Experiences of self-reflexivity in qualitative research

Jacqui Burne, Massey University

I confess: I am biased.

I came to this conclusion as I have progressed through my thesis and when putting together my presentation for the 2017 NZARE conference at the University of Waikato in November, 2017. Such confessions do not come easily to me, both from an academic as well as a personal viewpoint. However, my presentation was entitled ‘Telling the story of a Commerce teacher (1958-1976),’ and Will Potter, the Commerce teacher being studied in my thesis, was also my father—hence, my heightened awareness of bias.

I am in my fourth year of a Doctor of Education (EdD) degree at Massey University. My qualitative case study, telling the teaching story of William George Potter, has used document analysis of Will’s memoir and other documents, papers, and photos; a focus group with my three siblings (two of whom were taught by Will and all three attended at least one of the schools at which he taught); and semi-structured interviews with one former principal and former colleagues and students to find out more about Will and how he taught Commerce subjects in five New Zealand secondary schools from 1958 to 1976.

My confession of my inherent bias came about as I utilised self-reflexivity, or an ongoing conversation with myself, to analyse what I was doing and why. Self-reflexivity is important in qualitative research because research can be subjective; therefore, I needed to note my thoughts as I have prepared for, gathered, and analysed the data as well as in writing up my work. Reflexivity also helps to address power issues, especially bias, and I must be careful not to be the “all-knowing observer” but be aware that others’ subjectivities could mean that their truth is different to mine. Self-reflexivity also helps to make the findings more credible: I need to be transparent about the process and my role in it. Further, having no reflexivity at all can compromise the research. Finally, self-reflexivity is important because as my participants reveal their thoughts and lives for my research, so, too, should I. I can be honest and note any mistakes, surprises, or things that did not go according to plan. As an interviewer, I had licence to answer questions asked of me and show my emotions—to show that I am human.

Ideally, qualitative researchers need to be self-reflexive all the time. To date, there have been four specific times that self-reflexivity has been particularly relevant to my research.

  • The first was in choosing the topic: initially, I wanted to tell both my parents’ stories from an adult education point of view. However, no matter how hard I tried, I could not make this topic ‘fit’ into the EdD structure or, indeed, into my own conceptual framework. It took me a while to concede that what I wanted to do was not going to work in this context; by acknowledging my biases, I now have a better topic.
  • The second time was during the focus group when I was concerned that despite my attempts at moderating, we seemed to be going off topic. Later, in transcribing the data, I could see that what I had considered was not quite relevant information was, in fact, adding to a more balanced picture of Will and who he was—as a man, a father, and a teacher.
  • The third time is now as I am writing up my thesis: like all researchers, I have to wrestle with what to include in the thesis and what to leave out yet still offer a robust and unbiased argument. However, I also need to consider how much of myself to include in my writing. My ‘signature’ should not be so strong that the story is all about me yet not so weak that my participants’ voices and theories dominate and I am invisible. I need to make this research my own.
  • Finally, I pondered about my conference presentation: how much did I want to reveal to those attending my session? In an effort to offer practical examples of self-reflexivity, I added personalised comments and ponderings throughout the presentation. Actually choosing these was also a self-reflexive exercise.

There are many ways to be self-reflexive, but no real guidelines for doing so. Therefore, I have tried to self-reflexively be as unbiased as I can in offering some suggestions for self-reflexivity in research. My involvement needs to be ‘just right,’ much like Goldilocks and her choice of porridge temperature. I need to be in and around the research, but I should not dominate. I have not been afraid to be naïve—although this does sometimes come quite naturally to me!—and have considered such issues as being appreciative of people’s time and information; not commenting when I doubted the accuracy of some of the data offered; and even carefully choosing my outfit when going to people’s homes or places of work for interviews (I did not want to appear too formal or inadvertently offend people with casual jeans, so arrived in muted colours and attire). I need to be confident and competent as I write up the research, despite my feelings to the contrary at times, because confidence has been placed in me by Massey University and my supervisors, and my personal bias toward insecurity will not placate the doctoral process, my doctoral guides, nor my own doctoral abilities. I need to be found in the text. I also need to be honest about what did or did not succeed because such confessions add realism. On a more practical note, keeping a research diary, recording and transcribing the data, and using Endnote have all been helpful. However, I must not get stuck in a circular reflexivity of self-reflexivity and do not want to end up with a thesis containing a series of narcissistic ramblings.

As some of my biases have now been identified, I will reflexively (and continually) seek to deepen my understandings of these and of how they are represented within my writing. I also believe that my self-reflexivity will continue long after the thesis has been finished.

The conference presentation on which this blog post is based was supported by a New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE) Student Travel Grant. These grants are offered annually to assist student members of NZARE to attend the association’s annual conference and present aspects of their research.

Jacqui.jpgJacqui Burne is a part-time EdD student at Massey University. When not studying, she also does tutoring, pre reading, and marking for undergraduate papers at Massey as well as proofreading in a private capacity. 

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