What is the value of being a reflexive academic?

On Friday the 23rd of September 2016 the working-group Critical Approaches at Reading (CAAR) organised a workshop on the methodology of Critical Reflexivity (CR). The purpose of this workshop was for early career researchers from various disciplinary backgrounds to get together and discuss how we could engage with this methodology in our own work. For the purpose of this blog I will write about the lessons I personally took away from this workshop as a researcher starting out in the field of philosophy and more specifically in Climate Justice.

The Origins of CR as a methodology can be traced back to the discipline of cultural anthropology. It is widely accepted by anthropologists that if you do some form of ethnographic research, you have to reflect on how you and your own background might influence the findings about the communities you research. Questions that auto-ethnographers would ask themselves vary from “how do I impact and position myself in relation to the subjects of my research? “, through “can I ever have an insight in another community as an outsider?”, to “is it possible to eliminate personal biases from my research?”. In other disciplines it is less common to ask yourself these type of questions, mostly because in the sciences it is generally not accepted to elaborate on one’s own background to show how (or rather ‘why’) you came up with your research results. Rather the sciences aim to uncover universal truths and objectivity, not personal fancy and subjectivity.

For philosophers, and I consider myself an early career researcher in their community, it can be said that they are ever present in their work. They put forward their argumentation and opinion in the articles and books they write, which together can make up a map (of kinds) of their position in the world. Like in the sciences philosophers arguably pursue universality through their work, or in the least logical coherence. However, many philosophers, and I confess to doing this myself, do not enlighten us as to their personal background that may have informed their theoretical judgments. This type of self-reflective work can, I would say, be enlightening with regards to the origin of a particular argument and readers can come to know which aspects influence the formation of scholars’ worldviews. In part it also helps readers, academic or otherwise, understand or even empathise with a philosopher when they get to know where the philosopher as a person fits the bigger whole of academia or humanity.

In my presentation during the workshop I asked myself the following main question: Where do the foundational assumptions I make in my work originate from both theoretically and personally? Apart from having some rough and ready (attempts at) answers to this, it raised more questions. I caught myself wondering with regards to academic theorising whether we can actually separate the subjective from the objective. For the field of philosophy I specifically pondered how we are to say that one philosophical theory is more representative of or fitting in the world we live than another. On a more personal level I questioned why I agree with the theoretical standpoints I agree with in Climate Justice. Did I find those worldviews to be agreeable? Did they convince me they are agreeable? Or did I recognise myself in these views? The first and last question here seem to be able to collapse into one; it looks like a case of assessing how I, as an individual, critically examined the merit of the theories I came across in my field. However, I would say that this is only the subject-matter of the first question. The last one I think expresses more profoundly how we have to consider that in our research there could be this sense of what I might call ‘predetermined agreeableness’. Was I bound to agree with some philosophers as I am just that type of person that has been shaped by some of their views that are still found or seem to underlie part of our society today?

The last, but maybe most central question in this reflexivity exercise for me was: what does all this actually mean for the merit of my work? Does this ‘determinism’ actually influence the credibility of my work? Somewhat, I would argue. Being in the business of philosophy where we attempt to convince others of our argumentation we have to be open to the idea we are not going to convince everyone with our theorising. However, in the field of Climate Justice where most scholars share the conviction that climate change is a grave threat to all human beings, I would hope Climate Justice scholars could make a case that will get some like- or open-minded individuals on board. This is exactly where a tension in my own work lies. On the one hand I admit to the constructed nature of our philosophical beliefs and worldviews, leaning towards the side of constructivism and almost nihilism. On the other I am utterly convinced that we could potentially all agree to do something about climate change, e.g. just for the sake of being human and our natural concern for our wellbeing, leaning towards the side of naturalism and moral realism.

Admitting to the limitations of our work is, I believe, the first step in making more people sympathetic to it. You would hope that showing you are reflexive would create some basis for respect in academia. Particularly showing humility, as is coincidentally a virtue I will elaborate on in my PhD, and accepting fallibility of yourself as an academic I think has the potential to create mutual respect. But also importantly: we need to show courage (another virtue I will write on in my thesis) as academics, stand our ground when defending our standpoint even if it’s considered to be an ‘outlier’ in the field. Humility and courage may seem to be contradictory virtues and I do admit it will be hard to act upon them both in the right measure. However, that is the whole point of the exercise: being reflexive on those attitudes, assessing which measure of each of them is appropriate when and then acting upon them in a balanced manner is what I think makes for a great academic. I hope that I might one day live up to this myself, as leading by example might be one of the most powerful ways of getting our conviction across.

By Vera Van Gool, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar