#JoDoesPhD Part Four: What is reflexivity?
PhD part 04:
18 January 2018
It’s time to tackle the elephant in the room. Despite signing up for a PhD with ‘reflexive’ in the title, my sense of what that means in practice is pretty tenuous (though obviously I’m hoping that evolves as I write this post!).
It is probably on-par with my grasp of the rules of cricket: I have a general sense of the broad points, but the details are sketchy.
Reflective and reflexive, same same but…probably the same?
Before starting this PhD (so about nine ten weeks ago – this post has taken a while!), I’d probably have treated reflective and reflexive as synonyms. I’d been referred to Donald Schön’s The Reflective Practitioner when writing my MDes thesis, but in truth only dipped in. My general sense was that they were ways to approach thinking about how a person could examine what they’d done; what they personally had learnt through the experience, and how they could improve or evolve their practice. That has already started to develop, and when I wrote my last post about open book research, I was thinking about transparency around actions, attitudes and values as a facet of reflexivity. But my understanding was still amorphous.
Transdisciplinary practice: similarities?
Possibly a more on-point analogy than cricket would be the way I understand the differences between multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. These are terms I’ve absorbed predominantly second-hand through hearing colleagues talk and trying to decode the context, with some ancillary reading. In my mind, there’s a spectrum from working totally within the silo of a discipline, via various forms of shared practice, through to melding a new understanding by working outside and between disciplines; discarding boundaries. When dealing with complex issues (any ‘wicked problem’), moving to the transdisciplinary end of the spectrum seems desirable, necessary even. Different disciplinary contexts come up in my primary field, design, quite a lot and personally I’ve always seen increased collaboration and combination as A Good Thing. Without it, I do think we run the risk in design education of allowing a naïve oversimplification of problems for which ‘design thinking’ (don’t get me started on that term – can explain) offers a ‘fix’.
While playing paper-tag, I came across this statement:
A common way of dealing with the epistemological challenge of situated knowledge production, as proposed by transdisciplinarity, is to point to the fundamental aspect of reﬂexivity. But reﬂexivity also includes being aware that power and control over the object is derived from the social position of researchers, an issue not often explicitly discussed in transdisciplinary research
Despite ‘epistemological challenge of situated knowledge production’ being the kind of jargon that makes my eyes glaze over and brain take on the consistency of cottage cheese, it (and the rest of the paper) did make me think that transdisciplinarity and reflexivity combined represents something of a sweet-spot (and would seem to be what is tacitly seeking to achieve).
Anyway, the point is, as with the intra-transdisiplinary spectrum, my general sense is that reflective and reflexive are on some kind of continuum too. At one end (reflection), a general sense of looking at a piece of work, research, whatever (either retrospectively or during) with an analytical ‘what could be/have been better’ hat on. Sort of gathering feedback, looking for how to improve. At the other end (reflexive) there’s something more going on; all the same analysis, but also a sense of looking at why and how the background, attitude and assumptions altered (or could affect) the research. I should caveat, that’s a pretty tentative and perhaps naïve description at this point. Now I will get stuck in and try and firm it up…
(A couple more thoughts on transdisciplinary stuff)
As an aside, this diagram (and the
by Alexander Refsum Jensenius from the University of Oslo) informed my perspective on disciplinarities (it’s a great gentle introduction into the concepts):
And subsequently I read or reread these and fleshed out my understanding:
- : an encyclopedia entry on Transdisciplinary Research (Transdisciplinarity)
- : foreword to the book Transdisciplinarity: Theory and Practice
Firming up my understanding: the Googlefest
It would have made perfect sense to start with revisiting the paper produced by my supervisors Rhian and Rebecca, along with Joanna Goven: The reflexive scientist: an approach to transforming public engagement . Unfortunately, I am contrary and a bit lazy, so I went Googling. I watched dubious YouTube videos that were full of management speak. What I wanted was a shortcut; a diagram to encapsulate the differences between reflective and reflexive. And I found one(ish) but in a terrible record-keeping blunder, I closed the tab (NEVER CLOSE THE TAB!) and could not for the life of me re-find it. The (pretty rudimentary to be fair) diagram was a visualisation of Woolgar’s ‘continuum of reflexivity’. The slide I found referenced a paper by Shaw
, and it turned out to have some useful explanations (though using the (to my mind) slightly obfuscating language of psychology). For instance:
At one extreme of Woolgar’s continuum we have benign introspection, or reﬂection, which maintains a positivist distinction between object and representation and thereby aims to present an “accurate” representation of participants’ accounts. At the other extreme, we have radical constitutive reﬂexivity, which takes the postmodern stance that reality is constructed contemporaneously and no account (whether the researcher’s or the participant’s) can be valued over another. What separates reﬂexivity from reﬂection, from Woolgar’s perspective, is that reﬂection is a more general set of thoughts concerned largely with process and veriﬁcation, ensuring that measures are taken to represent participants in their “true” light. Reﬂection often aims to achieve the positivist goal of accuracy when reporting participants’ accounts of reality.
