Reflexivity: Some techniques for interpretive researchers
Reflexivity. We toss this word around as a key part of research methods. I have been revisiting the term for a course I’m teaching. Here, I refresh my thinking by returning to some writing I published in 2009. This is a remix of some of those ideas.
For social researchers, the term reflexivity emerged in the 1980s as a way to approach interpretation. It is more an ideological approach than a series of actions, but there are techniques to encourage both the mind and body to act in a reflexive manner. Like situational analysis, or SA, this sense/sensibility comes from practice. Learning to notice what was previously not noticeable because it was too minute, too subtle, too peripheral. In massage therapy training, one of the first things students learn to do is to feel a single human hair through a piece of paper. In the military, police forces, and emergency medical fields, SA can make the difference between life and death. When I ask an air force pilot how this innate knowledge is achieved, or a massage therapist how they can possibly feel what most of us objectively could not, they say they learn it, over time, through practice.
Reflexivity is the same. It’s not just an attitude but a sensibility we learn over time, as we reinforce certain habits and discard others. Although I’m sure some people are naturally more reflexive than others, certain techniques can help build reflexivity muscles. I offer some here that have been useful for me.
The reflexivity I discuss is useful for many stages in the research project overall. Early on, reflexivity can help build better research questions. In the midst of a study, when one is using inductive models like ethnography or interpretive sociology, reflexivity is a strong accompaniment to the practice of continuously spiraling around the phenomenon one is studying. This might involve thinking at multiple meta levels about the object of analysis, the standpoint, the connection between researcher and that which is being researched, the way one is closing off alternatives every time one makes a decision. These are moments when a conscious effort toward reflexivity can build more robust approaches overall. At late stages of the project, when the researcher is making choices about how to represent what they (think they) know to potential or actual audiences, the reflexive challenge is to reveal the multiple layers of potentiality without losing the author(ity) that comes with giving an account. The reflexivity is in many ways the final step of ethical decision making: Reflecting on, acknowledging one’s role in the creation of the so-called findings. Often, it involves laying out how the researcher’s engagement in the research product highlights and obscures particular knowledge formations, whether or not this is a conscious inclusion or omission.
The Iterative Inquiry Spiral
I have used this spiral for at least the past 20 years to describe the process of re-visiting one’s stance. This exemplifies re-encountering one’s own work over time, to build reflexive sensibilities.
REFLEXIVITY AS A METHOD OF LOCATING THE SELF’S POSITION
Let’s begin with an easy and well-established premise: that our research theories, methods, and interpretations are bounded by particular and situated rationalities. We live, conduct research, and find meaning from particular positions. As researchers, our understanding of others is limited by unnoticed frames of reference. This may be a well understood premise, but considering how it plays out in practice is not so easy — it’s one thing to say one is reflexive and quite another to accomplish it.
The first step is identify how one’s frame of reference is situated, internally and externally. By “situated” I mean located in a particular historical, local, and political place. By “internally and externally,” I mean to include those factors influencing the design, process, and write-up of the study, as well as those elements that link the specific study to larger physical, theoretical, or cultural contexts of meaning.
The basic position of reflexivity is analyzing the self recursively and critically in relation to the object, context, and process of inquiry. It’s more than just reflection, which is what we get when we look in a mirror. Rather, it’s like trying to look at yourself looking in the mirror. For more elegant treatments of this concept, see scholars like Ashmore, 1989; Lynch, 2000; Woolgar, 1988; or Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2009.
How do we understand ourselves beyond our personal experience in order to understand our orientation to the world? This is an important research question, or more precisely a question about the possibilities and limitations of our own research practice. We’re certainly saturated with globally networked information, but this doesn’t grant us the ability to know some sort of “Otherness” outside our local context, nor will it automatically grant us some sort of external orientation. Even if it did so, any saturation we experience is neither neutral nor complete– privilege, politics, and our everyday media habits constitute just a few factors that influence the extent to which we might access diverse perspectives and then reflexively incorporate these into our own research practice. Reflexivity is always limited.
Skillful reflexivity requires practice, since we are in many ways foreign to ourselves. At the very outset, then, we begin with the dilemma that reflexivity is both necessary and elusive. A basic starting point for nuanced understanding of any phenomenon requires an awareness of where one is standing. Before we can know what we are looking at, we have to know where we’re looking from, a sensibility that requires inward-directed reflection and analysis. Such inquiry is partly a matter of recognizing that the self, the phenomenon, and the research project are all located in particular, small arenas, yet must be woven with or contextualized within other encompassing ecologies that themselves cannot be comprehended or encapsulated. It’s a matter of “placing” oneself, which requires the practice of “Othering” one’s own premises, actions, and interpretive tendencies. Logistically, reflexivity is a method of gaining greater sensitivity to the local and global contexts, of identifying one’s own location, and of establishing a sense of rigor in one’s research. Reflexivity can be practiced in all stages of research.
