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Record Type: Review   ID: 183

Reflexivity & Voice

Hertz, Rosanna. (Ed.).

I have reviewed several books on qualitative approaches in ethnography, perhaps the most notable being that of Norman Denzia. This volume put together by Rosanna Hertz is a worthy companion to his as it offers both explications of reflexive ethnography and illustrations of new forms of ethnographic writing. The book is aptly titled. Part 1 (8 chapters) is about Reflexivity and Part 2 about Voice (7 chapters). In the introduction, Hertz notes: "To be reflexive is to have an ongoing conversation about experience while simultaneously living in the moment. By extension, the reflexive ethnographer does not simply report ‘facts’ or ‘truths’ but actively constructs interpretations of his or her experiences in the field and then questions how those interpretations came about ... The outcome of reflexive social science is reflective knowledge ,,, By bringing subject and object back into the same space ... authors give their audiences the opportunity to evaluate them as ‘situated actors’ (i.e., active participants in the process of meaning creation)" (p. viii). Thus, if an ethnographer were studying an indigenous tribe (or people in the corner drugstore) about exceptional experiences, beforehand they would have to interview people so as to discover the words they were familiar with for the types of experience the ethnographer wanted to investigate. Then, in the case of each individual, the ethnographer could not stop simply at the point where he or she had obtained descriptions of experiences people had had. He or she would also have to learn from them those aspects of their culture that related to the experiences, including what they had learned from parents, teachers, shamans, peers, and their own experience in connection with each experience and then relate the background of the ethnographer as well. Thus the outcome would be affected by both parties and ideally, at the close the views of each would be altered to some extent by the interchange. A new "truth" would result that would not otherwise exist were it not for these people (including the ethnographer) and the people the ethnographer would reach through his report. Thus, as part of the reflexive process, "researchers must become more aware of how their own positions and interests are imposed at all stages of the research process—from the questions they ask to those they ignore, from who they study to who they ignore, from problem formation to analysis, representation, and writing—in order to produce less distorted accounts of the social world" (p. viii). In a sense, ethnographers are not investigating Truth but are raising the consciousness of all participants: themselves, their informants, and their audience. Reality is where people live, after all—what moves them and makes them respond as they do. The more we can widen the aperture of consciousness in an attempt to understand others and ourselves, the more conscious all will be, not of some "truth" generalizable to all but to how it really is for a particular sample. If we had reflexive studies of all groups of people we might be able to see larger patterns, but by that point the very act of carrying out these investigations may have changed "how it works" for many of the participants involved. For some ethnographers, such as Edith Turner, in studying indigenous healing she became a healer herself and experienced exceptional experiences she would not have considered possible before her investigation. The sorts of questions she asks about healing now are not the same as they were before that investigation in which she experienced for herself what her indigenous informants had been telling her.

To me, the ideal of ethnographic study would be one in which investigator and investigated come to experience what initially the other had been talking about. And exceptional and exceptional human experiencers are ideal subjects, because if you look at them as being inside the person rather than outside, as subjective rather than objective, then in sharing experiences a sense of commonality emerges quite readily, even if the experiences varied widely.

Hertz points out that some ethnographers share with their audiences "how they became sympathetic to those whose views they do not share," whereas others honestly write of the opposite: their inability to experience common ground. The latter is as valuable as the former, because we will never learn how to erase barriers until we first understand what they are.

There simply is not space to go over each chapter. I will only mention one, the first, to give some idea of the flavor. Shulamit Reinharz presents the researcher’s own self as the key tool in fieldwork. She analyzes the field notes she took in a study of a kibbutz and discovered 20 different "selves" in the account. She discusses "how the researcher’s attributes became meaningful in ... fieldwork" or how the researcher became personally engaged. There is a parallel here between an anomalous experience, which becomes exceptional once the experiencer is personally engaged. It becomes an exceptional human experience when the experiencer becomes enlightened regarding some aspect of human nature as a result of the experience. In similar fashion, researchers become enlightened when how they see their subjects coalesces with how their subjects (the participants) perceive the research project. And, just as we recommend the importance of sharing as many details of the experience as possible in an account, Reinharz urges that a full accounting be given of the entire process involved in the interaction between research self (selves) and respondent (most likely "selves" also) during the fieldwork. I would say the challenge of this new more conscious ethnography is to present one’s own voice along with those of one’s participants, all equally implicated in the presentation of the findings of the study. Ideally, the respondents would review and if necessary dispute the report while still in manuscript. The report would then need to be revised to respond to their legitimate concerns, for if a respondent does not recognize his or her voice in what is presented, then the investigation has failed. Finally, as Hertz points out, when considering Voice, the members of the audience need to be taken into account, for what they take from the report will be influenced by their preconceptions and performed judgments. Thus, just as with an exceptional experience, the question the researcher investigates is like a stone thrown into a pool. The ripples made when it hits the water will spread into areas unanticipated and the "voices" presented in the report will be "heard" sometimes in ways the researcher could not possibly conceive or come to know about. At this present time, this is unavoidable, but the research must go on, deepening and heightening the collective consciousness of human beings.

Publisher Information:Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997. Pp. xviii + 318
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