Science Reflexivity and Critique

A series of core values connect spatial science and critical human geography, including commitment to open inquiry, continual questioning, and reflexivity. These values serve as points of continuity across the discipline of human geographic research, uniting all geographers who seek to create rigorous understandings of the social world. Of these common values, we argue that reflexivity is key, because the principle of open inquiry ultimately rests on constant interrogation of our questions and evidence. Reflexivity is defined as the interdependence of what is observed and the observer(s). Reflexivity in the sciences and the social sciences is the conscious and continuous interrogation of research practice and results in light of this inseparability between the description and the describer. In other words, reflexive research practice requires us to probe the question of what is the connection between the scientist and the science and what impact does that connection have?

Although there is a common interest in reflexivity across human geography, we argue that there are important differences regarding the ways in which this and other core values are understood and deployed within the discipline. The following discussion highlights three key differences between spatial science and critical human geography. First, we note that critical human geographers question how categories, and our assumptions about them, come into being in our work (see Chapter 14 in this volume by Dorling). Second, critical human geography does not claim that specific research findings or data analyses are generalizable to all (or even most) situations. In other words, when presenting the results of research, critical human geographers are careful to place those results in context - to situate the research in time and in place. This process of 'locating' research, we argue, has the potential to produce accountable analyses of the social world - to produce research that captures the differences between places and people, which are every bit as important as the similarities that are captured through the approaches taken by spatial scientists. Third, critical human geographers question the objective basis of knowledge itself, arguing that meanings - the ways in which we understand the world - are not natural or universal, but instead constructed through specific power relations and through situated interactions and participation in the social world.

According to spatial scientists in geography, questioning and reflexiv-ity are at the core of scientific practice. For example, geographer Fred Schaefer is remembered in geography for his 1953 landmark paper that called for an explicitly scientific geography, and his famous debate with regional geographer Richard Hartshorne. Schaefer's approach exemplifies one version of a reflexive approach to geographic science, arguing that geographic methodology is 'an active field [in which] concepts are continuously refined or entirely discarded' (quoted in Dixon and Jones, 1998: 256). Schaefer's statement suggests the need for a constant revision and reworking of categories and concepts, or, in other words, a particular kind of scientific reflexivity. Spatial scientists are committed to producing rigorous, generally applicable knowledge that answers important questions and improves our understanding of social and spatial processes.

However, the assumptions undergirding spatial science - namely those of a stable, stratified material reality that can be objectively observed -signal important differences from critical human geography. Spatial analysis is predicated on the assumption that the social world is comprised 'of discrete objects and events, spaces and times, and the cause-effect relationships that govern variability in the characteristics' of the social world (Dixon and Jones, 1998: 250). In other words, spatial scientists emphasize the high degree of similarity across time and space of certain kinds of people, places and situations. This makes it possible to assume broad 'sameness' within categories of social phenomena for counting and to utilize quantitative techniques. One advantage of this approach is the ability to organize and analyze large quantities of information, discern broad patterns and reveal new areas for further research. The goals of this work are to infer and generalize and, in some cases, attempt to predict (Barnes, 1994; Johnston, 1997: 144). Spatial science practises a kind of reflexivity that involves questioning and redefining categories in order to isolate and measure particular variables and to examine how those variables operate within models. However, spatial science approaches are not designed to engage in a more fundamental questioning of the very stability of evidence captured in those categorizations. Critical human geographers, by contrast, argue that such an engagement is important for the advancement of geographic research, and should therefore be central to the discipline.

We have argued that critical human geography is not 'beyond science' but instead that these approaches share with spatial science a commitment to reflexivity and open inquiry. Despite this common concern, there are important differences in epistemology (how we know what the world is like, i.e. through categorization, measurement, objectivity) and in ontology (what we can know, what is knowable, i.e. measures of observable phenomena, the unseen, such as power, discrimination, etc.). Critical approaches question the underlying assumptions that have led to the creation of commonly accepted categories, such as 'development' (see below). This questioning of the historical foundation of our categories signals a fundamental difference between spatial science and critical human geography.

Critical human geographers suggest that reflexivity must go even further than a constant reevaluation or fine-tuning of categories, arguing that social categories are not natural or essential but are constructed through power relations, cultural practices and representational processes (Gregory, 1994). Indeed, critical human geography engages in a rigorous application of key principles of scientific research through its constant inquiry into the histories, contexts and meanings that are produced in our work. Despite the perceived divide between spatial science and critical approaches in human geography, as well as important differences in epistemology and ontology, these two approaches often inform one another in practice. Many human geographers utilize both approaches to some extent, using statistical information and spatial models to identify new questions and areas for more intensive research, or using qualitative data and critical analyses to check assumptions, reformulate categories and pinpoint new avenues of exploration. Our example from Critical Development Studies below illustrates one way in which different approaches to research, and different kinds of data, can inform one another in a critical analysis.