REFLEXIVITY AS OUTWARD FOCUS ON THE STANDPOINT OR SITUATION
Interrogating one’s cultural and conceptual frameworks will provide a set of self-directed questions, which in turn can be used (that is, answered or addressed continually or repeatedly) to situate one’s research design more clearly within a larger body of thought and locate the object of analysis and method of inquiry in relation to other people, places, and things. This is the interpretive challenge. Later, in rendering an interpretation to a world of readers or viewers of one’s research, the challenge shifts to the rhetorical level, when one must formulate the work in a way that is sensible and meaningful. No matter how much we might think our worldview or stance is obvious to others, it’s best to be as clear as possible. Even in the most intimate of relationships we don’t actually have shared understanding, but a shared faith in understanding.
The basic point, whether or not you want to go down this epistemological road, is that it is the researcher’s responsibility to be clear. This is a matter of first knowing where we stand in relation to others (the reflexive interpretive exercise) and then making it clear to others (the rhetorically sensitive exercise).
This could be accomplished with a list of caveats or basic assumptions at the outset of any article or chapter. This forces the researcher to identify and articulate premises, and serves as valuable guide for readers who might otherwise misinterpret or not notice the baseline for our reasoning. This process of “showing one’s math” also serves to enhance or highlight the links from context to theory or from specific examples to general conclusions. While sometimes these links are deeply rooted in the analysis or interpretation, they are also a matter of vocabulary within one’s specific statements and overall argument.
Stepping back to the basics, one might ask: how are your basic research terms understood—or not—by those with vastly different experiences? Consider these different opportunities for situated reflexivity throughout the research project:
- Situate the research question into larger frameworks.
- Situate the local context into larger contexts.
- Situate the research approach within other approaches and research “camps.”
- Situate specific procedures within larger sets of assumptions and practices.
- Situate decisions among other, alternate choices and paths.
- Situate the gendered, racial, classed, affiliated, disciplined self.
- Situate the study, as a whole and in its component parts, among larger conversations.
The list is impossible to fully accomplish. But even by paying attention to these items–as well as the fact that the list exists, a researcher can develop strong reflexivity faculties. This is just one of many possible lists to reflect critically and ethically on how one’s situated position and decisions influence the evolving design of the study. These can be exploratory writing exercises. They can also be reminders about how “situatedness” takes different forms depending on when (at what stage of the study, or at what stage of life or career) one thinks about it.
This sort of reflexivity also enables the researcher to refine one’s lenses. Engaging in reflexive self-analysis won’t yield some all-encompassing, global, capital “T” truth, but it is extremely productive along with other strategies in building rigor into one’s research.
REFLEXIVITY AS CRITICAL FOCUS ON THE OBJECT OF RESEARCH
Situating the object or context within the larger picture is a matter of understanding how the locale of the researcher and the researched is placed inside larger and larger systems of meaning as well as geographies. Here, reflexivity can be thought of as a method of meta-analysis, whereby a researcher can analyze his or her working hypotheses (stated or, more importantly, unconscious), analytical processes, and ongoing conclusions. This process shifts both naturally and deliberately from the empirical to the theoretical and back again in such a way as to include room for an analytical gaze on the self doing the analysis. A practical method of beginning this process is through writing, using research journals, making sure to date all entries or modifications. Rather than erasing one’s previous thoughts, one simply notes new additions or modifications. Keeping dates on each entry can help illustrate how the researcher is changing through the course of the study. During this process, it is useful to ask questions of oneself such as the following:
- What led me to that perception?
- How do I know that?
- So what?
- Why did I conclude that?
In the process of attempting to answer these questions, a researcher is constituting the self as a subject of study along with the other materials, objects, or units of analysis. These “data” are interrogated through a critical reflexive lens. This process can help one determine how one’s research questions are shifting, how one’s perceptions are changing, how these changes influence concordant shifts in research questions, etc.
Ask: how are your basic research terms understood —or not— by those with vastly different experiences? Tweet
One can see that this focus on method is less about “application of procedure” and more about the “rigour of interpretation.” Both fall under the category of “method,” but are often thought to occur at different stages of research. Rigour of interpretation is far less discussed in methods texts, partly because interpretation is often considered a subjective, individual act of discussing implications or drawing conclusions. Such conceptions can be misleading; the interpretive process begins even before the first research question is formulated. Because the interpretive process rarely appears in the final research report, its procedural elements remain elusive. Here, I do not address this issue fully, but provide an example of iterative reflexivity in process.
