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Tim May, Beth Perry: Reflexivity. The Essential Guide

Cover Tim May, Beth Perry: Reflexivity. The Essential Guide. SAGE Publications, Ltd (London) 2017. 248 Seiten. ISBN 978-1-4462-9517-5. 34,35 EUR.
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Though often connected with qualitative research, reflexivity is tackled within various fields such as literature, anthropology, sociology, ethnography, international relations, economics, etc. In their book, "Reflexivity. The Essential Guide", Tim May and Beth Perry examine the relevance of reflexivity for social life, social sciences, and social research. The reader should not expect this work to be a guidebook (though the word "guide" is used in the title); the authors themselves dismiss the idea of ready-made solutions and invite the reader on an intellectual journey which starts with René Descartes and goes up to contemporary philosophers, such as Slavoj Žižek or Herbert Marcuse. This journey should provide the reader with the "resources to make sense of a range of ideas in terms of their applicability and relevance for understanding modern times and the production of social scientific knowledge" (p. 2). Moreover, for Tim May and Beth Perry reflexivity is not a method "but a set of practices that characterize a mature social science" (p. 6). According to the authors "reflexive thinking does not seek closure and cannot be confined to one element of the research process, bracketed or appended; it is an iterative and continuous characteristic of good social scientific practice" (p. 150).


Tim May[1] is Professor of Social Science Methodology in the Sheffield Methods Institute, University of Sheffield. In addition to his teaching across a range of subjects, Tim May has authored and edited 16 books, including new editions, which have been translated into 15 languages, as well as over 180 articles, book chapters, research reports and policy briefings. His work has been funded by national and international research councils and the topics of his research and writings cover urban knowledge exchange; policy development and learning; universities, cities and socio-economic development; management and organizational change; research methods and methodology; social and political theory and philosophy of social science.

Beth Perry is Professorial Fellow in the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield. She has followed an interdisciplinary path, undertaking degrees in European Studies and Modern Languages, before completing a PhD in Sociology and Political Science. Since 2000 she has worked in and subsequently led urban research centres, with a focus on the processes and practices of urban transformation. Beth Perry is currently the UK Programme Lead for the Mistra Urban Futures centre, which has established local interaction platforms in South Africa, Kenya, Sweden, and the UK to explore the limits and strengths of coproduction in realising just cities.


The book consists of eight chapters. After a short introduction which briefly presents the meaning of reflexivity, the authors start their journey in the history of ideas by asking the question "how do we grasp an independent, ambiguous reality in an unambiguous form?" (p. 10). In search for an answer, they offer insights from three schools of thought: rationalism, empiricism, and scepticism.

Chapter 2 tackles three important themes in the understanding of reflexivity: the will, interpretation and being. The relationship between individual and society is presented in the light of the works of various European philosophers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

Chapter 3 discusses the relationship between reflexivity and action, between knowing and doing, between theory and facts. This chapter draws on North American philosophers and scholars, while the first two chapters relied on European philosophical tradition.

Chapter 4 covers the developments in the history of thought with regard to reflexivity in the twentieth century. With the aim of shading light on the relationship between social scientific knowledge, social transformation and reflexivity, topics such as critical reason, critical theory, critical realism, poststructuralism, etc. are addressed in this chapter.

Chapter 5 brings into attention a major theme related to reflexivity: power. The chapter focuses on two questions: "what can [one] say about the subject upon whom a critical social science will draw, and what implications does this have for the practice of social science?" (p. 100). Ideas of contemporary social scientists and philosophers are presented here.

Chapter 6 is concerned with the dynamics of science and society, and transformations of the boundaries between science and society, justification and application, and research and practice are observed.

Starting from the experiences of both authors, chapter 7 "illustrate[s] the need for and the limits of reflexive practice in relation to the changing contexts and cultures of knowledge production in the twenty-first century" (p.150).

Finally, chapter 8 focuses on issues such as identity, belonging, positioning and pleads for active intermediation, defined as "a set of reflexive practices concerning the boundaries of research" (p. 174) through which the social scientist should be able to "produce a more mature and open social science" (p. 174).


