was "one of them", trust and confidence was easily secured' (1994: 41).

John Brewer and Kathleen Magee (1991) are admirably frank about the potential problems posed by the latter's identity as a Catholic conducting ethnographic fieldwork among the mainly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), but conclude that 'on the whole we feel knowledge of the fieldworker's religion was not detrimental to the research' (1991: 26). They justify this conclusion by pointing out that the fieldworker's identity 'did not prevent some respondents expressing disparaging remarks about Catholics, nor dissuade them from giving opinions on controversial political issues' (1991: 25). They also argue that members of the RUC distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' Catholics, and,

'Once the fieldworker was categorized as conforming to the typification of a 'good' Catholic... then her religion was no longer as important as it appears at first sight, although the extent to which it had a residual effect is impossible to estimate. But it only remained of crucial importance to that small minority of bigoted constables who classify all Catholics as equally evil and nefarious ' (1991:25).

And yet, as Burton (1978) points out, 'In calling the process of telling part of the sectarian consciousness I do not mean to suggest that thinking in such terms is an exclusive domain of the bigot' (1978: 63).

My point is that Telling and its effects are more insidious that Brewer and Magee allow. Burton, like Brewer and Magee, conceives Telling as a cognitive, ethnic identification, device, but Burton recognises that there is more to Telling than classifying the social world. Let me develop my point with reference to Moerman's (1974) discussion of ethnic identification among the Lue of North Thailand. Moerman notes the apparent triviality of the traits used by the Lue to identify themselves as a discrete ethnic group and argues that, too often, ethnographers take such folk identifications for granted or, even, re-cycle them as analytic categories and explanations when what is required is that ethnographers ask themselves why the people they are studying are preoccupied with ethnic identity rather than with the other possible identifications available to them[4].

Burton explains the salience of Telling among Northern Irish people by demonstrating its role in the routine, everyday management of sectarian alienation. Telling operates at many levels. 'At the order of face-to-face interaction it is a necessary social skill if the embarrassment endemic in a sectarian milieu is to be avoided' (Burton, 1978: 64). Similarly, Harris describes how Catholics and Protestants use Telling to avoid offending one another. But Telling also has a more sinister significance. The example Burton gives is of it being used 'when the identity of an individual is being determined for intended military, political and criminal activity'. He continues,

'This threat of danger which is endemic in Belfast underlines a second feature of telling: the way it can be used to create areas of trust. As Suttles poignantly illustrates, territorial segregation amongst ethnic groups has the seeming advantage of creating personal and local pools of predictability... Within one's own physical area there is a built in moral arena, a normative order, which helps to structure the possible types of interaction. The potential conflict in cross-ethnic interaction is limited by territory. I would suggest that telling, in a like manner, creates order in the anomic climate of a sectarian society. In one sense Protestants and Catholics do not know how to interact. Their restricted knowledge of each other prevents communication. Telling contributes to shutting out this anomie before it starts' (1978: 65-66).

In a more recent discussion which emphasises the sinister aspect of the process, Feldman (1991) has described Telling as the embodiment of sectarianism.

Burton's notion of Telling as method of managing sectarianism and his allusion to its role in mitigating the anomie created by sectarianism might usefully be supplemented by recent work in the sociology of emotion. Thomas Scheff (1994) has argued that at the heart of any protracted conflict there are deep-seated and unacknowledged emotional issues to do with the quality of relations between the contending parties and that it is these, as much as the ostensible 'topics of conflict', that make it protracted. Arlie Russel Hochschild (1983), in her analysis of the work done by flight attendants, develops the notion of emotional labour,

'this labor requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.... I use the term emotional labor to mean the management of feeling... emotional labor is sold for a wage and therefore has exchange value... these same acts done in a private context... have a use value' (1983: 7).

Although Hochschild is concerned with flight attendants, she makes it clear that the management of feeling is involved in routine social encounters of various kinds.

