Reflexivity: Seeing Ourselves as we See Others
As Michael Burawoy (2013: 280) points out: “sociologists cannot be the exception to their own rules… [they are] social beings too”. We, then, gravitate towards a sociology advocated by Burawoy (2005), that of a “public sociology,” in which “critical sociology is, and should be, ever more concerned with promoting public sociologies, albeit of a specific kind” (ibid: 314), and in which “[sociologists] are less effective as servants of power but more effective as facilitators, educators, raising consciousness, turning private problems into public issues” (ibid: 321).
Reflexivity is about “seeing ourselves as we see others” (Gouldner 2004: 382). This means applying understandings of what it is to be human to ourselves. It is about acknowledgingsimilarity but also difference.
Whether as social researchers or filmmakers, in reflecting upon our own positionality, we recognise that we are susceptible to the social processes that shape our world. In this way, we can never be ‘objective observers’. We are as much human in our subjectivity as those we call our participants, our respondents, or those in front of the camera.
We do, however, occupy different social positions. We have different histories, experiences, backgrounds and most importantly, privilege. We are inextricably embroiled in wider social structures; ones that perpetuate and reproduce inequality, and we live our lives at different intersections of these structures. Importantly, as social researchers or documentary filmmakers, we have the power to present/represent others, but we also often belong to groups that occupy privileged social positions, creating a relationship within the documentary setting that risks mimicking the social power relations of the wider context. Too often this relationship is obscured by the – at times purposefully – constructed fallacy of the filmmaker/social researcher as a disembodied and impartial ‘truth-teller’, which fails to recognise the embodied experiences and positionality of those taking part in a documentary film. Recognition of this would contribute to a genuine ethnographic exploration of inequality and challenge the discourses of difference that help sustain such inequalities
Recognising our position and privilege necessitates reflexivity in the documentary film-making process. How are we complicit in telling this particular story? After all, it is just that: a story. We can never make feature-length an entire life, situation, or grasp the full complexity of an issue. We cannot completely capture the richness and fullness of a lived experience. It’s a story limited in scope, but it can be a story worth telling. A story that we are compelled to tell, that becomes important to share – but shared in a way that recognises the choices made in what is being portrayed and why.
We need to recognise that those whose stories we translate into documentary film are not characters. They are humans, and what we say about them has real meaning and tangible consequences. This is exactly why, in order to share stories in a meaningful way, we need to avoid reifying structures that already divide, stratify and reproduce inequalities. We need to minimise allusions to incompatible difference, whilst addressing real differences in privilege, which involves making clear our own relationship both to those behind the camera, and to those watching.
Ultimately, “seeing ourselves as we see others” necessitates a (re)conceptualisation of ourselves in relation to others. In doing so, we reveal something fundamentally human. Film is just one medium that can be used to capture this, and in doing so, can and should play a crucial role in the fight for social justice.
Burawoy, M. (2005) “The Critical Turn Towards Public Sociology” Critical Sociology. 31 (3), 313-326.
Burawoy, M. (2013) “Public Sociology: The Task and the Promise” in K. Gould and T. Lewis (eds.) Ten Lessons in Introductory Sociology. Oxford University Press
Gouldner, A. W. (2004) “Toward a Reflexive Sociology” in C. Seale (ed.) Social Research Methods: A Reader. London: Routledge, pp. 261-268