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Scholarly Reflexivity: The Scholar Changes Everything She Touches

Identity and reality are reflexive.[1]

What I would really like to do for this column is to copy verbatim folklorist David Hufford’s article, “The Scholarly Voice and the Personal Voice: Reflexivity in Belief Studies.” But I won’t. First of all, that would be copyright violation; second, his article is too long; and third, I don’t think he’s a Goddess-woman, but, then again, I don’t really know. Wait, yes, I think he practices Eastern Orthodox Christianity. At any rate, I do think that every Goddess scholar should do some thinking about reflexivity.

What am I even talking about? “Reflexivity” is a metaphor from the discipline of grammar. Oh, no, I can hear you thinking. It’s fine and even fun when Goddess Studies crosses disciplinary lines with art and architecture, anthropology, archaeology, women’s studies, physics, chaos theory, genetics, history, and the arts. But grammar? It’s amazing where a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences will take you. In grade school (what in the early twentieth century was called “grammar school”) we learned about sentences like “I hold the soft rabbit.” In this sentence, “I” is the subject and “hold” is the verb and “rabbit” is the object I am holding. “I” and the “rabbit” are two different things, and the verb is the action that links the two together.

But in certain cases the verb links together the same thing as subject and object: me. “I introduce myself.” “I wash myself.” Those of you who have studied another European language besides English have run into many, many of these reflexive verbs. Or you may have seen the Québécois license plate: je me souviens, I remember = I remember myself. These are the reflexive verbs: subject and object are the same. Goddess scholars and practitioners no doubt do not find the reflexive verbs strange. We are familiar with the idea and the experience that the boundaries between self and other, subjects and objects, are not so firm as “Western culture” makes them out to be.

In the last ten or twenty years, different disciplines of scholarship have also examined this mysterious space between self (the scholar doing the researching) and other (the topic or people or subject being researched.) The more honestly they looked at things, the more it became apparent that boundaries between subject and object were often fuzzy. The scholars were being changed by the people and topics they studied. And the communities, people, and topics being studied also changed, by being made the subject of inquiry. Scholars discovered that much of what they thought they were writing about “the other” was actually revealing just as much, if not more, about themselves. Because, at the base of everything, as Hufford points out, scholarship is inescapably reflexive: humans in their world study humans and their world.

OK, let’s take this grammatical metaphor one step further. If humans are always studying humans, if our scholarship is inherently reflexive, then the seeker is of the same being as what is sought and what is found. If in some sense, we are always studying ourselves, then all scholarship is inherently subjective, and Whoa! What does all this do to the good old goal of scholarly objectivity? It certainly puts it in a predicament, and shows that what we used to think of as “true objectivity” is an impossibility.

sol·ip·sism
1. The theory that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified.
2. The theory or view that the self is the only reality.

Hufford calls this the “egocentric predicament.” It’s not possible to remove the scholar, her or his background, training, and assumptions, from the scholarship. If not, then what shall we do? Reflexivity asks us as scholars to include ourselves in our own scholarship, to look closely at our own viewpoints and perspectives, to unearth our own assumptions and theories, and to illustrate how they both limit and further our research. Does this mean, then, that scholarship must be reduced to first-person essays of what “I” think about my subject? At worst, does scholarship have to become a solipsistic droning on about me, my racial, ethnic, sexual and class background? Hufford would say, no. While scholarly objectivism can never be total or ideal, we can work toward certainty as a direction, not a goal. We include ourselves as a viewpoint and as a perspective, while knowing that being part of a community of scholars will give us a multiplicity of perspectives and viewpoints, all working toward reducing uncertainty and ambiguity. One of our foremost Goddess scholars, Patricia Monaghan, has been working during the past couple of years in this same direction, formulating a methodology of first-person narrative scholarship.