Let me illustrate the relevance of Scheff's and Hochschild's work by returning to my interview with Ms Cosgrave. I had not told Ms Cosgrave that I was from a Protestant background - given my knowledge of Telling I did not think that I needed to be explicit about this. In the tortuous preface to her generalisation about Protestants and trade unionism she was not only indicating that she had got the message, she was also engaging in what Hochschild would call feeling management. Before transgressing the norms of Catholic-Protestant interaction, she had to clear the way. In saying that she 'was not a bit ashamed' and that she was 'being honest and truthful', she was addressing the possibility that I might dismiss what she was about to tell me as bigotry. In saying 'I don't want to hurt your feelings', she was acknowledging the possibility that I might be upset by her condemnation of what she took to be my co-religionists and was seeking to diminish its immediate impact.

I am tempted to take this further, even though it is not yet resolved in my mind. In the light of Scheff's work, it is perhaps interesting that Ms Cosgrave alludes to shame, for, of all the emotions, Scheff assigns a special significance to shame and shamelessness in protracted conflict. He also elaborates the connection between shame and morality: 'For most people shame provides unmistakable signals of where they stand in the moral universe at any particular moment' (1994: 53). In her condemnation of Protestant workers Ms Cosgrave was self-consciously entering the moral universe - apportioning blame - something which is usually avoided in social encounters between Catholics and Protestants by circumlocutions such as Heaney's '"One side's as bad as the other,"' - 'never worse'. Certainly, Telling as a way of managing sectarianism is more than a cognitive device, it has an emotional and moral valency (c.f. Feldman 1991: 59).

My response to Ms Cosgrave's generalisation about Protestant shirt workers was to make reassuring noises to the effect that she should feel free to say to me whatever she wanted. I had interviewed her before, and we had already established a relationship that had a warmth that went beyond what the textbooks call rapport. The point is that the interview was not fraught; nor are most routine encounters between Catholics and Protestants. Nevertheless, I would agree with Harris that 'all social relationships are pervaded by a consciousness of the religious dichotomy' (1986:xi). I would go further to suggest that deep-seated emotional and moral issues that I have alluded to are immanent even in routine encounters between Catholics and Protestants and I suspect that it is this that makes Telling necessary and so difficult to escape, even for the social researcher. The fact that these issues do not surface on most occasions attests to the insidious efficacy of Telling as a mechanism for managing sectarianism. To the extent that the foregoing is true, I would agree with Smyth and Moore (1996) when they imply a connection between a lack of reflexivity on the part of researchers and their failure to deal with the subjective and emotional aspects of sectarianism and their lack of reflexivity[5].

The point of my brief excursion into the sociology of emotion was to suggest that Telling and its effects are more insidious than Brewer and Magee allow and that the issues it raises for ethnographic and interview-based research can not be reduced to the familiar problem of 'reactive effects' (1991: 25). In developing this point I think I have also come closer to understanding what it was about my encounter with Ms Cosgrave that troubled me. To get closer still, I need to refer to Game's (1991) discussion of reflexivity and the manner in which radical sociologists authorise their research and writing. She notes that Marxist and feminist sociologists acknowledge their partisanship, but they make a particular connection between

'a political position and truth. In Marxist and feminist sociology the determining dynamics are characterised by conflict... Marxism... is not just a theory of the class struggle and conflict, it is a class theory - the theory of the subject of history. Thus Marxist sociologists authorise themselves by putting themselves in the movement of history, in the class narrative; and they are the voice of the narrative. Feminist sociologists have been critical of "male" sociologists who speak on behalf of the working class, but their authorisation is based on similar assumptions. While it is problematic for sociologists to speak for the working class, feminist sociologists, as women, can speak on behalf of women... this assumes a unity, women, and fails to acknowledge questions of difference and the production of the other to the subject of feminist knowledge' (1991: 24).

Game argues that in making these assumptions radical sociologists evade difference, they evade otherness, and they do this 'precisely through a process of identification with "objects" of research... accounts of the other are about an "affirmation of identity" [by the researcher], a sense of self... through an identification with the objects of research, the autobiographical is not fully acknowledged' (1991: 29).

Earlier, I mentioned that in the course of my fieldwork I cast for myself a neutral role. It would be more precise to say that I cast for myself a role that I imagined might transcend sectarian divisions and evade the usual strictures on communication between strangers in Northern Ireland. My role was not that of the disinterested academic, but that of a socialist who was steeped in an established - though much reduced - indigenous labourist tradition that was critical of both Unionism and Nationalism and sought to unite the Catholic and Protestant workers on a class basis. This role was not an artifice, it was organic. It was part of my family history and my own adult experience. My interest in researching sectarian divisions within the Derry shirt industry was not purely academic. The research was conceived during the early 1980s when socialism seemed more viable than it does now, and it was initially motivated by the hope that a micro-sociology of Catholic-Protestant relations in the Derry shirt industry might contribute to a larger political project of working class unity in Northern Ireland.

