Person-Centred Research Methods: Reflexivity

In a pioneering article (Negotiating the swamp: the opportunity and challenge of reflexivity in research practice), Linda Finlay of the Open University looks at how ‘researcher-explorers’ from a range of research traditions have negotiated the perils of ‘the swamp’ of reflexive analysis. 

Why use the word ‘pioneering’? For me, the innovative aspect of this paper is the use of italics, which Finlay uses intermittently throughout as a ‘meta-reflexive voice’ to help tease out the critical issues at stake. Coming from the person-centred approach, I think this is a neat way to square the circle of being my authentic self in my writing whilst also writing ‘objectively’in the third person for the purposes of academic convention. I would much rather simply include my reflexivity in the text, rather than segregating it – and, certainly, later in his career, Carl Rogers wrote as ‘himself’, in the first person, as he clearly understood the nonsense of third person writing – however, he was a highly respected and internationally famous psychologicst and I'm just a worm, an insect... some kind of crawling, disgusting, creeping little vermin! You know, you can stop me! (how did Woody Allen get in there? I guess that’s the sometime randomness of reflexivity, too, which also has a place as this is about our creative thinking processes which are  notoriously difficult to marshal and the text might well reflect that aspect…)
So, back to the article. Finlay first of all presents a brief history of reflexivity, showing how it has a firm place within the qualitative research agenda. She argues for  the researcher as “a central figure who influences if not actively constructs, the collection, selection and interpretation of data”, going on to state that “researchers no longer question the need for reflexivity: the question is how to do it” (2002, 212). And there is a ‘how’, as she offers five maps of different variants of reflexivity as:
  1. Introspection
  2. intersubjective reflection
  3. mutual collaboration
  4. social critique
  5. ironic deconstruction

1.     Reflexivity as introspection

The terrain here is of personal revelation, not as an end in itself, but as a springboard for more general insight and interpretations – Finlay quotes Maslow (1966), who asserted ‘”there is no substitute for experience, none at all”, pointing researchers towards the value of self-dialogue and discovery. I also wonder if there might be a place for creative expression in research, too – what might be the place of a short fiction or a poem to express the reflexive standpoint of a person, especially with something as elusive as introspection? I’m also pleased to see a discussion of the work of Moustakas (1990), who is a significant writer in the person-centred approach.

2.     Reflexivity as intersubjective reflection

This is where researchers explore the mutual meanings emerging within the research relationship, focusing on the situated and negotiated nature of the research encounter. Highly significant here are the attitudes and demeanour of the researcher, highlighting the danger of limited participation in the research due to the researcher being perceived as an authority figure(216). This resonates beautifully with the person-centred approach, which emphasises realness on the part of the facilitator/therapist/researcher, a down-playing of roles, a relinquishing of authority.
This type of reflexivity goes beyond an examination of self towards that of self-in-relation-to-others. Linda moves to italics to profess her own ease with this type of reflexivity, where, as a therapist,  “it is second nature to examine my own motivations as a way of understanding another” (218). The danger here is that such complex dynamics and unconscious motivations can be accessed in the first place.

3.     Reflexivity as Mutual Collaboration

This type of reflexivity centrally enlists researchers as co-participants. This is my favourite, and one I’ve tried, as it doesn’t come more person-centred than this – research ‘with’ people rather than ‘on’ people. The key point here is the recognition of research participants as reflexive beings themselves – and so co-researchers who are involved in a reflexive dialogue during data analysis or evaluation.  It’s worth quoting Finlay’s – it feels so, well, RUDE to not refer to ‘Linda’, but I’m trying to maintain that academic register, as well as, I guess, not assuming an intimacy I don’t have with the author – summary of this style:
“Collaborative reflexivity offers the opportunity to hear, and take into account, multiple voices and conflicting positions. While the notion of shared realities finds favour with many researchers, some still challenge an egalitarian rhetoric where it disguises essentially unequal relationships.” (220)

4.     Reflexivity as Social Critique

It is that last issue of unequal power relationships which is taken up in the fourth variant of reflexivity, which openly acknowledges tensions arising from different social positions, for instance, class, gender and race. This kind of analysis is rooted in strong theoretical frameworks about the social construction of power.

5. Reflexivity as Discursive Deconstruction

This final variant would accuse the previous two as claiming even more authority by saying you’ve attended to the power dimension. Instead, reflexivity here pays attention to the ambiguity of meanings in language used and to how this impacts on modes of presentation.  “Researchers for this tradition would notice how both participants and researchers are engaged in an exercise of ‘presenting’ themselves to each other – and to the wider community which is to receive the research.” (223)
So, these are the various maps – Finlay goes on to show the value of reflexivity taken as a whole:
  •  examine the impact of the position, perspective and presence of the researcher
  •  promote rich insight through examining personal responses and interpersonal dynamics
  •  open up unconscious motivations and implicit biases in the researcher’s approach
  •  empower others by opening up a more radical consciousness
  •  evaluate the research process, method and outcomes
  •  enable public scrutiny of the integrity of the research through offering a methodological log of research decisions.
(Finlay, 2002)

Reference: Finlay, L. (2002). "Negotiating the swamp: the opportunity and challenge of reflexivity in research practice." Qualitative Research 2(2): 209-230.