Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Tim May (1999) 'Reflexivity and Sociological Practice'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 3, <>

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Received: 2/8/1999      Accepted: 23/9/1999      Published: 30/9/1999


Attention to reflexivity is often assumed to be the means through which the assumptions and values of social scientists may be uncovered. Researchers are thus called upon to position themselves explicitly in terms of their place within the research process in order that their interpretations may be assessed according to situated aspects of their social selves. Taking a reconstructive social science as one whose aim is to examine our pre-theoretical knowledge in the spirit of producing more adequate accounts of the social world, this article seeks to make sense of these ideas in relation to their consequences for producing an engaged practice and body of knowledge.

Endogenous; Engagement; Practice; Referential; Reflexivity


A great deal of sociological writings in recent times has been devoted to the ideas of producing more 'reflexive accounts', 'reflexive modernity' and the incurable nature of reflexivity. As the charge was once made of being a positivist, to be called an unreflexive practitioner seems to signify someone who is inadequate, incomplete and worst of all, outdated. In this article I wish to examine elements of these calls to reflexivity.

My principal concern is with the interactions between research practice and the social world and the status of sociological knowledge for knowing that world. To consider this relationship, the article is divided into two parts. First, an examination of the reasons for the current pre-occupation with reflexivity. This is inevitably selective, but its purpose is to highlight some of the implications for sociological practice. Second, a consideration of the consequences of these calls for research practice and the generation of knowledge. Highlighted in these discussions are issues that are thought necessary for informing an engaged and reflexive practice.

The Calls: Reasons

Reflexive concerns arise from an acknowledgement that the knower and known cannot be separated. This is nothing new and dates back to early philosophical pre-occupations. If not new, however, what has changed in recent times to bring reflexivity to the forefront of sociological writings? One answer to this question arises in reification. As the knower and known are implicated it is necessary to consider the mode and consequences of this relation for the status of social scientific knowledge. For instance, a separation between 'lay' and 'professional' forms of knowledge is said to create an analytic distance from the topic of social inquiry (Garfinkel 1991). Reflexive questioning of sociological concepts and how these relate to meaning constitution within the lifeworld is then required to guard against such possibilities.

Reflexivity and Meaning in the Lifeworld

A call of this type came from the phenomenologist Alfred Schutz. For Schutz, the mediation of first and second order constructs should be a topic of prime concern. A commonsense stock of knowledge orientates people to apply meaning to their own actions, those of others and the events that they encounter. The lifeworld thus exhibits the basis for a primary experience that enables people to orientate their actions through taking its self-evidence, or pre-reflexive constitution, for granted.

According to this formulation the generation of sociological knowledge (second order) should concern itself with the explication of Husserl's 'natural attitude' by rendering explicit the 'taken-for granted' in everyday life. It follows that social phenomena are constituted as meaningful before the sociologist appears on the scene. These basic 'meaning structures' are then analytically re-arranged by social science with the consequence that they do not accurately reflect social relations. Schutz therefore argued that social scientific constructs must satisfy the 'postulate of adequacy' by being compatible "with the constructs of everyday life" (Schutz 1979: 35).

The phenomenological legacy was to change in the hands of Harold Garfinkel (1967) through an invoking of 'indexicality'. Broadly speaking, this states that everyday language and actions cannot be understood without being situated within the social context in which they are uttered and produced. To overcome this, social scientists produce metaphors in order to theorise as to how objects are constructed in the social world. However, these do not reflect the situated and practical manner in which the process of recognition and production takes place in everyday life. As a result, sociologists are called upon to build analytic apparatuses "which will provide for how it is that any activities, which members do in such a way as to be recognizable as such to members, are done, and done recognizably" (Sacks 1974: 218).

