Reflexivity Essay

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Reflexivity can be broadly defined to mean an understanding of the knowledge-making enterprise, including a consideration of the subjective, institutional, social, and political processes whereby research is conducted and knowledge is produced. The researcher is part of the social world that is studied and this calls for exploration and self-examination. A reflexive researcher ”intentionally or self-consciously shares (whether in agreement or disagreement) with her or his audiences the underlying assumptions that occasion a set of questions” (Robertson 2002: 786).

The recent interest in reflexivity has been linked to the influence of postmodernism and poststructuralism whose insights have drawn attention to the problematic nature of research, the dubious position of the researcher, the crisis of representation, and the constructive nature of language, as well as an admission of the fact that there is no ”one best way” of conducting either theoretical or empirical work. Reflexivity is about dealing with ”a sense of uncertainty and crisis as increasingly complex questions are raised concerning the status, validity, basis and authority of knowledge claims” (Mauthner & Doucet 2003: 417).

Leading philosophers of science and intellectuals have struggled with issues similar to those brought forward by the ”reflexive turn” for a long time. The work of Kuhn (1970) has been vital in raising questions around the limits of scientific rationality and progress. Postmodern thinking, critical studies, feminism, and interpretive and other qualitative work more generally all cast doubt on the idea that ”competent observers” can ”with objectivity, clarity, and precision report on their own observations of the social world.” Informed by the linguistic turn, such researchers have increasingly stressed the ambiguous, unstable, and context-dependent character of language; noted the dependence of observers and data on interpretation and theory; and argued that interpretation-free, theory-neutral facts do not exist but, rather, that data and facts are constructions that result from interpretation.

There is a multitude of reflexivity — reflexivities. For some authors, the key theme is the researcher-self and the personal experiences of the research process: ”reflexive ethnographies primarily focus on a culture or subculture, authors use their own experiences in the culture reflexively to bend back on self and look more deeply at self—other interactions” (Ellis & Bochner 2000: 741). For others, it concerns the cognitive aspects around construction processes in research. For still others, reflexivity revolves around language, inviting the investigator ”into the fuller realm of shared languages. The reflexive attempt is thus relational, emphasizing the expansion of the languages of understanding” (Gergen & Gergen 1991: 79). Other versions of reflexivity revolve around the research text and authorship, theoretical perspectives and vocabularies and what they accomplish, or the empirical subjects ”out there” and how their voices are being (mis-)represented.

For some authors, reflexivity is intimately connected to the broad intellectual stream of postmodernism and/or radical social constructionism. This may imply a broader set of considerations, for example, postmodernism is frequently associated with the indecidabilities of meaning, fragmented selves, power/knowledge connections, the problematic nature of master narratives, and problems of representation, providing an ambitious set of themes for reflexive work. Again, for others, reflexivity means the breaking of the logic associated with a particular stream — reflexivity involves confronting dataistic, interpretive, critical, and postmodern lines of reasoning and challenging the truths and emphasis following from each of these (Alvesson & Skoldberg 2009).

Bibliography:

  1. Ellis, C. & Bochner, A. (2000) Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity: researcher as subject. In: Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd edn. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, pp. 769—802.
  2. Gergen, K. & Gergen, M. (1991) Toward reflexive methodologies. In:  Steier, F.  (ed.), Research and Reflexitivity. Sage, London.
  3. Kuhn,    S.   (1970)   The   Structure   of Scientific Revolution. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  4. Mauthner, N. & Doucet, A. (2003) Reflexive accounts and accounts of reflexivity in qualitative data analysis. Sociology 37: 413—31.
  5. Robertson, J. (2002) Reflexivity redux: a pithy polemic on positionality. Anthropological Quarterly 75 (4): 785—93.

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