Reflectivism - Reflexivity


There may be another sense, not specifically discussed by Keohane, in which the label is apt. Reflectivist scholars tend to emphasise the inherent reflexivity both of theory and of the social world it studies. Unlike the term "reflectivism", the concept of "reflexivity" has wide currency outside of International Relations, having come to prominence in social theory in the latter part of the 20th century. Reflexivity refers to the ways in which elements and phenomena in social life have the capacity to "fold in on", or be "directed towards", themselves. That is, they can produce effects on, or have implications for, their own features, dynamics and existence. A classic example is the "self-fulfilling prophecy" (or "self-disconfirming prophecy") — a situation in which merely describing, predicting, imagining or believing something to be the case may eventually result in its actually coming to be the case. More generally, reflectivists emphasise the significance of human self-awareness: the ways people observe, imagine, describe, predict and theorise about themselves and the social reality around them, and the recursive impact this "self-knowledge" or these "reflections" have on that social reality itself. Some scholars link reflexivity with the broader debate, within International Relations theory and social theory more generally, over the relationship between "agency" and "structure" in the social world. That is, the relationship between people's capacity to "freely" choose their actions and/or to "make a real difference" to the world around them, and the social "structures" in which people are always embedded, and which may powerfully shape — often against their will or in ways they are unaware of — the kinds of things they are able to do.

Reflectivists also often claim that studying and theorising about international relations can be, should be, and indeed is necessarily, reflexive. For one thing, they claim, theories about social reality may have an impact on — might change — social reality itself. Some critics of (neo-)realism have raised the possibility that realist theories, for instance, may act as self-fulfilling prophecies. To the extent that they are taken by theorists and practitioners to be the "common sense" of international politics, diplomacy and policy-making, those theories may in fact encourage precisely the kind of mistrust, ruthless competition and amorality that they posit to be natural and inherent features of the international realm. Familiar methodological examples of the capacity of observation and theorising to affect the object/phenomena of study include the "observer-expectancy effect" and long-running concerns among anthropologists and ethnographers over the possible impact of participant observation on the very people and behaviours being studied.

Furthermore, reflectivists argue, those theories invariably reflect in important ways the social context in which they were produced; so in a sense the social world shapes the theories made of it. There is often a normative or ethical aspect to the emphasis on reflexivity. Reflectivists often argue that theorists should be as self-aware as possible — to reflect as much as possible on the influences (assumptions, biases, normative commitments, etc.) that feed into and shape the theories they produce. In addition, they should be able to hold their own theories to the standards and arguments they set out in those same theories. And finally, they should reflect on the likely and possible effects of their theorising. Some reflectivists (e.g. those of a post-structuralist persuasion) have argued that theorising should itself be understood as a practice, like the human practices that theories study; that it is an act (conscious or unconscious) of intervention into social reality, and that as such it is never "innocent" or "neutral", and there is a degree of responsibility for its consequences that theorists cannot (and should not try to) escape.

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