Until I met Ms Cosgrave, it had seemed reasonable - though, with hindsight, naive - to assume that the women I was interviewing would, irrespective of the practical problems that they had encountered in their time as trade union activists, identify to some extent with ideals similar to my own and that, on the basis of this mutual identification, we could establish a trust and rapport that was sufficient to ensure valid communication. As I have already indicated, Ms Cosgrave's willingness to transgress the norms of communication between Catholic and Protestant was far from reassuring. But what really disconcerted me was that Ms Cosgrave, albeit with gentle words, shattered my identification with her and, by implication, with other nationalist trade unionists I had interviewed. I had constructed myself as a non-sectarian, secular socialist and her moral equal; she had constructed me as a Protestant[6].

Ms Cosgrave confronted me with difference, with the dangers of a self-serving, over-identification with the people we research and with the need for researchers to reflect honestly and critically on their own identities and the influence of these on what they research, what they find and how analyse it. She did me a service, but, at the time, my encounter with her crystallised an already growing disillusionment with the intellectual and political adequacy of socialism and Marxist theory in the face of ethnic and National conflict. Having had the rug pulled-out from under my self-identification as a socialist, I could find no other tenable and personally satisfying position from which to prolong my intellectual and political engagement in Irish cultural affairs.

It is becoming evident to me that a reflexive sociology might - in itself - then and now provide a basis for an engagement or re-engagement. And yet, the foregoing discussion of my encounter with Ms Cosgrave and of Telling adds to our understanding of the difficulties that researchers might have in adopting a fully reflexive position in situations of ethnic and national conflict. It is not so much that there is a physical risk involved in identifying oneself or in being identified (see Lee, 1995 and Rolston 1998a); even before the recent paramilitary cease-fires, such a risk was sometimes overstated. A more insidious and ongoing difficulty is the cultural reticence - summed-up here in the concept of Telling - that has evolved as a means of managing conflict and tension , but which acts as a barrier not only to intercultural communication, but also to reflexive expression. This cultural reticence is internalised such that it is only now, fifteen years after the event, that I have been able to write this reflexive piece, and still with some anxiety.

There is another problem with reflexivity in small, intimate, ethnically divided societies such as Northern Ireland, where identities have an ineluctable quality[7]. As with me and Ms Cosgrave, so with the people who read research reports: they know or think that they know where the author is coming from and interpret or dismiss what is written accordingly (c.f. Brewer 1994 and Rolston 1998a). In this context, Smyth and Moore's (1996) injunction that a researcher should declare 'his or her position, and/or... provid[e] data on his or her socialisation in relation to the sectarian divide' is simultaneously asking a lot and yet scarcely sufficient. In this context, one might be tempted to follow Foucault:

'I am... not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order' (quoted in Poster 1997: 152).

A review of ideas about reflexivity would seem timely.

Forms of Reflexivity

Notions of reflexivity have been elaborated in different epistemological contexts, and what is required of the researcher varies accordingly. In this section I trace certain lines of development of ideas about reflexivity within sociology and social anthropology. It is not an exhaustive history; my purpose is more immediate. I wish to specify the epistemological trajectory implicit in the foregoing account of my encounter with Ms Cosgrave: where I was coming from and where I am going.

Alvin Gouldner (1970) developed an early vision of Reflexive Sociology in the context of a critique of functionalism which like other theories, including his own, he regarded as having been 'made by the praxis of men in all their wholeness and... shaped by the lives they lead' (1970: 483). He drew particular attention to the idea that much theory work arises from unacknowledged and unresolved contradictions or dissonance in the personal and professional life of the theorist. He rejected the methodological dualism that lay at the heart of American sociology and that emphasised the difference,

'between the social scientist and those whom he observes... Methodological Dualism calls for the separation of subject and object ... it enjoins the sociologist to be detached from the world he studies... Methodological Dualism is based on fear; but this is a fear not so much of those being studied as of the sociologist's own self... it assumes... that feeling is the blood enemy of intelligence... In effect, methodological dualism prohibits the sociologist from changing in response to the social worlds that he studies and knows best; it requires him to finish his research with the same self, the same biases and commitments with which he began it' (1970: 495-6).