REFLEXIVITY AS INWARD FOCUS ON THE SELF
It’s one thing to talk about situated knowledge, and another challenge altogether to dig into this statement to figure out what that means, in a specific, lived way. Reflexive processes can help identify some of the ways the researching self is situated. Useful for all the obvious epistemological reasons, this process of situating the self from different angles is also a way to help others read our work beyond the surface of the text. This preoccupation with the self may seem merely solopsistic but is a critical way to orient the perspective from which an interpretation is generated, but also to build signposts that can help others triangulate themselves in relation to both the context and the cultural interpreter. This contextualization is an under-appreciated prerequisite to what we take on faith to be ‘common’ or ‘shared’ understanding.
To move to a practical level, locating myself is a process of trying to figure out these issues:
. . . where the researcher stands
. . . where the researcher comes from
. . . where the researcher can move from, given where the researcher is,
(which helps the researcher understand more about)
. . . where the researcher is not
. . . where others are or have been that the researcher is not or could never be, but might be relevant to helping the researcher understand their position.
(That last one is convoluted, yes.)
Qualitative approaches assist in this process because they are marked by iterative processes already. Much can be gained by attending closely to those moments when the analytical gaze shifts from one thing to another thing, such as from the empirical details to the theoretical big picture. As inquiry cycles through observation, analysis, and interpretation, these critical junctures or key turning points provide opportunities to engage in reflexive analysis. At these decision points, we can more readily reflect on why we made –or are making– certain choices and what these choices imply about the research project, the research lens, the focus of the question, and the purpose of the research in the first place.
When we hit a turning point or a decision point, we are more likely to re-examine the fit between the questions and the phenomenon and between method and question, question the ways in which patterns or answers are emerging, and pay attention to how the boundaries of the context are shifting. In my experience, these reflections can be guided by the best practice routines of iterative or emergent qualitative methods. It’s worth mentioning that these are not simple turning points, but critical junctures that shape and guide not only the interpretive lens for the study at hand, but possibilities for future knowledge production in larger research contexts.
Beyond or parallel to these critical junctures lie more deliberately reflexive activities aimed at the researcher’s self and role. Extricating one’s own history, for example, requires deliberate attention on how one got to this point, a search backward for clues that identify how we tend to look at the world. In a sense, this process yields data for further analysis within the context of the study in progress. Far from being self-indulgent or tangential, it is a valuable means of identifying one’s frames and boundaries and, through reflexive analysis, considering the connections and disconnections that first inform and, later, situate the study.
Self-reflexive writing and mapping exercises are useful for this process. The activity of laying out one’s premises, standpoints, and so forth should be a part of one’s research process (and is a formal part of methods such as phenomenology or grounded theory).
Technique 1: The “Brain Dump”
As an exercise within the course of conducting a study, brain dumps can help reveal some of the hidden intersections of the self, the local experience of the participants, local history and culture, and scientific inquiry.
A brain dump is essentially a timed writing exercise to get what is inside the head out onto the page for external inspection. I like the casualness of ‘brain dump,’ but this could more officially be referred to as a form of self-directed introspective elicitation. Many techniques can be used for this type of exercise, but there are four important elements to include:
1. Time the writing exercise
2. Do not edit or backspace: use a black screen or white font on white background, or if handwriting, don’t look closely at the writing.
3. Do not stop writing during the entire exercise; When you lose track, hit enter or start a new line with a different thought. Do not dwell on what has been written. Do not try to complete a thought if you lose track of it.
4. Start with a prompting question. Repeat the exercise with a slightly different prompt.
Obviously, this technique aligns with elicitation techniques used in psychology, ethnography, and design studies, as well as classic techniques of brainstorming. Here, the distinction is that it is intended to both enact and produce cognitive processing from the self, to make it visible for inspection or introspection. This often produces an additional layer of data to analyze, especially in studies where the researcher is closely linked to the practice or situation being observed, but in this discussion of reflexivity, it is simply an easy way to produce material to critically analyze one’s premises, decisions, and interpretations.
Technique 2: Informal descriptions and critique of sensemaking tools
Identifying all the ways to look at the world is impossible, but to identify even some of our own filters and lenses is a reflexive challenge worth doing. Whether one uses a list or map or chart, the effort is to identify how one’s ontology and epistemology are playing out in one’s use of specific tools. Here’s an example of how this might be accomplished. Below, I ask some questions about my own perspective as a researcher.
What is my perspective?
