Reflections on Reflexivity

On Thursday, October 2nd 2014 as part of the “On Whose Terms?” NFU Conference hosted at Uit The Arctic University of Norway, social anthropologist and filmmaker Professor Lisbet Holtedal delivered her keynote address on the subject of Power, Communication and Development: Epistemological Output of Cross-Cultural Collaboration. In her address, Holtedahl reflected upon the ways in which the academy has historically created societal hierarchies and asymmetries of power – between the academy and society at large, between the global North and the global South, between men and women, and between all over marginalized groups and their privileged counterparts. These imbalances, she explained, persist to this day and the academy must realize both the ways in which it is responsible for these hierarchies and the ways in which it can help to level them. Holtedahl’s message is clear: the academy has a responsibility to those affected by its research, research which cannot exist without the experiences and knowledges of its subjects – without research subjects, there can be no research. “The reality”, Holtedahl says, “is that we need them”.

The Indifference of the Academy

Holtedahl opened her address with a condemnation of indifference in the academy. The reality of our shared history as academics, she explained, is that we all belong to and benefit from an institution that has been active in creating prejudices and power imbalances. What’s worse, however, is that while few would argue with the reality of the academy’s hierarchy-producing past, there are many who are blind to the ways in which the academy continues to reproduce and reinforce those prejudices and hierarchies; there are many who believe their indifference to the impacts of their research constitutes instead a kind of scholarly objectivity. Holtedahl referenced the 2010 award-winning documentary of the global economic crisis Inside Job for an example of the devastation that said ‘scholarly indifference’ can cause. ‘Indifference’ is not an option for an agent of the academy: because the academy is not a neutral institution and because no action can be divorced from its consequences, if academics are not actively working towards the elimination of prejudice then they are actively supporting its reproduction.

“Why don’t we say that we need them?”

For so long research paradigms have dictated that the researcher wields all the power, while his/her research subjects merely access power through their interactions with the researcher. Over the last several decades, this paradigm has been challenged, with collaboration and co-operation between researchers and subjects becoming commonplace in research projects, and yet there is still a reluctance in the academy to forfeit some of that power that we used to wield so exclusively. “To many scholars,” Holtedahl explained, “research subjects have nothing to offer the academy aside from empirical data” and that it is this disregard and devaluing of subjects’ experiences that leads to the tendency of scholars to simply “use Africa as a laboratory” rather than acknowledge their subjects as partners in their research. Holtedahl demonstrated that while research paradigms may have been altered, the power imbalance remains as the academy is still exclusively able to dictate just how much power is to be shared, using a personal anecdote to illustrate this point. Holtedahl’s dissemination of her early work exploring ideas of gender as experienced by women in northern Norway was lauded and valued by her research participants, but was met with an intense backlash from the academy – a backlash based on the supposed damage that Holtedahl may have inflicted on her research participants through the broadcasting of the interview participants’ ‘bad taste’, as demonstrated by their use of plastic flowers in home decoration. This backlash, which Holtedahl now refers to as the ‘plastic flower discussion’, reveals just how intensely the academy guards its power and the mental gymnastics it may utilize to justify opposing work which seeks to empower groups who have previously been marginalized by and/or erased from academic institutions. By setting the standard of what constitutes ‘good taste’ , the academy produces yet another way in which to control research participants’ experiences, limit their capacity for telling their own stories, and ensure that the academy remains the primary wielder of power – all under the guise of protecting research subjects from their own poor taste.

 “A constant reopening of eyes”

Throughout her academic career of over 40 years, Holtedahl has seen many changes in how research is conducted, namely through the establishment of collaborative and co-operative research between researchers and research participants. But still, Holtedahl warned, these advances do not erase the history of dispossession that the academy has wreaked, nor do they ensure that further damage will not be done. All work, Holtedahl explains, must be reflexive, with the researcher critically analyzing both the institutions’ and the researcher’s roles and motivations in the project. While her early work introduced her to the ways in which the academy is reluctant to sacrifice its monopoly on power and knowledge production, her later work exposed her own reluctances as well as she has struggled to reconcile her own academic goals with the needs and desires of her research participants. Reflexivity, she explained, is “a constant reopening of eyes”, reflexivity is not a one-time fix-all, but a constant and continuous process, as researchers investigate and negotiate their internalized biases in order to ensure that they are not reproduced in their work. Every day researchers should be analyzing “what they are doing, why they are doing it, and most importantly, for whom?”

On whose terms?

And so the title of this conference resonates especially with Holtedahl’s address. As researchers in Indigenous Studies, “on whose terms?” is a question researchers should always be asking themselves. When working with peoples who have been marginalized through your own institution’s creation and production of prejudiced knowledge, Holtedahl suggests that researchers must not be indifferent, and neither should their research. It is not enough to merely hope that no further damage will be done to these peoples; instead, researchers should conduct work that benefits their research participants, and it should benefit them by the participants’ standards, or, on their terms. Because, as Holtedahl expressed, these peoples are not merely subjects but participants in the research – they have knowledge, value, and power. We should acknowledge that we need them.

By Ellen Dobrowolski, student at the Master’s degree program in Indigenous Studies, UiT The Arctic University of Norway