For Gouldner, Reflexive Sociology was not merely another specialism, but a radical attempt to transform the sociologist. Radical, because 'it would accept the fact that the roots of sociology pass through the sociologist as a total man, and the question he must confront, therefore, is not merely how to work, but how to live' (1970: 489); radical, also, in the sense that the main threat to the objectivity of the researcher is seen as emerging not from the interaction between the researcher and those he studies, but 'the biasing effects of the larger society and the powerful influences it exerts upon the sociologists work through the intervening mechanism of his career and other interests': the tendency in any social system is to transform the sociologist into 'either an ideologue for the status quo and an apologist for its policies, or into a technician acting instrumentally on behalf of its interests' (1970: 498). However, it should be noted that Gouldner's was suspicious of any easy identification between the sociologist and the powerless. Rejecting the idea of value freedom did not lead Gouldner, as it had led Howard Becker, to the idea that the sociologist should side with the 'underdog'. In fact, he was highly critical Becker's idea that sociology should give voice to the powerless: 'Under the banner of sympathy for the underdog, the liberal technologues of sociology have become the market researchers of the Welfare State, and the agents of a new managerial sociology' (1970: 500-501). Despite its dated idiom of male quest (c.f. Behar and Gordon, 1995: 16) - reflexivity as a man's got to do what a man's got to do - Gouldner's vision is still resonant.

Gouldner's argument that the sociologist is not endowed with god-like qualities of invisibility and objectivity but is part of the social world that s/he studies has become part of the common currency of sociology (see Hammersley and Atkinson, 1983) and has, in the process, been stripped of its radical edge. In methods textbooks and elsewhere, reflexivity is reduced to a checklist of guidelines for good practice which encourage students and first-time researchers to develop 'a critical attitude' to their research: 'confronting' their preconceptions, assessing the impact of these and of their research practices on the findings (Harvey and Macdonald 1993: 177). However, at this level, reflexivity is usually posed as a way of addressing positivistic concerns with the objectivity of qualitative research (see Denscombe 1998). There is thus a defensiveness about this type of reflexivity which is at odds with the injunction to be self critical.

Within the mainstream, a more radical approach to reflexivity has been sustained by sociologists such as Steve Woolgar (1988) and Frederick Steier (1991) who seek to develop a social constructionist approach to the study of scientific and technical knowledge. According to Woolgar, the sociology of scientific knowledge 'has deployed a form of relativism to make the point that scientific and technical knowledge is not the rational/logical extrapolation from existing knowledge, but the contingent product of various social, cultural and historical processes' (1988:1). Woolgar is critical of those who apply a weak or partial form of social constructionism such that they are 'relativist about scientists' knowledge practices but realist in the production of their own research' (1988: 4). He seeks to move beyond this position, advocating a stronger, more radical social constructionism such that not only science but also the social study of science are 'relativised'.

Reflexivity is crucial to Woolgar's strong social constructionist project, and in this context he makes some useful distinctions. He advocates what he calls 'constitutive reflexivity' in which 'the fact that author constitutes and forms part of the "reality" she creates is axiomatic to the analytic style' (1988: 22). He contrasts constitutive reflexivity with 'benign introspection' which is compatible with a realist view that there is some pre-existing reality that is independent of our efforts to describe it. Benign introspection,

'entails loose injunctions to "think about what we are doing". It is encouraged as a means of generating addenda to research reports, sometimes in the form of "fieldwork confessions", which provide the "inside story" on how the research was done' (1988: 22L).

