Mika Launikari


Reflexive research practice to reduce power imbalances

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Background photo: Karin Beate Nøsterud (www.norden.org)

Earlier this week I got inspired by an article of Wanda Pillow, in which she discusses the four trends that are prevailing in reflexive qualitative research today, namely reflexivity as recognition of self, reflexivity as recognition of other, reflexivity as truth, and reflexivity as transcendence. Pillow is specifically interested in the power imbalance between the researcher and participant subjectivities. She points out that narrowing the thinking of power down only to the interactional context (between researcher and participant) does not allow us to consider the full extent to which power may affect qualitative research. Therefore, the reflexive research practice will have to be further reinforced in line with these four trends.
TREND 1: Reflexivity as recognition of self is about our subjectivity as researchers related to people, events, occurrences, etc. that we encounter in the field. Reflexivity is expected to improve the quality of research by means of extending our understanding of how our own self-awareness, social position and life interests as researchers influence the entire research process from initiation to completion (i.e. from situating the study to telling the story). The issue here is to come to know oneself as this is the key to knowing and understanding the other as well.

TREND 2: Reflexivity as recognition of the other requires one’s conscious awareness of and ability to deal with differences between oneself as a researcher and the participant. Without properly acknowledging these differences, the other may easily remain an object or a projection of the researcher’s self. In the worst case the researcher’s lack of identifying and correctly interpreting differences can result in misrecognition of the other, and this can make the researcher rely on false assumptions and misguided perceptions of social phenomena.

TREND 3: Reflexivity as truth draws the attention to the notion of voice as well as to whose voice exactly is to be heard and whose is eventually going to be silenced. As there is no single truth in our social world, the researcher should make every attempt possible to guarantee that the voice in the research is given to the community being studied. The duty of the researcher is to communicate his participants’ own interpretations and perceptions of the researched phenomenon as this way a reflexive research practice can better reflect the reality of those who are living it on an everyday basis.

TREND 4: Reflexivity as transcendence means that the researcher will be able to go beyond the self, the other and the truth, and rise above all the biases he may have brought with him into the research field. This relates, among other things, to one’s own subjectivity, situated positionality (e.g. professional identity) and cultural context (incl. values, beliefs, norms, traditions). The question that remains is whether or not a researcher by means of self-reflexivity will ever be able to release himself from subjective biases and cultural assumptions, and that way transcend them and see the objective truth about them.

Finally, Pillow also brings into discussion the uncomfortable reflexive practices that aim at knowing while at the same time situating this knowing as tenuous. These reflexivities of discomfort deal with what is unfamiliar, difficult and challenging. In her article, Pillow illustrates how these reflexivities can be practiced as well as gives examples of problematizing dominant discourses of acceptable research practices. Pillow suggests that researchers who are practising reflexivities of discomfort do not question the importance of studying issues of power and ethics, but they recognise that reflexivity is tightly linked to power and privilege; dimensions that cannot be easily abolished from social/ethnographic research.

Source: Pillow, Wanda (2003): Confession, catharsis, or cure? Rethinking the uses of reflexivity as method-logical power in qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16:2.

Photo: Karin Beate Nøsterud (www.norden.org)