I’m an ethnographer conducting research on how users feel about technologies. My activities in the field are informed by my use of and familiarity with interpretive qualitative methods, rhetorical criticism, feminism, and critical theory. I generally believe that interpretations should be derived from, linked to, and supported by some sort of data collected in situ. (oh, and i use the word ‘data,’ just now to identify what I collect. Oh, and I use the word ‘collect’ instead of ‘generate’ to talk about how data comes to me (Oh, and i just used the word “comes to me” as if i am not an active participant in this process of making))
What methods do I tend to use in collecting data?
Drawing, mapping situations. Interview and participant observation, directly, but research journals, indirectly. I write constantly in my research journal, in which I record both my direct observations and my thoughts about my observations. My bad habits in research journal writing: I tend to spin in reflexive circles until I lose focus on the phenomenon. I can second-guess myself endlessly. My other tendency is to mix direct observations, my thoughts about the field, and my thoughts or notes on conceptual/theoretical reading about the topic.
What methods do I use in analyzing data?
As someone who calls herself an ethnographer, I used to be baffled by the fact that the one method I don’t deliberately think of as a tool is ethnography. From my perspective, this term describes a mindset or epistemological approach more than a specific set of interpretive procedures. I find that ‘ethnography’ as a tool or set of techniques lacks the procedural specificity required to systematically analyze actual field data. Sensemaking, in the ethnographic sense, is not produced through thinking or writing alone; I require other tools to help me get toward sensemaking.
So, again, what do I use to interpret the world?
Initially, I just dump my toolbox upside down and try different approaches. Everything that can be considered as data is at some level “text.” Whether it’s an interview or an observation, visual or verbal, it can be read and analyzed as text, sometimes more literally than other times. As much as I wish it were otherwise, this tends to be my go-to, and so I acknowledge I am text-centric.
I borrow heavily from rhetorical criticism methods, because the systematic procedures help organize the data early in the process. I might conduct a metaphor or narrative analysis. I find these methods particularly useful in breaking down the structure of a text into thematic categories that can be then further studied, using still other sensemaking lenses. Later in the process I use deconstruction methods, mostly as a way of playing with different types of possible meanings. I deconstruct to pay attention to how events might happen otherwise, or how stories, arguments, or web sites might be rewritten. I experiment with reversing binaries, or exaggerating them. This is useful as an analytical tool, but also a reflexive tool to consider how my own binaries are operating on my analysis. I tend to map ideas visually, using a heavily modified version of Adele Clarke’s situational analysis mapping. I generally try to follow constructivist grounded theory procedures as a guide to sampling and looking for themes and categories, but end up being less systematic than I believe the method warrants.
Sometimes, in the back of my mind, I think about conversational analysis, but I am not rigorous in my application of this method as it is practiced in the United States. Rather, I think about the premises of this approach as I pore through interview transcripts and conversations. I use the idea of genealogy offered by Foucault, looking backward to find a difference that makes a difference. I find Foucault’s work to enable a mindset, rather than providing specific procedures, so I tend to use this as a macro level of interpretation at later stages of my thinking, rather than in early stages of close analysis of texts. After I conduct rough analyses using a range of methods, I settle into a more refined analysis, using a narrower set of tools.
What else might make my work incomprehensible to someone else?
I mix methods from interpretive, postmodern, and critical schools of research. I have potentially inconsistent theoretical grounding. For example, I think there is such a thing as a logical “argument” but also believe in the postmodern premises that reject binary thinking or “one right answer.” I also differentiate between methods for framing the study, methods for collecting data, methods for analyzing data, methods for interpreting, and methods of writing. This can appear messy or incommensurate to others when it actually isn’t, because I borrow from multiple schools of thought.
Even my definitions of “Qualitative Internet Research” may be completely bizarre to someone else. Especially if they knew I think of the entire process and product through the idea of remix.
I offer this specific and somewhat longwinded example because I think this technique can be quite effective in discovering the nuance of one’s own premises. It builds clarity about one’s formal and informal approach to inquiry. It’s a useful exercise to remember that every researcher will have their own story– a unique combination of departure points, tendencies, habits, and filters for witnessing and making sense of the world in an intellectual sense. How much of this is included in any final report? Likely not much, if anything. Producing it is really more the point, because it’s a tool to scrutinize the composition and quality of one’s own methodological package, which in the long run helps us figure out how to explain it to others.
Technique 3: Situational map of one’s position in relation to the study
Because this is an important step of qualitative research as well as a useful tool for meta reflection, one is likely to already be doing such a map, whether it actually looks like a map or not. I find that articulating these relations and positions visually helps me see how distant or near I position myself, and adds information about the quality or form of the connections between various elements of the situation.
