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Chapter 6. Reflexivity


Related to epistemological issues of how we know anything about the social world, qualitative researchers understand that we the researchers can never be truly neutral or outside the study we are conducting. As observers, we see things that make sense to us and may entirely miss what is either too obvious to note or too different to comprehend. As interviewers, as much as we would like to ask questions neutrally and remain in the background, interviews are a form of conversation, and the persons we interview are responding to us . Therefore, it is important to reflect upon our social positions and the knowledges and expectations we bring to our work and to work through any blind spots that we may have. This chapter discusses the concept of reflexivity and its importance for conducting reliable qualitative research.

Reflexivity: What It Is and Why It Is Important

Remember our discussion in epistemology ? Qualitative researchers tend to question assertions of absolute fact or reality, unmediated through subject positions and subject knowledge. There are limits to what we know because we are part of the social worlds we inhabit. To use the terminology of standpoint theorists, we have a standpoint from which we observe the world just as much as anyone else. In this, we too are the blind men, and the world is our elephant. None of us are omniscient or neutral observers. Because of this epistemological standpoint, qualitative researchers value the ability to reflect upon and think hard about our own effects on our research. We call this reflexivity. Reflexivity “generally involves the self-examination of how research findings were produced, and, particularly, the role of the researcher in their construction” ( Heaton 2004:104 ).

There are many aspects of being reflexive. First, there is the simple fact that we are human beings with the limitations that come with that condition. We have likes and dislikes, biases, blind spots, preferences, and so on. If we do not take these into account, they can prevent us from being the best researcher we can be. Being reflective means, first and foremost, trying as best as possible to bracket out elements of our own character and understanding that get in the way. It is important to note that bias (in this context, at least) is not inherently wrong. It just is. Unavoidable. But by noting it, we can minimize its impact or, in some cases, help explain more clearly what it is we see or why it is that we are asking the questions we are asking. For example, I might want to communicate to my audience that I grew up poor and that I have a lot of sympathy and concern for first-generation college students as a result. This “bias” of mine motivates me to do the work I do, even as I try to ensure that it does not blind me to things I find out in the course of my research. [1]


A second aspect of being reflexive is being aware that you yourself are part of the research when you are conducting qualitative research. This is particularly true when conducting interviews, observing interactions, or participating in activities. You have a body, and it will be “read” by those in the field. You will be perceived as an insider or an outsider, as a friend or foe, as empathetic or hostile. Some of this will be wrong. People will prejudge you based on the color of your skin, your presented gender, the accent of your language. People will classify you based on the clothes you wear, and they will be more open to you if you remind them of a friendly aunt or uncle and more reserved if you remind them of someone they don’t like. This is all natural and inevitable. Your research will suffer if you do not take this into account, if you do not reflect upon how you are being read and how this might be influencing what people tell you or what they are willing to do in front of you. The flip side of this problem is that your particular body and presence will open some doors barred to other researchers. Finding sites and contexts where your presented self is a benefit rather than a burden is an important part of your individual research career. Be honest with yourself about this, and you will be more successful as a qualitative researcher. Learn to leverage yourself in your research.

The third aspect of being reflexive is related to how we communicate our work to others. Being honest with our position, as I am about my own social background and its potential impact on what I study or about how I leveraged my own position to get people to open up to me, helps our audiences evaluate what we have found. Maybe I haven’t entirely eliminated my biases or weaknesses, but by telling my audience who I am and where I potentially stand, they can take account of those biases and weaknesses in their reading of my findings. Letting them know that I wore pink when talking with older men because that made them more likely to be kind to me (a strategy acknowledged by Posselt [ 2016 ]) helps them understand the interview context. In other words, my research becomes more reliable when my own social position and the strategies I used are communicated.

Some people think being reflective is just another form of narcissistic navel-gazing. “The study is not about you!” they might cry. True, to some degree—but that also misses the point. All studies on the social world are inevitably about us as well because we are part of that social world. It is actually more dangerous to pretend that we are neutral observers, outside what we are observing. Pierre Bourdieu makes this point several times, and I think it is worth quoting him here: “The idea of a neutral science is fiction, an interested fiction which enables its authors to present a version of the dominant representation of the social world, naturalized and euphemized into a particularly misrecognizable and symbolically, therefore, particularly effective form, and to call it scientific” (quoted in Lemert 1981:278 ).

Bourdieu ( 1984 ) argues that reflective analysis is “not an epistemological scruple” but rather “an indispensable pre-condition of scientific knowledge of the object” ( 92 ). It would be narcissistic to present findings without reflection, as that would give much more weight to any findings or insights that emerge than is due.

The critics are right about one thing, however. Putting oneself at the center of the research is also inappropriate. [2] The focus should be on what is being researched, and the reflexivity is there to advance the study, not to push it aside. This issue has emerged at times when researchers from dominant social positions reflect upon their social locations vis-à-vis study participants from marginalized locations. A researcher who studies how low-income women of color experience unemployment might need to address her White, upper-class, fully employed social location, but not at the cost of crowding out the stories, lived experiences, and understandings of the women she has interviewed. This can sometimes be a delicate balance, and not everyone will agree that a person has walked it correctly.

Examples of Reflexivity in Practice

Most qualitative researchers include a positionality statement in any “methods section” of their publications. This allows readers to understand the location of the researcher, which is often helpful for gauging reliability . Many journals now require brief positionality statements as well. Here are a few examples of such statements.

The first is from an ethnographic study of elite golfers. Ceron-Anaya ( 2017 ) writes about his class, race, and gender and how these aspects of his identity and social location affected his interactions with research participants:

My own class origins, situated near the intersection between the middle and the lower-middle class, hindered cooperation in some cases. For example, the amiable interaction with one club member changed toward the end of the interview when he realized that I commonly moved about in the city by public transportation (which is a strong class indicator). He was not rude but stopped elaborating on the answers as he had been doing up to that point.…Bodily confidence is a privilege of the privileged. My subordinate position, vis-à-vis golfers, was ameliorated by my possession of cultural capital, objectified in my status of researcher/student in a western university. However, my cultural capital dwindled in its value at the invisible but firm boundary between the upper-middle and the upper class. The few contacts I made with members of the upper class produced no connections with other members of the same group, illustrating how the research process is also inserted in the symbolic and material dynamics that shape the field. ( 288 )

What did you learn from Ceron-Anaya’s reflection? If he hadn’t told you about his background, would this have made a difference in reading about elite golfers? Would the findings be different had Ceron-Anaya driven up to the club in a limousine? Is it helpful to know he came by bus?

The second example is from a study on first-generation college students. Hinz ( 2016 ) discusses both differences and similarities between herself and those she interviewed and how both could have affected the study:

I endeavored to avoid researcher bias by allowing the data to speak for itself, but my own habitus as a White, female, middle-class second-generation college student with a few years of association with Selective State [elite university] may have influenced my interpretation. Being a Selective State student at the time of the interviews provided a familiarity with the environment in which the participants were living, and an ease of communication facilitated by a shared institutional culture. And yet, not being a first-gen myself, it seemed as if I were standing on the periphery of their experience, looking in. ( 289–290 )

Note that Hinz cannot change who she is, nor should she. Being aware (reflective) that she may “stand on the periphery” of the experience of those she interviews has probably helped her listen more closely rather than assume she understands what is really going on. Do you find her more reliable given this?

These statements can be quite long, especially when found in methodological appendixes in books rather than short statements in articles. This last lengthy example comes from my own work. I try to place myself, explaining the motivations for the research I conducted at small liberal arts colleges:

I began this project out of a deep curiosity about how college graduates today were faring in an increasingly debt-ridden and unequal labor market. I was working at a small liberal arts college when I began thinking about this project and was poised to take a job at another one. During my interview for the new job, I was told that I was a good fit, because I had attended Barnard College, so I knew what the point of a liberal arts college was. I did. A small liberal arts college was a magical place. You could study anything you wanted, for no reason at all, simply for the love of it. And people would like you for it. You were surrounded by readers, by people who liked to dress up in costume and recite Shakespeare, by people who would talk deep into the night about the meaning of life or whether “beauty” existed out there, in nature, or was simply a projection of our own circumstances. My own experience at Barnard had been somewhat like that. I studied Ancient Greek and Latin, wrote an undergraduate thesis on the legal standing of Vestal Virgins in Ancient Rome, and took frequent subway rides to the Cloisters, the medieval annex of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I sketched the courtyard and stared at unicorn tapestries. But I also worked full-time, as a waitress at a series of hectic and demanding restaurants around the city, as a security guard for the dorm, as a babysitter for some pretty privileged professors who lived in doorman buildings along Riverside Park, and at the library (the best job by far). I also constantly worried I would not be able to finish my degree, as every year I was unsure how I would come up with the money to pay for costs of college above and beyond the tuition (which, happily, was covered by the college given my family’s low income). Indeed, the primary reason I studied the Classics was because all the books were freely available in the library. There are no modern textbooks—you just find a copy of the Iliad. There are a lot of those in a city like New York. Due to my fears, I pushed to graduate one year early, taking a degree in “Ancient Studies” instead of “Classics,” which could have led on to graduate training. From there, I went to law school, which seemed like a safe choice. I do not remember ever having a conversation with anyone about how to find a job or what kinds of job one could do with a degree in Ancient Studies. I had little to no social networks, as I had spent my time studying and working. And I was very lucky, because I graduated with almost zero debt. For years, until that job interview, I hadn’t really thought my Barnard experience had been that great or unusual. But now it was directly helping me get a job, about fifteen years after graduation. And it probably had made me a better person, whatever that means. Had I graduated with debt, however, I am not so sure that it would have been worth it. Was it, on balance, a real opportunity and benefit for poor students like me? Even now? I had a hunch of what I might find if I looked: small liberal arts colleges were unique places of opportunity for low-income first-generation working-class students who somehow managed to find and get in to one of them (no easy task). I thought that, because of their ethos, their smallness, the fact that one could not hide from professors, these colleges would do a fair job equalizing opportunities and experiences for all their students. I wanted to tell this story. But that is not the story that I found, or not entirely. While everyone benefits from the kind of education a small liberal arts college can offer, because students begin and continue so differently burdened and privileged, the advantages of the already-advantaged are amplified, potentially increasing rather than decreasing initial inequalities. That is not really a surprising story, but it is an important one to tell and to remember. Education doesn’t reduce inequality. Going to a good college doesn’t level the playing field for low-income, first-generation, working-class students. But perhaps it can help them write a book about that. ( Hurst 2019:259–261 )

What do you think? Did you learn something about the author that would help you, as a reader, understand the reasons and context for the study? Would you trust the researcher? If you said yes, why?

How to Do It

How does one become a reflective researcher? Practice! Nearly every great qualitative researcher maintains a reflexive journal (there are exceptions that prove the rule), a type of diary where they record their thinking on the research process itself. This might include writing about the research design (chapter 2), plotting out strategies for sample selection (chapter 6), or talking through what one believes can be known (chapter 3). During analysis, this journal is a place to record ideas and insights and pose questions for further reflection or follow-up studies. This journal should be highly personal. It is a place to record fears, concerns, and hopes as well. Why are you studying what you are studying? What is really motivating you? Being clear with yourself and being able to put it down in words are invaluable to the research process.

Today, there are many blogs out there on writing reflective journals, with helpful suggestions and examples. Although you may want to take a look at some of these, the form of your own journal will probably be unique. This is you, the researcher, on the page. Each of us looks different. Use the journal to interrogate your decisions and clarify your intent. If you find something during the study of note, you might want to ask yourself what led you to note that. Why do you think this “thing” is a “thing”? What about your own position, background, or researcher status that makes you take note? And asking yourself this question might lead you to think about what you did not notice. Other questions to ask yourself include the following: How do I know “that thing” I noted? So what? What does it mean? What are the implications? Who cares about this and why? Remember that doing qualitative research well is recursive , meaning that we may begin with a research design, but the steps of doing the research often loop back to the beginning. By keeping a reflective journal, you allow yourself to circle back to the beginning, to make changes to the study to keep it in line with what you are really interested in knowing.

One might also consider designing research that includes multiple investigators, particularly those who may not share your preconceptions about the study. For example, if you are studying conservative students on campus, and you yourself thoroughly identify as liberal, you might want to pair up with a researcher interested in the topic who grew up in a conservative household. If you are studying racial regimes, consider creating a racially diverse team of researchers. Or you might include in your research design a component of participatory research wherein members of the community of interest become coresearchers. Even if you can’t form a research team, you can reach out to others for feedback as you move along. Doing research can be a lonely enterprise, so finding people who will listen to you and nudge you to clarify your thinking where necessary or move you to consider an aspect you have missed is invaluable.

Finally, make it a regular part of your practice to write a paragraph reporting your perspectives, positions, values, and beliefs and how these may have influenced the research. This paragraph may be included in publications upon request.

Internal Validity

Being reflexive can help ensure that our studies are internally valid. All research must be valid to be helpful. We say a study’s findings are externally valid when they are equally true of other times, places, people. Quantitative researchers often spend a lot of time grappling with external validity , as they are often trying to demonstrate that their sample is representative of a larger population. Although we do not do that in qualitative research, we do sometimes make claims that the processes and mechanisms we uncover here, in this particular setting, are likely to be equally active in that setting over there, although there may be (will be!) contextual differences as well. Internal validity is more peculiar to qualitative research. Is your finding an accurate representation of what you are studying? Are you describing the people you are observing or interviewing as they really are? This is internal validity , and you should be able to see how this connects with the requirement of reflexivity. To the extent that you leave unexamined your own biases or preconceptions, you will fail at accurately representing those people and processes you study. Remember that “bias” here is not a moral failing in the way we commonly use bias in the nonresearch world but an inevitable product of our being social beings who inhabit social worlds, with all the various complexities surrounding that. Because of things that have happened to you, certain things (concepts, quotes, activities) might jump out at you as being particularly important. Being reflexive allows you to take a step back and grapple with the larger picture, reflecting on why you might be seeing X (which is present) but also missing Y (which is also present). It also allows you to consider what effect/impact your presence has on what you are observing or being told and to make any adjustments necessary to minimize your impact or, at the very least, to be aware of these effects and talk about them in any descriptions or presentations you make. There are other ways of ensuring internal validity (e.g., member checking , triangulation ), but being reflective is an essential component.

Advanced: Bourdieu on Reflexivity

One researcher who really tackled the issue of reflexivity was Pierre Bourdieu. [3] Known in the US primarily as a theorist, Bourdieu was a very capable and thorough researcher, who employed a variety of methods in his wide-ranging studies. Originally trained as an anthropologist, he became uncomfortable with the unreflective “outsider perspective” he was taught to follow. How was he supposed to observe and write about the various customs and rules of the people he was studying if he did not take into account his own supposedly neutral position in the observations? And even more interestingly, how could he write about customs and rules as if they were lifted from but outside of the understandings and practice of the people following them? When you say “God bless you” to someone who sneezes, are you really following a social custom that requires the prevention of illness through some performative verbal ritual of protection, or are you saying words out of reflex and habit? Bourdieu wondered what it meant that anthropologists were so ready to attribute meaning to actions that, to those performing them, were probably unconsidered. This caused him to ponder those deep epistemological questions about the possibilities of knowledge, particularly what we can know and truly understand about others. Throughout the following decades, as he developed his theories about the social world out of the deep and various studies he engaged in, he thought about the relationship between the researcher and the researched. He came to several conclusions about this relationship.

First, he argued that researchers needed to be reflective about their position vis-à-vis the object of study. The very fact that there is a subject and an object needs to be accounted for. Too often, he argued, the researcher forgets that part of the relationship, bracketing out the researcher entirely, as if what is being observed or studied exists entirely independently of the study. This can lead to false reports, as in the case where a blind man grasps the trunk of the elephant and claims the elephant is cylindrical, not having recognized how his own limitations of sight reduced the elephant to only one of its parts.

As mentioned previously, Bourdieu ( 1984 ) argued that “reflective analysis of the tools of analysis is not an epistemological scruple but an indispensable precondition of scientific knowledge of the object” ( 92 ). It is not that researchers are inherently biased—they are—but rather that the relationship between researcher and researched is an unnatural one that needs to be accounted for in the analysis. True and total objectivity is impossible, as researchers are human subjects themselves, called to research what interests them (or what interests their supervisors) and also inhabiting the social world. The solution to this problem is to be reflective and to account for these aspects in the analysis itself. Here is how Bourdieu explains this charge:

To adopt the viewpoint of REFLEXIVITY is not to renounce objectivity but to question the privilege of the knowing subject, which the antigenetic vision arbitrarily frees, as purely noetic, from the labor of objectification. To adopt this viewpoint is to strive to account for the empirical “subject” in the very terms of the objectivity constructed by the scientific subject (notably by situating it in a determined place in social space-time) and thereby to give oneself awareness and (possible) mastery of the constraints which may be exercised on the scientific subject via all the ties which attach it to the empirical “subject,” to its interests, motives, assumptions, beliefs, its doxa, and which it must break in order to constitute itself . ( 1996:207 ; emphases added)

Reflexivity, for Bourdieu, was a trained state of mind for the researcher, essential for proper knowledge production. Let’s use a story from Hans Christian Andersen to illustrate this point. If you remember this story from your childhood, it goes something like this: Two con artists show up in a town in which its chief monarch spends a lot of money on expensive clothes and splashy displays. They sense an opportunity to make some money out of this situation and pretend they are talented weavers from afar. They tell the vain emperor that they can make the most magnificent clothes anyone has ever seen (or not seen, as the case may be!). Because what they really do is “pretend” to weave and sew and hand the emperor thin air, which they then help him to put on in an elaborate joke. They tell him that only the very stupid and lowborn will be unable to see the magnificent clothes. Embarrassed that he can’t see them either, he pretends he can. Everyone pretends they can see clothes, when really the emperor walks around in his bare nakedness. As he parades through town, people redden and bow their heads, but no one says a thing. That is, until one child looks at the naked emperor and starts to laugh. His laughter breaks the spell, and everyone realizes the “naked truth.”