One of the boldest and most beautiful essays on the effects of scholarship on the researcher was written by Wendy Griffin and Tanice Foltz, and from them I took the title for this particular column: She Changes Everything She Touches: Ethnographic Journeys of Self Discovery. As Griffin and Foltz, both sociologists, studied a coven of Dianic witches, they found themselves deeply changed by their ethnographic work. In this essay (also available on the Internet at http://www.csulb.edu/~wgriffin/journey.html) the women describe their own journey as women and scholars, and they tackle the questions of objectivity and subjectivity, and how these concepts changed as they did their work. The researchers, without intending to, became part of the community that they studied. Jone Salomensen had some similar experiences in her work with and study of the Reclaiming community, as described in her book Enchanted Feminism.

In my own work, I am a religious historian, rather than a sociologist or ethnographer studying a living religious community. I am studying historical Goddess-worshipping or women-honoring communities of Germanic Europe. Yet, since I have strong feminist views about Goddess-worshipping communities in contemporary times, and since I participate in the recreation of Goddess-worshipping communities using the Germanic materials, I need to pay special attention to issues of reflexivity in my own work, especially to issues of Germanic identity.

I came to Ph.D. studies with a lingering hope of redeeming my own Germanic identity, and Germanic identity for other Goddess women. Perhaps there was something as yet undiscovered that could give a Germanic-American woman the same ancestral pride of other ethnic groups. The history of seeking Germanic identity through folkloric, artistic or religious identity, however, is deeply complex, even troubled. The Brothers Grimm, justly famous for their work in Germanic folklore, gave us their own highly biased view of “Germanness:” rural, hard-working, and strong, Protestant, middle-class, and strangely devoid of sexuality and violence. In the twentieth century, the drive of a desperate people for a positive German identity found its expression in the Third Reich, in National Socialism, and in genocide. train tracks through woodsWhat is less well-known is that the academic discipline of folklore was meant by those in power to play a critical role in supporting and justifying their actions. Scholars were to examine folk and fairy tales and ancient symbols; they were to reach back into the Indo-Germanic past, before Christianity, for an unbroken German continuity. This brings to mind many of the aims of contemporary revisionist Germanic religious movements, such as Asatru and Vanatru, as well as my own well-meaning search for the Germanic Goddesses. Reflexivity was near impossible for the scholars during the Third Reich, where job loss, disgrace and death were in the hands of the government. For scholars of the early twenty-first century, reflexivity can be an honor as well as a requirement.

There is much more to be said about reflexivity in scholarship, about what we say in the first person about our own perspectives and journeys, and what we say in the third person that we hope applies in general. I am becoming intrigued by the reflexivity of the other subjective entities in the research process: the other persons, other spirits, other beings, and the earth. In my work, for instance, how can the land, the Goddesses, the saints, and the witches, speak? There are many voices, many perspectives. Strangely enough, through this multiplicity of voices and perspectives our scholarship may come to be more objective and more complete. It’s worth a try.

Notes

  1. Studies in Reflexivity, Journal of Neuroscience.<http://www.neoscience.org/reflexiv.htm>

Bibliography

  • Foltz, Tanice G., and Wendy Griffin. 1996. She Changes Everything She Touches: Ethnographic Journeys of Self Discovery. In Composing Ethnography: Alternative Forms of Qualitative Writing, edited by Carolyn Ellis and Arthur P. Bochner, pp. 301-330. Walnut Creek CA: AltaMira Press.
  • Hufford, David.1995. The Scholarly Voice and the Personal Voice: Reflexivity in Belief Studies. Western Folklore 54, 1:57-76.
  • Lixfeld, Hannjost. 1994. Folklore and Fascism: The Reich Institute for German Volkskunde. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Monaghan, Patricia.2003. Partial Truth: Scholarly Narrative and Personal Voice. Paper presented at October Symposium: Margins, Boundaries and Thresholds-- Creativity Across the Disciplines, Vermont College, Montpelier, VT, October 10, 2003.
  • Salomonsen, Jone. 2002. Enchanted Feminism: Ritual, Gender and Divinity Among the Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco. London ; New York: Routledge.
  • Zipes, Jack David. 2002. The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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