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Reflexivity and Modesty: towards an ethics of knowledge

by Charalambos Tsekeris and Nicos Katrivesis
2 Sep 2007 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Commons

Western reflexive thinking about knowledge, culture and science often tends to (somehow) reproduce the “one epistemological size fits all” standpoint of Eurocentrism, to exclude alternative post-colonial theorizations and to ignore the irreducibility of the “ethical dimension”.

The “reinvention” of this crucial dimension, within contemporary social theory, entails the substantial incorporation of the weak performative circular reasoning as well as a new reflexive ethos (and aesthetic) of scientific modesty. The issue here is indeed the fruitful pluralist maximization of both ethical and cognitive possibilities. In this respect, the “it could be otherwise” clause of radical intellectual inquiry remains central to our inter-disciplinary world. Increasingly, the reflexive awareness of the essential mutual dependency of conceptual categories (e.g. risk, citizenship, modernity, morality) and social practice has been brought right at the forefront of epistemological debates. In the contemporary academic context, it is almost customary to present theory as both constitutive of and constitutive for practice, as well as to use “reflexivity” in order to criticize others: “As the charge was once made of being a positivist, to be called an unreflexive practitioner seems to signify someone who is inadequate, incomplete and worst of all, outdated”.[1] This leads us to further elaborate on the agonistic notion of “reflexive social theory” or, more precisely, on the antagonistic relationship between reflexive social theory and the social theory of reflexivity, between truly “reflexive accounts” and mere “accounts of reflexivity”.[2]

Then, following a consistent line of “conceptual pragmatism” (Pierce), a new set of self-critical (meta-reflexive) questions may possibly emerge. For instance, what does the reflexive critique of the knowing subject exactly involve? What are its ultimate ethical implications for the discourse of social theory? In the same spirit, Wanda Pillow, prioritizes reflexivity as a topic of study in its own right, which is regularly used by most researchers “without defining how they are using it, as if it is something we all commonly understand and accept…”.[3]

Focusing on this meta-theoretical strand of inquiry, it is practically demonstrable that the ethical dimension of reflexivity is rarely stressed (or even recognized and acknowledged) in an explicit manner:

Although reflexivity is a familiar concept … it has not previously been seen as an ethical notion … Reflexivity is not usually seen as connected with ethics at all.[4]

In other words, the irreducibility of ethics renders epistemological reflexivity as inadequate or incomplete. Hence, reflexivity should no more regarded as a mere conceptual tool for a pragmatic, self-referential understanding of social theory and research – that is, social theory and research as a cluster of categories that are productive in an analysis of a given object under investigation, rather than as an overarching explanatory model of the social world. Following Marcel Mauss, it should be also regarded as a potentially helpful guide for a new ethic of academic life as well as a (contested) “process and a way of thinking that will actually lead to ethical research practice”.[5] Epistemological and ethical aspects of reflexivity are of equal importance. These aspects should complement and reinforce each other, mutually contributing to “good science” and “good life”.

In this respect, reflexivity as an “ethico-epistemological” project, or as individual and collective ethical reflection and action, is not easily compatible with a ‘strong’ conception of social/organizational science, as expressed by the conventional rationalist idea that “knowledge, in order to be interesting or creatively new, must be relatively context-free, must be able to rise above and transgress its primary situatedness”.[6] However, the “traditional” or “received” conceptions of a “strong” social theory and an ascetic, interest-free pursuit of truth and epistemological perfectionism have not ceased to attract all the conflicting “paradigms” (Kuhn), within antagonistic fields of inquiry. The formulation of (Western) “strong hand” metaphors and the obsessive drive for clear-cut, compulsory and inescapable definitions continue to copiously proliferate in (post)modern vocabularies.

