Reflexivity In Science And Technology Research Paper

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Considerations of reflexivity have salience in diverse intellectual practices and traditions: literature, philosophical logic, the visual arts, cybernetics, as well as social theory and sociology. Indeed, it is an issue with potential relevance for all modes of representational and performative practice. In the most general terms, considered as a feature or style of inquiry, reflexivity is a concept that expresses a concern to turn ‘subject’ into ‘object,’ to turn the activity of inquiry into a topic for (its own) inquiry. To ‘be reflexive’ is to bring the process of doing an activity into the purview of that activity as a feature of it. Thus, it implies a certain self-consciousness, and a certain paradoxical, even Zenlike, mode of operation: bootstrapping; attempting to see the flashlight that illuminates the scene as a part of the scene it illuminates; taking account of this moment as one writes of ‘this moment.’ This research paper details the ways in which reflexivity has featured in science and technology studies (STS), and speculates on the current and future status of reflexive study in STS.

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1. Alternative Introduction

This heading is not to declare, exactly, that there is anything ‘wrong’ with that first introductory paragraph. It does the job, and it does it correctly; that is, in accord with the ‘Instructions for Manuscript Preparation’ for this volume. It is just that in doing ‘just that,’ it is unable to acknowledge the conditions under which it does so. Thus, it leaves all those things out of (its) account; which is normal, and normally unobjectionable. Perhaps no other paper in this category makes any reference to such things, preferring instead, perfectly ‘obviously,’ to concentrate on the primary task of speaking authoritatively (and, importantly, briefly) about its topic. Thus, the conditions of production of these particular texts are constructed as irrelevancies for, and obstacles to, the proper work. Social science inquiry that focuses on conditions of production has always acted (intentionally or not) to ‘make trouble’ of this kind: Marxist economics for capitalism; sociology of education for teaching; STS for science. Reflexivity adds a twist to this dynamic: in collapsing the external internal, outsider insider, on in relation, the source of trouble, being as much ‘here’ as it is ‘there,’ is no longer clearly located or easily attacked. This, then, is the primary role for reflexive inquiry: to make things difficult; to enrich the process of inquiry; to go round and round in circles; to fill out the picture; to frustrate all action; to act authentically and without self-contradiction; to change the subject.

2. Reflexivity As A Problem

In STS, the impetus for explicitly reflexive studies has been felt most strongly in the important sub-field of STS known as the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK). Here, the reflexive tie between its subject (knowledge about scientific knowledge) and its object (scientific knowledge) is very marked. That is, SSK exhibits a strong ‘X of X’ structure. Because of this, and because SSK’s epistemology is explicitly relativist, reflexivity in SSK has a ‘bite’ akin to classic philosophical skepticism.

Extremely crudely, and for illustrative purposes only, SSK’s relativism with respect to scientific knowledge can be, and indeed has been, taken as equivalent to a statement of this kind: ‘Scientific knowledge does not constitute truth because it is socially constructed.’ Read this way, SSK then becomes vulnerable to the standard anti-relativist critique, the argument from self-refutation: ‘If this statement is asserted as a (scientific) truth, then it suffers from performative self-contradiction, and thus refutes itself’ (see, for example, Hollis and Lukes 1982). Note that the self-refutation argument uses reflexivity: it is through the process of turning its target onto itself that the demonstration of self-refutation is effected.

This is indeed one of the commonest modes in which reflexivity operates: as a weapon in the agonistic game of criticism. Thus, for those threatened with attack by-reflexivity, it becomes a source of vulnerability to be abjured and defended against. Reflexivity becomes, that is to say, a ‘problem’ to be ‘managed.’ The various ways that practitioners of SSK have done this have been one of the preoccupations of ‘reflexivist’ studies (see Sect. 2.3).

