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Reflexivity: What is it, and why is it important in your community?

The reflection of a man looking at himself in a window.

The Cambridge Dictionary provides the following definition for the word reflexivity:

Reflexivity noun (IN THOUGHT)
the fact of someone being able to examine their own feelings, reactions, and motives (=reasons for acting) and how these influence what they do or think in a situation

Reflexive thinking is having the ability (and commitment) to look inward and to see what some people refer to as a “standpoint.” Where do I stand? From where did I start? Why do I think the way I do?

What does reflexivity mean in your community?

Ann's story (fictional)

Ann grew up as a white woman in a small, rural, mostly white, English-speaking community. She had access to food, clothing, shelter, a good education, community resources, and so on. When Ann joins groups or participates in her local community, these factors serve as her starting point (or her lens) that she brings when engaging and interacting with other community members. In other words, when Ann meets with someone else in the community, her feelings, reactions, or motives related to any interaction will likely be influenced by one or more of these underlying factors.

Let’s imagine the following scenario for Ann’s community:

The context

For years, Ann’s community had been thriving economically, but shifts in industry and farming have recently led to a decline in population. Many in Ann’s community are hoping to reverse this trend and have been actively seeking to welcome new families into the community. Ann is on the board of commissions to help welcome new community members and is excited about her new role.

The interaction

One day, Ann meets the mother of a new immigrant family in a downtown store. They say hello, and then the mother turns away to speak to another family member in a language Ann does not recognize. Ann notices this because she grew up in a community where everyone speaks English. This is what Ann knows — it is her starting point for the interaction.

And, since Ann is part of the welcoming committee, she immediately approaches the mother with a flyer she found in the store entryway advertising community English language classes. Ann is certain the mother (and her family) will need English classes, and she is happy she found a way to help welcome this family into the community. When Ann hands the flyer to her, the mother looks at it and then at Ann, smiles, and turns away and leaves the store. Ann is perplexed. She does not know what just happened and she leaves the store disappointed by this interaction.

Two days later, Ann sees a friend who had visited the new family at their home the day before. Her friend tells her the immigrant family had only been in the U.S. for two months before they found work in Ann’s community. The mother of the family has multiple degrees and had been a practicing physician in her home country. Ann finds out the mother does speak English and her main concern was not learning the language  but rather finding ways to feed her three children and navigate the educational system.

Practicing reflexivity

(Here is where reflexivity will help Ann make sense of the above scenario.)

Ann returns home to think about the interaction. She begins to journal about her identity and her assumptions during that particular interaction. Ann reflects upon the interaction, and she notices that when she heard a different language, she assumed that the mother of the new family did not speak English. And secondly, Ann recognized another assumption — that learning English should be a top priority for this mother and her family.

Ann recognized her assumptions were neither accurate nor were they helpful in that moment. She realizes that learning English likely had a place in a different scenario with a different family, but in this situation, it was not the priority. What her friend shared was that this distressed new member of the community needed help with resources and information about the community's educational system. The mother needed help sustaining basic needs for her children and she needed connection.

The next day, Ann went to the new family's home for a second try. This time, Ann just sat with the mother and listened to her talk about her family. Ann asked her about what community meant to her and then listened to her amazing ideas for building a strong community. Together, they made a commitment to get together again to talk through how they might partner on new initiatives. This time, Ann left with a smile and a new friend.

How can you gain skills in practicing reflexivity?

In essence, practicing reflexivity is making a commitment to seeing other community members as equal partners in a collective community. Practicing reflexivity is exploring your cultural identity and recognizing how it impacts your daily interactions. Being reflexive is the opposite of being reactive —reflexivity invites openness.

Why is reflexivity important?

Today, the demographic landscape continues to change in larger and smaller communities. Communities are leaning into these shifts and looking for ways to grow together. Practicing reflexivity is one avenue for individuals and communities to navigate these shifts, and it can lead to a greater sense of understanding and empathy for one another along the way.

Extension offerings

Extension has several educational offerings to help community members examine their cultural identities and practice collective reflexivity. Some of these include:

To see these and other educational offerings, please visit our leadership education offerings page.

Author: Nancy O'Brien, Extension educator

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