He concedes that benign introspection and constitutive reflexivity may be related, 'for example, it may be through introspection that we come to recognise constitutive reflexivity in our work', but he is concerned to emphasise the difference:

'An exercise in introspection is usually concerned with improving the adequacy of the connections between the analyst's statements and the objects of those statements... far from raising any fundamental problem, this kind of reflexivity sustains and enhances the Scientific axiom of the research effort.' (1988: 22)

Influenced primarily by ethnomethodlogy, Woolgar and Steir's views are, nevertheless, also informed by approaches to reflexivity developed within social anthropology, which are themselves informed by postmodernism and post-structuralist conceptions of language and writing. The influential collection edited by James Clifford and George Marcus (1986) questions the traditional view of ethnography as the transparent representation of an uncontested, single cultural reality. Research is not reported, it is written, and writing is a process of construction, invention, transformation according to a poetics and a politics which privileges certain voices over others. Clifford and Marcus note the emergence of various kinds of reflexive experimentation in ethnographic writing. The latter include not only reflexive accounts of fieldwork, but also the staging of dialogues between informants and ethnographers, the narration of interpersonal confrontations, ethnography as a 'cultural poetics that is an interplay of voices, of positioned utterances' (1986: 12), the re-emergence of ethnography as cultural criticism. In a later publication, Marcus develops the notion of ethnographies as 'messy texts' which among other things 'refuse to assimilate too easily... the object of study, thus committing a kind of academic colonialism whereby the deep assumption seeps into a work that the interests of the ethnographer and those of his or her subjects are somehow aligned' (Marcus, 1994: 567).

Having reviewed the notions of reflexivity elaborated by Gouldner, Woolgar, Clifford and Marcus, I can now map the trajectory implicit in the foregoing discussion of my encounter with Ms Cosgrave. At the time of my encounter, I was still a Marxist; a materialist, who believed in an extra-discursive reality. As a social anthropologist I wished to give some priority to my respondents' point of view, but I did not succumb to the tendency, identified by Moerman (1974), of conflating folk models with analytical models. I treated Ms Cosgrave's generalisation about Protestant workers as a representation which bore some connection with reality, but, having triangulated various sources, was confident that my representation of Protestant workers was closer to the truth.

In order to specify the notions of reflexivity with which I began writing about my encounter with Ms Cosgrave, I need to make some distinctions. Woolgar's benign introspection is similar to the text book version of reflexivity that I outlined above, but conflates two distinct approaches. Allied with realism, benign introspection is defensive and encourages not only the 'fieldwork confessions' that Woolgar mentions, but also descriptive accounts of the researcher's biography which usually remain unconnected to the substance of the research. Thus, a better term for this form it might be 'descriptive reflexivity'. I would distinguish descriptive reflexivity from 'critical reflexivity' which, while compatible with realist assumptions, can as Woolgar implies, coexist with ,or lead to deeper forms of reflexivity.

When I first wrote my encounter with Ms Cosgrave, my ideas about reflexivity were mainly of the critical variety[8], but they were also informed by a postmodern sensibility that I had acquired in the years following my disillusionment with Marxism. The postmodern premise that there is no possibility of fixed, final authoritative meaning has a compelling quality in the conditions of Northern Ireland, which have been recently characterised by Henry Patterson as follows:

'there is no "civil society" in Northern Ireland. "Civil society" has collapsed into competing religio-political blocs. There are two "civil societies" which display many of the characteristics of what... Hannah Arendt called "communities of meaning". Such communities exist where each group shows a strong tendency to degenerate into mutually opposed self-absorbed worlds' (Patterson, 1999).

I broadly agree with Patterson, but would add that Telling helps to sustain these two self-absorbed 'communities of meaning' and suggest that the they have existed for longer than Patterson allows. Patterson attributes the emergence of the two 'communities of meaning', 'in significant measure, to 'three decades of violence'. The self-absorbtion and cultural reticence that I have discussed have been characteristic of Northern Irish society for longer than the last three decades. After all, Harris's (1972) discussion of Telling was based on fieldwork conducted well before the onset of the recent Troubles. Moreover, John Jackson (1983) noted the difficulties of sustaining authoritative social scientific explanations in the conditions of Northern Ireland in 1983.

The account of my encounter with Ms Cosgrave was also influenced to some degree by an awareness of the methodological writings of feminists such as Anne Game, Liz Stanley and, increasingly, Donna Haraway who have done most to keep alive a radical Reflexive Sociology akin to Gouldner's vision. In their different ways, these writers elaborate what Marcus has described as 'reflexivity as a politics of location' or as a practice of positioning (1994: 571 and 572). Thus poised - uneasily - between social constructionism and realism, I now turn to these feminist writers in the hope of finding a coherent way forward.