So, although the well-respected theoretical and methodological concept of “reflexivity”, associated with the “natural proximity of facts and values”[7], is now central in the contemporary analyses of knowledge, science and society, the performative, hermeneutic “circle of representation” (Bourdieu) always tends to disappear in either a transcendental objectivity or a transcendental subjectivity.[8] Through a careful, critical review of theoretical exhibitionist shows of intellectual power, from conversation analysis and ethnomethodology to feminism and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK), it is clear to see that the various forms of reflexivity are paradoxically attracted to the old Cartesian ideals of mentalism, authoritarian individualism, elitism and context-transcendent (yet racialized) knowledge.[9]

The implicit pursuit of these purist eurocentric ideals unremarkably tends to the systematic reinforcement of disciplinary hegemony, for instance, the “grand conception of sociology’s role” (Martyn Hammersley) and the methodical concealment of the essential “epistemological circularity” of its accounts, distantiating us from the epistemologically healthy ethics/aesthetics of “imperfection” and scientific modesty (synesis). For weak social theory to say that an argument carries force, or that it stands up in a definitely unproblematic way, is to “find it distasteful or even slightly obscene. To say: ‘that is a very vulnerable argument’, is to pay a compliment to it”.[10] In this sense, we must be proud of our (constitutive) weakness and reflexively embrace our own anti-universalistic/anti-racist politics of knowledge, or “politics of the mind” (Gouldner), primarily pointing our epistemic guns at ourselves, rather than at everyone else in order to forcibly achieve maximum diffusion and global consensus. Thus, our knowledge’s own (unavoidable) circularity is openly acknowledged and celebrated.

Yet, this kind of “politics” is not self-refuting, since it non-opportunistically offers itself as a (weak) criterion of truth by displaying the dialectical “projective relationship between the spokesperson and that which is spoken for”,[11] waiving all claims for “independent” realities, “transcendental” truths and “obligatory” epistemological foundations. As the radical skeptical ethics of circular reflexive reasoning is being brought right at the heart of current sociological debates, we do maximize our chances to “relationally” see ourselves “through the eyes of the other” (Heinz von Foerster) and discover a wholly new intellectual life conduct: “Less egotism, both individual and collective, and more awareness of how we all constitute each other…”.[12] In such terms, “caring for the other” (Maturana) signifies an essential prerequisite for both social and scientific living.[13]

Furthermore, encouraging the practice of a radically reflexive (anastochastic) and self-consciously performative[14] “knowledge politics” (in a Foucauldian sense), we openly promote an Aristotelian negation (apophasis) of the will to intellectual power and, eventually, the development of more “apophatic”, and less “promethean”, modes of critical thinking and inter-acting. This implies a kind of apophatic methodological voluntarism, where different levels of “radical uncertainty” (Woolgar) are incorporated in the self-confrontation of science, as well as in the co-emerging relationship between science and society (including politics). Following Nicos Mouzelis, the “spiritualization” of socio-logical reflexivity does not entail exegetic anaemia, nihilism or political paralysis, and does not necessarily abstract from the venerable Enlightenment adage of knowing thyself/knowing better, posing itself as a potentially effective antidote against both scientific and everyday essentialism.

A less rational-cognitive, and “more contemplative, more easy-going”,[15] alternative form of reflexivity inevitably turns our analytic attention not only to post-Western ways of conceiving ourselves, theory and society, but also to a post-Western, yet critical, approach to culture and cultural studies, opening the “space of possibility” (Heidegger) for a more enriched, multilogical and participative “cosmopolitan public sphere” (Hans Herbert Koegler).[16] There is the vital need for a post-colonial, knowledge-political discourse of a europic (wide-eyed) reflexivity, advancing “intellectual humility and tolerance” (Rosenau), facilitating scientific communication and focusing on wider contexts and interests, in direct contrast to the myopic (short-sighted), narrow and immunizing (eurocentric) reflexivities which still dominate the various fields of study.

‘Strong’ theory is obviously reluctant to see ethics as an irreducible aspect of reflexivity. But, as stressed above, the self-conscious researcher should be alert not only to “issues related to knowledge creation but also ethical issues in research. This alertness might include conscious consideration of a range of formal ethical positions and adoption of a particular ethical stance”.[17] In this context, we actively promote a genuine, anti-hegemonic stance of epistemological weakness connecting reflexivity, as a rather community level concern, with the “microethics” (Komesaroff) of social (and organizational) research and theory.