Reflexivity as a topic is now exhibited by actors within the routines of everyday life, the understanding of which is given through accurate descriptions of accounting procedures. As Garfinkel puts it: "the activities whereby members produce and manage settings of organized everyday affairs are identical with members' procedures for making those settings 'account-able'. The 'reflexive' or 'incarnate' character of accounting practices and accounts makes up the crux of that recommendation" (Garfinkel 1967: 1). Nevertheless, there is a price. A reflexive concern with the mediation between professional and lay concepts is sidelined in favour of meticulous descriptions of mundane activities within everyday life. To express this another way: a one-way hermeneutic is postulated from lay to social scientific knowledge. Two implications follow. First, a hermeneutic absence is apparent via a bracketing of issues concerned with the translation and slippage between different language games. Second, how it is that actors in everyday life can move from reflexivity within actions, to reflexivity upon actions (Czyzewski 1994)?

Back to Mediation: Structuration Theory and Genetic Structuralism

To consider the relations between sociological discourse and everyday life, Anthony Giddens employs hermeneutics in order to see how the discipline stands in a "reflexive social relation to its subject matter, human social action" (Giddens in Giddens and Pierson 1998: 40). For Giddens, one cannot make social scientific statements that refer to 'sensory observations' in theoretically neutral ways (Giddens 1976: 135). Given this, meticulous descriptions of everyday life do not side step the need for reflexive inquiry in the engagement between paradigms.

Reflexive scrutiny is now exhibited in the relationship between lay and technical languages which is not, as Schutz argued, one way. Instead, there is a constant movement between the two with consequences for everyday practice, leading Giddens to note: "It would not be at all unusual to find a coroner who had read Durkheim" (1990: 42). The practices of the social sciences are thus seen in terms of a 'double hermeneutic' that refers to the ways in which lay and professional concepts become implicated in a continual slippage between frames of meaning (Giddens 1984: 374).

With Giddens' emphasis on a Heideggerian inspired ontology of potentials in human action, a theorisation of the movement from reflexivity within actions to reflexivity upon actions is required. This places structuration theory at odds with ethnomethodology, despite Giddens' clear debt to that tradition (May 1996: Chp 5). For this purpose Giddens writes of two senses of reflexivity. First, there is the reflexivity associated with the understandings people have of themselves as agents, leading him to comment that: "a great deal of social research just writes out the area of practical consciousness" (Giddens in Giddens and Pierson 1998: 83). Such reflexivity also includes a second component: what actors are able to say about the conditions under and through which their actions are performed. He refers to this as discursive consciousness (Giddens 1984).

References to reflexivity also occur in his writings as 'social' or 'high' reflexivity. This is associated with general changes in society whereby information becomes constitutive of what people do and the reasons they give for their actions (Giddens 1999). A connection may be established here with institutional reflexivity considered as a historical phenomenon enabling a distance to be achieved from daily life. A more calculative attitude may then be adopted towards the social world which, when linked with Giddens' theory of action, possesses a transformative capacity. Sociological investigations contribute to knowledge at this level and so cannot escape from the duty of making "intelligibility, intelligible" (Giddens 1976: 40).

Although Anthony Giddens speaks of a movement from reflexivity within actions to reflexivity upon actions, issues remain to be addressed. For instance, the idea of structure being instantiated in human action does not allow for the possibility that reflexivity upon actions may be born in encountering objective constraints that are not immediately amenable to change at the level of agency. In these times, the capacity to reflect upon actions, as opposed to within actions, may be enhanced. Here the production of social scientific findings meets an epistemology of reception in terms of how such information is translated and how this relates to practical activities? As opposed to viewing this as a topic, Giddens tends to invoke a subject-object dichotomy by overly drawing a demarcation between expert and lay knowledge with the result that the hermeneutic dimension to scientific practice is relatively neglected (see Beck, Giddens and Lash 1994). The idea of 'trust' in expert systems thus needs to be replaced by a more complex understanding of the relations between the social scientific and lifeworld communities (Wynne 1996).