Haraway defines the problem:

'So, I think my problem, and "our" problem is how to have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own "semiotic technologies" for making meanings and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a "real" world, one that can be partially shared and is friendly to earthwide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness' (1988: 579, Haraway's emphasis).

The solution that she develops revolves around notions of situated knowledge and embodied objectivity,

'Not so perversely, objectivity turns out to be about particular and specific embodiment and definitely not about the false vision promising transcendence of all limits and responsibilities. The moral is simple: only partial perspective promises objective vision. All western cultural narratives about objectivity are allegories of the ideologies governing the relations of what we call mind and body, distance and responsibility. Feminist objectivity is about limited location and situated knowledge, not about transcendence and splitting of subject and object. It allows us to become answerable for what we learn how to see' (1988: 583).

Haraway emphasises that, 'situated knowledges are about communities, not about isolated individuals':

'The only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular. The science question in feminism is about objectivity as positioned rationality. Its images are not the products of escape and transcendence of limits (the view from above) but the joining of partial views and halting voices into a collective subject position that promises a vision of the means of ongoing finite embodiment, of living within limits and contradictions - of views from somewhere' (1988: 590)

She notes the currents within feminism that privilege or prefer the vantage point of the subjugated, and agrees that 'there is good reason to believe vision is better from below' (1988: 584). She further argues that,

'Such preferred positioning is as hostile to various forms of relativism as to the most explicitly totalizing versions of claims to scientific authority. But the alternative to relativism is not totalization whose power depends on systematic narrowing and obscuring. The alternative to relativism is partial, locatable, critical knowledges sustaining the possibility of webs of connections called solidarity in politics and shared conversations in epistemology. Relativism is a way of being nowhere while claiming to be everywhere equally. The "equality" of positioning is a denial of responsibility and critical inquiry. Relativism is the perfect mirror twin of totalization in the ideologies of objectivity; both deny the stakes in location, embodiment, and partial perspective; both make it impossible to see well. Relativism and totalization are both "god tricks" promising vision from everywhere and nowhere equally and fully...' (1988: 584).

As will become apparent, I am less sure than Haraway that we can privilege the vantage point of the oppressed. Nevertheless, to my mind, she offers a useful, workable means of negotiating the political and epistemological hazards of social constructionism/relativism and realism/objectivism.

Stanley (1996) takes further the notion of reflexivity as a politics of location and as a practice of positioning. She notes that feminist research is often motivated by, amongst other things, a 'felt necessity' (1996:48, Stanley's emphasis) in the sense that the topic of the research, or the approach to it, resonates with the 'personal context of the researcher'. The 'personal context' of feminist researchers was characterised in an earlier publication, Stanley and Wise (1983) in terms of 'the combined experience and analysis of what it is to be a woman in sexist society; that is, [and] a set of practices conducted by "insiders" to women's oppression' (1996: 46). Rejecting the unsustainable notion of the detached researcher, Stanley and Wise proposed 'making the researcher and her consciousness the central focus of research'. Such an approach demands that the researcher comes to grips 'analytically (not just descriptively)... with the everyday experiences of the processes of finding out' and renders this analytical engagement in 'research accounts which display their argumentative processes in detailed ways which can be critically engaged with by readers.' They advocate a form of intellectual autobiography which explicates 'the processes by which understanding and conclusions are reached' and which 'positions an experiencing and comprehending subject at the heart of intellectual and research life, a subject whose ontologically-based reasoning processes provide the grounds for knowledge claims and thus for all epistemological endeavour.' (1996: 46-47).

It is reflexivity as a politics of location and as a practice of positioning or, what, following Stanley, might be called 'analytical reflexivity' - as opposed to descriptive or critical reflexivity - that I propose as a useful starting point for my re-engagement with Irish cultural politics. As Desmond Bell has pointed out - albeit in the context of a discussion of community relations programmes rather than of social research - 'there can be no real "mutual understanding" without an adequate self-understanding of one's own culture and its limits and contradictions' (Bell 1990: 213). This might seem trite, but at least it provides some grounds for optimism.


