Reflexivity

Reflexivity is perhaps the most distinctive feature of qualitative research. It is an attempt to make explicit the process by which the material and analysis are produced. It is a concept integral to personal construct psychology (see Chapter 5) and feminist research (see Chapter 8), in which both the researcher and researched are seen as collaborators in the construction of knowledge. Both can be explained using the same framework. According to Wilkinson (1988: 493), 'at its simplest, however, it may be considered to be disciplined self reflection'. The research topic, design and process, together with the personal experience of doing the research, are reflected on and critically evaluated throughout. Wilkinson develops the concept and identifies personal, functional and disciplinary reflexivity. The first two, which are most relevant to this chapter, she regards as inextricably connected.

Personal reflexivity is about acknowledging who you are, your individuality as a researcher and how your personal interests and values influence the process of research from initial idea to outcome. It reveals, rather than conceals, the level of personal involvement and engagement. Callaway (1981: 470) talks about the use of 'ourselves as our own sources', and Marshall {1986: 197) acknowledges her level of engagement from the start: '1 have always chosen as research topics issues which have personal significance and which I need to explore in my own life.' Examples of the researcher's interest in and connection to the research topic being made explicit can be seen in Oakley's (1985) Sociology of Honseivork Marshall's (1984) Women Managers: Travellers in a Male World, Kitzinger's (1987, 1993) extensive work on feminism and lesbianism and Hollway's (1989) work on the meanings of gender in adult heterosexual relations.

This centralizes, rather than marginalizes or denies, the influence of the researcher's life experience on the research and the construction of knowledge. In turn, the experience of exploring personally relevant topics, and being actively engaged with participants, feeds back into life experiences, often triggering personal change. Marshall (1984: 190) charts how she became a feminist through the process of research involved in Women Managers. 'The research both prompted and was facilitated by my development as a feminist.'

There are problems with this level of engagement. We need to develop a reflexive quality, be critically subjective, able to empathize with participants, yet be aware of our own experiencing in order to achieve a resonance between subjectivity and objectivity. Critical examination on a number of levels is required. If we fail to be critically aware and to know ourselves then we are in danger of undermining the validity of our work. Our findings, rather than being firmly grounded in people's accounts, may merely be a reflection of our own unconscious issues, disturbed by the research.

Reason and Rowan (1981: 246) claim that 'high quality awareness can only be maintained if co-researchers engage in some systematic method of personal and interpersonal development.' Researchers have their own preferred techniques for working through personal issues to raise and maintain self awareness. Heron (1973) and Reason and Rowan (1981) prefer co-counselling. Marshall also engaged in co-counselling and assertion training. She also discussed her ongoing work in a staff/student research group:

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'without the support and challenge of these various arenas, I would not have achieved what I did through the research' (Marshall 1986: 203). Hollway (1989: 2) involved herself in a variety of activities to increase her 'understanding of self and others; writing a journal, recording ray dreams, being a member of women's consciousness raising groups, teaching group dynamics through experiential methods and above all, talking endlessly to friends — about them and about me.*

Clearly there are numerous ways to heighten awareness, to gain a balance between engagement with participants' material and our own understandings. I would recommend discussing work in progress with trusted others who will be both supportive and challenging, even with the most minimal piece of work. It is a useful way of extending understandings and gaining clarity.

Functional reflexivity is defined by Wilkinson (1988: 495) as entailing 'continuous, critical examination of the practice/process of research to reveal its assumptions, values and biases.' The focus here is how who we are directs and shapes the course of the research. We need to monitor our role and influences as researchers throughout to chart the personal rationale behind decisions and to acknowledge the impact that our values have on decision making, the research process and eventual outcome. Chapter titles like 'Myself and my method: from separation to relation' (Hollway 1989) and 'Introducing my topic and myself' (Marshall 1984) reflect how the personal qualities of the researcher are intertwined with the process and thus the product of research. Indeed Hollway (1989: 9) claims 'that it was impossible to separate "me" from "theoretical ideas" from "field notes".'

Reflexivity, then, is about acknowledging the central position of the researcher in the construction of knowledge, that 'the knower is part of the matrix of what is known' (DuBois 1983: 111), that all findings are constructions, personal views of reality, open to change and reconstruction. We need to make explicit how our understandings were formed. This is beist done by keeping a detailed journal or reflective diary which explores who you are, why you chose the particular topic, your initial purpose(s) and intention(s), procedural notes, what you did when and in what context (field notes and diagrams), decisions made with rationales, how you felt, confusions, anxieties, interpretations, what led to clarification: in fact anything that you believe has affected the research. The journal may then be used to structure a reflexive account or be included alongside the research report and transcripts. The purpose of providing a reflexive account is so that, in Marshall's (1986: 195) words, 'readers can then judge the content in the context of the perspectives and assumptions by which it was shaped.' It also allows readers to reanalyse the material, to develop alternative interpretations and explanations.

Validity in qualitative research is focused on personal and interpersonal qualities, rather than method. It is 'knowledge in process, which is tied up with a particular knower' (Reason and Rowan 1981: 250). This focus is clear in Marshall's (1986) reflective checklist, which I include here as I and many others have found it extremely useful and reassuring while struggling to understand (it is reproduced with permission of the author and the Open University Press).

How the research was conducted

Were the researcher(s) aware of their own perspective and its influence? Were they aware of their own process? How did they handle themselves?

Did they challenge themselves and accept challenges from others? Were they open in their encounters?

Did they tolerate and work on the chaos and confusion? (If there is no confusion, I become suspicious that deeper levels of meaning were neglected.) Have the researcher(s) grown personally through the research?

Relationship to the data

Is the level of theorizing appropriate to the study and its data?

Is the theorizing of appropriate complexity to portray the phenomena studied?

Are alternative interpretations explored?

Is the process of sense-making sufficiently supported?

Contextîtal validity

How do the conclusions relate to other work in the area?

Are the researcher(s) aware of relevant contexts for the phenomena studied?

Is the research account recognizable - particularly by people within the area studied?

Is the material useful?

'Good' research addresses most of these issues - it does not do so 'perfectly' (whatever that means); rather, the researcher(s) develop their capabilities for knowing.

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