In considering the mediation of lay and professional concepts, authors have focused upon the social location of the researcher. Pierre Bourdieu, for example, writes of the need to understand: "the socialorigins and coordinates (class, gender, ethnicity, etc) of the individual researcher" (Wacquant 1992: 39. Original Italics). However, in order that this is not an end in itself, the position of the researcher within the academic field, as a set of objective relations with others (Bourdieu 1993), requires examination. In addition, how they define themselves, in particular, through their difference from and distance to others with whom they compete in the academic field.

It is clear that the academic field, as Schutz recognised, constitutes a particular way of viewing the world. Yet Bourdieu's call to reflexivity takes him beyond not only phenomenologically inspired accounts, but also those of Gouldner (1971) and Giddens. The reason for this is the need to understand an "intellectualist bias" (Wacquant 1992: 39. Original Italics) in research production. The social world is often viewed as a 'spectacle' and as a result, problems arise through missing the subtleties of everyday actions, as well as ignoring an explanation of the conditions that given rise to the natural attitude. Therefore, whilst descriptions of the taken-for-granted are important, they do not contain 'the principles of their own interpretation': "Interactions between a physician, an intern, and a nurse, for instance, are undergirded by hierarchical relations of power that are not always visible during the directly observable interaction" (Bourdieu in Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 73).

It follows that social researchers must submit to critique their very ways of thinking about the world: that is, the ways in which they retire to think about that world (and hence from acting in that world) and how they construct actions in that world. Pre-suppositions, built into concepts, methods of analysis and the practical manner in which research is conducted, must be subjected not to intellectual introspection, but a 'sociology of sociology' (Bourdieu 1990: Chp 6). In this way Bourdieu's call to reflexivity: "extends beyond the experiencing subject to encompass the organizational and cognitive structure of the discipline" (Wacquant 1992: 40).

Despite Bourdieu leaving issues about the movement from pre-reflexive doxa to reflexivity upon actions unanswered (Burkitt 1997), it cannot be doubted that his aim is to be produce a better reflexive social science. Nevertheless, another route for reflexivity now presents itself. Arguments for the incommensurability of forms of life may proceed on the basis that any attempt at explanation involving scientific comparison renders injustice to the particularity of worldviews. We now encounter the final twist in this tale of reflexivity.

The Final Twist

The final twist is informed by an alignment between the central role assigned to language and texts in the constitution of reality and the postmodern turn in social thought. What was a topic of reflexivity in order to be transcended, or recognised and worked through, now defines the limits of the possible. In other words, relations between the knower and the known are no longer to be confronted as issues in the path towards better understanding, but celebrated as an inevitability and defining of the limits of what can be known (Lawson 1986). Yet in a world without the apparent complacencies of modernist foundations, this is a process without end in which conversations are assumed to be edifying, even confessional.

Take Giddens' call to reflexivity from this new vantage point. Here we can detect a universalising desire that does not render justice to the particularity of world views. Why? Because of the assumption that there can be a mediation between language games under the banner of a social scientific metalanguage. Furthermore, consider his emphasis upon the knowledgeability of agents. Writers sympathetic to postmodernist thought have regarded such conceptualisations as: "a caricature based on modernist ideology in which the agent is reflexive, able to monitor his/her actions, skilled and knowledgeable at all times" (Męstrovic´ 1998: 78).

Reflexive calls of this type can provide for a confident relativism that turns outwards to the object of attack. Affinities are evident with a sense of reflexivity that aims to reveal the problems inherent in any attempt to ground accounts of the social world. The play of postmodernism is now the end and critiques a means of demonstrating the paradoxes apparent in any act of textual representation. Methodologically speaking, inconsistency is an inherent feature of practice and attention turns to the author who should be situated in terms of the textual production of their accounts (Clifford and Marcus 1986; Hertz 1997).

To be reflexive in the final twist entails an assault upon studies of the social world through seeking to expose the partiality of accounts in terms of their restriction not only to time and place, but also the biography of authors. The turn towards reflexivity at the level of the production of social scientific accounts is now complete. If authors are really (sic) reflexive, they would recognise the futility of any attempt to 'mirror' reality. After all, continual acts of textual dissemination undermine all attempts to know the social world: "The infinite substitutability of terms and of texts makes conclusions undecidable. Because infinite substitution cannot be a self-confirming process, the expanse that it opens up also seems to be bottomless" (Platt 1989: 649).


In the above journey, reasons for calls to reflexivity started as a topic for examining issues concerned with social scientific representations of everyday life. I then moved on to examine arguments, from both Giddens and Bourdieu, that reflexivity should be a topic for the purpose of producing better accounts of social life. The final twist in the tale then came in an alignment of the linguistic and postmodern turns in social thought, with the result that demonstrations of reflexive adequacy at the level of the knower became the ultimate forum of concern. This arena, however, is not constituted in the name of prior reflexive calls. Attempts to refer to the known via any act of comparison may now be regarded as at best misguided and at worst, an act of injustice to the particularity of world views. With these points in mind, attention now turns towards the consequences of calls to reflexivity and the issues that ought to inform a reflexive and engaged sociology.

The Call: Consequences

Responses: Retreat, Deconstruction and Technicism

Reactions to calls to reflexivity are, to say the least, variable. David Silverman, for instance, takes an aesthetic resistance to when he writes: "Many years ago, I remember a research student who used to make visiting speakers flounder by asking them: 'how would you apply your own analysis to the text you have just presented?' As they wriggled, I wriggled too - not from intellectual difficulty but rather from distaste for this sort of wordplay which appeared to make a not very articulate student into a profound thinker" (Silverman 1997: 240). On the other hand, there is the full embrace. Comfortable in the certitude of uncertainties, one may bear witness to the incurably reflexive nature of the contemporary age. The social researcher is then left to reflect upon the futility of their enterprise in terms of the scientific inadequacy of their discipline. They can thus conclude that there are no conclusions to be reached concerning the social world!

Bruno Latour's discussion of meta-reflexivity and infra-reflexivity picks up on the issues raised by the adoption of such a position. For Latour, meta-reflexivity is characterised by a concern with the knower, not the known. An abandonment of the work of representation then occurs in which the naďve view becomes that which conceives of the text as a referent: "Reflexivity is supposed to counteract this effect by rendering the text unfit for normal consumption (which often means unreadable)" (Latour 1988: 168). Literary devices abound and self-referential loops relieve readers of the burden of engagement for, in reading these accounts, they appear: "strangely self-contained, sealing themselves off from comment and criticism" (Law 1994: 190). The result being: "Reflexivists fully endorse the scientistic agenda when they believe there is no other way out of empiricism than language, words and self-reference" (Latour 1988: 173).

Latour suggests that social scientists should speak of the world not the word in order that the proper object of reflexivity is the work of representation. Without this in the forefront, the balance between deconstruction and reconstruction tips in favour of the former with the result that sociology loses its relevance for understanding and explanation. Alvin Gouldner was clearly aware of this tendency when he wrote: "Sociology begins by disenchanting the world, and it proceeds by disenchanting itself" (Gouldner 1975: 27).

We can also recognise that reflexive acts of problematising sociological precepts and processes must be continual in order to strengthen its insights. Such practices, at the level of the social scientific community, can help free intellectuals from the "illusion that they do not have any, especially about themselves" (Bourdieu in Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 195). Internal critique thus plays an important role as feminists, critical theorists and constructionists in general, have shown. Yet to remain vibrant and relevant to its day, sociology must not only consider the ways in which it views the social world, but the social world itself and its place and purpose within social relations more generally. When people speak of processes of 'social construction', let not the main issues be forgotten: the social construction of what? (Hacking 1999). And what effect does the product of this process have upon social relations?

A focus upon the productive nature of reflexivity does not detract from the evident potential of calls to produce an inward-looking practice that should be conducted in the name of finally looking outwards: for example, to those modes of closure in the social world, how they are achieved, under what conditions, utilising what resources and with what consequences? Without such questions in place, calls to reflexivity that seek to challenge the complacencies of sociological practice - a vital role - will move from the regulative, in the sense of informing and seeking to shape the practice of sociology, to the constitutive in which they seek to speak in the name of reality or realities. This occurs by focusing upon the process of knowing to the exclusion of what is discovered about the social world.