Given its exploratory nature, I cannot prefigure the shape such a project might take; however, it would seem useful to end this article by anticipating some of the more obvious difficulties with it. Reflexive Sociology is often criticised as, at best, Narcissistic self-indulgence (Starkey 1997) and, at worst, tending towards 'sterile forms of identity politics' (Marcus, 1994: 572). I recognise these as real dangers; perhaps all the more pertinent given that I am writing as one who comes from a community that was implicated in what is widely acknowledged to have been an exclusivist and oppressive regime.

Both Haraway and Stanley elaborate their notions of reflexivity as a politics of positioning in relation to subordinate strata. As we have seen Haraway places her trust in the 'vantage points of the subjugated' and claims 'that there is good reason to believe that vision is better from below' (1988: 584). The notion that there are privileged subjects of history who, by virtue of their social position, can see more clearly than others is a persistent one: for Marxists it is the working class, for some feminists it is women, for Homi Bhaba it seems to be the hybrid and diasporic subjects created by colonialism: 'the truest eye may now belong to the migrant's double vision' (Bhaba 1994: 5)[9]. Given their origins as a colonial settler community, their uneasy relationship with their British 'motherland' and with local Catholics - subordinate to one and superordinate to the other - one might be tempted to stretch Bhaba's notion of hybridity to include Northern Protestants. However, the experience of dislocation or oppression is as likely to produce confusion and fundamentalism as insight (see Friedman 1997); certainly, Northern Protestants have been characterised in terms of identity crisis and confusion (see Cochrane, 1997, for a review of this literature). I remain sceptical about the notion that there are privileged subjects of history.

For me, the virtues of analytical reflexivity do not reside in its association with oppressed strata; more important is the emphasis on what Haraway calls 'critical positioning' and what Stanley refers to as analytical accountability. Haraway speaks of the danger 'of romanticizing and/or appropriating the vision of the less powerful while claiming to see from their positions', argues that 'the positionings of the subjugated are not exempt from critical examination' and warns that 'Identity, including self-identity, does not produce science; critical positioning does, that is, objectivity'. For Haraway the 'split and contradictory self is the one who can interrogate positionings and be accountable...' (1988: 584, 586 and 587).

The emphasis on critical positioning and analytic accountability becomes even more important in relation to ambiguously placed, heterogeneous strata such as Northern Protestants. The main danger is not of romanticising, but of apologia or self-justification; a danger which is all the more important to avoid because there are growing strains of victim-hood in Northern Protestant culture; a danger which is all the more difficult to resist because there is already well-developed, often hostile, external critique in the form of a hegemonising Irish nationalism (see Fleischmann 1995, Kennedy, 1996, and Finlay 1999).

In developing her notion of research as 'necessity', Stanley speaks of 'the resonance between the intellectual or ideational, and the experiential, emotional and political aspects of our lives' (1996:48). Following Gouldner, I would suggest that social research often arises from dissonance. Such dissonance is not merely personal, it is often the introjection of, and a clue to, larger social, political and moral contradictions; nor is it the preserve of researchers born into subordinate or oppressed strata (c.f. Sartre's discussion of Memmi, 1990). Ms Cosgrave made visible to me the dissonance which permeated the whole of the research project in which I was engaged. Rather than suppress such dissonance for fear of transgressing a spurious notion of objectivity or of appearing self-indulgent, I would have been better served, and served better, by analysing the broader social, political and moral contradictions that created the feeling of dissonance, and the limitations of my self-identification as a socialist as a means of dealing with or, perhaps, evading them?


1The full text of the poem and a sound file can be found at: <>.

2Writing Culture (Clifford and Marcus 1986) was published around the time of the events I describe. Here, Clifford mentions the virtues of 'narrating interpersonal confrontation' in ethnography; however, I did not read Writing Culture until later, and it is only recently that I have come across examples that resonate with my experience (e.g. Bowes 1996 and Song and Parker, 1995).

3Two recent publications (Miller 1998 and McVeigh 1995) have discussed the social composition of academics in Northern Ireland's universities and questioned their neutrality; however they are less concerned with the specific implications of this for social research, than with advancing an argument about the continuing relevance of British colonialism to explanations of the Northern Ireland conflict as against the prevalence in academic debate of the 'internal conflict model'.