Now let us add a new thread to this story. The boy did not laugh. Years go by, and the emperor continues to wear his new clothes. At the start of every day, his aides carefully drape the “new clothes” around his naked body. Decades go by, and this is all “normal.” People don’t even see a naked emperor but a fully robed leader of the free world. A researcher, raised in this milieu, visits the palace to observe court habits. She observes the aides draping the emperor. She describes the care they take in doing so. She nowhere reports that the clothes are nonexistent because she herself has been trained to see them . She thus misses a very important fact—that there are no clothes at all! Note that it is not her individual “biases” that are getting in the way but her unreflective acceptance of the reality she inhabits that binds her to report things less accurately than she might.

In his later years, Bourdieu turned his attention to science itself and argued that the promise of modern science required reflectivity among scientists. We need to develop our reflexivity as we develop other muscles, through constant practice. Bourdieu ( 2004 ) urged researchers “to convert reflexivity into a disposition, constitutive of their scientific habitus, a reflexivity reflex , capable of acting not ex poste , on the opus operatum , but a priori , on the modus operandi ” ( 89 ). In other words, we need to build into our research design an appreciation of the relationship between researcher and researched.

To do science properly is to be reflective, to be aware of the social waters in which one swims and to turn one’s researching gaze on oneself and one’s researcher position as well as on the object of the research. Above all, doing science properly requires one to acknowledge science as a social process. We are not omniscient gods, lurking above the humans we observe and talk to. We are human too.

Further Readings

Barry, Christine A., Nicky Britten, Nick Barbar, Colin Bradley, and Fiona Stevenson. 1999. “Using Reflexivity to Optimize Teamwork in Qualitative Research.”  Qualitative Health Research  9(1):26–44. The coauthors explore what it means to be reflexive in a collaborative research project and use their own project investigating doctor-patient communication about prescribing as an example.

Hsiung, Ping-Chun. 2008. “Teaching Reflexivity in Qualitative Interviewing.” Teaching Sociology 36(3):211–226. As the title suggests, this article is about teaching reflexivity to those conducting interviews.

Kenway, Jane, and Julie McLeod. 2004. “Bourdieu’s Reflexive Sociology and ‘Spaces of Points of View’: Whose Reflexivity, Which Perspective?” British Journal of Sociology of Education 25(4):525–544. For a more nuanced understanding of Bourdieu’s meaning of reflexivity and how this contrasts with other understandings of the term in sociology.

Kleinsasser, Audrey M. 2000. “Researchers, Reflexivity, and Good Data: Writing to Unlearn.” Theory into Practice 39(3):155–162. Argues for the necessity of reflexivity for the production of “good data” in qualitative research.

Linabary, Jasmine R., and Stephanie A. Hamel. 2017. “Feminist Online Interviewing: Engaging Issues of Power, Resistance and Reflexivity in Practice.” Feminist Review 115:97–113. Proposes “reflexive email interviewing” as a promising method for feminist research.

Rabbidge, Michael. 2017. “Embracing Reflexivity: The Importance of Not Hiding the Mess.” TESOL Quarterly 51(4):961–971. The title here says it all.

Wacquant, Loïc J. D. 1989. “Towards a Reflexive Sociology: A Workshop with Pierre Bourdieu.” Sociological Theory 7(1):26–63. A careful examination of Bourdieu’s notion of reflexivity by one of his most earnest disciples.

  • Someone might ask me if I have truly been able to “stand” in the shoes of more privileged students and if I might be overlooking similarities among college students because of my “biased” standpoint. These are questions I ask myself all the time. They have even motivated me to conduct my latest research on college students in general so that I might check my observations that working-class college students are uniquely burdened ( Hurst 2019 ). One of the things I did find was that middle-class students, relative to upper-class students, are also relatively disadvantaged and sometimes experience (feel) that disadvantage. ↵
  • Unless, of course, one is engaged in autoethnography! Even in that case, however, the point of the study should probably be about a larger phenomenon or experience that can be understood more deeply through insights that emerge in the study of the particular self, not really a study about that self. ↵
  • I mentioned Pierre Bourdieu earlier in the chapter. For those who want to know more about his work, I’ve included this advanced section. Undergraduates should feel free to skip over. ↵

The practice of being conscious of and reflective upon one’s own social location and presence when conducting research.  Because qualitative research often requires interaction with live humans, failing to take into account how one’s presence and prior expectations and social location affect the data collected and how analyzed may limit the reliability of the findings.  This remains true even when dealing with historical archives and other content.  Who we are matters when asking questions about how people experience the world because we, too, are a part of that world.

The branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge.  For researchers, it is important to recognize and adopt one of the many distinguishing epistemological perspectives as part of our understanding of what questions research can address or fully answer.  See, e.g., constructivism , subjectivism, and  objectivism .

A statement created by the researcher declaring their own social position (often in terms of race, class, gender) and social location (e.g., junior scholar or tenured professor) vis-à-vis the research subjects or focus of study, with the goal of explaining and thereby limiting any potential biases or impacts of such position on data analyses, findings, or other research results.  See also reflexivity .

Reliability is most often explained as consistency and stability in a research instrument, as in a weight scale, deemed reliable if predictable and accurate (e.g., when you put a five-pound bag of rice on the scale on Tuesday, it shows the same weight as when you put the same unopened bag on the scale Wednesday).  Qualitative researchers don’t measure things in the same way, but we still must ensure that our research is reliable, meaning that if others were to conduct the same interview using our interview guide, they would get similar answers.  This is one reason that reflexivity is so important to the reliability of qualitative research – we have to take steps to ensure that our own presence does not “tip the scales” in one direction or another or that, when it does, we can recognize that and make corrections.  Qualitative researchers use a variety of tools to help ensure reliability, from intercoder reliability to triangulation to reflexivity.

In mostly quantitative research, validity refers to “the extent to which an empirical measure adequately reflects the real meaning of the concept under consideration” ( Babbie 1990 ). For qualitative research purposes, practically speaking, a study or finding is valid when we are measuring or addressing what we think we are measuring or addressing.  We want our representations to be accurate, as they really are, and not an artifact of our imaginations or a result of unreflected bias in our thinking.

A method of ensuring trustworthiness where the researcher shares aspects of written analysis (codes, summaries, drafts) with participants before the final write-up of the study to elicit reactions and/or corrections.   Note that the researcher has the final authority on the interpretation of the data collected; this is not a way of substituting the researcher’s analytical responsibilities.  See also peer debriefing . 

The process of strengthening a study by employing multiple methods (most often, used in combining various qualitative methods of data collection and analysis).  This is sometimes referred to as data triangulation or methodological triangulation (in contrast to investigator triangulation or theory triangulation).  Contrast mixed methods .

Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods Copyright © 2023 by Allison Hurst is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

Reflexivity in Qualitative Research


  • 1 1 Saint Louis University, Saint Louis, MO, USA.
  • PMID: 30849272
  • DOI: 10.1177/0890334419830990

All qualitative research is contextual; it occurs within a specific time and place between two or more people. If a researcher clearly describes the contextual intersecting relationships between the participants and themselves (reflexivity), it not only increases the creditability of the findings but also deepens our understanding of the work. The issues surrounding the researchers' reflexivity are many and complex; however, journal space for discussing them may be very limited. Therefore the researcher has the responsibility of succinctly and clearly addressing these issues, so the reader can evaluate the research. Some of the ways that researchers can address reflexivity are discussed.

Keywords: Breastfeeding; health services research; qualitative methods.

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Reflexivity is about acknowledging your role in the research. As a qualitative researcher, you are part of the research process, and your prior experiences, assumptions and beliefs will influence the research process. Researcher reflexivity is a type of critical reflection about the position you are taking as a researcher and how you have taken this stance into account in your research. It is an important way to establish rigour in qualitative research, similar to the processes of defining measurement tools for validity in quantitative research.

Being reflexive means being attentive to:

  • Cultural, political, social, and ideological origins of your own perspective and voice.
  • The perspectives and voices of those you interview or observe.
  • The perspectives of those to whom you report your research.

