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Need guidance writing the reflexivity section of your thesis (or indeed writing reflexively throughout the thesis)? This article defines reflexivity as going beyond reflection to consider the influence of our positionality on our work. It covers three main types of reflexivity - personal reflexivity, methodological reflexivity and philosophical reflexivity - and includes some working examples to illustrate the thought processes and questions that facilitate transparency and rigor in research.

What is Reflexivity?

There is some confusion surrounding the term ‘reflexivity’, particularly among research students, who often struggle to differentiate between writing reflectively and writing reflexively. Reflexivity is an ongoing process of looking both inwards toward one’s beliefs, preconceptions, and practices, as well as outwards, towards the world of experiences. Reflection is certainly a part of the process of reflexivity, where we identify our positionality, but reflexivity moves beyond this to critically consider the influence of our positionality.

Why is it Important?

The transparency of being reflexive demonstrates rigor in research as it enables others to understand the factors that may have led to the research questions that were asked, the methods that were used, and the interpretations and conclusions that were reached.

Personal Reflexivity

Personal reflexivity is where the researcher recognises how their identity, characteristics, experiences, and perceptions may shape their research. Research topics, questions, and approaches are often an expression of the researcher’s interests and values, influenced by their experiences and beliefs. One way that may help to identify these things about ourselves is to keep a research diary throughout the PhD journey, with some space dedicated to your perception of self and identity, as shown in the example below: 

My Perceptions About My Identity 

I am a woman | I am a mother | I am surrounded by other mothers | I am educated | 
I sustained an OASI during childbirth | I am married | I am a student | I had a vaginal delivery | I had a working-class upbringing | I am British | I am a Psychologist | I healed well from childbirth | I am white | Reproductive age | Heterosexual |  

Once a researcher becomes aware of their perceptions of self, they can then think about how this shaped their research interests and questions. During my PhD, I recognised that my experience of childbirth complications had led me down the research path that I was on. 

'Insider' Knowledge

The term ‘insider’ refers to a researcher who identifies with and belongs to the group that they are studying (Breen, 2007). To some extent, I identified myself as a researcher with a personal insider knowledge of some of the topics featured in my PhD study. 
Initially, I assumed that my ‘insider’ knowledge as a researcher would situate me ideally, as I had a shared experience with the participants, which can be beneficial. Later, I realised that this sense of similarity with the participants may have been naively assumed, and that in reality, our similarities were limited to all being reproductive age women, who each have one child. Besides this, however, the participants were different to me and different from each other, and therefore we are all only experts of our own unique experiences.

Methodological Reflexivity

The following three sections come under the heading of ‘methodological reflexivity’ as another important area of reflexivity.

Objectivity vs Subjectivity

As a researcher, it is necessary to identify your stance on the objectivity vs subjectivity debate, which subsequently informs the philosophical assumptions and stance of your research, as well as the research methods used. During my PhD, I recognised that I am positioned somewhere in the middle of the debate between objectivity and subjectivity, appreciating the value of both, and therefore, unlike positivist researchers, did not prioritise, or claim complete objectivity.

Research Methods and Design

It is also necessary to consider the suitability of research methods to address specific research questions. The research questions of my study could not be answered by solely quantitative or qualitative methods alone. 
My problem-solving nature meant that the answers to my quantitative research questions would not be enough to direct changes in practice. I questioned, besides identifying maternity care satisfaction ratings as a potential predictor of postnatal depression symptoms, what would the utility of the findings be, in real-life care? This influenced my decision to conduct a mixed methods study, to include semi-structured interview data. Due to the sensitive nature of the research topic, interviews were chosen, to avoid voices being lost in the busy noise of a focus group (Leung & Savithiri, 2009).

