DR JESSICA REES
As distinguished by Chiseri-Strater (1996) “to be reflective does not demand an ‘other,’ while to be reflexive demands both another and some self- conscious awareness of the process of self-scrutiny” (p. 130). If knowledge reflects the identity of its producers (Haraway, 1991) then it is important for researchers to acknowledge their influence on the research process. Researcher subjectivity (i.e. how does who I am, who I think I am, and how I feel affect data collection and analysis) is a methodological tool and analytic resource in qualitative research (Braun & Clarke, 2020). In this blog, I consider how my personal and academic biography influenced data collection and ultimately the knowledge produced (Pillow, 2003). These examples relate to my PhD research, where I used a qualitative approach to explore how best to support the management of long-term conditions in dementia.
Self-location of my own positionality as a researcher
During data collection, I reflected on how my personal biography as a young, white, female may have influenced the research process. When conducting interviews, my awareness of these factors heightened with comments made by participants. I acknowledged how this heightened awareness may have impacted my ability to ask questions in interviews. In one example, the family carer would follow up his answers with statements such as ‘let me know if I am talking down to you.’ I recorded in my reflective diary how this made me feel uncomfortable, as I felt the family carer did this due to his perception of me as a young woman. I acknowledged how this feeling made me more withdrawn in interviews as I did not want to further contribute to his ‘perception’ that I lacked understanding of the research topic.
I experienced similar discomfort when my physical appearance was referenced in a video-interview. One person with dementia commented that he found me attractive. The family carer found this amusing however I then became mindful of the presence of his wife, who also had dementia. I had observed how protective this person with dementia was of her husband, and I was concerned his comment would impact her acceptance of me as a researcher and thus impact the research process. I was unable to interpret how she responded to the comment as this interview was conducted over WhatsApp video and the family carer was not pointing the camera at her. I considered how I might have been able to navigate the situation better if the interview had been in-person.
Towards the end of data collection, I felt more experienced in uncomfortable reflexive practice (Pillow, 2003). Thus, I felt better prepared to deal with feelings of discomfort related to references to my personal characteristics. For example, when one person with dementia became frustrated due to the inability to hear me over Zoom, he referred to both my accent (‘you need elocution lessons’) and my age (‘I’m going to treat you like a little girl because that’s what you are’). Despite feeling uncomfortable, I felt able to navigate the situation by calmly responding with a direct question which the family carer was able to repeat. This facilitated data collection as the person with dementia accepted the invitation to complete an event-based diary to overcome his hearing impairment.
I am a university-educated, PhD student with a background in Psychology. I considered how this academic biography influenced data collection. In one example, the person with dementia asked about my qualifications and seemed reassured by my answers that I had some expertise in the topic. This appeared to enable a sense of trust between us. I reflected that my personal characteristics (young female) may have led him to seek this reassurance.
My background in Psychology, and qualitative health research, influenced my choice of research design during study conception and my epistemological positioning. I acknowledge that my assumptions about life with a chronic condition developed from participant accounts I heard during my undergraduate and masters degree research projects. As I have no personal experience of living with dementia or a chronic condition, I would position myself as an ‘outside researcher’ (Hellawell, 2007) while acknowledging, in line with my critical realism positioning that interpretation of participants accounts are always mediated by my own assumptions and biases.
I acknowledge how my lack of medical background made interpretation of consultation notes more challenging. In one example, my supervisory panel discussed how the participant’s swollen feet were a symptom of heart failure. This was not previously clear to me, and this medical knowledge led me to explore the participants’ understanding of this. It is also important to acknowledge the academic biographies of my supervisors: an old age psychiatrist, a GP, and a qualitative researcher with expertise in social support and health outcomes. I consider how my supervisory panel may have influenced my epistemological positioning. Although their training in bio-medical models of healthcare may be more aligned with a positivist stance, my supervisors adopt a bio-psycho-social approach to their professions and regularly engage in reflexive practices as mixed-methodology health researchers.
Reflexivity is core component for qualitative research (Rankl et al., 2021), yet it can be difficult to know how to describe our reflexive processes in a way that shows meaningful engagement with knowledge production from our studies. In this blog, I have provided an example where I consider aspects of my influence as a researcher on my doctoral work and how I integrated this reflection into the methods and findings chapter of my thesis.
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2020). One size fits all? What counts as quality practice in (reflexive) thematic analysis? Qualitative Research in Psychology, 1–25. https://doi.org/10.1080/14780887.2020.1769238
Chiseri-Strater, E. (1996). Turning in upon ourselves: Positionality, subjectivity, and reflexivity in case study and ethnographic research. In Mortensen, P., & Kirsch, G. Ethics and Representations in Qualitative Studies of Literacy (pp. 115–133). National Council of Teachers of English.
Haraway, D. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge.
Hellawell, D. (2007). Teaching in Higher Education Inside-out: analysis of the insider-outsider concept as a heuristic device to develop reflexivity in students doing qualitative research. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562510600874292
Pillow, W. (2003). Confession, catharsis, or cure? Rethinking the uses of reflexivity as methodological power in qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(2), 175–196. https://doi.org/10.1080/0951839032000060635
Rankl, F., Johnson, G. A., & Vindrola-Padros, C. (2021). Examining What We Know in Relation to How We Know It: A Team-Based Reflexivity Model for Rapid Qualitative Health Research. Qualitative Health Research, 31(7), 1358–1370. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732321998062
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jessica Rees completed her PhD in Applied Health Research at University College London, Division of Psychiatry (email: firstname.lastname@example.org).