For example, Nabreesa spoke about how her past experiences as a medical doctor and studies in public health influenced her research and interest in pursuing her research topic.

Leonie similarly referred to her experiences encountering ethical challenges in veterinary practice and how she wanted to make a difference in the ethics education for veterinarians. A small excerpt from Leonie's thesis shows how reflexivity might be included within the methods section of the research:

As a practising small animal veterinarian I was aware that when interviewing my colleagues I needed to try and remain neutral, setting aside my own views and reactions and to listen from the perspective of a researcher. It was however difficult for me to be totally objective and to set aside my personal experience, and thus taking an insider position.

In discussing how he developed his survey questions, Cameron also illustrated an example of researcher reflexivity (acknowledging his experience in simulation education influencing the development of the survey questions):

I initially devised the survey questions based on my experience of simulation education teaching. I also referred to literature about current known SBE practice.
  • Watt, D. (2007). On Becoming a Qualitative Researcher: The Value of Reflexivity. Qualitative Report, 12(1), 82-101. Retrieved from http://go.unimelb.edu.au/dm56
  • Hiller, A. J., & Vears, D. F. (2016). Reflexivity and the clinician-researcher: managing participant misconceptions. Qualitative Research Journal, 16(1), 13-25 .
  • Gillam, L., & Guillemin, M. (2018) Overcoming mistrust between Research Ethics Committees and Researchers. In Iphofen, R., & Tolich, M. (Eds.). (2018). The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research Ethics (pp. 263-276). London, UK: Sage.
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The Eye Regards Itself: Benefits and Challenges of Reflexivity in Qualitative Social Work Research

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Barbara Probst, The Eye Regards Itself: Benefits and Challenges of Reflexivity in Qualitative Social Work Research, Social Work Research , Volume 39, Issue 1, March 2015, Pages 37–48, https://doi.org/10.1093/swr/svu028

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Much has been written about the central role of reflexivity in qualitative research, yet there has been no empirical study of how researchers actually practice reflexivity and what it is like for them to do so. To address this question, a project was developed to gather information directly from qualitative social work researchers about the perceived benefits, challenges, and limitations of reflexivity. Participants, representing eight countries with the majority (65%) from the United States, included researchers using diverse methods with varying degrees of experience. In their interviews, these 34 scholars discussed the benefits of reflexive activities for both themselves and their research projects; obstacles that were personal, project-related, professional, and systemic; a discrepancy between valuation and actual use of reflexive practices; and the need to balance flexibility and rigor. The article concludes with directions for further inquiry and suggestions for assessing the adequacy of reflexivity in published studies.

“Reflexivity” is generally understood as awareness of the influence the researcher has on the people or topic being studied, while simultaneously recognizing how the research experience is affecting the researcher ( Gilgun, 2008 ). Reflexive engagement while planning, conducting, and writing about research promotes an ongoing, recursive relationship between the researcher's subjective responses and the intersubjective dynamics of the research process itself.

Although much has been written about the importance of reflexivity in qualitative research, there has been no empirical study of how researchers actually practice reflexivity and integrate it into their work. The literature has focused largely on definition (for example, Finlay, 2002a ; Pillow, 2003 ), utility (for example, Ben-Ari & Enosh, 2011 ), and typology (for example, Barusch, Gringeri, & George, 2011 ; D'Cruz, Gillingham, & Melendez, 2007 ; Longhoefer & Floersch, 2012 ), yet there has been no study of qualitative researchers themselves to find out how and why they engage in actions they consider “reflexive.” The purpose of this study was thus to examine the role of reflexivity in qualitative social work research through the eyes of those who practice it, with particular interest in perceptions of reflexivity's benefits, challenges, and limitations. Although the study is primarily descriptive, it also includes prescriptive elements and concludes with suggestions for scholars, editors, and consumers of qualitative research.

Reflexivity and Knowledge

The term “reflexive” is used to denote actions that direct attention back to the self and foster a circular relationship between subject and object. Nonreflexive actions , in contrast, are those that distinguish subject from object, cause from effect, in a linear or temporal relationship. Each approach rests on a different epistemology and leads to a different way of searching for knowledge. Epistemology, not methodology, determines the place of reflexivity in a particular study. A researcher may use qualitative or quantitative methods—for example, conduct a participatory or community-based project using surveys, observations, and focus groups—and, within that study, be more or less reflexive.

In research based on a positivist worldview, the “experimenter effect”—the impact of the researcher's presence—is generally considered to be a methodological problem, a form of reactivity in which a researcher's biases cause him or her to unconsciously influence participants, contaminating both process and outcome; the more rigorously this influence is minimized or isolated, the better the study. Within the constructivist paradigm, on the other hand, reactivity is not seen as a problem to be reduced or overcome but as an essential element in the cocreation of knowledge ( Ben-Ari & Enosh, 2011 ). The subject is always present in the object ( Finlay, 2002b ), and the researcher is always “written into the text” ( Lynch, 2000 ); thus, both research er and research ed shape the encounter, and “research” becomes the collaborative construction of knowledge rather than the discovery of knowledge assumed to already exist. The measure of rigor is the clarity with which both personal and relational subjectivity have been identified and revealed, not how thoroughly they have been “controlled for” ( Jootun, McGhee, & Marland, 2009 ). At the same time, as Lynch (2000) pointed out, the function of reflexivity in this process is not quite clear. Sometimes it is seen as a way to enhance objectivity by “bracketing” the researcher's subjectivity and thereby eliminating or reducing bias, while at other times it is seen as a means for exposing false claims of objectivity ( Lynch, 2000 ).

Awareness of one's subjectivity develops through an internal process that is supported by external activities ( Probst & Berenson, 2014 ). Both are aspects of reflexivity, which can be understood as a process of self-examination (exploring one's assumptions, emotional reactions, cultural positioning) through specific actions (keeping a journal, debriefing with others, and so on) within a field of inquiry that is also an object of awareness. Reflexive researchers are, in essence, gazing in two directions at the same time. As they attend to what is taking place in the field of study, they become aware of their own projections, attachments, assumptions, agendas, and biases—like an eye that sees itself while simultaneously seeing the world. Ideally, this double perspective is present throughout the research endeavor, from the selection of topics and populations to be studied to the presentation and dissemination of findings ( Probst & Berenson, 2014 ), affecting the way a project is conceptualized and the way it is experienced.

“Muddy” Nature of Reflexive Research

Reflexive analysis is challenging, fraught with danger. As Finlay warned, “The researcher treads a cliff edge where it is all too easy to fall into an infinite regress of excessive self-analysis at the expense of focusing on the research participants” ( Finlay, 2002b , p. 532). She likened reflexivity to a “swamp,” a murky and confusing terrain of self-analysis and self-disclosure rife with “endless narcissistic personal emoting or interminable deconstructions of deconstructions” ( Finlay, 2002a , p. 226) where the researcher can become hopelessly lost. Others agreed, describing reflexivity as “muddy,” “messy,” a teeming mass of endlessly layered subjectivity that requires the researcher to “come clean” ( Brown, 2006 ; Pillow, 2003 ; Valandra, 2012 ).

Pillow (2003) cautioned against excessive reflexivity, “wading in the morass of our own positionings” (p. 175), and argued that reflexivity is not a way to solve the “problem” of subjectivity. “We do not escape from the consequences of our positions by talking about them endlessly,” she wrote ( Pillow, 2003 ); reflexivity can be misused to imply that issues of inequity, bias, and misunderstanding have been adequately addressed just because the researcher is aware of them. At the same time, she stated, “I do not believe that the solution is then to stop talking about our positions” ( Pillow, 2003 , p. 177). She raised a concern, as others also have (for example, Finlay, 2002a ), about whether reflexivity is a distraction, focusing on the researcher's internal processes and shifting attention away from the people or phenomenon being studied.

Access to one's motivations, biases, and reactions—the “stuff” of reflexivity—may not be as simple as it sounds, however. The very things that most need to be seen are often the most deeply hidden ( Gemignani, 2011 ). The intellectual conviction that self-awareness is important may not be sufficient to expose masks and blind spots to self-scrutiny. A particular kind of skill and stamina may be needed, because confronting one's limitations, vulnerabilities, and mistakes is not an easy task, even for the most sincere researcher. Both novice and seasoned researchers may feel uncomfortable, threatened, and even resistant, though perhaps for different reasons, to the idea of critically interrogating their own positions and emotional experiences ( Hsiung, 2008 ); researching sensitive topics can also trigger unexpected and powerful reactions ( Gilgun, 2008 ) that are not so easily “managed away” by writing a memo. Because the process is so idiosyncratic, the researcher cannot know in advance what will require reflexivity or what tool will serve best, so it may be difficult to build reflexivity into a study design. Here again, reflexivity asserts its “messy” nature.