It’s difficult to get at this. While some might map their position directly, with the “self” in the center, for example, I think of this as a brainstorm and eventual articulation of roles, prompted by a specific question. For example, in the illustrations below you can see my own maps reacting to the prompts of “Whose interests are served by City Archives?” and “Who do we perceive to be more centrally connected to Aarhus City Archives,” and “Who is missing from this study?” The maps are iterative, so you can see how this thinking builds as I redo the maps sequentially, each time centralizing some supposedly peripheral element. In doing so, I’m trying to get at my own position. One might notice I’m not there yet, which illustrates that the path toward reflexivity is circuitous.
Technique 4: Historical network map of key theories and theorists in one’s study
Some years ago, I ran across this amazing mapping of complexity sciences, which is not exactly like my own history, but similar enough to lure me in. It’s truly astonishing and I commend Brian Castellani for such an endeavor.
See more information about this map by Brian Castellani and an interactive version.
This sort of map is not easily accomplished, but even a rough version yields immense value. It helps us identify how our own ideas evolve, most obviously. But it can also help others situate our unique influences. The rough maps below are neither complete nor generalizable. They’re meant to help me identify my own influences, which are quite idiosyncratic.
Here’s me attempting to map a timeline of how I think about ethics over time
Here’s a map of me thinking about various things I’ve been reading and what stands out from this as possible influences on my thinking.
Maps can help reveal gaps, possible connections, and other details you might not notice otherwise. It doesn’t matter so much what you map, only that you do.
As I mentioned above, reflexivity is a continual process and therefore, might not be suitable for including in one’s report of findings, ethnographic account, proposal, or paper. Even in arenas where including all this self-reflexivity is encouraged by the general approach, such as interpretive, postmodern, or autoethnograpic, weaving this information into the research may not be warranted or advisable. The extent to which one wants to be transparent depends on many factors.
Even though these four techniques of self-directed reflections can never yield a complete representation of one’s stance, they bring some of our habits and norms to the surface for our own scrutiny. This in turn can lead to more transparent renderings and representations in our writing for others.
Including portions of these reflections might be useful for readers, in the main texts, as footnotes, or appendices. Of course, 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.
In fact, such reflections rarely appear in publications. Those above, for example, reflect early phases of reflexive analysis. The value of this type of self-directed analysis is likely a result of doing the exercises, so the benefits might not be well translated to others. Another example of this sort of exercise illustrates one way I might begin the process of analyzing the connection (or lack thereof) between my methods of inquiry and possible readers. The exercise helps me identify several possible disconnection points, which through further analysis I can attempt to bridge by applying various persuasive strategies.
Reflexivity is likely happening as a continual unconscious process, whether or not we pay attention to it. Indeed, it is not something researchers are typically trained to pay attention to, especially as a method or regular/typical phase of research. In laying out some of the more visible procedures associated with reflexive writing, I seek not to simplify or standardize, but simply to exemplify one way this activity can occur.
The techniques above, and the ideas presented throughout this post, work for many scholars. Everyone will have their own unique way of reflecting on their own praxis. The point is to interrogate the self as the Self makes sense of and represents the Other. The objective of reflexivity as a method is also to attempt to understand one’s own framework in relation to other choices one could make, so that one can make well-founded decisions and articulate these to others. Understanding the fit between one’s subject, one’s theoretical frameworks, one’s methods, and other phenomena in other places is a continual, iterative process in the qualitative project, not a beginning or endpoint.
THESE IDEAS, APPLIED
Below, I’m collecting links to papers or projects that utilize and/or adapt my concepts and techniques as outlined in this post. These are good examples to help build this community of practice across disciplinary lines. If you’d like to add your project or paper, drop me a line.
- Tanweer, A., Gade, E. K., Krafft, P. M., & Dreier, S. K. (2021). Why the Data Revolution Needs Qualitative Thinking. Harvard Data Science Review, 3(3). https://doi.org/10.1162/99608f92.eee0b0da https://hdsr.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/u9s6f22y/release/2
- Cambo, S. A., & Gergle, D. (2022). Model Positionality and Computational Reflexivity: Promoting Reflexivity in Data Science. In CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’22), April 29-May 5, 2022, New Orleans, LA, USA. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 19 pages. https: //doi.org/10.1145/3491102.3501998. published also in arxiv: https://arxiv.org/pdf/2203.07031.pdf
- Markham, A., Luka, M.E., & Mattern, S. (2021). Tips and Tricks. Digital Ethnography Intensive. https://digitalethnography.wordsinspace.net/jan2021/2020/12/23/tips-and-tricks/