On Reflexivity (again…)
This post is partly motivated by the fact that the original reflexivity thread has grown rather too long, and partly by the need for me to make a ‘new beginning’ as regards my understanding of what reflexivity is and how it bears on my research. I am conscious that my current understanding diverges somewhat from the direction in which the original reflexivity thread seems to be developing, and this is why I felt it would be more helpful to present my thoughts in a new post. This is, to a great extent, a personal response to the challenge of understanding reflexivity, i.e. it is not intended as an authoritative account, and I am not suggesting that it is relevant to anyone else’s analytical needs. That said, I think it makes sense in the context of my study.
This ‘new beginning’ draws very loosely on Activity Theory – at least in its earliest and simplest formulations. This realisation came to me at a late stage in the writing process, i.e. I didn’t explicitly set out to draw linkages between reflexivity and AT. However, AT seems to offer a terminology and framework that are descriptively useful for my purposes, so I will be using said tools in this post while making no further claims of affinity between the reflexivity thinking and AT. I will also be drawing on postings from the previous thread – some by me and some by others – which will cause some repetition. However, this may help in a sense by bringing together in one place various ideas that seem to work well together.
My feeling is that in any situation involving research there must be at least three elements: something that is researched, a researcher or group of researchers and the actual process of doing research, all of which interact in different ways to produce a new understanding of whatever it is we are studying. In the schematic that follows, I have tried to use parts of an activity system as a framework against which to place my reflexivity thoughts. The terms I will be using in the post are typeset in bold, and I have placed in brackets roughly equivalent terms derived from AT.
Most obviously, the outcome is derived from the interaction between the research and the researched (instrument <–> object). This is as simple as saying that the findings of my study will be influenced to an extent by my methods, sample etc. In my narrative, I will need to account for such influences, which is I think fairly uncontroversial. It is also fairly uncontroversial that the very act of conducting research will influence whatever is being researched, and will therefore indirectly influence my understanding. In my study, for instance, it is quite likely that class observation will lead to some pressure on the teachers to design and implement ‘showcase’ lessons. This needn’t be a problem, as long as one recognises what is being observed and its causes and accounts for it in the data. I am not sure that all this would traditionally fall under the ‘reflexivity’ heading, but it seems to cohere with what follows.
The consensus that seems to be developing in the original reflexivity thread is that the interaction between the researcher and the research process (subject <–> instrument) is also analytically significant and may have to be acknowledged, assuming that we choose to adopt a reflexive outlook. Using my own research as an example once more, it might be useful for me to make explicit how my own personal choices, preferences etc. shape the research process, since they exert an indirect influence on the outcome. If I want to work reflexively, I need to make explicit to myself and readers: what difference does it make on my understanding that this study is carried out by me (rather than someone else)?
I would posit that in addition to these two dimensions of reflexivity, one may also want to consider the interaction between the researcher and the researched (subject <–> object). This seems particularly important in those cases where the researcher happens to have multiple roles in the setting (e.g. Juup and Richard acting as researchers and course tutors in the DRC). Turning again to my study, I need to acknowledge my prior ‘impact’ on the language school I am currently investigating: in what ways is the outcome shaped by the fact that I have designed some of the courses they are using, or the fact that I influenced staffing decisions? What impact do my pre-existing relationships with the research participants have on the information they share and on the ways I interpret it?
Finally, I think that we could usefully examine the ways in which the outcome of the research interacts with whatever is researched and its context (outcome <–> activity). This stems form my belief that the social world (unlike the physical one) is shaped by our understandings, i.e. our conceptualisations are constitutive acts rather than merely acts of representation. When my understanding of whatever is happening in the language school is communicated back to the people there, the language school is changed, however subtly. Of course, as Juup pointed out at some point in the original thread, this change is not deferred until the end of the research project (unless I decide to hold back on feedback, but why would one want to do that?). What happens then is that the object of the research changes constantly, in part because of the research activity; I also change, and so does the way I conduct my research. So a fourth question I need to reflect on is: how does my developing understanding shape my research, myself and everything around me?
In the preceding paragraphs I have consciously avoided making an explicit distinction between reflexivity and reflection. The truth is, I am not sure how to make this distinction, possibly because I am not sure that such a distinction is useful to my thinking at this stage. What seems to be more important is increasing my own awareness of all these interconnections between researcher and researching, researching and researched, researcher and researched, how all these influence my understanding and visa versa. I am not sure whether reflection would be the best or the only response to this challenge (can it be empirically addressed?), or what narrative would be most appropriate for sharing this awareness. But I feel that I have at least made a small step forward…