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Transcending objectivism, subjectivism, and the knowledge in-between: the subject in/of ‘strong reflexivity’


This article addresses the problématique of the subject and the subject-object dichotomy from a post-objectivist, reflexivist perspective informed by a ‘strong’ version of reflexivity. It clarifies the rationale and epistemic-ontological requirements of strong reflexivity comparatively, through a discussion of autoethnography and autobiography, taken as representatives of other variants of reflexive scholarship. By deconstructing the ontological, epistemic, and reflexive statuses of the subject in the auto-ethnographic and auto-biographical variants, the article shows that the move from objectivism to post-objectivism can entail different reconfigurations of the subject-object relation, some of which can lead to subjectivism or an implicit positivist view of the subject. Strong reflexivity provides a coherent and empowering critique of objectivism because it consistently turns the ontological fact of the social situatedness of knowledge into an epistemic principle of social-scientific research, thereby providing reflexivist scholars with a critique of objectivism from within that allows them to reclaim the philosophical, social, and ethical dimensions of objectivity rather than surrender them to the dominant neopositivist tradition.

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1 Mark Neufeld, ‘The Reflexive Turn and International Relations Theory’, CISS Working Paper No. 4 (1991).

2 Neufeld, Mark, The Restructuring of International Relations Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Guzzini, Stefano, ‘A Reconstruction of Constructivism in International Relations’, European Journal of International Relations, 6:2 (2000), pp. 147–82; Guillaume, Xavier, ‘Reflexivity and Subjectivity: A Dialogical Perspective for and on International Relations Theory’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 3:3 (2002), Art. 13, available at: {} accessed 1 March 2010; Leander, Anna, ‘Do We Really Need Reflexivity in IPE? Bourdieu's Two Reasons For Answering Affirmatively’, Review of International Political Economy, 9:4 (2002), pp. 601–9; Smith, Steve, ‘Singing Our World into Existence: International Relations Theory and September 11’, International Studies Quarterly, 48:3 (2004), pp. 499515; Drulàk, Peter, ‘Reflexivity and Structural Change’, in Guzzini, Stefano and Leander, Anna (eds), Constructivism and International Relations: Alexander Wendt and his Critics (New York: Routledge, 2006); Tickner, J. Ann, ‘What is Your Research Program? Some Feminist Answers to International Relations Methodological Questions’, International Studies Quarterly, 49 (2005), pp. 121 and ‘On the Frontlines or Sidelines of Knowledge and Power? Feminist Practices of Responsible Scholarship’, International Studies Review, 8 (2006), pp. 383–95; Hamati-Ataya, Inanna, ‘The “Problem of Values” and International Relations Scholarship: From Applied Reflexivity to Reflexivism’, International Studies Review, 13:2 (2011), pp. 260–88; Eagleton-Pierce, Matthew, ‘Advancing a Reflexive International Relations’, Millennium, 39:3 (2011), pp. 805–29.

3 Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus, The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of Science and its Implications for the Study of World Politics (New York: Routledge, 2011).

4 For an overview of reflexivity in the social sciences, see Ashmore, Malcolm, The Reflexive Thesis: Wrighting the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) and Lynch, Michael, ‘Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge’, Theory, Culture & Society, 17:3 (2000), pp. 2654. For reflexivity in IR, see Eagleton-Pierce, ‘Advancing’ and Hamati-Ataya, Inanna, ‘Reflectivity, Reflexivity, Reflexivism: IR's “Reflexive Turn” – and Beyond’, European Journal of International Relations (2012), DOI: 10.1177/1354066112437770.

5 Smith, Dorothy E., ‘Women's Perspective as a Radical Critique of Sociology’, in Harding, Sandra (ed.), The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 28.

6 Jackson, The Conduct of Inquiry, p. 37.

7 Donna Haraway, ‘Situated Knowledge: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, pp. 81–101 and Sandra Harding, ‘Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is “Strong Objectivity”’, pp. 127–42, in Harding (ed.), The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader.