Evaluating Reflexivity

Perhaps the “muddiest” issue is whether reflexivity produces better research. Gilgun (2008) argued that reflexivity opens the researcher to a fuller, more “connected knowing,” and Ben-Ari and Enosh (2011) described how reflexivity between interviewer and interviewee can be used for the construction of new knowledge. Others, however, have cautioned against assuming that just because we are reflexive our work is truer, better, or more valuable. Reflexivity is not, as Pillow (2003) warned, a cure for the problem of representing someone else's reality. Finlay (2002a) made a similar point: A researcher's apparent openness does not guarantee that the voices of participants have been faithfully represented.

Lynch (2000) also questioned the notion that reflexivity contrasts with or transforms an “unreflexive” condition into something with greater “critical potency and emancipatory potential” (p. 36), and thus more valuable or true. There is no inherent advantage to being reflexive, he noted, unless something useful comes from it, nor does a reflexive approach necessarily bring the researcher closer to the meaning of a phenomenon ( Lynch, 2000 ). He especially challenged the sense of virtuousness and “epistemological hubris that often seems to accompany self-consciously reflexive claims” ( Lynch, 2000 , p. 47).

The relation of reflexivity to rigor is part of the broader question of how qualitative researchers can “produce credible work when objectivity is no longer assumed or even pursued” ( Barusch et al., 2011 , p. 11). Criteria for qualitative rigor tend to emphasize the relational aspects of knowledge construction, including transparency, reciprocity, and critical self-reflection. And yet, in their review of qualitative social work articles, Barusch and colleagues found a surprising absence of reflexive practice, with only 14% of authors they surveyed disclosing information about background or positioning. This does not mean, of course, that the other 86% of researchers were not reflexive. They may very well have been reflexive in their data collection and analysis but did not include that information in published reports.

Gringeri, Barusch, and Cambron (2013) reported a similar discrepancy in their review of social work publications. Although they cited theory and reflexivity as the “twin pillars of rigorous qualitative research” ( Gringeri et al., 2013 , p. 61), they found that only 16% of the articles in their sample incorporated reflexive accounts. Perplexed by social workers' reluctance to situate themselves in their research and by an apparent discrepancy between what researchers claim to value and what they claim to do, Gringeri et al. (2013) concluded that “the low rate of reflexivity in social work articles requires our attention” (p. 61).

Clearly, there is a paradox worth examining. On the one hand, reflexivity is cited as an important tool for enhancing the rigor and trustworthiness of a qualitative study ( Gilgun, 2010 ; Gringeri et al., 2013 ; Longhofer & Floersch, 2012 ). It is often invoked, in fact, as the qualitative equivalent of tests of validity, something qualitative researchers can point to as an evidentiary trail in their justification of claims to knowledge. On the other hand, there is a persistent uncertainty about reflexivity's contribution to rigor or knowledge. It seems difficult to study the topic in a systematic way. As Lynch (2000) and others noted, there are different kinds of reflexivity—awareness of social positioning and power relations, documentation of choices, cybernetic feedback loops, stepping back to “break the frame,” methodological self-consciousness or self-criticism—corresponding to different philosophical perspectives, research aims, and types of analysis. Varying from researcher to researcher, and from situation to situation even for the same researcher, reflexivity appears to be inherently emergent and personal, eluding manualization.

Still, the question remains whether or how one can determine that a researcher has been “reflexive enough.” Is it possible to evaluate the reflexivity of a study without mechanizing something that is inherently idiosyncratic and co-constructed—that is, without imposing criteria from a dissonant epistemology? If so, how can that be done? And if not, how can both reader and researcher feel comfortable that sufficient reflexivity has been used?

By asking qualitative researchers to be reflexive about their own reflexivity, this study opens the door to investigation of these important questions. Providing insight into barriers and benefits of reflexive research, this article offers suggestions for enhancing, supporting, and evaluating the use of reflexivity in social work research.

The study was undertaken to gather information about how qualitative social work researchers experience and incorporate reflexivity into their work. It sought to identify specific actions researchers take to support or enact reflexivity ( Probst & Berenson, 2014 ) and to explore how they view the benefits, challenges, and limitations of reflexivity. Research questions included the following:

Benefits : What do qualitative social work researchers perceive to be the benefits of reflexivity? Beneficial for what or for whom?

Supports : Are there personal factors or external conditions that foster the use of reflexivity?

Challenges : What are the obstacles or drawbacks? When reflexivity is not used, why not?

Potential dissonance : Are there any differences between how qualitative social work researchers think about reflexivity and how they actually use it? If so, what might be the source of that dissonance?

A realist epistemology served as the framework for the research, because participants' responses were taken as offered (that is, literally) and analyzed thematically across the data set. Because qualitative research was itself the topic of study, a qualitative approach to data collection, analysis, and interpretation seemed appropriate. Within the qualitative paradigm, thematic analysis ( Boyatzis, 1998 ; Braun & Clarke, 2006 ) was chosen for its flexible yet grounded approach. Thematic analysis is an inductive method for identifying, analyzing, and reporting patterns within the data, allowing the researcher to use a bounded theoretical question as a starting point for identifying themes that can shed light on an identified area of interest; themes can thus be theory driven or data driven.

Participation in the project was offered through flyers, sign-up sheets, and e-mail to members of the Listserv for the Qualitative Special Interest Group (SIG) of the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR), individuals on the e-mail list for Social Work Day of the International Congress on Qualitative Inquiry, and other researchers who had expressed interest during workshops and conversations at SSWR's annual conference in January 2012. The only inclusion criterion was experience conducting qualitative social work research, and all who volunteered were interviewed. Because there is no information about the total number of people on either Listserv, the response rate is not known.

A total of 34 people took part. Of these, 65% ( n = 22) were from the United States, with the remaining 35% ( n = 12) from the United Kingdom (England, Ireland, and Scotland), Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Israel. Based on self-reported descriptions of their research experience, half were rated as highly experienced ( n = 17), and approximately one-fourth each of medium ( n = 9) and limited ( n = 8) experience. Most of those in the third group were doctoral students nearing completion of their dissertations. Among the participants, 30% ( n = 10) were male and 70% ( n = 24) were female. When asked about the specific qualitative approaches they used (for example, ethnography, grounded theory), all described projects that spanned various approaches, with the most common kinds of research experience being focus groups, thematic analysis, narrative studies, content analysis, and grounded theory. Because no one self-identified as adhering to a single methodology, categories were nonexclusive and it was not possible to link responses to particular qualitative methods.

Data Collection

Individual interviews lasting 45 to 60 minutes were conducted in person, via Skype, or by telephone. Informed consent was obtained before each interview; interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed. After providing background information, participants were asked what reflexivity meant to them and why they were interested in the study. To guard against premature closure based on assumptions about what reflexivity “ought” to look like, an inclusive approach was selected to capture data that might otherwise slip through the semantic net; thus, a range of experiences and practices were explored, as was the use of these practices in both individual and group projects. Finally, participants were asked what they felt were the benefits, obstacles, and potential drawbacks to reflexivity.

Author Positioning

I have an ongoing interest in reflexivity stemming from my professional work and personal mindfulness practice, and have conducted a number of sessions on reflexivity in qualitative research at professional conferences. I knew approximately one-third of the people interviewed, although only in broad professional contexts and, with one exception, not well. This shared community was useful for recruitment. A number of people said they wanted to help a colleague or, as several joked, store up “good research karma.” Engagement was not a problem. Participants were interested in talking about their work, and many stated at the end of the interview that they had found the experience extremely useful.

Studying members of a group to which one belongs has both advantages and perils, of course. As Chew-Graham, May, and Perry (2002) noted, when interviewing someone who is a member of the same profession or known to the interviewer in a professional context, access may be easier, yet prior knowledge can affect the way that the researcher is perceived, the kind of material that is offered, and the way that material may be interpreted. Because of their common profession, interviewees may assume that the researcher sees things the same way they do. Perception of the researcher as a peer with a common language and shared understanding can make participants less cautious and guarded, resulting in more genuine data or, in contrast, cause them to compete, seek to impress, or collude with the researcher in “a case of shared conceptual blindness” ( Chew-Graham et al., 2002 , p. 288).

As researchers, our study participants understand what participating in a study will entail because they know the “tricks of the trade”; they know the data may be interpreted in ways that they did not intend, and they understand what “confidentiality” and “anonymity” mean in practice. This meant, for many of them, that they were cautious in how they presented themselves. ( Wiles et al., 2006 , p. 293)

Concerns expressed by participants in Wiles et al.'s study (2006) , such as fear that the researcher would “steal” their ideas or reveal their criticism of fellow researchers, did not arise in this study; at least, these concerns were not voiced. It is certainly possible, of course, that some of the other issues raised by both Chew-Graham et al. (2002) and Wiles et al. (2006) were taking place below the surface. Assumptions of a shared understanding may have masked important nuances, and some participants may have presented themselves as more reflexive than they really were. The topic itself (described on the informed consent form) may have conveyed the assumption that reflexivity is a hallmark of “good” qualitative research and evoked the desire to seem like “good” researchers in the interviewer's eyes. Although it is never possible to entirely rule out social desirability bias, numerous comments about not being sure what reflexivity “really was” or wishing they had time to “do it more” seemed to indicate an overall candor in interviewees' responses.

