Africa: Six Aspects of Reflexivity

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I am in the middle of writing a book about international aid and reflexive practice. Six inter-related aspects of reflexivity seem important to me in that regard. I am interested in how others see it.

(1) Marx famously wrote 'Men make their own history but they do not make it as they please: they do not make it under self-selected circumstances but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.' Critical reflection on the inter-play between our life history and the society that has shaped us makes me aware that although I am influenced by the time, place and relationships into which I was born and raised, yet I am not totally circumscribed and I can choose how to contribute to shaping our collective future.

(2) We understand our lived experience as a whole wherein we recognise that our values, emotions, knowledge and relationships in one part of our life influence the other elements of our life. This is especially so for international development practitioners living, possibly with family, in an aid-recipient country because of how inter-twined are their personal and professional lives. What are the implications for aid practice and relationships with the people of the country?

(3) Reflexivity encourages us to ask how we know about the social world and challenges us to experiment with other mental models for alternative interpretations of reality. What don't we notice and whose point of view do we ignore? How does power operate to foreclose new ways of thinking and challenge our assumptions?

(4) Reflexive practitioners understand that their observation of the world is an interpretation, one step removed from reality. Other people differently positioned may have an alternative reality that participatory methods will not help us discover unless we respond to and address the underlying power relations that shape whose knowledge counts.

(5) An important aspect of reflexivity is discovering and responding to others' perceptions of our personal, professional and organisational identity. Reflexive practice includes appreciating that my and my organisation's benevolent objectives, may be regarded with rather differently by those whom the organisation is aiming to help.

(6) Critical reflexivity', writes Cunliffe, is about 'questioning our own assumptions and taken-for-granted actions, thinking about where/who we are and where/who we would like to be, challenging our conceptions of reality, and exploring new possibilities.' Missing from this definition is appreciating that our relationships shape our sense of self and understanding of the world. Although some of our relationships are pre-determined, a reflexive practitioner can also consciously choose with whom to associate and learn from and with.

Rosalind Eyben is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and her Twitter account is: @rosalindeyben

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