In the first chapter, "Thought and Knowledge in the History of Ideas", Tim May and Beth Perry introduce the idea that human beings are characterized by the desire to know themselves and the world they are living in. According to them it is this search for certainty which "opens up a terrain where reflexivity is often seen to operate at its height: between knowing why we act and acting itself, or between thought and action" (p. 10). By trying to establish the roots of reflexivity, the authors present the thoughts of some of the most influential European philosophers such as Plato, René Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Benedictus Spinoza, David Hume, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, etc. Aside from the insights in the works of these authors, there is one main takeaway point from this chapter, that is: the importance of context. In the words of the authors: "thinkers and writers are bound up in their own contexts … They were influenced in different ways by civil unrest, war, theology and the scientific revolution, and the Age of Enlightenment" (p. 29). Context, therefore, influences the content of their writings, and their writings influence "how we all gain knowledge of and relate to the world we live in" (p. 10).

Chapter 2, "Will, Interpretation and Being", continues the journey in the history of thought with philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, Wilhelm Dilthey, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Alfred Schütz, etc. This chapter analyses the relationship between passions, experience and social sciences starting from the question "if we are governed by our passions and can only know the world through experience and sensation, how is general knowledge possible?" (p. 32). Central issues to this chapter are interpretation, standpoint, meaning, culture, communication and language. Based on the gathered arguments and views presented so far, the authors recommend the social scientist to "exercise a reflexive vigilance over the construction of meanings and their own being in the world" (p. 52).

Chapter 3, "Pragmatism, Practice and Language", revolves around the idea that "if we wish to understand how we, as fallible human beings, can hold different beliefs and yet establish a coherent body of knowledge, we need to conceptualise the ‘self‘ and interrogate how we might know this self as a basis for knowing others" (p. 54). Drawing on the works of Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, William James, Jane Addams, George Herbert Mead, Gilbert Ryle, Michael Polanyi, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Peter Winch, Harold Garfinkel, etc. the main topics addressed in this chapter are pragmatism, practical reason, the formation of the self, symbolic communication, the ordinary language philosophy, tacit knowledge, language and context, and intersubjective understanding. One of the main learnings is that "situated reflexivity is not a resource for scientific study but part of the topic that is studied. To counter the charge of subjectivism requires understanding forms of life whose meanings are inter-subjectively constituted in everyday language" (72).

While the importance of context and language are recurrent themes of the 4th chapter, this time they are presented in the light of a singular school of thought: the Frankfurt School of critical theory. Under the title "Critique and transformation" Tim May and Beth Perry show their interest in a "particular form of action – namely critique aimed at the transformation of existing social, political and economic relations" (p. 76). The ideas discussed in this chapter belong to scholars such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jürgen Habermas, Axel Hanneth, Nancy Fraser, Rainer Fraser, etc. The reader is confronted with new concepts such as recognition, redistribution, justification, or communicative reason. In the spirit of reflexivity, the authors also rise a key question: "what prevents the ideology of the critical theorist being anything more than a will to power linking knowledge with interest?" (p. 93).

Chapter 5, "Power and Action", seeks to answer two questions: "what can [one] say about the subject upon whom a critical social science will draw, and what implications does this have for the practice of social science?" (100). This chapter is based on the works of three major French social scientists: Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and Paul Ricur and is further complemented with ideas taken from the writings of Slavoj Žižek, Zygmunt Bauman, Dorothy Smith, Sandra Harding, etc. Agency, power-knowledge relations, knowledge production and reception, position and positionality are but a few of the topics tackled in this chapter. In line with Bourdieu, Tim May and Beth Perry suggest that "whilst engaging with the social world, we need a dynamic that recognises not only differences but also limitations, and does so in the spirit of contributing to human betterment" (120).

Chapter 6, "The Dynamics of Science in Society", starts from acknowledging the power of technology, connectivity in larger sense, and globalization in nowadays society. In this context "new ways of producing scientific knowledge are appearing and the knowledge politics they are producing calls into question established modes of scientific production" (p. 146). The authors provide insights on this matter from the writings of Sheila Jasanoff, Zygmunt Bauman, Bruno Latour, Ulrich Beck, Scott Lash, Antony Giddens, etc. The central concepts of this chapter are the notion of co-production, and those of endogenous and referential reflexivity. Taking into consideration all the debates and arguments presented up to the fifth chapter, Tim May and Beth Perry conclude that "a set of practices are needed that do not seek resolution or certainty, but understanding and clarification about the social world fully cognizant of the limits of those claims" (147).

