Reflexivity

Scientists embracing the philosophical perspective of positivism often seek objectivity, fact and truth while trying to avoid contaminating their results with intuition and personal bias. This is commendable and relevant for hard sciences where tangible measurements are taken from physical things, but it can be limiting, to the extent that personal biases always exist and even top experts in a field will often disagree or have a different perspective on a matter of interest. Data can only tell us so much and we have to render this data into a narrative and tell its story in relation to the existing literature. This is when reflexivity becomes important to prevent us from imparting unquestioned assumptions onto the data. I say unquestioned, because assumptions do not automatically represent incorrectness. In fact we rely on assumptions and biases to help us ‘get through life’ on a day to day basis. Assumptions might indeed represent truth but we should not let them remain unexamined and risk a faulty assumption slipping through the net. Thus we need an approach to help us question the assumptions we might impart on our data so that we can clearly say that we have examined them in light of multiple different perspectives and we still hold this view or else refine our views in light of logic and reason…Basically we need to reflect on our beliefs, opinions, perspectives and values…We need to engage with reflexivity and explicate our own subjective points of view. We need to make our assumptions explicit rather than remaining hidden constituents of a general perspective that can cause us to mis-interpret data.

Reflexivity or the process of enquiring into our own beliefs, perspectives, values (i.e. self oriented reflection) is important for all researchers as it helps us to understand and thus account for our own predetermined conception of how things are or what truth in a particular domain of enquiry consists of or indeed might consist of. If we know and understand explicitly what we want to come out of the data we tend to be able to consciously override our tendency to intuitively impart our desired interpretation onto the data. However, if we don’t make these biases conscious we can run into problems and render the data into a narrative that steps erroneously beyond what the data is telling us.

If we go back to the opening line of this post:

“Scientists embracing the philosophical perspective of positivism often seek objectivity, fact and truth while trying to avoid contaminating their results with intuition and personal bias

It is my view that to achieve objectivity we need to embrace subjectivity, be aware of what we inherently believe to be true and lay this enquiry firmly into the process of doing research.

We know from history, human beings are capable of engaging in horrific acts of violence and oppressive acts and we are also capable of compassion, love and nurturing acts of kindness. We have witnessed in history many different behaviours, reinforced by underpinning beliefs and values. This demonstrates that our experiences, opinions, beliefs and perspectives are malleable and adaptable. In short it demonstrates that experience is inherently subjective. But through the scientific method we seek truth while limiting subjective interpretation. So we need to be sure we are not intuitively imparting our own biases into the interpretation of data. We need to be reflexive…