Reflexivity is a concept that tends to be well understood by qualitative researchers, especially those with a strong grounding in approaches such as ethnography, but it is less commonly referred to explicitly by quantitative researchers. However, reflexivity is a key concept for any researcher, whether conducting qual, quant, or even secondary research.
Definitions of reflexivity vary, but the core concept is that there is a circular cause and effect loop between the researcher and whatever is being researched. This phenomenon was described by Hammersley and Atkinson “The concept of reflexivity acknowledges that the orientations of researchers will be shaped by their socio-historical locations, including the values and interests that these locations confer upon them.”
In market research, the questions we ask, the questions we don’t ask, the people we research, the people we don’t research, what we think we see, and what we think we hear are all shaped by who we are, our experiences, our feelings, and our expectations.
Where quant and qual researchers sometimes part company is in how they try to address this circular loop between the researcher and the topic/people being researched. The traditional quant approach is to try to suppress subjectivity and to strive towards some sort of idealised objectivity. However, whilst there is merit in eliminating those biases that can be identified, they will never all be identified, which can result in a false air of ‘scientific method’ being attached to the outcome.
Whilst some qual researchers share the quant process of minimising those elements of bias they can identify and seek to be 'objective', others have chosen to embed the process of reflexivity in their research. Uwe Flick describes this as “The subjectivity of the researcher and of those being studied becomes part of the research process. Researchers’ reflections on their actions and observations in the field, their impressions, irritations, feelings, and so on, become data in their own right, forming part of the interpretation, …”
Utilising reflexivity does not necessarily mean being actively biased. Identifying and removing bias can still be part of the process, but the researcher needs to recognise that there are limits to objectivity and that there are opportunities for researchers to actively use themselves as part of the research instrument.
With growth of online research and the rise of social media the need for researchers to appreciate reflexivity is growing. In online research we are dealing with respondents who take part in large numbers of surveys, whose interpretation of the research process is of growing importance (hence increased interest in topics such as respondent engagement). In social media the process of listening and of co-creation render any pretence of pure objectivity ridiculous. All researchers, qual, quant, and others need to treat their subjectivity and their respondents/participants/collaborators’ subjectivity as part of the data.
Hammersley & Atkinson, “Ethnography”, Routledge, 2007
Flick, “An Introduction to Qualitative Research”, Sage, 2009