Reflexivity is an attitude of attending systematically to the context of knowledge construction, especially to the effect of the researcher, at every step of the research process.
"A researcher's background and position will affect what they choose to investigate, the angle of investigation, the methods judged most adequate for this purpose, the findings considered most appropriate, and the framing and communication of conclusions" (Malterud, 2001, p. 483-484).
The perspective or position of the researcher shapes all research - quantitative, qualitative, even laboratory science.
Beliefs about research bias
There is an assumption among researchers that bias or skewedness in a research study is undesirable. As Malterud (2001) writes: "Preconceptions are not the same as bias, unless the researcher fails to mention them" (p. 484).
Different researchers will approach a study situation from different positions or perspectives. This might lead to the development of different, although equally valid, understandings of a particular situation under study.
While some may see these different ways of knowing as a reliability problem, others feel that these different ways of seeing provide a richer, more developed understanding of complex phenomena.
Understanding something about the position, perspective, beliefs and values of the researcher is an issue in all research, but particularly in qualitative research where the researcher is often constructed as the 'human research instrument.'
Steps to foster reflexivity and reflexive research design
Designing research that includes multiple investigators -- This can foster dialogue, lead to the development of complementary as well as divergent understandings of a study situation and provide a context in which researchers' - often hidden - beliefs, values, perspectives and assumptions can be revealed and contested.
It is worth noting that the idea of involving multiple investigators in a study and fostering a reflexive dialogue is most often not to reach consensus and foster reliability.
Develop a reflexive journal (c.f. Lincoln and Guba). -- This is a type of diary where a researcher makes regular entries during the research process. In these entries, the researcher records methodological decisions and the reasons for them, the logistics of the study, and reflection upon what is happening in terms of one's own values and interests. Diary keeping of this type is often very private and cathartic.
Report research perspectives, positions, values and beliefs in manuscripts and other publications. - - Many believe that it is valuable and essential to briefly report in manuscripts, as best as possible, how one's preconceptions, beliefs, values, assumptions and position may have come into play during the research process.
Barry, CA., Britten, N., Barbar, N., Bradley, C. & Stevenson, F. (1999). "Using reflexivity to optimize teamwork in qualitative research." Qualitative Health Research. 9(1), 26-44.
Koch, T. & Harrington, A. (1998). "Reconceptualizing rigour: The case for reflexivity." Journal of Advanced Nursing. 28(4), 882-890.
Lincoln, YS. & Guba, EG. (1985). Naturalistic Inquiry. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Malterud, K. (2001). "Qualitative research: Standards, challenges and guidelines." The Lancet. 358: pp. 483-488.