Crawling in the Shoes of Others
“We sociologists must—at the very least—acquire the ingrained habit of viewing our own beliefs as we now view those held by others.” This is one of my favorite sociological quotes. It comes from Alvin Gouldner who wrote it in his book, The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (1970). Gouldner was making a case for sociologists to be more reflexive in their work.
The word reflexive is one of those awkward words in part because it sounds and looks so much like the word reflective. We know that to be reflective means that we are introspective, thoughtful, or contemplative. Reflexive is similar although it takes the definition of reflective one step further. To be reflexive, in the sociological sense, means that we reflect on and contemplate our own position in the world.
I like to think of being reflexive as being critically introspective. Or as Gouldner says later on in his book: “The ultimate goal of a reflexive sociology is the deepening of the sociologist’s own awareness, of who and what he is, in a specific society at any given time.” (Notice how Gouldner, like most other writers back then, was not reflexive enough to replace sexist language with gender-neutral language.)
Sociologists often speak about walking in the shoes of others and seeing the bigger picture. These are both important components of the sociological imagination. But in order to do either of these things one must first be reflexive or demonstrate reflexivity. If you want to walk in the shoes of others you must first know what shoes you walk in. Otherwise, you will not be able to feel the blisters and bunions that others may experience.
Similarly, in order to see the bigger picture you have to have an understanding of the more narrow view through which you see the world. For example, I cannot even begin to understand what it means to experience reality as an Asian female if I do not first acknowledge that I experience the world as a white male.
Learning to be reflexive can be challenging. Many of us are comfortable in our taken-for-granted reality and we are not too eager to leave it. Moreover, we often don’t realize that we see the world through a specific set of lenses and that others see the world through their own distinctive lenses. We may even believe that everyone has the same experiences, opportunities and chances that we have. By embracing this perspective, and failing to be reflexive, we render ourselves unable to see the obstacles, inequalities, and problems that others may face.
A powerful example of this can be seen in the documentary film War Zone by Maggie Hadleigh-West. This film details the extent to which women are routinely harassed, ogled, whistled at, and even touched as they go about their daily lives.
When I show clips of this film in class there are often a number of male students who think the filmmaker is exaggerating the extent of the problem. It is only after every female member of the class relates a similar personal experience that happened to them that these skeptical men begin to see the world more reflexively. After listening to story after story from their female peers these male students begin to realize that their view of the world is limited by the privileged gendered lens through which they see and experience reality.
When I was in college I recall witnessing another powerful example of reflexivity, although at the time I never even heard of this concept. One of my peers was doing a project for a class where he wanted to experience what it would be like to be physically disabled for a week. For those of us who are able bodied it is easy to be oblivious to the day-to-day trials and tribulations of those who are physically disabled. We may not realize the social and personal inequalities that such individuals confront on a daily basis.
In order to gain such insight, and to achieve greater reflexivity, my peer decided to spend the first half of the week in a wheelchair and the second half of the week blindfolded. To this day, I still have a vivid image of him crawling up (or really pushing his body up without the use of his legs) the long staircase to the social science building because there were no wheelchair accessible ramps in place yet. ( was in college before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 so things such as entrance ramps, automatic doors, and audible crosswalk or elevator signals were not common. )
Things have certainly improved today but there are still many obstacles to navigating the social world for the physically disabled. To better understand this you do not have to go the extremes that my peer did; instead, you can just talk with or shadow a physically disabled individual for a day and you will quickly gain some invaluable reflexive insight.
In fact, this is really the best to way develop overall reflexivity: talk with people, listen to their stories, observe their realities, read about the obstacles (or advantages) they face, and share with them your own experiences. The more you do this, the more critically introspective you will become. And as you develop this deeper reflexivity, you will simultaneously cultivate your sociological imagination. Being reflexive and being sociological go hand-in-hand. After all, you can’t expect to study, much less understand, society if you do not first comprehend your own place in this complex world.