So this would seem to bear out my sense that the two things blur into one another. At one end, stepping back and reflecting on what you did, framing it in context, checking it makes sense and represents accurately. At the other, acting reflexively in the research; placing yourself in relation to others, questioning assumptions and values as part of a continual, constant cycle.
I found this model helpful, but it was the practical, first person aspects of Shaw’s paper that I found most useful in seeing how reflexivity could work both in the moment of interaction with research subjects, and also in the after-analysis. Shaw describes interviewing young mothers about breastfeeding as part of her research. When interviewing ‘Sarah’, she is blindsided by the disclosure that Sarah had become pregnant again, and subsequently miscarried. Shaw’s interview transcript shows she declared "oh my god!" upon hearing this declaration. Shaw had clearly considered her positions and attitudes towards teenage mothers and had established some shared ground with Sarah beforehand. She felt prepared. But she was still taken by surprise and reacted in a way that may have had knock-on consequences. She goes on to say:
To be reflexive, we need to reveal our presuppositions in order to not be surprised by them (or what they do) anymore … By engaging reflexively with these fore-understandings and making them explicit in advance of data gathering, we are able to work actively with them in a research encounter. This will not lead to the “perfect” research interview (which does not exist), but with practice it will provide mechanisms for avoiding unguarded responses to surprises like Sarah’s.
So, there is work to do for us as researchers in advance of and during our data collection, but as Shaw’s unpicking of her situation shows, also as part of an ongoing examination of practice: ‘…when the researcher and researched are of the same order, that is, both living, experiencing human beings, it is necessary for us as researchers to reflect on how that might impact the research scenario when gathering data and when afterwards analysing it.’ .
A paper that referred me to, and that also contains some useful ‘in the field’ context is The reflexive engineer: perceptions of integrated development . Robbins considers reflexive engineers to have a more holistic and flexible approach to their work in terms of society and technology, and the ability to see non-expert stakeholders as ‘a resource and partners in decision-making processes … striving for a multifaceted understanding of social, economic and environmental barriers to uptake of new technologies; and having an integrated approach to technological problems and solutions’ .
For Robbins, the top-down, one way dialogue of more traditional engineers ‘lacks an awareness of the complex ways in which different groups of publics make sense of and take up new technologies, and the fact that people do not always trust experts.’ . Those engineers practicing reflexivity employ ‘an integrated ethical and systems-based approach to development which values communities and the environments in which they are sited as well as the technology’ . It seems from Robbins’ experience that certain situations – for instance working on infrastructure in developing countries – either requires a more reflexive type of engineer, or perhaps helps foster it?
Back to the beginning: The Reflexive Scientist
After a bit of meandering and a few paper-chains, I revisited The reflexive scientist
. Rhian, Rebecca and Joanna looked at several articles from the public engagement with science (PES) literature and documented how their perspectives as a scientist, science writer and social scientist lead to differing interpretations and reactions. Apart from being a really accessible read, they highlight a thing that I’ve subsequently found too: ‘reflexivity is a term used in many disciplines and contexts and does not have a across them’. They do however specify their working description, and it’s pleasingly straightforward:
Generally speaking, reflexivity requires self-questioning, in particular a willingness and ability to question one’s own assumptions, how they relate to societal power structures, and how they shape one’s actions. More specifically, here, we use reflexivity to mean a theoretically informed capacity to critically analyse one’s underlying assumptions, expectations, and positioning in relation to one’s involvement in outreach. It is not simply an internal thought process, but rather a type of thinking tied to action.
This corresponds with another definition
pointed me to, which underlines that reflexivity is both an attitude and a system, but that it’s all pervading:
Reflexivity is an attitude of attending systematically to the context of knowledge construction, especially to the effect of the researcher, at every step of the research process.
"A researcher's background and position will affect what they choose to investigate, the angle of investigation, the methods judged most adequate for this purpose, the findings considered most appropriate, and the framing and communication of conclusions" (Malterud, 2001, p. 483-484).
The perspective or position of the researcher shapes all research - quantitative, qualitative, even laboratory science.
Facts and values, and why values matter
So, a researcher needs to constantly question their assumptions because ‘all human thought arises in a particular social situation and can only be partial, so that knowledge claims are always socially situated’ . This is important for the researcher, and the research subjects in the context of research design.
