Reflexivity in research: messy but necessary

“… you must learn to use your life experience in your intellectual work: continually to examine and interpret it. In this sense craftsmanship is the center of yourself and you are personally involved in every intellectual product upon which you work. To say that you can ‘have experience’, means, for one thing, that your past plays into and affects your present, and that it defines your capacity for future experience. As a social scientist, you have to control this rather elaborate interplay, to capture what you experience and sort it out; only in this way can you hope to use it to guide and test your reflection, and in the process shape yourself as an intellectual craftsman [sic].”

(C. Wright Mills, 2000[1959], The Sociological Imagination, p.196)

As this quote from C. Wright Mills demonstrates, reflexivity is wrapped up in intellectual craft and we are personally involved in every research project we work on. The value of reflexivity is now largely accepted by qualitative researchers and it has helped to address the sanitised nature of research accounts which traditionally featured in methods textbooks.

Reflexivity is valuable in that it draws attention to the researcher as part of the world being studied while reminding us that those individuals involved in our research are subjects, not objects. By being reflexive we acknowledge that social researchers cannot be separated from their autobiographies and will bring their values to the research and how they interpret the data (Devine and Heath, 1999).

Reflexivity highlights the ‘messy nature of the social world and social research, including the complex and myriad power contests and relations which must be negotiated and the implications that must be attended to in the course of our research – from design through to data collection, analysis, dissemination and application. It also extends to the contexts and cultures of knowledge production – including research users, participants, funders, universities, publics, and the disciplinary fields we operate within / between / across. It is increasingly likely today that academics will be working across disciplines, which has further implications for the identity of the researcher and the field/s they inhabit.

There are numerous definitions and operationalizations of reflexivity. Lynch refers to a ‘confusing array of versions of reflexivity’ (2000, p.27). Although social scientists now tend to agree on the importance of being reflexive, they do not share a coherent conception of what ‘being reflexive’ means or how to practice reflexivity. The etymological root of the term reflexive means ‘to bend backwards upon oneself’, in contrast to reflection which entails thinking about something after the event (Finlay and Gough, 2003, p.ix). Gough (2003) proposes that we use the plural term ‘reflexivities’ in order to address the assumption that reflexivity is something which we can all agree on and which can be captured, and to signify plurality, flexibility and conflict.

I find the feminist psychologist Sue Wilkinson’s (1988) definition of reflexivity particularly useful. She argues that at its simplest reflexivity involves ‘disciplined self-reflection.’ She distinguishes between three forms of reflexivity. First, ‘personal reflexivity’ (akin to what others have termed ‘self-reflexivity’ (Lather, 1993) or ‘recognition of self’ (Pillow, 2003)) which focuses on the researcher’s own identity where research becomes ‘an expression of personal interests and values’ and is thus an essential aspect of the feminist research paradigm. This form of reflexivity recognizes the reciprocal relationship between life experiences and research. Second, ‘functional reflexivity’ involves reflection on the nature of the research enterprise including the choice of method and the construction of knowledge in order to reveal assumptions, values and biases. Third, ‘disciplinary reflexivity’ focuses on the form and development of a discipline or sub-discipline. This includes, for instance, how the traditional paradigm of psychology has operated to exclude women and stall development of a feminist psychology (Wilkinson, 1988, pp.494-495).

In their book Reflexive Methodologies, Alvesson and Sköldberg (2009) claim that different uses of reflexivity or reflection make us aware of the complex relationship between processes of knowledge production and the various contexts of such processes, including the involvement of the knowledge producer. They propose that reflective research has the characteristics of interpretation and reflection. Firstly, all references to empirical data are the result of interpretation. Here, ‘the idea that measurements, observations, the statements of interview subjects, and the study of secondary data such as statistics or archival data have an unequivocal or unproblematic relationship to anything outside the empirical material is rejected on principle’ (Alvesson and Sköldberg, 2009, p.9). This calls for awareness of theoretical assumptions, language and prior understanding of social phenomena. Secondly, reflection involves turning attention ‘inwards’ to focus on the researcher, the researched, society more generally, the intellectual and cultural traditions, and the ‘problematic nature of language and narrative’ in the research setting (2009, p.9).

Therefore, reflective research is related to the selection of the research topic, the research context, relationships with/between the researched, the choices made in relation to the management and conduct of data collection (and while in the field), the representation of cultures, individuals and the social world, and also the power dynamics and relations implicated, generated and created via research and reflection. Reflexivity also extends beyond the individual academic to include acknowledgment of the limits of knowledge associated with the social scientist’s membership and position in the intellectual field (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992).

Finally, reflexivity is difficult (Alvesson and Sköldberg, 2009). It is not merely a quality of the researcher, but is a practice which must be honed, applied, and kept in mind throughout the research process. As Tim May writes:

“Writings on reflexivity tend to be manuals that provide steps for the practitioner to become more reflexive. What is replicated is an inductivism that separates content, character, and context. There are no easy routes and no self-help books with ten steps to ‘becoming reflexive’.” (with Perry, 2011, p.6)

For me, reflexivity focuses on the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable, the messy, difference/s, and writing up our failures (cf Pillow, 2003). A reflexive approach enables us to be conscious of the social, ethical and political impact of our research, the central, fluid and changing nature/s of power relations (with participants, gatekeepers, research funders, etc.) and our relationships with the researched, aspects which diffractive methodologies overlook. Reflexivity is and (can be) creative and involve re-readings of, and re-turnings to our writing and texts (as the chapters on reflexivity in action demonstrate). Crucially, we must consider reflexivity and reflective practices in the context of collaborative research with various research communities, and the politics of these relationships and therefore reflexivity itself.

Note: the above material is taken (and amended) from my new book Reflexivity: Theory, Method and Practice which is in press with Routledge for January 2019.


Alvesson, M. & Sköldberg, K. (2009). Reflexive Methodology: New Vistas for Qualitative Research, 2nd edn. London: Sage.

Bourdieu, P. & Wacquant, L.J.D. (1992).An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Devine, F. & Heath, S. (1999). Sociological Research Methods in Context. New York: Palgrave.

Finlay, L. & Gough, B. (Eds.), (2003). Reflexivity: A Practical Guide for Researchers in Health and Social Sciences. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gough, B. (2003). Deconstructing Reflexivity. In: L. Finlay & B. Gough (Eds.), Reflexivity: A Practical Guide for Researchers in Health and Social Sciences(pp. 21-35). Oxford: Blackwell.

Lather, P. (1993). Fertile Obsession: Validity after Poststructuralism. Sociological Quarterly, 34(4): 673-693.

Lynch, M. (2000). Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge. Theory, Culture & Society, 17(3): 26-54.

May, T. with Perry, B. (2011). Social Research & Reflexivity: Content, Consequence and Context. London: Sage.

Mills, C. Wright. (2000[1959] The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pillow, W. (2003). Confession, Catharsis or Cure? Rethinking the Uses of Reflexivity as Methodological Power in Qualitative Research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16: 175-196.

Wilkinson, S. (1988). The Role of Reflexivity in Feminist Psychology. International Forum of Women’s Studies, 11(5): 493-502.

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