Reflexivity in Qualitative Research: Reflections from a workshop

29 Sep

Today, I attended a workshop about reflexivity in qualitative research facilitated by Dr Carrie Bradbury-Jones, a colleague and post doctoral research fellow at the University of Dundee. This workshop inspired me so much that I decided  this evening would be dedicated to updating my reflexive diary and share a few of my thoughts via this blog. Writing my diary and blogging, I saw as something I would do ‘when I had time’.  This hasn’t happened as frequently as I would have hoped as I didn’t see it as an integral part of my PhD. This afternoon’s workshop changed my opinion about that…

The challenges of ensuring rigor within qualitative research is well documented (Seale 2001).  As we know, the validity and reliability of qualitative research, especially when taking a pure constructivist standpoint is often highly criticised, with some arguing that the empirical inquiry inevitably depends on the arbitrary predilections of the researcher  (Paley and Lilford, 2011).

However, Carrie advocates an approach which allows researchers to consider their own subjectivity within the philosophical stance that they adopt (Bradbury-Jones, 2007) in order to enhance rigor.  Carrie draws on the work of Peshkin and his search for his own subjectivity within his research (Peshkin, 1998; Bradbury-Jones et al, 2009).  Peshkin’s subjectivity takes the form of an ‘I’ and from a particular research study, on writing his reflexive diary, he went on to create 6 characterised ‘I’s’ (Read Peshkin’s paper to  see his full descriptions and how they derived).  In short, these ‘I’s reflected  his own subjectivity of this piece of research and what impact they could potentially have on the study.  

Perhaps to try to make this a little clearer, Carrie shared with us excerpts from her own PhD reflexive diary, which in itself was quite courageous! I say this because it contained quite a lot of emotion – how she felt at different stages of her research – both the good and the bad. It was clear that some excerpts were really personal and came from the heart. Inspired by Peshkin’s work, from her journal, Carrie identified her 4 ‘I’s: The Paladin I (in which she talked about her being a ‘crusader’ – standing up for her participants); The Maverick I (she saw herself as wanting to seek the slightly unusual or unorthodox): The Impatient I (wanting to get things done quickly) and The Pragmatic I (because she also brought a grounded, sensible and logical approach to her study).  On analysing her 4 ‘I’s, Carrie then became aware of the similarities of them with the characters from the Wizard of Oz, and so renamed them The Scarecrow I; The Tin Man I; The Cowardly Lion I and The Wizard I (See Bradbury-Jones 2009 for more detail about this)

So what is the point of all this and why is reflexivity so important? I compared Carrie’s journal to mine. Although Carrie’s included discussion about the processes and evolution of her research, a major part was about her feelings.  In contrast, mine is mainly about processes and decisions, with limited information about my feelings and inner thoughts. By omitting such detail, I am failing to explore my own subjectivity and thus I cannot, nor can my supervisors, examine or critique how this may potentially influence the quality of my research.  By using her reflexive diary in this way, Carrie argued that it helped her ‘to navigate the treacherous route of doctoral education in a bid to successfully reach the end’

As a final note, I reflect on one part of my PhD study where I interviewed Journalists and Editors of Regional and National newspapers (Broadsheets and Tabloids). Prior to my research, while working in the NHS in Infection Prevention, I was hugely critical towards newspaper journalists for their sensationalised, and from my perspective, inaccurate and scaremongering stories.  However, after my interviews, I felt very privileged that they ‘accepted me into their world’ and shared with me their objectives, their challenges and their frustrations.  As a result, I have now become somewhat defensive when I hear other people criticising them and find myself frequently defending them and their stories. I still stand by these thoughts and I know I will continue to try to put their side of the story across. I will however, write my thoughts and feelings about this in my reflexive diary so I am able to draw on them during my analysis, interpretation and conceptualisation of my data.  This inevitably will allow me to be aware of my own subjectivity and ensure this does not impact on the rigor and quality of my final thesis.

Bradbury-Jones, C.(2007) Enhancing rigor in qualitative health research: exploring subjectivity through Peshkin’s I’s. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 59, 290-298

Bradbury-Jones, C. (2007). Exploring research supervision through Peshkin’s I’s: the yellow brick road. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 60, 220-228.

Bradbury-Jones, C. Hughes, S. M. Murphy, W. Parry, L. & Sutton, J. (2009). A new way of reflecting in nursing: the Peshkin Approach. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 65, 2485-2493.

Paley, J. & Lilford, R. (2011). Qualitative methods: an alternative view. British Medical Journal, 342, 956-958.

Peshkin, A. (1988). In search of subjectivity – one’s own. Educational Researcher 17(7), 17–21.

Seale, C. (2001). Qualitative methods: validity and reliability. European Journal of Cancer Care, 10, 131-136


6 Responses to “Reflexivity in Qualitative Research: Reflections from a workshop”

  1. Sarah Stewart July 8, 2012 at 10:25 am #

    Hi Emma, what I’m trying to get my head around is the difference between reflection and reflexivity.

    • Emma Burnett July 10, 2012 at 8:40 am #

      Hi Sarah. Thank you for leaving a comment. I agree that the differences can be quite confusing. In the most simplistic terms, I see reflexivity as the scrutinising my position in terms of my own behaviour/actions/feelings to enable me to consider how these affect specific situations. So, I am looking at how my position influences my co-construction of knowledge. Reflection, I think is broader – thinking about and challenging assumptions, ideological positions, biases and such like. The boundaries between the two are often blurred and like you, I am still trying to understand them. It would be great to hear other people’s thoughts about this.

      • Julie September 7, 2012 at 2:25 am #

        Hi Emma,

        I don’t mean to throw a spanner in the works but I have just had to write about reflexivity & positionality for my thesis. I found it really confusing. My first draft came back and my supervisors said that there is a distinct difference between the two. Reflexivity you are reflecting on your methods, analysis, writing process and how your biases/assumptions etc influenced access, building rapport, collection of the data, analysis of themes etc, but ‘positionality’ you are reflecting on the position you took during your field work, and how your own assumptions, biases, identity, background, experiences, biography etc influenced the process. You may also have shifted your position during the data collection

      • Emma Burnett September 11, 2012 at 10:24 am #

        Hi Julie
        You definitely haven’t thrown a spanner in the works! Thank you for posting this, it is really helpful 🙂

  2. ruskeakarhu November 2, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    I found this very interesting and parrallel in some ways to how identity is broken down in other theoretical activities in order to understand more about the multiplicity of what influences are brought to bear on the way we interpret and form relationships between ourselves, our world and our understanding. I was recently reading a book about masculine identities and saw this way of characterisation put to good use to describe different forms of male friendships. Interesting to see it applied like this. Thank you for bringing this to a wider audience 🙂

    • Emma Burnett November 5, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and I’m pleased that your found this interesting and relevant 🙂

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