At a different level, science isn’t practiced in a vacuum (well, it is sometimes, but you get my point!). It rubs up against the political and economic, and it impacts, and exists within, society. highlight that these dimensions ‘can be expected to influence whether, why, and how scientists engage in outreach’ and suggest that ‘a reflexive scientist-communicator would question how his or her interactions with the public are conditioned by this context’ . In addition, when science meets society, it is frequently used to inform policy, and as highlights, ‘policy decisions must always involve values, not just facts’ . Dietz suggests that to maintain trust it is important for scientists and science communicators to clarify where their statements are grounded in science, and where (and how) these differ from statements that involve facts and values: ‘When scientists make arguments about what we should do [my emphasis], they should make clear that their views are grounded in both their understanding of the facts and their values’ . It seems evident, reflexivity offers a way to bring insight and clarity to this ‘values’ dimension.
‘Becoming a reflexive practitioner can hurt your head’ says . This, I very much agree with! What Myers meant was, because we generally fit a concept into our prevailing worldview and knowledge framework, ‘that operation subtly reinforces what you already know’ . If reflexivity is ‘a type of thinking tied to action’ , then what tools and techniques can help break the cycle of reinforcing what you know, and foster the ‘action’ part? Mostly what I’ve talked about in this post seems to be an ideology. Hard to disagree with, but how do I move to ‘doing’ this, not just being aware that it’s important? And not just me: I am wondering, what role can design play in equipping scientists to become reflexive in their practice?
Annette Markham in talks of reflexivity as ‘not just an attitude but a sensibility we learn over time’ that is both ‘necessary and elusive’ . I won’t verbatim regurgitate her words as they are well worth reading first-hand, but she does point to several exercises. The most practical and accessible of these is using research journals with dated entries, so it is possible to keep track of how one’s perspective is changing over time. She also suggests using a ‘brain dump’ technique (or ‘more officially…a form of self-directed introspective elicitation’ – I’ll stick with the plain English version!). This is a timed writing exercise to help get thoughts onto paper for closer inspection. She suggests that a starting prompt question is used, and then, with no editing, that one should write in what I imagine is a stream of consciousness for a fixed period. Markham also discusses questions a researcher can ask themselves, and various mapping techniques. Markham also touches on how these tools are a formal part of certain research methods ‘such as phenomenology or grounded theory’. This makes me anxious. Do I have to understand all these models in order to be reflexive, or offer tools to help others be reflexive? I found a note on my desktop today:
wtf is action research really?
I should add to that phenomenology, grounded theory, thematic analysis… a whole list of things that make me feel out of my depth. Some work to do here, and people to talk to.
Markham also stresses that sometimes it’s useful to include some of the reflexive analysis for readers, but cautions ‘this might not be advised, especially if they distract from the point too much, could be read as theoretically inconsistent, or smack of self indulgence’ . Now I wonder if I’m being self-indulgent putting my process and thoughts online? Argh! Perhaps my immediate goal is to work that out; to become more self-aware.
In addition, I am going to look much more closely at Markham’s suggested tools and I am going to read a few more things I’ve gathered (most specifically, , which has popped up repeatedly). Dipping into made it clear that psychology and other disciplines have huge body of theory around values and judgements that I don't know much about, so I'm going to work out how far I need to dig into that. I am also going to get uncomfortable and start interviewing scientists to get a sense of how they respond to the terminology, audiences and motivations questions I had back in .
And also, with respect to my first analogy, in passing, suggested watching a T20 match in a couple of weeks, so perhaps I’ll finally nail the rules of cricket too.
Postscript 28 December 2020: You know when you find something that does a much better summarising the thing you spent days summarising? Yeah, Linda Finlay () did that, and I highly recommend this paper!
Cohen, D., & Crabtree, B. (2006, July). RWJF - Qualitative Research Guidelines Project | Reflexivity | Reflexivity. Retrieved January 8, 2018, from
Finlay, L. (2008). Reflecting on ‘Reflective practice’ [Practice-based Professional Learning Paper 52]. The Open University.
Jensenius, A. (2012, March 12). Disciplinarities: intra, cross, multi, inter, trans. Retrieved January 18, 2018, from
Robbins, P. T. (2007). The reflexive engineer: perceptions of integrated development. Journal of International Development, 19(1), 99–110.
Rosendahl, J., Zanella, M. A., Rist, S., & Weigelt, J. (2015). Scientists’ situated knowledge: Strong objectivity in transdisciplinarity. Advances in Transdisciplinarity 2004-2014, 65 (Supplement C), 17–27.
Shaw, R. (2010). Embedding reflexivity within experiential qualitative psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 7(3), 233–243.
Vinsel, L. (2017, December 6). Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brains. Retrieved January 19, 2018, from
Becoming a reflexive practitioner can hurt your head