Within Anglo-American human geography, interpretive and critical approaches have emerged from several literatures, but feminist geographers have been the group most actively engaged with advancing understandings of reflexivity (McDowell, 1992; England, 1994; Kobaya-shi, 1994). Feminist researchers are concerned with the positions of both the researcher and researched within social structures (positions within relations of gender, class, race, ethnicity, nationality, and so on). Considering these relations is crucial to reflexivity because social positions influence the choice of questions, what is revealed in the research encounter, and, ultimately, the analysis and the ways in which 'data' are interpreted. While some dismiss this concern with deep reflexivity as 'navel-gazing', we disagree, as these interrogations of the research relationship force us to understand that we ourselves, and our research, are produced through fields of power (Katz, 1994). This realization has crucial political and practical implications because it requires us to constantly investigate and reevaluate every aspect of the research process.

Acknowledging the power-laden character of all aspects of our research does not, however, mean that we already know the answers to our research questions beforehand. Rather, critical approaches to producing knowledge share with science a commitment to open questioning and discovery. Donna Haraway, an important philosopher of science whose work connects feminist discussions of reflexivity to broader debates about scientific practices, asserts that open-ended questioning is a fundamental activity within all contemporary science. She argues for a new definition of objectivity that actively acknowledges that all perspectives are partial and contextual and that 'privileges contestation, deconstruction, passionate construction, webbed connections, and hope for transformation of systems of knowledge and ways of seeing' (1991:191-192). Yet such openness to partial perspectives does not mean that 'anything goes' or that 'it is all relative'. Nor does it mean that we cannot seek a better world for the future, only that the possibilities for such a world are, in fact, expanded by the active recognition that all knowledge is partial and incomplete. That is why Haraway argues that researchers in all fields

[are] bound to seek perspective from those points of view, which can never be known in advance, which promises something quite extraordinary, that is, knowledge potent for constructing worlds less organized by axes of domination ... Science has been utopian and visionary from the start; that is one reason 'we' need it. (ibid.: 192, emphasis ours)

Haraway's work reiterates our point that all perspectives are necessarily partial because all researchers are always, inescapably, positioned within (and constituted through) the social world. Our 'positionality', therefore, shapes what we know - and how we can know it - returning us once again to the issue of epistemology. Appreciating the complexities inherent in any research situation means that we need to 'place' all research within a broader historical and geographical context and not assume that what holds true in one study will necessarily hold true in other situations. This is a crucial distinction from spatial science approaches which take as a basic assumption that the 'facts speak for themselves' and researchers assume that 'the empirically observed world adequately represents the operations and mechanisms of the real world' (Staeheli and Lawson, 1995: 322).

Feminist arguments about reflexivity and awareness of our own partial perspectives have prompted critical human geographers to call into question the 'natural' or 'objective' basis of knowledge. Critical human geographers take seriously the ways in which meaning is constructed through histories, power relations, places and the very act of research itself. But if the 'facts' don't speak for themselves, then how are we to understand the ways in which knowledge is constructed? Critical human geographers use the term 'discourse' to describe and analyze the structures of knowledge and power that construct and shape the social realms of both everyday life and specialized knowledge. Discourses are 'ways of knowing' or 'regimes of truth' about the world, and as such are made up of ideas, ideals, social conventions, narratives, texts, institutions, individual and collective practices. Discourses help to create the institutions and individuals that they describe. For example, the power of the state exists not only in the threat or use of force, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in the way the institutions of the state shape everyday life through laws, bureaucratic procedures and socially accepted practices of behaviour. These dominant discourses are all the more powerful because they are understood not as historical constructions but instead as obvious knowledge about the 'natural' state of the world (Foucault, 1980a, 1980b; Gregory, 2000).3

The need to attend to discourse is especially an issue in geography and other social 'sciences' that seek to apply scientific principles, methods and metaphors to the social lives of human beings. In the past, scientific theories were often put forth to legitimate projects that now seem nonsensical or even offensive. Within geography, take, for example, the work of Ellen Churchill Semple, who made her name in geography as an advocate for the theory of environmental determinism. Semple's work on Appalachia (1901) was dedicated to demonstrating how mountain isolation and rugged conditions 'retarded' the development of the Anglo-Saxon race that, in her opinion, had achieved so much in other places. While these kinds of environmental determinist arguments have long been discredited in geography, they nonetheless continue to surface in contemporary academic and policy debates over economic and social development. A recent Washington Post newspaper article (1998) summarized the recent work of two Harvard economists, Jeffrey Sachs and John Luke Gallup, noting that these researchers found 'that two factors -a cool climate that holds down disease and good access to ocean-going trade - go a long way toward explaining why some regions are rich and others are poor'. These arguments, and others like them, disregard the specific histories of colonization that reoriented economies to extract and export resources and displaced local peoples. Furthermore, they also ignore contemporary political-economic relations of indebtedness and unequal markets in the current global system. Despite these shortcomings, such theories continue to have broad appeal and political legitimacy, by their appearance in major newspapers and other media outlets. Discourse analysis can draw out their connections and show how the direction of scientific inquiry was influenced by political (imperial) ideologies and practices (Driver, 1992).

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