8 Blaney, David and Tickner, Arlene, ‘Introduction’, in Tickner, Arlene and Blaney, David, Worlding Beyond the West, Volume 3: Claiming the International (New York: Routledge, 2013).

9 Clifford, James, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature and Art. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988); Clifford, James and Marcus, George E. (eds), Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); Marcus, George E., Ethnography Through Thick and Thin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Marcus, George E. and Fischer, Michael M. J., Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences (2nd edn, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999 [orig. pub. 1986]).

10 Ellis, Carolyn and Bochner, Arthur, ‘Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity: Researcher as Subject’, in Denzin, Norman and Lincoln, Yvonna (eds), Handbook of Qualitative Research (2nd edn, Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2000), p. 739.

11 Ibid.

12 Spry, Tami, ‘Performing Autoethnography: An Embodied Methodological Praxis’, Qualitative Inquiry, 7:6 (2001), pp. 706–32, 710.

13 Jones, Stacy Holman, ‘Autoethnography: Making the Personal Political’, in Denzin, Norman and Lincoln, Yvonna (eds), Handbook of Qualitative Research (3rd edn, Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2005), p. 764.

14 Spry, ‘Performing’, p. 710.

15 Alexander, Bryant Keith, ‘Performance Ethnography: The Reenacting and Inciting of Culture’, in Denzin, and Lincoln, (eds), Handbook of Qualitative Research, p. 424.

16 Mark Neumann, quoted in Holman Jones, ‘Autoethnography’, p. 765.

17 Alexander, ‘Performance’, p. 424.

18 Corey, Fred C., ‘The Personal: Against the Master Narrative’, in Dailey, Sheron J. (ed.), The Future of Performance Studies: Visions and Revisions (Annandale, VA: National Communication Association, 1998), p. 250.

19 Kruzel, Joseph and Rosenau, James (eds), Journeys through World Politics: Autobiographical Reflections of Thirty-Four Academic Travelers (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1989); Ken Booth, ‘Security and Self Reflections of a Fallen Realist’, Occasional Paper No. 26, York University, Centre for International and Strategic Studies (1994). See also Halliday, Fred, Rosenberg, Justin, and Waltz, Kenneth, ‘Interview with Ken Waltz’, Review of International Studies, 24:3 (1998), pp. 371–86, and Theory Talks: {}.

20 Berger, Leigh, ‘Inside Out: Narrative Autoethnography as a Path Toward Rapport’, Qualitative Inquiry, 7:4 (2001), pp. 504–18, 506.

21 Nora, Pierre, Essais d'ego-histoire (Paris: Gallimard, 1987).

22 Weintraub, Roy E. and Forget, Evelyn L. (eds), Economists’ Lives: Biography and Autobiography in the History of Economics (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007).

23 Dauphinee, Elizabeth, The Ethics of Researching War: Looking for Bosnia (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007); Doty, Roxanne Lynn, ‘Maladies of Our Souls: Identity and Voice in the Writing of Academic International Relations’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 17:2 (2004), pp. 377–92; Inayatullah, Naeem, ‘Something There: Love, War, and Basketball in Afghanistan: An Antidotal Memoir’, Intertexts, 7:2 (2003), pp. 143–56 and Falling and Flying. An Introduction’, in Inayatullah, Naeem (ed.), Autobiographical International Relations: I, IR (New York: Routledge, 2011).

24 Brigg, Morgan and Bleiker, Roland, ‘Autoethnographic International Relations: Exploring the Self as a Source of Knowledge’, Review of International Studies, 36 (2010), pp. 779–98; Dauphinee, Elizabeth, ‘The Ethics of Autoethnography’, Review of International Studies, 36 (2010), pp. 799818; Löwenheim, Oded, ‘The I in IR: An Autoethnographic Account’, Review of International Studies, 36 (2010), pp. 1023–45; Doty, Roxanne Lynn, ‘Autoethnography – Making Human Connections’, Review of International Studies, 36 (2010), pp. 1047–50; Neumann, Iver B., ‘Autobiography, Ontology, Autoethnography’, Review of International Studies, 36 (2010), pp. 1051–55.

