Reflexivity generally refers to the examination of one’s own beliefs, judgments and practices during the research process and how these may have influenced the research. If positionality refers to what we know and believe then reflexivity is about what we do with this knowledge. Reflexivity involves questioning one’s own taken for granted assumptions. Essentially, it involves drawing attention to the researcher as opposed to ‘brushing her or him under the carpet’ and pretending that she or he did not have an impact or influence. It requires openness and an acceptance that the researcher is part of the research (Finlay 1998).
Reflexivity is not the same as being ‘reflective’: all researchers think about and make judgements about their data (for example, ‘do the data suggest a certain conclusion can be drawn?’); reflexivity steps further back and examines the person making the judgements (‘am I the kind of person who will be predisposed to believe that the data suggest this conclusion?’). Reflexivity and positionality are considered differently across research traditions. Positivism, in seeking to mimic the methods of natural science, adopts a third person narrative and creates the myth of value free research. This is not, of course, the same as saying the positivist researchers fail to reflect on data or that they are unreflexive; they may have thought long and hard about their position but have accepted the convention not to talk about it. Within a more interpretive approach discussion of reflexivity may be encouraged, particularly in longer more personal documents such as theses, though there is no agreement on the form that this discussion should take.
Reflexivity opens up dilemmas and challenges. These are more often addressed explicitly in situations in which there is a considerable distance in terms of background knowledge, behaviour and underlying beliefs between researcher and researched but should be a general consideration for all research. Increasingly, personal positions are seen in a wider context, that of social identity, so that, say, establishing rapport in an interview with a person of a different gender, ethnicity, age or sexuality goes deeper than presenting oneself as open minded and non-judgemental; there is something deeper at stake which, no matter what you do, will come to define your interaction. A reflexive examination should go beyond one’s conduct in a research project and consider the positionality of the wider research discipline. This could cover what is taken for granted in how problems are defined, which research questions tend to be included or excluded, whether there a restrictive dominant paradigm or even a liberal orthodoxy or cultural relativism in which ‘anything goes’. As with positionality, discussion of reflexivity has been criticised as narcissistic and selfindulgent and it is important to remember that the reader may be a lot less interested in the researcher than the researcher is. Discussion of reflexivity can, further, lead to a kind of paralysis (Johnson and Duberley 2003) as each judgement becomes nested within layer upon layer of personal and disciplinary frames of reference. A way of addressing these difficulties is to bring discussion of reflexivity back down to the particular issues within the research and the researcher might want to exemplify patterns of interpretation rather than describe each and every reflexive judgement. Reflexivity should be embraced as a virtue, not a vice. Winter (1989) compares research to the detective story in which by solving the crime the detective comes to understand something about him or herself. This metaphor is made in the context of action research, but is surely a broader comment on the humanist nature of reflexive judgement.
Finlay, L. (1998) ‘Reflexivity: an essential component for all research?’, British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61, 10: 453-456.
Johnson, P. and Duberley, J. (2003) ‘Reflexivity in management research’, Journal of Management Studies, 40: 1279-1303.
Winter, R. (1989) Learning From Experience. Principles and practice in action research, Lewes: Falmer Press.
(From Hammond and Wellington (2014) , Key Concepts, London, Routledge