Chapter 7, "Reflexive Practice", moves away from the realm of theoretical debates and schools of thought and approaches reflexivity from another angle: the authors offer an account of their own work experiences at a research centre focusing on sustainable urban development, in Manchester, UK. Though actively sought by the researchers, a reflexive practice seems difficult to achieve: they mention on the one hand "the work of making context" – that is "creating a culture in which reflexivity could be a relational and collaborative rather than self-referential and individualized exercise" (p. 151), and on the other hand "the context of making work", the context being shaped by "the Centre, the University, its urban and reginal environments, funding regimes and policy frameworks for research". Concluding that there is "no such thing as a method for reflexivity" [2]" (p. 164), Tim May and Beth Perry envisage, nevertheless, a solution [3] – active intermediation – which is described in the last chapter.

Chapter 8, "Reflexivity Realised", takes on a recurrent idea of the book, that of the self, of the subject in search for knowledge, and in trying to clarify notions of belonging and positioning questions such as "who am I?", "how do I relate to others", "why and how might I practice?" seem to be inherent to this quest. Being aware of the importance of such questions and answering them is essential, as in the view of the authors "the critical task for social scientists becomes that of boundary-spanning and sense-making between different realms: between science and society, justification and application, epistemic communities and communities of practice, endogenous and referential reflexivity, and belonging and positioning" (p. 191). It is the boundary work of social researchers which asks for intermediation: "active intermediation is not a solution or reflexive model to be implemented, but a set of practices in the interstitial spaces between research and practice" (p. 191). The chapter draws mainly on Paul Ricur´s ideas on identity and selfhood, but valuable ideas from the works of Erving Goffman, Rom Harré, Beverley Skeggs, Slavoj Žižek, etc. are also introduced to the reader.

Discussion and Summary

In their book, "Reflexivity. The Essential Guide", Tim May and Beth Perry provide an extensive examination of the role of reflexivity in social research. Drawing on insights from a wide range of disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, sociology, history, linguistics, and above all, philosophy, the authors propose an enriching intellectual journey for social researchers and lay audience alike. Aside from presenting key thinkers and key debates in the history and development of reflexive thought, Tim May and Beth Perry often challenge established paradigms and raise awareness on different issues, such as "the legacy of exclusions and inclusions in philosophy and social research" (p. 12) which becomes apparent if one considers for example "the dominance of European, white, male writings in most histories of reflexive thought" (p. 11). Just to offer another example here, the reader may want to reflect upon the boundaries between justification and application of knowledge and knowledge production as "scientific knowledge may be deployed as a justificatory mechanism for de-skilling the workplace, or it may be challenged in terms of its implications within the domain of the political as the exercise of rights. In neither case is scientific knowledge necessarily the problem, but as the boundaries move so too can the relations between justification and application" (p. 131). Further, the authors are constantly committed to offering a balanced view on the issues they present: they argue for instance in favour of co-production in research, they speak of a "co-production imperative" (p. 140), while conceding that "co-production offers no quick fix or panacea to address silences, exclusions and inclusions within different research spaces and places" (p. 143). Worth mentioning are also the short text boxes which underpin the main ideas of the book and increase its readability. The box "Blogademia" (p. 175) illustrates for example the role of new media in constructing personal and professional identities. Overall, it can be said, in line with the authors´ hope, that the book comprises "both a depth and a breadth to inspire [the reader] enquire further" (p. 6).

[1] Information on the authors was selected from page xi of the book.

[2] Original emphasis.

[3] The word "solution" is to be regarded with caution here, as it is explicitly rejected by the authors.

Rezension von
Iuliana Ancuţa Ilie
Iuliana Ancuţa Ilie, Academic Assistant for International and Intercultural Management and Management Accounting at Pforzheim University
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Iuliana Ancuţa Ilie. Rezension vom 24.01.2018 zu: Tim May, Beth Perry: Reflexivity. The Essential Guide. SAGE Publications, Ltd (London) 2017. ISBN 978-1-4462-9517-5. In: socialnet Rezensionen, ISSN 2190-9245,, Datum des Zugriffs 27.10.2021.

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