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Reflexivity

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Edited by: , & Published: 2010
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Reflexivity is the process of becoming self-aware. Researchers make regular efforts to consider their own thoughts and actions in light of different contexts. Reflexivity, then, is a researcher's ongoing critique and critical reflection of his or her own biases and assumptions and how these have influenced all stages of the research process. The researcher continually critiques impressions and hunches, locates meanings, and relates these to specific contexts and experiences.

Critical Overview and Discussion

The intellectual work in case study research involves researchers in making meaning based on observation. Researchers are part of the world they study and thus are closely involved in the process and product of the research. By being reflexive, case study researchers self-critique their frame of reference, cultural biases, and the ethical issues that emerge in field work. Reflexive case study research also requires researchers to demonstrate in their written reports and conversations their interactions with participants, from initial contact to when they leave the field. This makes visible not only the knowledge that was discovered but also how it was discovered. This transparency strengthens the rigor of case study research and enables the researcher and reader to ascertain the validity of the study results.

Techniques for documenting the researcher's reflexive process might include, for example, keeping a reflexive journal, which should show the researcher's study-related decision-making processes. The reflexive journal can also be used to make explicit the researcher's prior understandings about the research. After data collection, these pre-understandings can be checked for accuracy or inaccuracy when compared with the transcribed interviews. Being more transparent about their presence in the research requires that researchers step out from behind the wall of anonymity.

From an ethical standpoint, case study researchers need to be sensitive to cultural, class, race, and gender difference. Reflexive case study researchers engage in a critical consciousness whereby their position of power relations in society and within the research–researcher relationship is unveiled. Reflexive case study researchers also attend to an ethic of care for those who participate in the research. Researchers acknowledge and reflect upon their obligations and care for participants but demonstrate these through engaging in mutual dialogue and understanding.

Application

Reflexivity is operationalized when researchers can articulate their awareness of the interconnectivity between and among themselves, the participants, the data, and the methods they use to interpret and represent their findings. Natasha Mauthner and Andrea Doucet, in their study of postnatal depression, began analyzing their interview data by recording their emotional and intellectual responses to the words of the participants. The researchers then discussed the role that their personal and academic histories had on their responses and thus on their interpretations of the participants' comments. Once each researcher was more aware of the various influences, they could balance their accounts by examining the difference between their interpretations and those of people with different biographical influences.

John Michael Roberts and Teela Sanders compared two ethnographic case studies to illustrate dilemmas from entering the field to leaving it. Roberts's study explored individuals' perceptions of the “Speakers' Corner” in Hyde Park, London. Individual interviews were conducted with past and present speakers, members of the police, and employees of the Royal Parks Agency. Roberts also engaged in activities at the Speakers' Corner and obtained archival data about the Speakers' Corner from archive centers in London. Sanders's study, on the other hand, focused on occupational risks for women in the sex industry and how women managed these risks. Sanders observed a number of contexts, including sex markets, licensed saunas, the street, and brothels. Informal conversations were conducted with more than 200 women; more formal conversations took place with another 55 women, including managers and owners of indoor sex businesses.

In reflecting upon their research, Roberts and Sanders acknowledged how each researcher's personal biography had influenced their negotiation processes for accessing participants. For example, Roberts's father had been a regular speaker at the Speakers' Corner and was well known locally; this history served as a gatekeeper function for Roberts. However, this familiarity led some Speakers' Corner regulars to view Roberts as a friend, which compromised Roberts' independent researcher role. Furthermore, Roberts, in his reflexive process, uncovered some of his assumptions that free speech was a right at the Speakers' Corner: These assumptions proved incorrect after data collection revealed that some people were excluded from this right. Sanders had lived near two saunas that ended up being key sites for data collection. Sanders admitted to having preconceptions about her topic from casual observations of men and women who entered the sex establishments. As another example, Sanders acknowledged the importance of some self-disclosure in the research relationship to establish rapport; however, she was not prepared for the intimate questions that participants asked of her. She avoided mentioning her social work experience to participants because of negative connotations participants had about social workers and social control. Sanders's reflexive accounts continued following field work that contributed to new intellectual and emotional understandings of the research experience, including shifting power structures she had encountered.

Critical Summary

Reflexivity is an issue in establishing the quality/validity/trustworthiness of findings, in ethics, and in addressing power imbalances in a case study project. Researchers are advised to declare their stance pertaining to the topic and to participants; this includes laying out their preconceptions and biases so that readers might consider the findings in light of researchers' particular situatedness in their life story and its circumstances.

Deborah L.Begoray and Elizabeth M.Banister
Further Readings
Friere, P.(1973).Education for critical consciousness.New York: Seabury.
Mauthner, N. S. Doucet, A. Reflexive accounts and accounts of reflexivity in qualitative data analysis. Sociology, (2003). 37, 413–431. Roberts, J. M. Sanders, T. Before, during and after: Realism, reflexivity and ethnography. Sociological Review, (2005). 53, 294–313.
Stake, R. E.(2005).Qualitative case studies. In N. K.Denzin & Y. S.Lincoln (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research (
3rd ed.
, pp. 443–466).Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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