The points is that reflexive critiques can by-pass research practices and when they hit their mark, produce an uncertainty and so a lack of engagement with social issues. I have suggested elsewhere that 'instrumental positivism' (Bryant 1985) is wreaking its revenge in our apparent post empiricist/positivist/feminist/modernist age (May 1998a). We can then witness a retreat into technicism whose practices are no different in their effects from the final twist; only this time in their supposed reflections of a world devoid of issues of power. This is antithetical to critical thinking which must encompass the possibility of error: "the logical possibility of error about, misdescription and misrecognition of one's own state of awareness, and hence inter alia of one's reasons, is a condition of any reflexive intelligence" (Bhaskar 1989: 91-92. Original Italics).

Issues: Engagement, Reflexivity and Sociological Practice

The need to reconstruct sociology now rears its head. In the background is a recognition that there are no ahistorical foundations upon which to base claims to truth, justice, fairness and freedom and so these things must be continually achieved rather than assumed. Recognising that the 'philosopher-king' as the bearer of absolute knowledge should be uncrowned (Bourdieu 1990: 33) does not lead to a reflexive free for all. Deconstruction in the name of reflexivity is not the end, but reconstruction. Politically engaged and committed as he his, Derrida has noted that deconstruction does not readily translate into political programmes (Bernstein 1992: Chp 7). Nor, it should be added, methodological ones. The central question raised by reflexive calls must always be asked: how far should we go? (Outhwaite 1999).

For those concerned with the transformative potential of sociological insights any ambivalence between modernist confidence and postmodernist nihilism all too easily leads to inertia (Stones 1996). Interventions have focused upon the need to move beyond these debates (Bernstein 1983). Feminist scholars, whilst taking account of these ideas, have sought ways of extending their projects in, for example, the ideas of 'fractured foundationalism' (Stanley and Wise 1993), 'interactive universalism' (Benhabib 1992) and 'strategic essentialism' (Grosz, 1990). Others have suggested that it is to the capacities of people to re-invent themselves that we should turn for such potential (Osborne 1998) in the recognition that there can be "no moral life without the choices, responsibilities and risks which are an inescapable corollary of ambivalence" (Smart 1999: 189). We should not forget, however, the possibility of descending into yet another form of idealism in the history of social thought; albeit in a different and more sophisticated guise.

To guard against a descent into the self-referential, calls to reflexivity should be regarded as sensitising symptoms and not solutions to the issues they raise. To take reflexive questioning too far is to introduce a sterility on the part of those who hesitate at the impasse they create or, alternatively, a reaction in those whose prejudices they ought to challenge. As a check against self-referential indulgence and scholastic slumber, whilst engaging with the social world, we need two senses of reflexivity: endogenous and referential (May 1998a; 1998b). Their respective characteristics reside, as argued elsewhere, between belonging and positioning (May 1990).

Endogenous reflexivity refers to an awareness of the knowledge that is born in and through the actions of members of a given community in terms of their contribution to social reality. This includes an understanding not only of 'who' someone is, but also 'how' others view them. It is at this point that sociological research needs to connect with everyday life at the subjective, inter-subjective and institutional levels. Procedural approaches to reflexivity that draw upon ordinary language philosophy, as well as postmodern arguments regarding 'multiple selves' both fail to address a key question which relates to the type of sociological texts which are then produced. Paul Ricoeur (1994) raises this question: 'Who am I?' A question only answerable in terms of 'what', 'how' and 'why?' (May 1999). Without this in place, sociological texts will not resonate with social life.

