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REFLEXIVITY

Reflexivity

Definition

Reflexivity is employed in various guises in clinical and research practice as methodical, self-aware reflection towards increasing the richness and integrity of any understandings.  While the term reflection refers to thinking about something after the event, reflexivity involves an ongoing and iterative exploration of self-awareness (Finlay & Gough, 2003).

Mason (1996, p. 6) explains that reflexive research requires researchers to take “stock of their actions and their role in the research process” and subject these to the “same critical scrutiny as the rest of their ‘data’.”  More than being simply a tool to improve the quality, rigour and validity of research, reflexivity can be used to expose relational-social and ethical dilemmas that permeate all human science research.

Reflexivity is the “use of a critical, self-aware lens to interrogate both the research process and our interpretation or representations of participants’ lives in our social world” (Finlay, 2017, p. 120). It is an analytical tool that acknowledges the complexity and messiness of human science research while also having the potential to be an autobiographical inquiry in its own right. The aim is to examine, or even deconstruct, the researcher’s authority and knowledge creation. The challenge lies in evaluating just how the researcher influences the research. In published research, the fact that authors often include some mention of their background and interest in the research is in itself is a nod in the direction of reflexivity.  However, more committed practitioners of reflexivity would then proceed to interrogate the ways in which that background shapes their assumptions, behaviour and (inter-)subjectivity, and impacts the research process and findings.

Reflexivity can be employed at every stage of the research process. Researchers may use a reflexive/research journal to note strategic decisions taken, key events, responses arising in the moment or problems/tensions encountered during data collection.  In addition, reflexive dialogues can be engaged (internally or within the team) to acknowledge the relevance of the social context or highlight assumptions, agendas, and practices. 

Types of reflexivity (re: research)

Given the competing variants of reflexivity, it’s perhaps more accurate to talk about “reflexivities” (Finlay, 2017). “What reflexivity does, what it threatens to expose, what it reveals and who it empowers”, says Lynch (2000, p. 36), “depends upon who does it and how they go about it.”

Lynch (2000) offer an “inventory”, specifying mechanical, substantive, methodological, metatheoretical, interpretative, and ethnomethodological reflexivities. Marcus (1994) identifies four distinct styles: self-critique or personal quest; objective reflexivity as a methodological tool; reflexivity as a politics of location; and feminist experiential reflexivity. Wilkinson (1988), meanwhile, distinguishes between personal, functional, and disciplinary versions. Parker (1994) argues for “uncomplicated,” “blank” or “complicated” subjectivities. In my own work (e.g., see Finlay, 2002, 2003), I have distinguished between reflexivity as introspection, as intersubjective reflection, as mutual collaboration, as social critique, and as ironic deconstruction. More recently, I have added strategic, contextual–discursive, embodied, relational, and ethical reflexivities to the list (Finlay, 2012).

The table below presents and compares/contrasts six particularly influential types of reflexivity.

The question at stake is not so much whether to embrace reflexivity but rather how to do so. Rather than being an optional add-on, reflexivity is intrinsic to the process of ensuring the ethical and methodological integrity of the research and can even be a methodology in its own right.


Type of reflexivity

Focus

Commonly associated methodologies

 

Priorities in practice

Strategic methodological reflexivity


Interrogating methodological and epistemological aspects considering the intention and impact of the research design and methods


Quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods

Seen mostly in early planning stages; accounts offered in method and discussion sections of papers


Ethical reflexivity

Monitoring procedures, power dynamics and the impacts of research on participant, researchers and/or readers/audience


Quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods

Focus on ethics seen commonly at proposal stage and in method and discussion sections of papers

Embodied, personal reflexivity

Introspective probing of the researcher’s thoughts and feelings and embodied felt sense, including the gestural duet between researcher and participant


Phenomenology, narrative inquiry, autoethnography, constructivist grounded theory, heuristic and creative methodologies


Enacted mostly during data collection and analytic phases or in self-standing autobiographical pieces

Relational reflexivity

Examining the intersubjective, interpersonal, transactional realm and the mutual or co-created collaboration involved

Phenomenology, narrative inquiry, constructivist grounded theory, conversational analysis, autoethnography, ethnomethodology


Enacted mostly during data collection and analytic phases

Contextual-discursive reflexivity

Deconstructing the impact of discourse/language, and offering a social critique intersectionality, situational and socio-cultural elements including probing the professional relevance of the study


Discourse analysis, narrative inquiry, ethnomethodology, ethnography, post-structural and/or critical social research

Seen particularly when positioning the researcher’s subjectivity in the planning and data collection phases plus in discussion sections of papers

