Reflexivity is one of what I call the “Ten Principles for Creating Better Indexes.” In addition to reflexivity, the principles (or characteristics) are accuracy, audience and access, clarity, common sense, comprehensiveness, conciseness, consistency, metatopic and structure, and readability. While all of these principles are finely interwoven, it is possible to disentangle them a bit, examine what each means, and apply them to our daily indexing work. This is the third essay in a series in which I’ll briefly consider each principle and explore some related tools for the indexer’s toolbox.
What is reflexivity?
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.) defines reflexive as “directed or turned back on itself; . . . marked by, or capable of reflection; . . . of, relating to, characterized by, or being in a relation that exists between an entity and itself,” and so on. Thus, an index exists in relation to the text from which it is drawn. That may sound simple enough, but it is in fact quite complex.
There are many ways in which an index is reflexive. Following are just a few examples. Concepts in the text must be represented in the index in the same proportion as they are in the text; that is, if there is a small amount of information about A and a lot of information about B, then that should be true in the index as well. If there is a key point made about several different concepts, then that point should be captured in a similar manner for each. If everything in a text comes from an overarching idea and then breaks it down, that should be reflected in the index structure by capturing that overarching idea and perhaps using cross-references to the main headings in which the idea is broken down. Utilizing the author’s terminology in the index is also part of reflexivity.
What reflexivity is not
An index is not simply a repetition or a regurgitation of the text. Rather, it is a carefully analyzed presentation of the information in a text. Nor is it a concordance that traces every use of the terms in the text, although a concordance is inherently reflexive of the text.
A reflexive index need not repeat the author’s biases. Indexers may face some ugly prejudices in a text whether that text is contemporary or historical. For example, in an 1830s text that includes quite derogatory comments about American Indians, the index may utilize more neutral subheadings:
alcohol’s effects on appearance of conditions of trade with
While one meaning of reflexivity is “characterized by habitual and unthinking behavior,” indexers should provide indexes based on the other definitions of reflexive and strive to avoid habit-driven and “unthinking” indexing!
Probably the best tool an indexer can bring to the task of creating a reflexive index is background knowledge of the specific subject as well as the discipline in which the text is based. Taking just thirty or sixty minutes to search out some background information before plunging into indexing can aid in reflexivity as well as speed in indexing. It will also provide great clues on terminology and synonyms.
Another tool in reflexive indexing, which works best with such knowledge, is intuition. I think intuitive processes allow the art of indexing to come forth, allowing the right and left brains to play together. Intuition and background knowledge also foster fresh thinking about the treatment of a concept or term, moving us away from our habits and deeper into the text while never losing track of balancing best indexing practices with the world of the text.
Note: I fear that in the past I may have used the term “reflectivity” without thinking about the term or considering its differences from “reflexivity.” The former is more related to electromagnetics and water or surface reflection, while the latter is more related to language and literature.