Hence, we arguably accomplish a provocative dialogical expansion of the very project of reflexive social theory, which is indeed integral to good (serious, accountable) cultural production. In this line, as Shiv Visvanathan comprehensively points out, a new, post-Western, “pluralist world of cognitive possibilities” is increasingly open to us.[18] Such a world presupposes a strong sense of ethical reflexivity, which pushes “towards the uncomfortable” (Pillow) and, of course, does not entail a “stronger objectivity” (Bourdieu, Harding) but rather a modest notion of “reflexive objectivity” (Gouldner) associated with the “importance of personal presence and sentimental commitment in…accounts of the world”,[19] against eurocentric knowledge production.


1. May, T. (1999) Reflexivity and Sociological Practice, Sociological Research Online 4(3), par. 1.1. [↑]

2. Mauthner, N. and Doucet, A. (2003) Reflexive accounts and accounts of reflexivity in qualitative data analysis, Sociology 37(3), p. 413-431. [↑]

3. Pillow, W. (2003) Confession, catharsis, or cure?, Qualitative studies in education 16(2), p. 176. [↑]

4. Guillemin, M. and Gillam, L. (2004) Ethics, Reflexivity, and “Ethically Important Moments” in Research, Qualitative Inquiry 10(2), p. 262, 274-275 [↑]

5. ibid. p. 273 [↑]

6. Pels, D. (2000) The Intellectual as Stranger, Routledge, p. 163 [↑]

7. Pels, D. (2003) Unhastening Science, Liverpool University Press [↑]

8.  Pels, D. (2000) Reflexivity: One Step Up, Theory, Culture & Society 17(3), p. 1-25 [↑]

9. Pels, D. (2003) Unhastening Science, Liverpool University Press [↑]

10. ibid. p. 220 [↑]

11. Pels, D. (2000) Reflexivity: One Step Up, Theory, Culture & Society 17(3), p. 17 [↑]

12.  Collins, R. (2002) On the acrimoniousness of intellectual disputes, Common Knowledge 8(1), p. 70 [↑]

13. Tsivacou, I. (2005) The Ideal of Autonomy from the Viewpoint of Functional Differentiation / Integration of Society, Systems Research and Behavioral Science 22, p. 520-522 [↑]

14. By this, we arguably imply a performativist conception of social order, according to which social structures, relations, patterns, connections and identities are imaginary quantities that exist only partially, because they are continuously “at stake” in attempts to render them a little bigger or a little smaller. We are all in the permanent business of re-negotiating, re-constructing and acting performatively upon them. Therefore, we all contribute to the “reality status” of what is described and explained. See Pels, D. (2002) Everyday Essentialism. Social Inertia and the Münchhausen Effect, Theory, Culture & Society 19(5/6), p. 69-89 [↑]

15. Mouzelis, N. (1999) Exploring post-traditional orders: Individual Reflexivity, ‘pure relations’ and duality of structure. In O’Brien, Penna & Hay (eds.) Theorising Modernity, Longman, p. 85 [↑]

16. In contrast to the strong ethnomethodological opposition to a version of reflexivity that “implies no antonym, confers no definite methodological advantage, and elevates no particular theory of knowledge, cultural location, or political standpoint above any other”, (Lynch, M. (2000) Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge, Theory, Culture & Society 17(3), p. 47) the qualitative betterment of social (and organizational) science might indeed “help promote a more democratic society in the future”. Brown, J.R. (2001) Who Rules in Science? An Opinionated Guide to the Wars, Harvard University Press, p. 171 [↑]

17. Guillemin, M. and Gillam, L. (2004) Ethics, Reflexivity, and “Ethically Important Moments” in Research, Qualitative Inquiry 10(2), p. 275 [↑]

18. Visvanathan, S. (2006) Alternative Science, Theory, Culture & Society 23(2-3), p. 169 [↑]

19. Pels, D. (2000) The Intellectual as Stranger, Routledge, p. 220 [↑]

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Co-editor of the Greek scientific journal Intellectum. His major areas of research include cultural studies and the sociology of scientific knowledge. E-mail:
All posts by: Charalambos Tsekeris | Email | Website

Reader in Sociology at the University of Macedonia, Thessalonica, Greece. His major areas of research include social epistemology and pedagogical studies. E-mail:
All posts by: Nicos Katrivesis | Email | Website

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