Disciplinary reflexivity

Analysis of the nature and influence of the field of enquiry, discussing the professional, political, epistemological and/or theoretical relevance of the research


Quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods

Applied mostly in discussion sections of papers as well as scaffolding the literature review


Doing reflexivity well involves time-consuming and continuously “challenging, uncomfortable, ambiguous” processes (Finlay, 2017, p. 120). It is not easy to “out” oneself when reflexivity involves self-disclosure and confronting one’s discomforts and ethical dilemmas. The challenge is all the greater when colleagues are sceptical of the benefits of reflexivity, or openly dismissive of it (for instance, some quantitative researchers dismiss it as being unduly subjective). But the research world is changing, and there is growing acceptance of the ways in which reflexivity can enhance the credibility and depth of all types of research.

As we navigate the various options of reflexivity in research, we need to ensure that our eventual choice is consistent with our values, epistemology and methodology. Irrespective of that final choice, best practice involves the ongoing probing of methodological procedures as well as the relational and social (cultural and discursive) contexts of the research. There are good epistemological, ethical, and political reasons to continue to critique all our research endeavors - and that includes the practice of reflexivity itself.


Reflexivity throughout the research process

Rather than being an optional add-on, reflexivity is intrinsic to the process of ensuring the ethical and methodological integrity of the research and it can even be a methodology in its own right (e.g., a reflexive autobiographical article).

1. Reflexivity in the research planning stage - The planning stage of all research (whether quantitative, qualitative or mixed-methods) involves the researcher strategically thinking through their aims and methodology regarding the nature, scope, and ethics of their study (Finlay, 2020).  This is also the stage where the need may arise to produce a “research proposal” towards gaining formal/institutional ethical approval.  Once again, reflexivity has a key role to play.   

  • Deciding research questions
  • Research proposal
  • Methodological accounting
  • Ethics
  • Thinking about the researcher's positioning

2. Reflexivity in data collection and analysis stages - Critical thinking is needed around how the data, research situation, researcher, and the researched-Other are constructed during both data collection and analysis.  Here, reflexivity has a crucial role to play. 

  • When specifying methods 
  • Recognising researcher's motivations, awareness, and discomforts
  • When coding and processing data
  • Processing in academic supervision

3. Writing up and disseminating the research - The process of writing up and disseminating research is shot through with opportunities for reflexive reflection/discussion.  Writing up usually involves a critical evaluation of the contribution of the research. There is an indisputable ethical imperative to disseminate one’s research so that participants stories gain a wider audience and others can benefit from their experience. Here, reflexive discussions with colleagues (and in discussion sections of articles) can prove fruitful. Further ethical issues are raised when disseminating the research and strategically thinking about what to say, where and how, given the needs of different audiences.

  • Reflecting on the process of writing up
  • Evaluating the research
  • When disseminating research 


References

Finlay, L. (2002). Negotiating the swamp: the opportunity and challenge of reflexivity in research practice, Qualitative Research, 2, 209-30.

Finlay, L. (2003). The reflexive journey: mapping multiple routes. In L. Finlay & B. Gough (Eds.), Reflexivity: A practical guide for researchers in health and social sciences (pp. 3-20). Blackwell.

Finlay, L. (2012). Five lenses for the reflexive interviewer. In J. F. Gubrium, J. Holstein, A. Marvasti, & K. D. McKinney (Eds.), The Sage handbook of interview research: The complexity of the craft (pp. 317–331). Sage.

Finlay, L. (2017). Championing ‘reflexivities’. Qualitative Psychology, 4(2), 120–125. https://doi.org/10.1037/qup0000075

Finlay, L. & Gough, B. (2003) (Eds.). Reflexivity: A practical guide for researchers in health and social sciences. Blackwell.

Lynch, M. (2000). Against reflexivity as an academic virtue and source of privileged knowledge. Theory, Culture & Society, 17(3), 26-54. https://doi.org/10.1177/02632760022051202

Marcus, G. E. (1994). ‘What comes (just) after “post’”: The case of ethnography’, in N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research. Sage.

Mason,  J. (1996).  Qualitative researching. Sage.

Pels, D. (2000). Reflexivity: One step up, Theory, Culture & Society, 17(3), 1-25.

Parker, I. (1994). Reflexive research and the grounding of analysis: Social psychology and the psy-complex. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 4(4), 239–252. https://doi.org/10.1002/casp.2450040404

Wilkinson, S. (1988). The role of reflexivity in feminist psychology. Women’s Studies International Forum, 11, 493– 502. doi:10.1016/0277-5395(88)90024-6






Linda Finlay - Psychotherapist

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