From time to time I also offered examples of my own reflexivity. For instance, I shared with several people the mortification I felt in discovering that I was competing with my own study participants, feeling jealous when they seemed “more reflexive” than I was and then wanting to impress them by performing the identity of “expert researcher.” In this way, a parallel process took place between collecting data about reflexivity in qualitative research while also experiencing reflexivity in qualitative research.

Data Analysis

Following data collection, iterative thematic coding was carried out in stages. The data set was divided into three segments, each including a heterogeneous group of participants irrespective of when the interviews took place; one set of interviews was used for developing a theme book and other two for successive testing and refining of the themes. In the first stage, one-third of the interviews were independently coded by the researcher and a doctoral intern, who then compared and collapsed themes into a collaborative preliminary code book. This tentative list of codes was checked against a second group of interviews to confirm, refine, and elaborate on the codes and to highlight fresh ideas that were not yet represented. Themes endorsed or articulated by this second group were noted, along with additional nuances or alternative viewpoints. A revised code book was developed and organized into a chart.

The chart was shown to the third group of qualitative researchers so participants and individuals similar to participants could review the preliminary findings. Volunteers for these follow-up interviews were solicited at SSWR and through the SIG Listserv. Of the eight people who took part in this third set of interviews, three had been interviewed previously and five had not. Four were experienced, three were mid-level, and one was relatively new. All but one were from the United States; 75% were female.

During this process, which served as both peer review and member check, participants were asked to comment on anything they felt was omitted, unclear, or did not “ring true,” as well as any thoughts about their own experience of reflexivity. A number of additional points emerged from these conversations, and the outline was expanded accordingly. With this outline as a template, the interviews were reviewed again for further refinement. Finally, findings were organized into a conceptual diagram (see Figure 1 ) to illustrate relationships among key elements.

Reflexivity in Qualitative Research

Reflexivity in Qualitative Research

Respondents spoke candidly about the benefits and the difficulties of reflexivity. Although benefits are described below in a somewhat dichotomous manner as either “for oneself” or “for the project” and challenges are noted as either personal or systemic, these distinctions are for ease of exposition only, because most participants saw these processes as fluid and overlapping.

Benefits of Reflexivity

Benefits of reflexivity included accountability, trustworthiness, richness, clarity, ethics, support, and personal growth—beneficial for the integrity of the research process, the quality of the knowledge generated, the ethical treatment of those being studied, and the researcher's own well-being and personal growth.

For the Research Project

Participants considered reflexivity essential for rigor because it made positionality, subjectivity, and reactivity more transparent. “Being aware of your positioning in relation to the research” and “knowing that there's no neutrality, however much people might claim they can remain neutral in their research” provided a baseline of honesty and served as a check against naïve claims of purity or objectivity. Being reflexive “helps me remember what my voice is because, while my voice is important, I need to see past it or hear past it.” Reflexivity also provided a way to document choices, keep track of an evolving process, and leave a trail that could be retraced later if choices needed to be revisited. Memos and journals helped to guard against forgetting or distorting what took place in earlier stages of a project and served as a reminder to keep an open mind.

In particular, reflexivity was seen as important for epistemological rigor. “To be aware of how you conceptualize, why you conceptualize in that way,” to think about “how do I know this, or why am I saying this,” and to examine “the kind of questions you ask and what things may have happened in the actual interviewing” were essential for participants “because you're making a case all the time for your version of knowledge, and are you cutting off other people all the time from their version?” Without recursive self-inquiry, assumptions masked as professional expertise might infiltrate one's work, undermining its authenticity or value. “It's like, is the unexamined life worth living, is the unexamined study worth doing?”

Closely related were the benefits of reflexivity for ethics. Ethics included the honesty of the investigator about his or her agenda, hopes, and potential for personal gain, and extended to openness about power relations, often covert, between researcher and those being studied. Participants saw reflexivity as a way to promote trust, equity, integrity, and respect for those being studied, as well as a way to guard against the self-deception and further inequity that can result when power imbalance is not acknowledged.

“You can't look at other people's lives without looking at what else is going on in you” because “reflexivity means testing the knowledge–power relationship that's going on in that process all the time.” Participants were keenly aware of power issues in the research process, the question of whose knowledge or authority was being upheld, and the distaste of benefiting from someone else's story. Reflexivity could help to bring these issues into the light and to work through specific ethical dilemmas that might arise. “It's a way of trying to be as honest as we can about what we're doing, a way of testing ourselves that we're being honest about what we're bringing and what we're drawing from the research.”

Many also considered reflexivity helpful for the development of professional knowledge. “Using reflexivity allows me to think through, test, wonder, and use it as a base to explore, all of those things, reflecting on what I heard in an interview, and then looking at it from multiple places in myself.” Both self-reflection and feedback from others offered new layers of meaning, depth, and nuance.

For the Researcher

Self-awareness was also seen as beneficial for the researcher. It provided a framework for processing, sustaining, renewing, and gaining insight both into the research and oneself. As a tool for managing the research experience, it could serve as a way to discharge and work through intense, surprising, or upsetting issues and thus avoid becoming sidetracked or emotionally depleted. Some participants saw reflexivity as a way to normalize one's reactions, put them into context, and create appropriate distance; others noted that it could also help to un normalize experience and support the effort to “lean into the discomfort” and open new perspectives. “Stepping back from the data, thinking about what's in there and how I'm reacting to it” was seen as a helpful counterweight to the tendency to become overimmersed or overidentified. “You have to know who you are, how you're interacting, and what you're feeling and what role you're playing in the data collection and your analysis.” A qualitative researcher without self-awareness cannot, participants agreed, be a good researcher.

By Type of Reflexive Activity

Speaking with others provided an opportunity to “bounce ideas off people who are less directly immersed” and can “call me on things about my understanding that I may have missed or taken for granted.” Other people can bring awareness of blind spots and “sticky moments,” opening up multiple or alternative viewpoints. Debriefing and working through problems with others was seen as a “way to hold myself accountable and to manage my own bias and reactivity, to see what you're unable to see in your own work,” thus adding to transparency and trustworthiness.

Research unfolds over time and I find that it is easy to forget initial ideas and thoughts as I become more familiar with something. There are things that are potentially relevant to the project but not immediately pertinent at the moment, so it provides a record of experiences to refresh my memory.
Thinking about the context acts as an orienting tool that allows me to be mindful of my own role throughout the research process. Being aware of all I take into the research process and how my history, perspectives, etc., influence what I ask, how I hear the answers, and what I choose to report in the findings.

Returning reflexively to the literature “can affirm or challenge your material and make you examine it more critically.” Pondering what has already been written helped to position the researcher, identify limits to his or her understanding, and situate findings in existing knowledge. “We must know what we already know, what we need to know, how our work conflicts with or agrees with that knowledge. Research is about building knowledge, which means knowing what is already there and how our work fits in.”

Reflexivity could be especially important when working as part of an interdisciplinary research team where members approach knowledge differently ( Malacrida, 2007 ; Paulus, Woodside, & Zeigler, 2010 ). Shared awareness of the criteria each uses to formulate categories—the assumptions, filters, and professional stance inherent in each discipline—contributes to the trustworthiness of study findings. The aim of collaborative reflexivity between team members was not seen as reaching consensus, but as articulating the differing assumptions and agendas that contribute to multifaceted understanding. As one respondent noted, “Team reflexivity is something different, it's not just a collection of each person's individual reflexivity.”

Challenges to Reflexivity

Obstacles and drawbacks to reflexivity were personal, project-related, and systemic.

Personal Challenges

When you first start, it is scarier or feels riskier than after you have been doing it for a while because of our nature to judge ourselves, and if you are really going to be reflexive, you need to find a way to be okay with our own foibles, mistakes, things you didn't do quite so well.

The line between openness and intolerable rawness could be difficult to navigate. “Sometimes asking others for comments opens up more than I had anticipated. Being open to unexpected or critical feedback is sometimes quite painful.”

Many respondents reported using additional supports such as mindfulness, contemplation, psychotherapy, creative writing, or “venting” with friends. They differed, however, in whether they felt reflexivity aggravated or mitigated the sense of being overwhelmed and flooded. Some felt that this would happen anyway and that self-awareness helped to manage the feelings, making them less traumatic; others felt that focusing on areas of personal sensitivity made the researcher more vulnerable and traumatized.

