The Value of Reflexivity in Online Qualitative Research

Chris Martin

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Emily James

    Reflexivity is a vital skill for any researcher. It is the systematic, conscious process of evaluating oneself and resulting relationship with the research process. Understanding how unconscious bias, previous experience and even state of mind interact with psychological knowledge construction activities adds an important layer of meta-analysis to your research.

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    It is well documented that researcher perspectives play a significant role in the resulting conclusions. Described as the knower’s mirror, reflexivity affects results at every stage of your research project. From the initial decision to select a method, to the questions asked and even the analysis, a reflexive researcher will understand how their preconceptions affect each of these tasks.

    How Does Reflexivity Affect Online Qual?

    Reflexivity is a particularly important skill to develop when undertaking online qualitative research. There are a number of aspects of online qual that work together to create a potent cocktail of mis-direction when not fully understood.

    1. The purpose of qualitative insight. A significant proportion of qualitative research is aimed at uncovering a universal truth. It is investigative in nature, designed to revolve around participants rather than hypotheses. However, in practise, this is difficult to achieve. Sometimes our own preconceptions and assumptions about universal truth, guide lines of questioning away from the most beneficial course and towards confirming subconscious bias.
    2. A lack of distinct visual cues. In many ways, research participants are more expressive and emotive online. Anonymised responses allow for a greater degree of honesty and emotion without repercussion. Features such as emojis, image uploads and rating systems give participants greater creative freedom to express their feelings in the way most appropriate to them. The difficulty arises in the disconnect between researcher and participant. It is not a new issue, but the lack of body language, visual cues and audible intonation in online qualitative research create a ‘translation gap’. This gap creates the opportunity for bias and perception to influence researchers’ readings of participant responses in a way they were never intended.
    3. Filtering the noise. The volume of data gathered in online qualitative research studies can be vast. Particularly in freeform ethnographies where participants are encouraged to share as much detail as possible, there is a lot of noise. A key skill of an online research analyst is developing mechanisms for filtering through the irrelevant and uncovering the core of the issue, no matter how surprising (or mundane) it may be. But a lack of reflexivity can hinder this process, or worse contort it into a likeness of the researcher rather than the participant.

    The First Step to Fostering Reflexivity

    If a lack of reflexivity can so drastically hinder researchers, we must turn our attention to how it can be fostered. Like any skill, it is not a natural trait, but something that can developed and grown over time. The first issue that must be addressed is the challenge of talking about ourselves. Described first by Francis Bacon during 1620 in Novum Organum, the concept that we are silent in matters concerning ourselves is nothing new.

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    We must challenge this if we wish to improve the quality of our research. The first step to this is to start talking about ourselves, understanding that we see the world through a unique lens and that our interpretation of qualitative results may not be the same as the interpretations of others. This doesn’t mean you need to launch into an explanation (or disclaimer) of your presuppositions during every client debrief. But it should encourage us to start presenting qualitative results as our interpretations, rather than definitive facts. Integrating our own opinions into presentations and giving stakeholders the chance to as well can be a valuable tool which builds on research results – turning them into discussions that have impact and relevance to an organisation.

    But this is a practise that should be used in moderation. A degree of opinion and discussion adds value to qualitative results. Too much, however, can distort the original findings to personal agendas that end up detracting from the discussion. So while you can use reflexivity to your advantage, it is also important to be wary that simply being aware of your own bias does not necessarily validate your opinion as fact.

    Improving Reflexivity to Reduce Bias

    Though there are many activities researchers can engage in to achieve this, these are a selection of the most effective:

    • Practise mindfulness. This is a trend that has been gaining momentum among moderators in recent years and it is clear to see why. Mindfulness is a meditative form of cognitive therapy that encourages people to focus on the moment. Described as disconnecting to connect, mindfulness involves making small changes throughout the day to be more mentally present. The practise aids reflexivity by helping us focus on the moment, rather than previous experiences and mental states that may inadvertently affect behaviour.
    • Keep a daily diary. With a therapeutic quality, writing down thoughts and emotions not only helps us unload in a positive and constructive manner, but it also serves as a longstanding record. Over days, months and years as the diary develops, it will become integral to understanding your previously unknown biases and affords us the opportunity to analyse ourselves.
    • Read around your subject. No matter what position you hold, the chances are your beliefs and attitudes towards your job have been influenced by both your own experiences and your peers’. One of the best ways to understand how this can affect you, is to research and understand the opinions of others. Start by reading blogs and opinion pieces, but work your way towards academic articles and journals as you grow more confident.

    Overall, there are no quick and easy shortcuts to becoming more reflective. It is an incredibly unique and personal process. But by just understanding yourself and becoming more comfortable in knowing that your opinions can influence your qualitative research findings, you are well on your way to becoming a reflexive researcher. What are your best tips for becoming more reflexive? Let us know in the comments below and join the conversation.

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