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GuidesResearch methodsExploring reflexivity: A key element of qualitative research

Exploring reflexivity: A key element of qualitative research

Last updated

20 March 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Hugh Good

Qualitative research often involves exploring complex social phenomena shaped by multiple perspectives, experiences, and values.

This can present a problem for researchers, as their biases, values, and assumptions may influence their research and skew outcomes.

Reflexivity is a critical aspect of qualitative research that involves acknowledging and examining your positionality and its influence on the research process.

Let’s take a detailed look at what reflexivity is and its use in qualitative research.

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Why is reflexivity important in qualitative research?

Researchers must begin their qualitative research by recognizing that they are not objective, neutral observers. Your personal experiences, beliefs, and biases will impact how you design the experiment, collect the data, and interpret the findings. 

Reflexivity is how researchers acknowledge this reality and attempt to overcome the limitations it puts on the accuracy of their work.

Examining how your thought patterns shape your research and controlling for those variables can help you produce high-quality, credible research. 

During the reflexivity process, you may discover new insights and perspectives that can increase the rigor of your research.

Qualitative research often involves examining complex social phenomena that are a collection of multiple perspectives, experiences, and values. 

Understanding a wider range of perspectives is easier when you step outside your biases and examine the subject from more angles. 

Having a more complete picture of the social phenomena in your research allows a more thorough, accurate examination.

Types of reflexivity

Researchers can use various types of reflexivity to better understand their positionality in the context of the research. 

To get the most from reflexivity, it helps to understand the options available so you can pick the method that best suits your research goals.

Here are some of the most common types of reflexivity:

Personal reflexivity

Personal reflexivity focuses primarily on you, the researcher. You examine your experiences, beliefs, biases, and values about the subject you’re studying.

From there, you attempt to critically analyze how your assumptions might shape your interpretation of the data and skew the results. 

If you experience strong emotions regarding the topic, take care to examine how these feelings might influence the research.

Positional reflexivity

The biases of a researcher can go beyond the obvious things you may think of during personal reflexivity. This reflexivity involves reflecting on your social position and identifying how you might influence the research. 

Positional reflexivity encourages you to consider how your social location might shape your experiences and understanding of the research topic. This includes things like your:

  • Gender

  • Race and ethnicity

  • Religion

  • Class

  • Sexuality

Methodological reflexivity

Often, the research methods and techniques you choose for qualitative research are born from your assumptions about the subject. 

Methodological reflexivity involves carefully evaluating the study design, data collection methods, and analysis techniques to see how your assumptions impact them. 

Epistemological reflexivity

Your presumptions about the nature of knowledge and truth can impact how you design and interpret data. 

Epistemological reflexivity encourages researchers to critically examine their beliefs about knowledge and consider how these beliefs could impact their research outcome.

Ethical reflexivity

Over the years, scientists have conducted many studies that we look back upon in horror. 

Although it's unlikely for a researcher to be history's next monster, examining your ethical structure against society’s is vital. This can help you avoid becoming so focused on the results that you behave unethically.

Dialogical reflexivity

Researchers rarely work alone, yet every interaction with someone else in the study could impact the outcome. This can include interactions with co-workers or with study participants: 

  • If you let your biases shape a question, you could transfer that bias to a participant. 

  • Interpersonal relationships can impact how seriously you evaluate a co-worker's input.

Structural reflexivity

Social structures and power relations can profoundly impact how you conduct and interpret research. 

The most obvious example is research funded by an entity. They may expect a particular outcome, so you might feel pressure to produce it. 

Research within an organization is almost always subject to hierarchies of power and chains of command. These power structures can also impact research.

Reflexivity vs. reflectivity

You may have noticed that much of reflexivity relies on the researcher reflecting on things about themselves. 

While reflectivity is a significant aspect of reflexivity, it’s far from the only part. Reflecting is a more passive activity than reflexivity.

Reflexivity involves taking what you've learned from your reflections and putting them under a microscope:

  • Why do these perceptions and biases exist?

  • How do they align with the perceptions and biases of other people?

  • How can I take steps to correct them in future research endeavors?

If reflectivity is looking in a mirror, reflexivity is using what you see to style your hair or adjust your clothing.

The distinction may seem minor, but it’s how you take the proper steps to grow from what you’ve reflected upon. Then, you can restructure your research to benefit from that growth.

Potential pitfalls of reflexivity

While reflexivity is an essential component of qualitative research, there are potential pitfalls to be aware of. Here are a few ways reflexivity can fail to achieve the intended benefit:

Over-emphasizing the researcher's perspective

When multiple people are working on a project, ensure every researcher examines their biases and perceptions. It's vital to remember that reflexivity is a project-wide effort and doesn’t just fall to one person. 

Failure to listen to feedback

This can result in the opposite of the intended effect if the researcher isn't careful. It's easy to get caught in the trap of examining other people's biases and positions and rejecting their feedback as a result. 

Understanding how other people's biases may impact the research is essential. However, the purpose of reflexivity is for the researcher to examine and work through their own biases, not to find ways to reinforce them. 

Confusing reflexivity with subjectivity

This is another example of how a researcher might overdo it when engaging in reflexivity. While the researcher should be aware of their biases, this doesn't mean the data is purely a result of those biases. 

Placing undue emphasis on the positionality of the researchers can result in dismissing otherwise valid data as tainted.

Neglecting the research topic

Researchers must be careful not to fall too far down the rabbit hole of reflexivity. The focus must remain squarely on the research topic and how potential biasing factors impact it. 

How to keep a reflexive journal in qualitative research

Keeping a journal is an effective way to document your reflexivity and maintain an ongoing personal dialogue throughout the research process. 

Here are some tips for keeping a reflexivity journal:

Set aside time for reflection

Set aside regular time slots to reflect on your assumptions, biases, and positionality concerning the research process. This could be daily, weekly, or after significant events or milestones.

Use a dedicated medium

Use a dedicated notebook or digital platform to keep your reflexivity journal separate from other research notes. This will help you maintain focus and organization.

Write freely and honestly

It's tempting to hide your thoughts, feelings, and experiences, but you should be honest about them throughout the research process. Avoid self-censorship and be open to exploring uncomfortable or challenging issues.

Use prompts to guide your writing

Prompts can produce more productive writing, such as 

  • What assumptions am I making about the research participants?

  • How is my positionality influencing the research process?

  • What ethical considerations am I grappling with?

Revisit and revise your journal regularly

Regularly revisiting past entries in your journal can help you reflect on changes in your perspective or assumptions and identify patterns or insights that may emerge.

Final thoughts

Producing quality research is critical for scientific advancement and personal reputation.

During qualitative research, it's easy to fall into the trap of letting biases and assumptions taint your results. Reflexivity can be a valuable tool in identifying and working around those biases.

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