Project-related Challenges

Time constraints were the most frequently cited obstacle. Reflexivity took time and self-discipline, participants agreed, especially after long days of field observation, and was not always feasible because of pressure to move at a rapid pace or attend to other commitments. “The first challenge is time. The second challenge for me probably would be not being patient enough to let it unfold because I think being reflexive and taking time to do it well can be a slow and painful process.”

I've seen some material where self-reflexivity almost goes into what I would call self-indulgence, and I don't like it. Some of the stuff that people write about is really just biographical. I don't need to know that. I don't need to hear the person in the publication—I don't need to hear all of their doubts and all of their going back and forth, and all of that; it just doesn't work, to me.

Objections to reflexivity as self-indulgence had to do with published reports, however, not necessarily with its use during the research process, which might or might not find its way into the written presentation. Here again, there was a difference of opinion, with some feeling that the more rigorously one engaged in reflexivity, the less the likelihood of inappropriate “navel gazing” and narcissistic distortion.

External or Systemic Challenges

A lack of valuation by colleagues, administrators, funders, and journals was a major concern. Many participants felt that explicit endorsement of reflexivity could threaten their credibility with tenure committees operating from a quantitative model; one person even said that he had been advised to remove a highly reflexive published article from his portfolio. This kind of vigilance could make people feel defensive, torn, devaluing the sense of themselves as professionals. In addition, the pressure to publish made it tempting to move projects forward quickly or to jettison reflexive activities that were unlikely to be included in the final report.

Isolation from supportive peers engaged in similar reflexive research was a related concern. “You need colleagues who believe in and practice reflexivity to be able to maintain your own resilience.” This was not always possible, however, because “coresearchers and peers aren't always as keen to participate in reflexivity as I am … if you're working on a group project and members of your group are not naturally reflexive or the need for process isn't shared.” The biggest challenge was “believing in reflexivity enough to be able to put up with accusations of taking too long, not meeting deadlines, or being self-indulgent.”

Other participants cited a lack of training, preparation, or the availability of clear or consistent guidelines for assessing whether one has been adequately reflexive. Knowing when to disclose personal reflections was a related concern. Sharing one's biases or doubts was not always useful, especially if those being studied were hostile or might be influenced by what they learned about the researcher. For many participants, there was a discrepancy between valuation of reflexivity—what they believed they ought to do—and their actual use of reflexive practices. Reasons for this discrepancy were linked to the obstacles and limitations they encountered in their attempt to put into practice the self- and collaborative reflection they believed was so important for their work.

Clearly, interest in qualitative research and respect for the qualitative paradigm continue to grow. More social work graduate students are attracted to qualitative research; more professional journals accept qualitative studies; and more time is devoted to qualitative research at professional conferences. Thus, it is vital for qualitative scholars to be able to articulate what they have learned and to transmit that knowledge to the next generation of researchers who will need to become skilled users and skilled producers of qualitative scholarship.

As many participants in this study noted, however, the quantitative paradigm with its equation of measurement with evidence continues to dominate academia. Subjectivity, ambivalence, partial and multiple meanings, and the constructed nature of knowledge carry little currency within this paradigm. Time constraints and pressure to produce research with “hard” findings, especially in tenure-track positions, may inhibit the incorporation of reflexivity into both the research process and the written report. It is difficult to know, of course, whether the scarcity of reflexive accounts in published studies ( Barusch et al., 2011 ; Gringeri et al., 2013 ) means that reflexivity was absent from the research process itself. It is possible, as Gringeri et al. (2013) suggested, that researchers have indeed been reflexive but do not include those reflexive accounts in their manuscripts because they believe journal editors and reviewers do not expect it, or because they believe it would decrease their chances of publication and professional advancement. Barusch et al. (2011) offered a similar suggestion that social work authors may fear that self-disclosure would be “unprofessional” or inconsistent with journal editors' expectations and preferences, a finding supported by this study.

Lack of training also appears to be an issue. Several participants commented that they would like to “do more reflexivity” but had not been formally or adequately trained, pointing to a need to examine, and perhaps modify, how qualitative research is taught. It is not enough to espouse reflexivity as a value; students must be given models, tools, opportunities to learn by doing, and a place for including reflexive accounts in dissertations.

The skillful use of reflexivity can pose a number of additional challenges. One difficulty, noted by several respondents, is that we can only reflect on what strikes us as requiring reflection, what we become aware of with our conscious minds, although other forces may be operating and affecting the research. One can only be reflexive up to a point on one's own, and the very things one most needs to examine may be those that are most deeply hidden. Supervision and peer debriefing can help, as several respondents noted.

Another question has to do with the relationship between reflexivity, the disclosure of oneself to oneself , and disclosure to others . To what extent should the fruits of self-awareness and self-interrogation be shared with those one is studying? From one perspective, transparency with participants can help to build trust, repair power imbalance, and foster the co-creation of knowledge. At the same time, self-disclosure moves the researcher more forcefully “into the room,” perhaps too much so, just as self-disclosure by the therapist in psychotherapy can move the work forward or divert it ( Gemignani, 2011 ). Put another way, what should researchers do with the products of their self-reflections? Is there a way to put reflexivity's output to use that can effectively balance its benefits and limitations?

Other themes that invite further exploration include the following:

Professional expectations and issues of status : What is the impact of professional pressures and expectations on using and revealing reflexivity in one's research? Are there tacit messages and unspoken barriers? If so, how might this be addressed at the institutional or professional level? For instance, how explicit or flexible should policies be about the way research is taught and the way it is evaluated by tenure committees?

Electronic reporting in journals : What are the possibilities for including description of reflexive practices in published work, given the expansion of journals into electronic formats? While keeping to page limits for the main document, are there ways to offer electronic links to supplementary material about the reflexive “back story”? Should this become standard practice for qualitative manuscripts?

Supporting reflexivity outside the research project : Are there informal actions or personal qualities, extrinsic to the research process itself, that foster reflexivity? Without intruding on students' or scholars' privacy (for example, without making psychotherapy, collaboration, or mindfulness a requirement), how might these beneficial practices be supported? What are the ethical and practical challenges of doing so?

Reflexivity is an important tool that enables the researcher to stay engaged in critical self-awareness throughout the research process. It is the embodiment of an epistemology in which the knower is always present, a way of looking that gazes outward at what is taking place while sustaining an inward gaze at the looker. More than just a vehicle for honesty or management of the research experience, reflexivity offers a means for using self-knowledge to inform and enhance the research endeavor. As such, it has broad applicability for social work research regardless of methodology. That is, it is equally relevant and valuable for qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods projects (see, for instance, Ryan & Golden, 2006 ).

Assessing the adequacy of a study's reflexivity remains problematic, however. As noted earlier, the absence of explicit mention of an author's reflexivity does not mean there was none. What, then, to look for? The notion of establishing benchmarks applicable across a range of designs risks objectification of what is inherently idiosyncratic, yet editors and readers need guidelines for determining if reflexivity is present. The following questions are far from a blueprint but represent a sample of what might be asked:

Agenda : Is there note of the author's background, previous scholarship, or the genesis of the project, other than the usual “gap in the literature”? Why was the study undertaken? Why does it matter, and to whom?

Process : Was there more than one step in the analysis? Were there any opportunities to reassess or revise?

Intersubjectivity : Who else was included in interpretation of the data? Was anyone invited to co-construct or review the findings? How convincing are the author's claims of trustworthiness, beyond his or her own perspective?

Self-interrogation : Are any contradictory or disconfirming data presented, or does everything fit (too) neatly into tidy categories?

Audit trail : Is there mention of how the author kept track of choices, hunches, and interpretations?

Although few manuscripts will offer explicit evidence on all these points, the absence of any evidence does raise a question about whether reflexivity was incorporated into the research.

Despite its “messiness,” reflexivity remains a fundamental way, particularly in qualitative studies, to bolster credibility by parsing the research endeavor into its mutually affecting parts and documenting the pathways through which knowledge was generated. This is particularly critical in social work research, because decisions about policies and practices affecting the nation's most vulnerable populations rely heavily on the strength of research findings. Consumers of social work research, as well as those whom their work ultimately serves, should be able to trust the authenticity of the knowledge offered to them. The practice of reflexivity can support this aim.

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What is “reflexivity?”

Travis Dixon March 16, 2018 Qualitative Research Methods , Research Methodology

reflexivity qualitative research definition

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Updated July 2020

What is reflexivity?

  • Reflexivity is the process of continual reflection upon the research process by a researcher; at the heart of reflexivity is the idea of self-awareness.
Students need to be able to “explain the use of reflexivity in qualitative research,” which means defining the term and explaining how and why it’s used in qualitative studies and  using details from the stimulus in the exam paper to support the explanation. No limitations are needed.