25 Inayatullah (ed.), Autobiographical.

26 Inayatullah, ‘Falling’, pp. 5–6.

27 Dauphinee, ‘The Ethics of Autoethnography’.

28 Rorty, Richard, Consequences of Pragmatism. Essays 1972–1980 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), p. xli.

29 Woolgar, Steve, Science: The Very Idea (2nd edn, London: Routledge, 1993 [orig. pub. 1988]), p. 83.

30 Woolgar, Steve, ‘Reflexivity is the Ethnographer of the Text’, in Woolgar, Steve (ed.), Knowledge and Reflexivity: New Frontiers in the Sociology of Knowledge (London: Sage, 1988), p. 28.

31 Stephen Chan, ‘Accidental Scholarship and the Myth of Objectivity’; Jenny Edkins, ‘Objects Among Objects’; Narendran Kumarakulasingam, ‘Stammers Between Silence and Speech’ and Khadija El Alaoui, ‘Scenes of Obscenity: The Meaning of America under Epistemic and Military Violence’, in Inayatullah (ed.), Autobiographical.

32 Rainer Hülsse, ‘I, the Double Soldier: An Autobiographic Case-Study on the Pitfalls of Dual Citizenship’ and Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, ‘Three Stories: A Way of Being in the World’, in Inayatullah, Ibid.

33 Ellis and Bochner, Ibid., p. 740. See also Reed-Danahay, Deborah, ‘Introduction’, in Reed-Danahay, (ed.), Auto/Ethnography: Rewriting the Self and the Social (Oxford: Berg, 1997).

34 Dauphinee, ‘The Ethics of Autoethnography’, pp. 803–4.

35 Bochner, Arthur, ‘Criteria Against Ourselves’, Qualitative Inquiry, 6:2 (2000), pp. 266–72.

36 Freeman, Mark, ‘Identity and Difference’, Narrative Inquiry, 13 (2003), pp. 331–46.

37 de Freitas, Elizabeth and Paton, Jillian, ‘(De)facing the Self: Poststructural Disruptions of the Autoethnographic Text’, Qualitative Inquiry, 15:3 (2009), pp. 483–98, 484.

38 Denzin, Norman and Lincoln, Yvonna, ‘The Seventh Moment: Out of the Past’, in Denzin, and Lincoln, (eds), Handbook (2nd edn), pp. 1047–65, 1060.

39 de Freitas and Paton, p. 484.

40 Ibid., p. 491.

41 Ibid., p. 490.

42 Ibid., p. 493.

43 Barthes, Roland, The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962–1980 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p. 305.

44 Barthes, Roland, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (Paris: Seuil, 1975), p. 9.

45 Jacques Derrida, quoted in Caputo, J. D. and Scanlon, M. J., Augustine and Postmodernism: Confessions and Circumfession (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), p. 25.

46 Davies, Bronwyn, Browne, Jenny, Gannon, Susanne, Honan, Eileen, et al., ‘The Ambivalent Practices of Reflexivity’, Qualitative Inquiry, 10:3 (2004), pp. 360–89, 366.

47 Barthes, Roland, ‘La mort de l'auteur’, in Barthes, , Le bruissement de la langue: Essais critiques IV (Paris: Seuil, 1984), pp. 63–9, 66; author's translation.

48 Doty, ‘Autoethnography’, p. 1050.

49 Inayatullah, ‘Falling’, p. 9.

50 Brady, Ivan, Anthropological Poetics (Savage: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991).

51 Bochner, ‘Criteria’, p. 269.

52 de Man, Paul, ‘Autobiography as De-facement’, MLN, 94:5 (1979), pp. 919–30, 920.

