August 20, 2012

Crawling in the Shoes of Others

Peter_Kaufman_Bio_PicBy Peter Kaufman

“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.

clip_image001I 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 clip_image002such 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.


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I, too, used Maggie's film War Zone in intro classes with the same outcome. I had students watch the entire film. However, the men still had difficulty accepting the realities shared by women in the class, and felt put upon as if they were being unjustly accused.

To facilitate discussion beyond what appeared to be an impasse, I asked students about their understanding of the phrase "silence=complicity." For me, an educator who has worked in the field of domestic violence and sexual assault, it is important for men to know that they, too, must publicly take a stand for women. Without their voice, the issues raised in the film will continue. Hence its current validity as a useful classroom tool.

I asked my husband to watch this clip with me, to see if I was over reacting about it because I am a female. It upset me to see him have such a dorment reaction about what we were watching. I asked him if the situation was ok to happen. He tells me, "it's going to happen one way or another, if females dont want to be looked at like a sex object then maybe they should walk around in a potato sack." Sad to hear such an intelligent man talk so foolishly. So I told my 10 year old daughter she is allowed for a day to wear whatever she wanted to without punishment and show her daddy how it felt. It took my baby girl 5 minutes for her father to change his opinion on what he said prior.
I think it is very wrong for anyone to be like that toward women at all. I dont agree with it and I simply think it is disgusting. But in todays society shouting obnoxiously at a female instead of having a simple conversation tend to work its way into a relationship.

Reflexivity means to me the same as an open mind does. I feel that you can broaden your open mind even further with reflexivity. We never know what other people are going through. I like to think this way on a daily basis, but we all lose track at times. This is a good reminder.

Understanding how someone lives their lives with any type of handicap is something that I believe everyone should know about. In today's society there are to many people who don't understand this and don't respect those who have them. Being someone like myself who has a handicap, but is not yet disabling, makes me wonder why most people don't understand this. I see how people actually treat people and it make me sick, most of whom are teenagers who haven't been brought up correctly. If only these children were able to understand, maybe this world would be a better place.

I don't like the video clip, men should understand that stuff like that is degrading to women. But on the note of reflexivity well I think women are supper at having reflexivity cause men has made jesters for 100's of years. I wonder how some of the men in the video would look at it if it was their daughter.

To start with, I believe that more women have to deal with sexual harrasment than men but it definitely goes both way especially in todays society. Men deal with uncomfortable situations as well but maybe not so forcfully blunt. Men still have this dominant theory of masculinity and feel that it is still up to them to act agressivly and beat out compitition in hopes of one of these females will take the bait basically. Men instinctivly do this, it's kinda like social Darwinism.

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