Thinking About Me: Reflexivity in science and qualitative research

self rembrandt reflexivity

Reflexivity is a process (and it should be a continuing process) of reflecting on how the researcher could be influencing a research project.


In a traditional positivist research paradigm, the researcher attempts to be a neutral influence on  research. They make rational and logical interpretations, and assume a ‘null hypothesis’, in which they expect all experiments to have no effect, and have no pre-defined concept of what the research will show.


However, this is a lofty aspiration and difficult to achieve in practice. Humans are fallible and emotional beings, with conflicting pressures on jobs, publication records and their own hunches. There are countless stories of renowned academics having to retract papers, or their whole research careers because of faked results, flawed interpretations or biased coding procedures.


Many consider it to be impossible to fully remove the influence of the researcher from the process, and so all research would be ‘tainted’ in some way by the prejudices of those in the project. This links into the concept of “implicit bias” where even well-meaning individuals are influenced by subconscious prejudices. These have been shown to have a significant discriminatory impact on pay, treatment in hospitals and recruitment along lines of gender and ethnicity.


So does this mean that we should abandon research, and the pursuit of truly understanding the world around us? No! Although we might reject the notion of attaining an absolute truth, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something. Instead of pretending that the researcher is an invisible and neutral piece of the puzzle, a positionality and reflexivity approach argues that the background of the researcher should be detailed in the same way as the data collection methods and analytical techniques.


But how is this done in practice? Does a researcher have to bare their soul to the world, and submit their complete tax history? Not quite, but many in feminist and post-positivist methodologies will create a ‘positionality statement’ or ‘reflexivity statement’. This is a little like a CV or self-portrait of potential experiences and bias, in which the researcher is honest about personal factors that might influence their decisions and interpretations. These might include the age, gender, ethnicity and class of the researcher, social and research issues they consider important, their country and culture, political leanings, life experiences and education. In many cases a researcher will include such a statement with their research publications and outputs, just Googling ‘positionality statements’ will provide dozens of links to examples.

 

However, I feel that this is a minimum level of engagement with the issue, and it’s actually important to keep a reflexive stance throughout the research process. Just like how a one-off interview is not as accurate a record as a daily diary, keeping reflexivity notes as an ongoing part of a research journal is much more powerful. Here a researcher can log changes in their situation, assumptions and decisions made throughout the research process that might be affected by their personal stance. It’s important that the researcher is constantly aware of when they are making decisions, because each is a potential source of influence. This includes deciding what to study, who to sample, what questions to ask, and which sections of text to code and present in findings.


Why this is especially pertinent to qualitative research? It’s often raised in social science, especially ethnography and close case study work with disadvantaged or hard-to-reach populations where researchers have a much closer engagement with their subjects and data. It could be considered that there are more opportunities for personal stance to have an impact here, and that many qualitative methods, especially the analysis process using grounded theory, are open to multiple interpretations that vary by researcher. Many make the claim that qualitative research and data analysis is more subjective than quantitative methods, but as we’ve argued above, it might be better to say that they are both subjective. Many qualitative epistemological approaches are not afraid of this subjectivity, but will argue it is better made forthright and thus challenged, rather than trying to keep it in the dark.


Now, this may sound a little crazy, especially to those in traditionally positivist fields like STEM subjects (Science, Technology Engineering, Mathematics). Here there is generally a different move: to use process and peer review to remove as many aspects of the research that are open to subjective interpretation as possible. This direction is fine too!


However, I would argue that researchers already have to make a type of reflexivity document: a conflict of interest statement. Here academics are supposed to declare any financial or personal interest in the research area that might influence their neutrality. This is just like a positionality statement! An admission that researchers can be influenced by prejudices and external factors, and that readers should be aware of such conflicts of interest when doing their own interpretation of the results.


If it can be the case that money can influence science (and it totally can) it’s also been shown that gender and other aspects of an academic's background can too. All reflexivity asks us to do is be open and honest with our readers about who we are, so they can better understand and challenge the decisions we make.

 

 

Like all our blog articles, this is intended to be a primer on some very complex issues. You’ll find a list of references and further reading below (in addition to the links included above). Don’t forget to try Quirkos for all your qualitative data analysis needs! It can help you keep, manage and code a reflexive journal throughout your analysis procedure. See this blog article for more!

 

 

References

 

Bourke, B., 2014, Positionality: Reflecting on the Research Process, The Qualitative Report 19, http://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/QR19/bourke18.pdf


Day, E., 2002, Me, My*self and I: Personal and Professional Re-Constructions in Ethnographic Research, FQS 3(3) http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/824/1790


Greenwald, A., Krieger, L., 2006, Implicit Bias: Scientific Foundations, California Law Review, 94(4). http://www.jstor.org/stable/20439056


Lynch, M., 2000, Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge, Theory, Culture & Society 17(3), http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/17/3/26.short


Savin-Baden, M., Major C., 2013, Personal stance, positionality and reflexivity, in Qualitative Research: The essential guide to theory and practice. Routledge, London.


Soros, G., 2013, Fallibility, reflexivity and the human uncertainty principle, Journal of Economic Methodology, 20(4) https://www.georgesoros.com/essays/fallibility-reflexivity-and-the-human-uncertainty-principle-2/