2.1 Logical Consistency: Bloor’s Strong Programme

David Bloor’s Knowledge and Social Imagery (1991), is one of the earliest texts to set out the elements of what has become known as the SSK. It contains an endorsement of reflexivity as the fourth and last of the ‘tenets’ for the ‘strong programme in the sociology of knowledge:’

In principle [the strong programme’s] patterns of explanation would have to be applicable to sociology itself. Like the requirement of symmetry, this is a response to the need to seek for general explanations. It is an obvious requirement of principle because otherwise sociology would be a standing refutation of its own theories (1991, p. 7).

Here, Bloor’s positive support for reflexivity is a matter of logical consistency and a creative way of managing the self-refutation charge. Rather than deny the reflexive applicability of the strong programme, he emphasizes it, secure in his understanding that the socially constructed character of all knowledge, including his own, does not count against its validity. Bloor’s reflexivity, however, remains at this ‘in principle’ level. His negative attitude to any empirical instantiation of his reflexive programmatics is documented in a text that claims to be precisely that (Ashmore 1989). Thus for Bloor (as well as for his former ‘Edinburgh school’ colleague Barry Barnes 1974, Epilogue), reflexivity is an argument used to defend a position; it is certainly not a practice.

2.2 Harry Collins: Special Relativism And The Ban On Reflexivity

Not so for, perhaps, the most influential writer through the heyday of SSK (ca. 1975–90), Harry Collins (e.g., 1985). Collins’s doctrine of ‘special relativism’ separates the natural world from the social world, and the distinctive tasks and ‘natural attitudes’ of the natural scientist from those of the social scientist. The sociologist of scientific knowledge should treat the natural world as socially constructed, while treating the social world as ‘real’ and a source of sound data. However, this sense of ‘realism’ is taken from a reading of how natural scientists act towards their realm of inquiry, namely, the natural world. In effect, what Collins is doing here is to deny the practical relevance of the purported reflexive similarity between subject and object in SSK for purposes of the conduct of research. The result is the short-circuiting of attempts to apply Collins’s conclusions about, for example, the replication of experiments to those conclusions themselves (nevertheless see Mulkay 1985, Chaps. 4 and 5, Ashmore 1989, Chap. 4). In short, Collins’s ‘management strategy’ for reflexivity is to ban it altogether. This radical solution to the problem of reflexivity has laid Collins open to charges of inconsistency from both wings of the ‘realist–relativist’ continuum. The recommended moves for repairing this perceived inconsistency differ, however, with the ‘realist’ suggesting he abandon his problematic relativism about nature, and the ‘more-radical-relativist’ proposing the dropping of his social realism.

2.3 Relativist Consistency, Radical Reflexivity: The Reflexivists

In the late 1980s, a small number of ‘full-blown’ reflexive texts were published (Ashmore 1989, Mulkay 1985, Woolgar 1988). This group of writers became known as ‘reflexivists.’ Ashmore’s The Reflexi e Thesis is an SSK study of SSK, a general exploration of reflexivity, and an experiment in ‘new literary forms.’ Mulkay’s The Word and the World is a series of ‘explorations in the form of sociological analysis’ that draws upon analyses of biochemists’ discourse. Wool- gar’s Knowledge and Reflexivity is a collection of papers from a small group of regular contributors (including Ashmore, Mulkay, and Woolgar) to the Discourse and Reflexivity Workshops held in the UK in the early 1980s. What links all these texts together, apart from their authors’ close socio-cognitive relation, is the common attempt to treat reflexivity as an opportunity; even, for celebration. What happens when one stops evading reflexivity, when one looks ‘the monster’ in the eye, when one gives it a place at the heart of the research process? Self-destruction? Massive irrelevance? Third apocalyptic simile?

Bruno Latour’s contribution to Knowledge and Reflexivity (Latour 1988) is its exception. Latour argues that the ‘meta-reflexive’ writing strategies of the reflexivists is a solution to a false problem: the naivete of readers who believe too much and too easily. On the contrary, the real problem that (scientific, factual) writers have is being believed, or indeed, read at all. Latour further claims that the reflexivists are searching, despite their own gestures at weakening their authorial privilege, for the final meta-level that leaves no remainder and from which vantage point, everything may be taken into (their) account. As an antidote to all this, Latour recommends a strategy of ‘infra-reflexivity’: just to tell stories, drawing upon the richness and variety of all the ‘ordinary’ resources available. Latour’s Aramis (1992, 1996)—despite its appearance as an experiment in ‘new literary forms’—is, perhaps, an example.

