Reflecting on Reflexive Methodology

In examining validity in qualitative research, formulating a formal approach to the processes of filtering and reflection led me to look more closely at Reflexive Methodology as described by Alvesson and Skoldberg in their book of the same name. Reflection, when considering methodologies and analysing data, plays an important role in the research process and while this is not a method in itself, it provides a take on qualitative methodologies and a way of flexing them. The discussion throughout the book reinforces that reflection is a key part in the development of thinking around a research project.

Reflection, as I see it, is involved in at least 3 specific places in the research activity:

1) The development of the methodologies
2) The process of analysing the data
3) The synthesis of thinking around the data for the results

While the first considers the choices available of frameworks, methodologies and methods, the second is about the data itself while the third is checking that the interpretations from the data are correct. But across all these there is an overlay of reflection that is an end in itself, to ensure each of these steps has been appropriately questioned and ‘thought through’ so that the research has been rigorously tested, interrogated and so proved valid; in this way the approach embeds reflection in the process itself to ensure a further level of validity. Much in the way, for example, the stages of grounded theory refine the data or Creswell’s spiral ensures layers of analysis are applied to the data so the findings are properly sifted, the process of reflection ensures the research as a whole has been appropriately filtered and crystalised; this itself ensures what is revealed can be regarded as valid (in whatever paradigmatic approach to ‘reality’ you personally take). So reflection is the forge for refining the research process; if you do this, you have validity.

The opening standpoint is that research methods have evolved often around sets of rules; this is partly in response to those questions of validity which emerged because (some might say) of an ‘inferiority complex’ social science research has had in relation to empirical research of scientific method. Where one moves on to more post-positivist paradigms, those which avoid sets of rules, there has still often been a trend to definitions – which create boundaries of what can and can’t be done; these too can artificially limit the research process. Much of this is about lessening risk of the research findings not being regarded as sound. But in fact it is perhaps hampering research in some cases, forcing a sort of polarisation around methods, rather than allowing for more blended approaches or for understanding of areas of overlap.

The choices of methodologies and frameworks remains in the researcher’s hands but reflection, where formally introduced into the process, overlays on the actual research one does, allowing one to ensure choices are appropriate and to give one space to look carefully at alternatives: these can be then integrated or disregard as needed. Watch the actors, consider the research design and actions, sift the data in different ways – take a 360 degree look to ensure final choices have been fully considered.

Reflection is clearly not new – thinking about research is already key to any researcher’s activity, but, while not necessarily going as far as adopting a set of rules to ensure reflection has been ‘applied’ successfully, reflexive approaches to methodology allows the researcher freedom to assess their research practice. This can be seen to justify our pondering!

All methods and methodologies to some extent encompass reflective elements, and the book does explore some key methodologies – including positivism (and related post positivism), social construction and critical realism – these can be seen as sources of inspiration; the authors focus on examining different orientations that can all benefit from reflection, not predetermining one main form of research.

Some might say this is obvious – but it can be still rather refreshing to take a 3D look at your own work, and to accept this is part of the activity; your critique of your work is ‘allowed’, your self-exploration is part of it. Reflection helps make the link between the abstracted rarefied discussions of the methodologies and frameworks, and the application to one’s own research, which may well be encompass fairly mundane work – for instance interviewing individuals for case studies. Systematic interplay between aspects of the research activity, multi-layered in approach, can be helpful too in the sort of qualitative research that moves regularly between the actual collection of research data and the theoretical considerations in a continually iterative process. The authors spend some time outlining abductive approaches which allow for each new element of the research to change to some extent, informed by the previous piece of research – so case studies build for instance – making the research useful all the way through.

There is an element of reflective learning – the narrative of the research is considered and reconsidered so new aspects emerge, over time, part of the general literature on reflective learning is applicable here (eg Judith Moon). Meaning is gained as one moves through a reflexive process. Mediation is a term that the authors focus on – mediation between ideas, themes, data and activities; doing this allows one to problematize dominant theory and purposefully stimulate alternative theories.

Some of this discussion emerges from an understanding of the researcher as a part of the process – not an objective, independent entity observing research taking place, but someone involved, subjective and providing interpretation; by bringing the researcher’s thinking into the mix of the methodology and the data, it can help to justify the researcher who, in many research paradigms, cannot extract themselves from the research itself. The researcher’s mind becomes an adjunct to the research – a part of the experiment, a crucible where the alchemy can take place! For me this becomes important as I am a researcher researching an area where I have practised before and come, therefore, embedded in the cultural context of what I am researching, with a large amount of knowledge and subjective involvement in the field. Can that knowledge play a valid part or does it have to be put aside? This for me justifies making use of this knowledge and allowing it to play its part in interpretation.

So without stating there are reflection ‘systems’ to put in place, the authors acknowledge certain characteristics of the reflexive approach to methodology. One can apply reflective techniques using
repertoire of interpretation which include:

– creativity
– sophistication
– breadth and variation
– reflection at the meta-theoretical level

Then stages that one might go through when filtering data move through layers of interpretation:

– Data/construction of data
– Interpretation
– Critical interpretation
– Self-critical reflection

While doing this one is testing out different ways of seeing, which act back on and reflect on existing ways of seeing. Levels reflected are in one another too, the researcher can glide between levels and play off against each other.

Is this anything different from the usual stages of analysis and interpretation in data? My feeling is that focusing on this aspect primarily for a while at least can play a role in highlighting the usefulness of it to the research. Ultimately my feeling is this is about:

– recognition and consideration of other approaches to be sure of one’s own choices
– getting to some sort of mediated reality
– ensuring researchers have thoroughly regarded the data, getting most out of it
– ensuring one doesn’t follow a one-track approach and distort the research by seeing/forcing patterns around that

The process carries out warnings – one can do all this too thinly, it is not about reading every research method going, applying it systematically and rejecting them one by one, nor is it about a pick and mix approach to research methods nor justifying what one has done by saying one has thought about it! It is a balance between using reflection to add depth, while still recognizing breadth; explaining that step from refinement to synthesis.

As they show in the book reflection plays a part in whatever research methodology you adopt from data-driven empirical approaches to polyphonic post modernism. What is interesting is where the authors explain the feeling that one is aiming for, whatever the methodology – reflection ultimately is for allowing ‘space and energy’ to remain for other positions; for a sense of ‘richness and tension’. So this facilitates creativity, helps transcend established ideas, ensures one consistently admits ambiguity; research is not linear, not monolithic/ monotheistic but many layered and ultimately, as the authors acknowledge, good qualitative research is not a technical project it is an intellectual one.

Frania Hall

Ref:

Alvesson, M. and Skoldberg, K., 2009, Reflexive Methodology, Second Edition, New Vistas for Qualitative Research, London: Sage.

Categories: research methodology