4There is more to be said about the conflation of folk models and analytic models in the discourse of academics and policy makers. Arguably such a conflation has contributed to a tendency for the cultural categories, Protestant and Catholic, to be taken as givens - objectified and frozen - rather than being understood as actively constructed and contested. Such reification seems to have had a pernicious effect on cultural policies initiated by the British state in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, 1985 (see Bell, 1998 and Rolston 1998b). However, my present concern is with the implications of Telling for social research.

5The failure on the part of social researchers to address the passions aroused by ethnic conflict in Northern Ireland conflict has been commented upon by other writers, notably Whyte (1983). I would not pretend that this failure can be reduced to the lack of reflexivity on the part of researchers; one would also need to consider, for example, the influence on social researchers of the tension in Enlightenment thought between reason and romanticism and the subsequent tendency to privilege rationality over emotion.

6It is difficult to explore the shifting power relations between myself and Ms Cosgrave at this remove. Moreover, we should be wary, as Rhodes has pointed out in relation to debates about white researchers interviewing black people, of the danger 'of confusing cultural misunderstanding with the unequal power relationships constructed around racial differentiation'(Rhodes 1994:55). However, there were clearly issues of power at stake, and the interview should be seen in light of the fact that Protestants in Ireland have, historically, held power at the expense of Catholics and that between 1921 and 1972, the duration of the Unionist regime, Derry was the place that the abuse of that power was at its most blatant. Ms Cosgrave may have subverted my 'authority' (in Anne Games' sense of the word) in the interview and the experience may have troubled me thereafter, but neither at the time of the interview, nor when writing-up my thesis did I explore why she said what she had said; rather, I assumed or re-assumed the authoritative voice of the objective researcher. As I have already indicated, I was, at the time, oblivious to the alternative writing strategies discussed by Clifford and Marcus (1986).

7The ineluctable nature of sectarian identities is captured in a well-worn local joke. The joke takes various forms, but most often it concerns a Jewish man who is stopped in the street by a menacing gang who challenge him to identify himself. He says, 'I'm Jewish'. The gang members reply: 'but are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew'.

8As we have seen, 'critical reflexivity' involves confronting one's preconceptions, assessing the impact of these and of one's research practices on the findings. I should reiterate that this article was not conceived as an exercise in 'critical reflexivity'. If it had been, I would have discussed various aspects of the research process and aspects of my identity other than the fact that I come from a Northern Protestant background. For example, I would not deny that what transpired in my interviews was influenced by the fact that I was a young man and that most of my interviewees were elderly women. Nevertheless, for the purpose of this article, I think that the single-minded focus on ethnic identity is warranted. Harris has argued that in Northern Ireland 'religious affiliation is the most important characteristic of any individual, normally outweighing even that of sex' (Harris 1986: 148). A large claim, all I can say is that while gender loomed large in my thesis and the issue of reflexivity with respect to gender was raised by at least one social scientist who read a draft, my gender identity was never challenged in the way that Ms Cosgrave challenged my ethnic identity.

9As a panellist at the Trinity Week Symposium on Intercultural Communications (Trinity College, Dublin, 13 May 1999) I had the pleasure of discussing these issues with Professor Bhaba and other participants as part of a response to his earlier paper. He would, no doubt, still dispute my interpretation of his concept of hybridity; nevertheless the issues were unresolved and I think they might be usefully aired again here.


I have incurred many debts in the development of this paper. The research upon which it is based was funded by a Research Studentship from the Department of Education for Northern Ireland. The research was supervised by John Gledhill and Rosemary Harris; the shortcomings discussed here are of my own making, and occurred despite their best efforts and careful supervision. Earlier versions of the paper were read at two conferences: World Congress on Violence and Human Coexistence, University College Dublin, 17-21 August 1997, and INCORE International Workshop on Researching Violent Societies, Derry/Londonderry and Belfast, 28-31 March 1999. A subsequent draft was read and commented on by colleagues in Department of Sociology at Trinity College, Dublin, notably Dr Barbara Bradby and Dr Ronit Lentin. I have also found the anonymous referees and Editor of Sociological Research Online most helpful. My biggest debt, however, is obviously to Ms Cosgrave.

Verses from Whatever You Say Say Nothing by Seamus Heaney, taken from New Selected Poems 1966-1987, Faber and Faber Ltd, 1990. Copyright Seamus Heaney. Reproduced by permission of the publisher. The poem may not be reproduced without prior permission of the publisher.


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