3. Criticisms: Pitfalls And Pratfalls

Reflexivity gets you nowhere. It is not a useful thing to do and its results cannot be used. It is impractical. As an activity, it immobilizes you. It leads to idle navelgazing and foolish self-absorption. It is ‘all pots and pans and no pudding’ (Bloor, cited in Ashmore 1989, p. 20). Logically, it leads to the abyss of the infinite regress or the never-ending search for the perfect metalevel. Reflexivity is politically and morally irresponsible games playing, fiddling while Rome burns. It has no soul (to bare) and no wisdom (to distribute), just an overdose of clever-clever irony. It disables criticism by taking that role on for itself; in its attempt to play all the roles of the academic community at once, and all by itself, it betrays itself as deeply, and ironically, anti-social. Indeed, it appears to seek nothing from its readers but a kind of ‘aesthetic’ admiration marked by a knowing, and smug, and boyish, amusement.

However, for the larger STS community, reflexivity has had positive functions and effects. The reflexivist fulfils the important role of the jester at the court of STS. Moreover, the presence of reflexive work as part of the ‘canon’ of STS acts as a corrective to a kind of methodological overconfidence resulting from the recent success of the field. Reflexivity reminds us that the fundamental epistemic questions and quandaries that originally animated SSK are permanent features of the practice of ‘inquiry into inquiry’ epitomized by STS scholarship. The text that aspires to ‘transparency,’ that is blithely unconcerned with the conditions of its own production, is now, at the very least, ‘visible,’ a member of a marked, rather than unmarked category.

4. The Current Situation

If the work of the reflexivists is taken as the model for ‘adequately’ reflexive work in STS, then it has to be said that this style has been taken up on very few, if any, occasions between 1990 and 2000, Latour’s Aramis (1992, 1996) being a possible exception (see Sect. 2.3). Nevertheless, interest in reflexivity has not vanished. Explicit discussions still appear (e.g., Pels 2000, Lynch 2000). Indeed, it can be argued that some new currents of work in STS appear animated by reflexive concerns, though couched in a new register. For example, the emphasis on the performativity of social objects, on the multiplicity of ontologies, and on the essential situatedness of (their and our) knowledge production, found in the work of John Law, Annemarie Mol, and others attempting to move beyond actor network theory (Law and Hassard 1999) is implicitly deeply reflexive.


  1. Ashmore M 1989 The Reflexive Thesis: Wrighting Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  2. Barnes B 1974 Scientific Knowledge and Sociological Theory. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
  3. Bloor D 1991 Knowledge and Social Imagery, 2nd edn. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  4. Collins H M 1985 Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice. Sage, London
  5. Hollis M, Lukes S (eds.) 1982 Rationality and Relativism. Blackwell, Oxford
  6. Latour B 1988 The politics of explanation: An alternative. In: Woolgar S (ed.) Knowledge and Reflexivity. Sage, London
  7. Latour B 1992 Aramis ou l’amour des techniques. La Decouverte, Paris
  8. Latour B 1996 Aramis or The Lo e of Technology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  9. Law J, Hassard J (eds.) 1999 Actor Network Theory and After. Blackwell, Oxford, UK
  10. Lynch M 2000 Against reflexivity as an academic virtue and source of privileged knowledge. Theory, Culture and Society 17(3): 26–54
  11. Mulkay M 1985 The Word and the World: Explorations in the Form of Sociological Analysis. George Allen and Unwin, London
  12. Pels D 2000 Reflexivity: One step up. Theory, Culture and Society 17(3): 1–25
  13. Woolgar S (ed.) 1988 Knowledge and Reflexivity: New Frontiers in the Sociology of Knowledge. Sage, London
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