It would be difficult to understate the importance the word ‘reflexivity”, in various uses, has acquired in the social sciences today. It is absolutely central to the debate about the conditions of late/post modernity: about modernity as an increasingly reflexive order wherein the “loops” of reflexive knowledge range from internal, personal “self-awareness,” to interpersonal, familial and social relationships, to global corporations that target trends in local markets by tracking innovations and reflexively appropriating these into new products. Reflexivity is the outcome and the input into the global knowledge industry. And it is the quiet voice of “self-help” that resists the influence of expert systems, reappropriating expert knowledge into the personal life project.
- “The reflexive monitoring of action in situations of co-presence is the main anchoring feature of social integration…”
(Giddens 1984, 191).
It would be difficult to understate the importance that the term “reflexivity”, in various uses, has acquired in the social sciences today. It is absolutely central to the debate about the conditions of late/post modernity: about modernity as an increasingly reflexive order wherein the “loops” of reflexive knowledge range from internal, personal “self-awareness,” to interpersonal, familial and social relationships, to global corporations that target trends in local markets by tracking innovations and reflexively appropriating these into new products. Reflexivity is the outcome and the input into the global knowledge industry. And it is the quiet voice of “self-help” that resists the influence of expert systems, reappropriating expert knowledge into the personal life project.
At one level, reflexivity describes the mirror with which the individual surveys their own Ken. This feed-back loop allows the individual to assess the condition of their self knowledge, and compare this to their knowledge about others (and about the ken of others). This mirror is generally kept at arms length, and is one of the background features of life that does not rise into the field of conscious attention. In traditional life-styles, self monitoring was actually discouraged because the decisions (over marriage, career, and residence) were made by others (parents, clan leaders, etc.). However there have always been times when the mirror is held close and what it reveals becomes of primary interest. At this time the mirror is also open to inspection. Let me call this a moment of “hyper-reflection”. Such a moment happens when a doubt arises about the circumstances of a personal interaction (for example when five aces appear at the same hand of poker). At the time of hyper-reflection the edge of one’s ken becomes known. And this knowledge is what allows the ken to grow.
The enlightenment promised a release from the mystifications of religion and cultural dogma; it proposed a new “rational” social order. This rationalization, as a project of modernity, has been shown to be both incomplete and, at times, inappropriate. “Modernity,” as an empirical accomplishment, is somewhere ahead of us still—fully as much as it is behind us—but this will not look at all like what its 19th century prognosticators foretold.
“Late modernity,” which describes our current situation, is seen as a time when an increase in the available information and the reflexive application of this information is pushing rationalization to its limit in certain arenas: notably in lifestyle planning, but also in institutional management. As these feed-back loops become built into institutional plans and personal interactions the outcomes of these plans and interactions become destabilized, and so, unpredictable. The end of prediction is the beginning of late modernity. But where every consequence may become unknowable in advance, they are not all unintended. Increased reflexivity is itself a desired consequence of the increase of knowledge, and in an increased, democratic availability of this. Modernization, which for decades has been based upon an instrumental logic—industrialization, efficiency, control, prediction—proceeds, and even accelerates, but it must also coexist with reflexification as a social and institutional feature of late modernity.For Giddens, reflexivity begins with the capability/propensity of individuals and institutions to reflect upon their own circumstances. The point is that reflections on social processes (theories, and observations about them) continually enter into, become disentangled with, and then re-enter the universe of events they describe. No such phenomenon exists in the world of inanimate nature (apart from quantum physics), which is indifferent to whatever human beings might claim to know about it. The Internet accelerates the cycle of reflection and re-incorporation. Today’s tweets become tomorrow’s memes, which generate new theories that spawn more tweets. Giddens goes on to note that one of the distinguishing circumstances of modernity is the active incorporation of reflection/correction/reform/response into institutional, interpersonal, and individual actions. Of course, the academy has been (and should be) a fountainhead of such reflection. Similarly, it is impossible to have a modern sovereign state that does not incorporate a discursively articulated theory of “the modern sovereign state”. (Giddens 1984, xxxiii). And yet, the public sphere’s ability to reflect on events and ideas have become disengaged from the discourses of government, the academy, and even the press (including television): all of these are left behind the curve as social media capabilities outstrip their increasingly antique publication models.
For sociology, itself an engine of reflection, to ignore the actual and potential practices of reflection within social organizations, is to make a fundamental error which reduces the grasp that its theories hold on empirical practices. Sociology and social anthropology have so far failed to account for reflexivity in society. This inattention to reflexivity as a core organizing feature of modern institutions and lifeworlds is the central critique that Giddens applies to the works of earlier theorists (Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, for example). And the need to account for ever more locations where reflexive practices now occur means that a new sociology must be built, one that has the scope of Weber, and the critical focus of Marx, but one that is also constructed through and for a new account of discourses and practices as these are reflexively organized.Giddens, Anthony. 1984. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Berkeley: University of California Press.