53 Ibid., p. 921.

54 Macbeth, Douglas, ‘On “Reflexivity” in Qualitative Research: Two Readings, and a Third’, Qualitative Inquiry, 7:1 (2001), pp. 3568, 39, 40.

55 Barone, Tom and Blumenfeld-Jones, Donald, ‘Interrupting the Sign: The Aesthetics of Research Texts’, in Jipson, J. A. and Paley, N. (eds), Daredevil Research: Re-creating Analytic Practice (New York: Peter Lang, 1977), pp. 83107.

56 Ricoeur, Paul, Le conflit des interprétations: Essais d'herméneutique (Paris: Seuil, 1969), p. 318; author's translation.

57 Lather, Patti, ‘Fertile Obsession: Validity after Poststructuralism’, The Sociological Quarterly, 34:4 (1993), pp. 673–93, 685.

58 Quoted in Kearney, R., Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological heritage: Paul Ricoeur, Emmanuel Levinas, Herbert Marcuse, Stanislas Breton, Jacques Derrida (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. 125, emphasis added.

59 Durkheim, Emile, Les règles de la méthode sociologique (Paris: Flammarion, 1999 [orig. pub. 1895]).

60 Bourdieu, Pierre, Chamboredon, Jean-Claude and Passeron, Jean-Claude, Le métier de sociologue. Préalables épistémologiques (Paris: Mouton, 1983 [orig. pub. 1968]).

61 Ibid., p. 27, emphasis added; author's translation.

62 Ibid., p. 53, fn. 2.

63 Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things. An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage, 1984 [orig. pub. 1966]).

64 Denzin, Norman, Interpretive Ethnography: Ethnographic Practices for the 21st Century (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1997), pp. 221–2, quoted in Davies et al., p. 367.

65 Butler, Judith, The Psychic Life of Power (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p. 4, quoted in Davies et al., p. 363.

66 Neumann, ‘Autobiography’, p. 1055.

67 Berger, Peter and Luckmann, Thomas, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (London: Penguin, 1991 [orig. pub. 1966]).

68 Lukács, Georg, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (London: The Merlin Press, 1971 [orig. pub. 1922]).

69 Harding, Sandra, The Science Question in Feminism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986); Harding (ed.) The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader; Haraway, Donna, ‘Situated Knowledge: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, Feminist Studies, 14:2 (1988), pp. 583–90; Collins, Patricia Hill, ‘Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought’, Social Problems, 33:6 (1986), S14S32.

70 Hall, Stuart, ‘Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation’, Framework, 36 (1989), pp. 6882.

71 Hopf, Ted, ‘The Promise of Constructivism in International Relations Theory’, International Security, 23:1 (1998), pp. 171200; Guzzini, , ‘A Reconstruction’ and ‘The Concept of Power: A Constructivist Analysis’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 33:3 (2005), pp. 495521.

72 Harding, ‘Rethinking’, p. 133.

73 Smith, ‘Women's Perspective’, p. 31.

74 Bourdieu, Pierre, The Logic of Practice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990 [orig. pub. 1980]), p. 26.

75 Ibid., pp. 25–6, emphasis added.

76 Bourdieu, Pierre and Wacquant, Loïc, Réponses. Pour une anthropologie reflexive (Paris: Libre Examen/Seuil, 1992), p. 101.

77 Bourdieu, Pierre, Esquisse d'une théorie de la pratique (Paris: Seuil, 2000 [orig. pub. 1972]), p. 263.

78 Bourdieu, , Raisons pratiques: Sur la théorie de l'action (Paris: Seuil, 1994), p. 81. I use ‘[hi]story’ as a translation of the French term ‘histoire’, which can mean either ‘history’ or ‘story’, both of which have relevant connotations in Bourdieu's statement.