Read more…

  • Cell phones at the dinner table – a qualitative observation (Radesky et al.)
  • Lesson Idea: Understanding thematic analysis
  • Qualitative Study Examples
IB Psychology: This is for the “old” syllabus (exams in May and Nov 2018). 

How is reflexivity used in qualitative research?

  • Researchers can practice reflexivity in their research in a number of ways, such as keeping a journal, maintaining open dialogue and discussion with their colleagues, or simply internally reflecting on the research process.
  • Reflexivity can be divided into two types: prospective and retrospective . Prospective reflexivity refers to the effects of the researcher on the study, whereas retrospective reflexivity refers to the effects of the study on the researcher (Attia and Edge, 2016). Understanding the bidirectional relationship between researcher and research is an important concept in qualitative methodology.

reflexivity qualitative research definition

Find heaps of teaching resources for qualitative methods in our teacher support pack.

Why is reflexivity used in qualitative research?

  • One aim of prospective reflexivity is to ensure credibility of results by reducing the chances of the researcher biasing the study.
  • Reflexivity can also help researchers become aware of how the values, opinions and experiences they’ve brought to the research can be a positive thing.
  • Reflexivity is really important in qualitative research because there are so many ways in which researcher bias could affect the study, from the creation of data gathering tools, to collecting the data, analysing it and reporting it. This is because of the subjective nature of qualitative data and methodology. While bias can affect quantitative studies, it is easier to control for than in qualitative studies.
  • Another aim of retrospective reflexivity is so the researcher becomes aware of how the research process has had an effect on them. Understanding these effects can be an important part of the research process. (See an example here ). In many qualitative studies the researcher may be in closer contact with their subject of study, compared with quantitative studies, so the chance for impact of the research on the researcher is also greater.
  • Exploring reflexivity ( Link )
  • Becoming a reflexive researcher ( Link )
  • Benefits and challenges of reflexivity ( Link )
  • Reflections on reflexivity ( Link )
  • Understanding effects of research – retrospective reflexivity ( Link )

Travis Dixon

Travis Dixon is an IB Psychology teacher, author, workshop leader, examiner and IA moderator.

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Birks Y, Harrison R, Bosanquet K, et al. An exploration of the implementation of open disclosure of adverse events in the UK: a scoping review and qualitative exploration. Southampton (UK): NIHR Journals Library; 2014 Jul. (Health Services and Delivery Research, No. 2.20.)

Cover of An exploration of the implementation of open disclosure of adverse events in the UK: a scoping review and qualitative exploration

An exploration of the implementation of open disclosure of adverse events in the UK: a scoping review and qualitative exploration.

Appendix 8 detailed statement for reflexivity.

  • Team data analysis

At significant points during the process of data analysis, the researchers most closely involved in data collection and the early stages of analysis (YB, RH, KB) met with members of the wider research team with extensive qualitative (VE) and clinical (IW) experience, to discuss emerging codes and categories, the interpretation of key texts and potential new lines of enquiry, thereby drawing on the combined insights of those ‘handling’ the data closely and members of the team with a wider perspective of methodological and open disclosure issues.

  • Reliability of coding

Towards the end of the analysis of the qualitative data, a member of the wider research team (VE) examined five transcripts which had been coded by the members of the team most closely involved in data collection and analysis (YB, RH, KB), as an independent check on the assignment of codes to data.

  • Comparison of data within and across cases in the data set

This was facilitated by the use of the analytic matrix which forms the basis of the framework approach. Comparing data within cases allowed for the exploration of contextual meaning, while comparing cases across the data set facilitated the search for regularities (key themes) and exceptions (negative cases).

  • Use of memos

The careful use of memos (by the prime analysts) during initial stages of analysis provided a visible ‘audit trail’ as the analysis moved from ‘raw’ data, through interpretation, to the production of findings.

Attention to ‘negative’ cases

Analysis included a search across the data set for ‘negative’ cases (evidence that contradicts, or appears to contradict, the explanations being developed) and alternative ways of explaining the data were considered. Systematic searching for negative cases or ‘outliers’ can help illuminate the connections that link the other cases together.

  • Reflexivity

Reflexivity relates to sensitivity to the ways in which the researcher and the research process may shape the data collected, including the role of prior assumptions and experience.

Prior assumptions and experience

Within the context of the current study, the members of the research team involved in face-to-face contact with study participants needed to consider the ways in which their interactions with participants might be influenced by their own professional background, experiences and prior assumptions. The two interviewers (RH and KB) were both academic research fellows from non-clinical backgrounds. An important question we needed to address in drawing conclusions from the data concerned whether or not knowing about our professional background could have impacted on participants’ willingness to talk openly about experiences, or how this knowledge might have shaped what was said.

Awareness of social setting and the social ‘distance’ between the researcher and the researched

The majority of interviews were conducted in participants’ workplaces or homes (for patients), either face to face or over the telephone, as this was usually more convenient for them. Although we were invited in as researchers, we were also mindful that we were guests in the participants’ work or living spaces; respondents were therefore given the lead in ‘setting the pace’ of the interview. By deliberately adopting a ‘back seat’ approach in setting the scene for the interview to take place, the researchers hoped that participants would feel they were exercising a measure of control over the interview process.

Fair dealing

Dingwall 247 has suggested that one way of reducing bias in qualitative research is to ensure that the research design explicitly incorporates a wide range of different perspectives, so that the viewpoint of one group is never presented as if representing the sole truth about any situation, an analytic technique he has referred to as ‘fair dealing’.

Our study was designed to elicit contributions from a broad range of stakeholders in open disclosure. During the analytic process no particular group’s views were ‘privileged’ over those of others; that is to say, data analysis included a process of constant comparison between accounts of each group of participants, to uncover similarities and differences, which were subsequently highlighted (for example, health professionals identified a lack of certainty around what should be disclosed to a patient or carer, more so than other participants).

A main goal of data analysis was the identification of common themes that emerged from comparison across cases (individual interviews). However, equal importance was attached to focusing on the minutiae of individuals’ accounts relating to specific incidents of disclosure; in the analysis, we sought to identify the views and experiences of individuals, as well as the majority, where these were divulged.

Awareness of wider social and political context

As a research team, we discussed the fact that participants recruited from a policy level, professional organisation or national ‘consumer’ group might show a strong commitment to a particular personal or political agenda, or wish to raise particular issues during group discussions which may relate only tangentially, or not at all, to the main purpose of the discussion. We discussed how we might handle this situation if it arose and decided to emphasise the purpose of the research prior to interview and through the questions and probes used. This strategy appeared to be successful in keeping participants engaged in the research process.

The role of the research team as collaborators in knowledge production

Collaborative research is highly valued for its ability to bring together multiple researchers with distinctive and specialist perspectives to tackle large or complex research problems, though frequently the ‘putting together’ of multiple perspectives in the construction of knowledge is not described. 248

Within the Being Open research team, there was a strong commitment from the outset to work collaboratively in the collection, analysis, interpretation and reporting of the qualitative data, though individual involvement with the various stages of the research process necessarily varied. The three team members most closely involved in fieldwork (YB, RH, KB) met frequently (on average at least once per week) to discuss the progress of fieldwork and reflect on data collection; meetings intensified during the early stages of analysis, when themes and codes were beginning to be identified. At this crucial stage, input was sought from other members of the research team with extensive experience of qualitative research and a broad knowledge of patient safety research (VE, IW) to assist with ‘firming up’ the coding framework. During the early stages of analysis, an all-day meeting was convened in a location away from the interruptions of the office environment, which served as a kind of ‘interpretative retreat’. Throughout the day, we explored a sample of transcripts to gain a sense of the data that were emerging, the effectiveness of the topic guides and whether or not there may be additional participants who we wanted to invite to take part. A more intense focus on a subset of transcripts (which had been sent to VE in advance) in a further half-day analysis session was used to draw up the coding framework that would serve to underpin the analysis (and interpretation) of all the interview data. This endeavour resulted in an analytic strategy that was informed by insights from team members with a broad understanding of the research field and methodological issues, and those with field-based contextual and experiential understanding.

Potential for psychological harm

Members of the research team involved in fieldwork (RH, KB) were acutely sensitive to the possibility that focusing on the research topic could potentially provoke anxiety in the research participants concerning the disclosure of adverse events. At the end of each interview, researchers took time to ensure that participants were not feeling distressed by their participation; in these interviews, none of the participants expressed such concerns or appeared to be distressed or uneasy.

Included under terms of UK Non-commercial Government License .

  • Cite this Page Birks Y, Harrison R, Bosanquet K, et al. An exploration of the implementation of open disclosure of adverse events in the UK: a scoping review and qualitative exploration. Southampton (UK): NIHR Journals Library; 2014 Jul. (Health Services and Delivery Research, No. 2.20.) Appendix 8, Detailed statement for reflexivity.
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