Researcher Disclosures and Bias

I debated the level of transparency that should be revealed to the participants, about my own experiences of a complicated childbirth. As highlighted by Berkovic et al (2020), researcher experiences may have the potential to provide a more balanced and equal relationship with the participants, which relates to being considered an ‘insider’ to their experiences. On the flip side however, would this always be the case? Would my own positive experience of maternity care or textbook recovery create any types of response bias? I questioned whether the participants would feel comfortable talking about any potential negative experiences to someone that they may then perceive as lacking understanding of their unique situation. 
Social desirability bias is another concern that occurs when participants provide responses that they think are more socially desirable (Bergen & Labonte, 2020). I decided not to routinely disclose my insider knowledge unless asked. In the one instance of my disclosure, it helped the participant to discuss the sensitive aspects of her experience. Upon reflection, I now question whether the interview accounts with other participants may have differed, had I made the same disclosure to all interview participants. I counter this query with an alternative consideration, that none of this may have crossed the remaining participants’ minds.

Philosophical Reflexivity

Step One – Understanding the ‘-ologies’
Researchers need to be able to demonstrate reflexive awareness about their own ontological (nature of reality) and epistemological (nature of knowledge) assumptions (Willig, 2012). To think and write with philosophical reflexivity, one must first understand the meanings of ontology and epistemology. Although the terms cause feelings of panic in many research students, simply put, ontology refers to questions of ‘what exists’, whilst epistemology is concerned with how can we know about the existence of something.  

Different philosophical paradigms hold different assumptions (beliefs) about the nature of reality, and the nature of knowledge. As a researcher, you will go through a process of identifying your own beliefs, and which philosophical assumptions you align with the most.  

Step Two – Identify the Polarities  

At opposite ends of the philosophical debate are Positivism and Constructivism. My stance was not aligned with either positivism or constructivism. I cannot accept that there is only one true, measurable reality as argued by positivism (Kumatongo & Muzata, 2021), because I question how we can measure something in its entirety if we do not yet know what the entirety is. 

Contrastingly, although individuals can construct meanings from their experiences of the world around them (constructivism), some aspects of reality are not socially constructed and exist independent of our experiences and constructions of them (Kumatongo & Muzata, 2021). 
Interpretivism also rejects the belief in an objective reality, arguing that reality consists only of our descriptions and interpretations of experiences (Kumatongo & Muzata, 2021). I argue against this position because what use are descriptions and interpretations, if we are unable to make any generalisations from them and apply them on a wider scale (for example in healthcare)? 

Step Three – Narrow It Down Further  
Once I acknowledged that my mixed methods study was underpinned by my worldview (perception of what we can know, and how we can come to know it), it became clearer to me that my position was most aligned with critical realism or pragmatism. I disagree with pragmatism’s assumptions that individuals’ actions are not determined by external factors, based on opposing arguments surrounding structure and agency (Elder-Vass, 2022). At this point, my compatibility with critical realism became apparent.  

Critical realist ontology proposes three layers of reality, which is less restrictive about what reality is, and how it can be known. Critical realism believes in both objective and subjective realities, which is why it is also concerned with questions about causation and underlying structures. It also rejects the notion that only present things exist (Bhaskar, 2009), which I argue in support of in my own research. My argument is that the experiences and satisfaction levels of women in my study would have still existed, even if they had not been expressed.  

In terms of epistemology, critical realism rejects the idea of absolute truths (epistemic relativism), based on the existence of truths that have not been uncovered (Westhorp, 2014). This resonated with me with regard to my own birth experience, and that of the women in my study, who each had their own unique knowledge of the phenomena of birth experience and postnatal care satisfaction.  

Concluding Comments

Reflexivity is a process that features in every part of the research process and is unique to each researcher. You may write about reflexivity in just one section of your thesis, or ideally, you will incorporate reflexivity throughout your thesis. My examples demonstrate some aspects of my own reflexive journey during my PhD, which may help you to begin your own journey into reflexivity.

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All views expressed are those of the individual authors and do not reflect the views of The PhD Place Ltd.
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