79 Ibid., p. 88.

80 Bourdieu, Pierre, Sketch for a Self-Analysis (Cambridge: Polity, 2007 [orig. pub. 2004]), p. 4.

81 Bourdieu, Pierre, Les règles de l'art. Genèse et structure du champ littéraire (Paris: Seuil, 1998 [orig. pub. 1992]).

82 Bourdieu, Pierre, L'ontologie politique de Martin Heidegger (Paris: Minuit, 1988).

83 The opening sentence of the book, which is prefaced ‘This is not an autobiography’, is especially illustrative of Bourdieu's efforts to methodically apply his theoretical framework to himself: ‘To understand is first to understand the field with which and against which one has been formed. That is why, at the risk of surprising a reader who perhaps expects to see me begin at the beginning, that is to say, with the evocation of my earliest years and the social world of my childhood, I must, as a point of method, first examine the state of the [French academic] field at the moment I entered it, in the 1950s …’.83 Bourdieu, Sketch, p. 4.

84 Bourdieu, Raisons pratiques, p. 82.

85 Bourdieu, Pierre, Méditations pascaliennes (Paris: Seuil, 2003 [orig. pub. 1997]), pp. 24–5.

86 Löwenheim, ‘The I’, p. 1025.

87 Halliday et al., p. 372.

88 Dauphinee, ‘The Ethics of Autoethnography’, p. 806.

89 Doty, ‘Autoethnography’, p. 1050.

90 Sandra Harding, ‘Introduction: Standpoint Theory as a Site of Political, Philosophic, and Scientific Debate’, p. 8 and Smith, ‘Women's Perspective’, in Harding (ed.), The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader, p. 29.

91 Bourdieu, Méditations pascaliennes, pp. 24–5.

92 Interestingly, Feminist Standpoint Theory, which stresses the idea that a ‘standpoint’ is different from a ‘viewpoint’ or ‘perspective’ and hence only starts from shared experience in order to construct it into a cognitive standpoint, also uses ‘autobiographies’ and ‘ethnographies of women’ as experience-illuminating data. See Hilary Rose, ‘Hand, Brain, and Heart: A Feminist Epistemology for the Natural Sciences’, p. 75; Hill Collins, ‘Learning from the Outsider Within’, pp. 103–26; and Harding, ‘Introduction’, p. 6; in Harding (ed.), The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader.

93 Bourdieu, Pierre, Leçon sur la leçon (Paris: Minuit, 1982), p. 10.

94 Derrida, Jacques, ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’, in Writing and Difference (London: Routledge, 1978), p. 283.

95 Ibid., p. 284.

96 García Selgas, Fernando J., ‘Feminist Epistemologies for Critical Social Theory: From Standpoint Theory to Situated Knowledge’, in Harding, (ed.), The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader, pp. 293308, 294–5.

* This article is the final product of a series of very different earlier versions, each of which has benefitted from the input of several colleagues to whom I am greatly indebted. I would first like to thank Carmen Geha and my former graduate students at the American University of Beirut, Jad Ghosn, John Hayden, Hicham Tohme, and Tarek Tutunji, who have kindly offered their impressions and comments on autoethnographic IR texts from a reader's perspective. This perspective has unfortunately disappeared in the process of reworking this article, but their views retain an important intellectual and pedagogical value for my reflections on academic writing. In addition to RIS's anonymous reviewers and editors, whose suggestions and criticisms have significantly shaped the evolution of this article, I am grateful to Patrick Jackson, Vassilis Paipais, and Félix Grenier for their feedback on three respective older versions; to Elizabeth Dauphinee for her generous comments and clarifications on autoethnography; and to Arlene Tickner for her insights on the affinities between my reflexivist concerns and those of Feminist Standpoint Theory, and more importantly for the invaluable ongoing conversation on dissident scholarship and reflexivity. I am especially grateful to Naeem Inayatullah for his challenging criticisms, his generosity, and a conversation to which neither this, nor future articles, can possibly do justice.

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Review of International Studies
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