Referential reflexivity refers to knowledge that is generated as a result of having the routines in social life disrupted by sudden changes in social conditions, or by meeting conditions that are not immediately amenable to reproduction within the routines of everyday, practical actions. To this extent, relations with objects and nature are a core concern of this dimension (see Knorr-Cetina 1997). This refers, bearing in mind the hermeneutic absence in Giddens' work, to the consequences that arise from a meeting between the reflexivity exhibited by actors within the social world and that exhibited by a researcher who produces knowledge as part of a social scientific community. A core concern of referential reflexivity, therefore, is not only "the grounds of communication between everyday common-sense reason and scientific rationality" (O'Neill 1995: 160. Original Italics), but its consequences for subsequent actions in terms of the relations that inhere between actions, knowledge and positions.

A movement from endogenous to referential reflexivity is one from reflexivity within actions to reflexivity uponactions. This enables connections to be made between the individual and the social conditions of which they are a part via sociological accounts. Highlighting the prereflexive in this manner renders it visible and demonstrates how the objectivity of the social world is both a presupposition and ongoing achievement of everyday interactions. The possibility for social circumstances to be otherwise is then open to scrutiny in the retrospective understandings of the conditions under and through which actions takes place. Knowledge of this type is then carried through into subsequent actions, but without the assumption that there is a correspondence between intention and outcome.

Claims to knowledge should be the subject of critical scrutiny as a check upon both the strengths and limitations of sociological practice. In addition, the manner of their translation and their effects, if any, on subsequent practices in social life require consideration. Issues relating to the reception of sociological knowledge and subsequent practices are part of the dimension of referential reflexivity with implications for endogenous reflexivity within the social scientific community. How, for example, situations of trust and scepticism arise between lay and professional knowledge, for what reasons and with what consequences needs to be built into practice. As Sandra Harding puts it: "in learning better how societies organize their sciences, we will gain resources better to understand how sciences organize societies" (Harding 1996: 506).

Sociology oscillates between these two senses of reflexivity. One is manifested in the "kind of self-fascinated observation of the observer's writings and feelings" (Bourdieu in Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 72), whilst the other reproduces an epistemic superiority enabled by a scholastic point of view that is not the subject of reflexive scrutiny. In the history of sociology we have then witnessed denials of professional and lay knowledge and celebrations of practical consciousness and epistemic superiority. These issues, however, must be informed by matters of practical, lived experience and this requires that social scientists "engage with differences as a problem of understanding and explanation, and ultimately, as a problem common to our lives" (Holmwood 1996: 134. Original Italics).


Whilst calls to reflexivity may be seen as part of the recognition that we live in an ambivalent age, I have argued that this has the potential to translate into sociological sterility. We may recognise ambivalence, but that does not relieve practitioners of the need to consider whether that is a characteristic of the world itself and hence reflected in their practices, or the result of a disciplinary uncertainty that comes from an inward-looking, non-engaged, set of practices. If the latter predominates, the balance tilts in favour of concentrating upon the mode of production of sociological knowledge, as opposed to what it tells us about the social world; the consequence being a defensive attitude concerning the scientific status of the discipline and more importantly, one which relieves the potential recipients of sociological knowledge of the burden of engagement.

I have suggested that the balance required for renewal and engagement comes in the relations between endogenous and referential reflexivity. At the same time this necessitates a scepticism with respect to ultimate foundations in order that sociological knowledge is sensitive to changes in society. This should not lapse into remarks and writings upon the futility of such an enterprise for, at another level, sociological knowledge will be deployed regardless of such writings as instruments of business and administration. A retreat into pure critique without engagement, or one into scientism without reflexivity, needs to be avoided.

If the two dimensions of reflexivity are embraced, continued renewal in the service of 'epistemic gain' (Taylor 1992) is possible. In the process a movement towards greater adequacy without allusions to fixed ideas of what is true and false can take place. Rigour is not abandoned in the process, whilst difference may be regarded as a source of knowledge, not its negation. It is the working through of these implications, without a resort to the complacencies of either unity or fragmentation, that is one of the most important issues facing sociological reconstruction.


My thanks to the editor and the anonymous referees for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.


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