Reflexivity: Learning to See the Shadow of the Researcher

Reflexivity: Learning to See the Shadow of the Researcher

Never lose touch of the goal of ethnography: to make meaning of culture. Interpretations should be situated and they must be questioned. Ethnographers should always be reflexive about their interpretations, biases, and limitations (boyd, 2009: 30).

The interrogation of taken-for-granted meanings has long been the focus of my research. My PhD considered the popular discourses that position women’s amateur photographic practices (such as selfies) as being innately problematic, and as requiring correction. In particular, I analysed how the low status of the selfie was sustained through reiterating a number of gendered stereotypes, regarding women’s assumed vanity and interest in minutiae.

The ethnography that I am currently working on, considering the online sharing of images of Sheffield, continues this objective. By asking people how they use and benefit from social media photography, I wish to undermine some of the ways in which practices of online image sharing are currently conceptualized. In particular, a focus on volume (e.g. ‘there are 230 million images tagged ‘me’ on Instagram’) means that the differences between an enormous range of uses and forms can be elided. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with discussing photography in this way — indeed, the huge numbers positively invite analysis — I argue that a focus on volume is ultimately undermining, in that it connotes excess and a lack of individuality.

However, whilst reading danah boyd’s advice to Internet researchers above, it struck me that this focus on interrogating the types of understanding that are circulated regarding photography, I had not adequately turned that analytical lens on myself, and my own standpoint. Questioning my own attitudes would be an essential part of this ethnographic study, as it involves my active participation in the groups and practices that I am researching. Therefore my own stance could not help but be heavily influential on my findings, and I need to train myself to observe this with the same level of skepticism as I have come to observe others’ attitudes.

Annette Markham described reflexivity as “less like looking in a mirror and more like trying to look at yourself looking in the mirror” (2009: 135). I like this analogy, as it insists that simply ‘looking at’ what you’re doing is not enough, as you must also consider the framework within which that act of looking itself takes place.

So how do I intend to incorporate reflexivity into my working practices whilst conducting this ethnography? My initial thoughts are as follows:

  • I must question my own feelings and habits regarding photography. What part does it play in my own personal life? How does this insight enable me to relate to other people?
  • How do I myself respond to the types of images that are shared of Sheffield — which is, after all, my hometown — online? Do I find any of them amusing, melancholy, offensive, beautiful, nostalgic etc.?
  • What value judgments might I be implicitly making about other people’s practices? How does my personal taste affect my research? How is my interpretation of participants’ activities affected by my cultural background?
  • What can I ‘not see’ from my standpoint? What obstructions / customs / norms might regulate online photographic sharing in ways that I don’t realize?
  • How do I engage with other people to try to ameliorate the limitations of my own perspective? How can I have conversations with participants rather than interview them? How can I actively learn from other people, and be open to new ways of seeing, rather than simply align what they say with my pre-existing knowledge and understanding of the world?
  • In what ways can I acknowledge and address the power dynamics present in research, and thereby encourage participants to have the maximum influence over how they are presented in my research?
  • How can I engage with and listen to others’ experiences in ways that acknowledge my interpretive ‘filter’, but that endeavor to foreground my participants’ voices?

Ultimately, this ethnographic project cannot be the kind of authoritative text on social media photography that I had initially (and rather naively!) intended to write. By its very nature, this will be a fragmentary and subjective study. But by acknowledging that, and by working reflexively, I believe that this ethnography can still tell us something new, and something important, about some of the forms and functions of contemporary photographic practice.

Works cited:

boyd, d (2009) ‘A Response to Christine Hine’, in: Markham, A. and Baym, N. (eds.) Internet Inquiry: Conversations About Method. Los Angeles: Sage, pp. 26–32.

Markham, A. (2009) ‘How Can Qualitative Researchers Produce Work That Is Meaningful Across Time, Space and Culture?’, in: Markham, A. and Baym, N. (eds.) Internet Inquiry: Conversations About Method. Los Angeles: Sage, pp. 131–55.

Image:

Eye drawn onto a dirty bus shelter, Sheffield.