The Reflexive Researcher: The Pain and Gains of Reflexivity

By Meenakshi Sarkar

Recently,  the British Sociological Association organised a postgraduate and early career researcher regional event – Public sociology and the role of the researcher: Engagement, communication and academic activism on 29th March 2017, at the DeMontfort University, Leicester.  The format of presentation was a five-minute PechaKucha presentation (20 slides-20 seconds each- so 400 seconds). Given the time constraint, I decided to do mine in the form of a poem! I was a bit apprehensive, but the poem was well received by the academic audience and I won the prize for the best presentation.

My research explores the employment challenges for Pakistani men in the UK and why a quarter of them work as taxi drivers?  Nestled in a social constructivist paradigm, within the structure agency debate, mine is an ethnographic study drawing upon Bourdieusian concepts- habitus, doxa, illusio and the various capitals. As a qualitative researcher I have often comes across this call for reflexivity or being reflexive. Michael Buroway calls ethnography to be a ‘reflexive science’; Finlay says its ‘a difficult path’ yet ‘essential for all research’; Some call it ‘elusive and poorly described’; and others see reflexivity as a major strategy for quality control. Baffled with all these propositions, I sometimes find myself at a loss when trying to ‘be reflexive’ and had the same question as Pillow – is reflexivity ‘a reflection, confession or a cathartic outburst?’

The following poem is an expression of real questions I faced while writing my methodology chapter (which I am still struggling with!).

1 in 4 Pakistani men in the UK, drive taxis for a living
Is it a choice or constraint, their fortune’s misgiving?
How free are they to choose a job? do they really have a choice?
Or do their class, religion, and ethnicity take away their own voice?

How does being a Pakistani man in UK, affect their life chance ?
What options do they get, in a society of white dominance?
Economists have sought to answer these questions in many ways
Through human capital theories, or the role an ‘ethnic penalty’ plays

Many a studies have pointed to the disadvantage of Pakistanis in this land
Poor education, rural backgrounds, often push them to the lowest band
Discrimination is still rampant, in spite of all the laws,
How fair is Britain, boasting of its equality vows?

But then, these penalties are not the same across all groups that dwell
Indians & Chinese, in the same British labour market have done pretty well!
Is education then the emancipator, the key to success ?
Yet, why do some second generation Pakistani boys to taxi driving recess?

Unable to find an answer, I turned to sociology too!
To Giddens, Archer, and Pierre Bourdieu
I found Bourdieu closest to explaining the reproduction of class
Of habitus, doxa and illusio, how they affect our life, alas!

A habitus is formed , as a ‘mental structure’ which guides our minds
A perception of only this or that could be done, which a illusio binds
The habitus is reproduced generations after generations
Yet, between structure and agency lie man’s deliberations!

Or is it the various capitals he says, that create this doxic structure
Social capital?, religious?, symbolic?, or culture?
So our Class, Affiliations, Gender, and Ethnicity form a certain CAGE,
A structure one is born in, as we enter life’s stage.

We do not choose these for ourselves, but they yield their power on us
Reproducing the habitus affecting our long term prospects thus
But man is born free, a rational thinking being!
How does one negotiate this CAGE?  when does agency kick in?

Faced with these questions, I took a social justice stance
An ethnographic study, an interpretivist dance
What counts can sometimes not be counted, and what’s counted doesn’t count,
So I am presenting their voices qualitatively, in their own account

But wait, who am I in this entire scheme of things?
Whats my positionality? a question of reflexivity rings!
Am I an insider or outsider here?
What common sense of my participants do I actually bear?

I am a contrast to them in many a way
What role does my own background here play?
I am an educated, Hindu, Indian, woman from the middle class
They are taxi drivers, Muslim, Pakistani, men from a working class

So, how does one research these subjective questions of the mind?
How will I unearth the habitus of being a minority in the grind?
How do my own assumptions affect what I say and ask?
How in the glory of my own habitus does my research bask?

Is reflexivity a reflection, confession, or just a cathartic outburst?
If we all affect our research uniquely, then what epistemology do we trust?
Where does the researcher draw the line to remain objective?
Between the study and real people who are subjective?

Whose story is it anyway, mine or theirs?
Am I their true representative as someone who cares?
How will this help policy and practice? what impact will it make?
Finding social justice for the community, I wish to awake

I have more questions than answers at this stage,
Perhaps I am bound unknowingly, by my own CAGE!
But these questions, however painful need to be asked for sure
Only then will I as an impactful & reflexive researcher mature

Email: M.Sarkar@leeds.ac.uk;  TWEET: @meenakshisarkar

Currently in her 3rd year of PhD at the University of Leeds, Meenakshi is a Learning and Development professional with over 20 years of experience from India where she worked with various organisations such as Procter & Gamble, Bausch & Lomb, Oriflame, Metlife Insurance and New York Life Insurance as a L&D lead, leadership coach and facilitator for behavioral skills. She came to the UK as a matured student to pursue her second masters in Human resource management (the first being in English Literature) at the University of Leeds in 2012. Her research started from a simple observation that many of the taxi drivers she met during her stay at Leeds, Bradford and Manchester were of Pakistani origin. As per the EHRC (2010), 1 in 4 Pakistani men In the UK drive taxis for a living. Is it a choice or constraint?  Meenakshi set out to explore. As she is writing her thesis, she is also exploring issues around reflexivity, role of the researcher in public sociology.

The above poem was presented at a Public Sociology conference in Leicester this March.


Categories: Social Theory, Sociological Craft

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *