Reflexivity in qualitative research

This week’s guest blogger is Luis R. Alvarez-Hernandez. Luis is a social work Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Georgia and a Doctoral Minority Fellow with the Council on Social Work Education. His research focuses on the wellbeing of Latinx, LGBTQ+, and immigrant communities, with a particular attention to the experiences of people living at the intersections of these identities. Luis’ teaching and research are informed by over 10 years of experience as a bilingual (English and Spanish) social worker in mental health and healthcare settings, and by critical and feminist theories.

View screencast

Reflexivity is a term commonly used among qualitative researchers and literature. However, graduate students who are new to qualitative terminology and processes may find the term confusing. This post and screencast aims to answer three questions that graduate students may have when first being introduced to reflexivity: (1) What is reflexivity in qualitative research?, (2) Why do we use reflexivity in qualitative research?, and (3) How can I engage in reflexivity in my qualitative research? Next is an introduction to reflexivity in qualitative research, its role, and steps novice researchers can take to begin exploring reflexivity.

What is reflexivity in qualitative research?

Qualitative researchers often engage in exploring their positionality in reference to a phenomenon and the people experiencing it. The subjective nature of qualitative research is recognized by establishing how one’s identity (i.e., gender identity, gender presentation, class, education, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age, language, culture, etc.) and contextual (i.e., immigration status, etc.) positionality contribute to the construction of the research process and findings. This positionality can be explored through the use of reflexivity (Swaminathan & Mulvihill, 2018).

Roulston (2010) defined reflexivity in research as “the researcher’s ability to be able to self-consciously refer to him or herself in relation to the production of knowledge about research topics” (p. 116). Therefore, reflexivity aids the researcher in exploring their positionality and understand how it constructs knowledge. Reflexivity goes beyond “reflection” in that it explores our relationship with others (i.e., research participants and site) (Roulston, 2010). Creswell and Poth (2018) add that the positionality of the researcher would influence all aspects of the research study.

Researchers “position themselves” in a qualitative research study. This means that researchers convey (i.e., in a method section, in an introduction, or in other places in a study) their background (e.g., work experiences, cultural experiences, history), how it informs their interpretation of the information in a study, and what they have to gain from the study (p. 44). Hence, the researcher’s reflexivity should begin as early as possible. Engaging in reflexivity throughout the research process would allow for understanding meaning within power structures and ensuring trustworthiness in the study.

Why do we use reflexivity in qualitative research?

Understanding the meaning people make of their lives is a big part of qualitative research, particularly of traditions like phenomenology. A researcher’s experiences shape how that meaning is understood, and it is significant to others (Smith et al., 2009). However, “the world is informed by structured power relations based on race, gender, class, sexual orientation, dis/ability, or religion” (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016, p. 62). A reason to engage in reflexivity is ensuring that the researcher is not perpetuating oppressive structures within the research study and towards their participants. Trustworthiness is another reason for engaging in reflexivity. Trustworthiness in qualitative research alludes to how well a study aligns with its purpose and design. This is especially important for qualitative research since the researcher is a tool for data gathering and analysis. Moreover, unlike most quantitative research, qualitative research findings may not be replicable nor generalizable. Hence, trustworthiness in qualitative research should be established through credibility, transferability, and dependability. Credibility relates to how compatible are the findings with reality. Transferability, on the other hand, is about the reader or user generalizability. Moreover, dependability in qualitative research is not about the replicability of findings but about consistency between the findings and the data collected. Each of these trustworthiness components (credibility, transferability, and dependability) can be achieved by using various approaches. Engaging in reflexivity would contribute to enhancing the credibility of the study.

How can I engage in reflexivity in my qualitative research?

Qualitative researchers can engage in reflexivity through (1) jotting notes about participants’ comments and researcher’s thoughts during the interview, (2) memoing as soon as possible after an interview, and (3) developing and continually editing the researcher’s subjectivity statement. These processes are not separate from the data analysis process but embedded into it. Novice researchers can start immersing themselves in the process of reflexivity, asking themselves: “What do I know? How do I know what I know? What shapes and has shaped my perspective? With what voice do I share my perspective? What do I do with what I have found?” (Patton 2014, as cited in Marshall & Rossman, 2016, p. 118). These questions should be answered periodically throughout the research process. For those new to qualitative research, it may be helpful to engage in reflexivity through creative methods. For example, one can engage in reflexivity using art and creative approaches (McCaffrey & Edwards, 2015). Moreover, the interview transcription process can serve as an opportunity for being reflexive (Shelton & Flint, 2019). Qualitative researchers have many other processes at their disposal to engage in reflexivity. How one engages in reflexivity will depend on the connections we are seeking to make, the research study, and the researcher’s level of awareness. Ultimately, how a researcher engages in reflexivity should add to the meaning made of the data, participants, documents, and observations that inform the research question.

Reflexivity opens the doors to new possibilities, theorizations, understandings, and meanings. By being reflexive, qualitative researchers can better understand themselves as individuals and as social scientists. Reflexivity is a tool for methodologically sound research that includes the researcher as part of the construction of meaning.


Creswell, J. W., & Poth, C. N. (2018). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches (4th ed.). SAGE.

Marshall, C., & Rossman, G. B. (2016). Designing qualitative research (6th ed.). SAGE.

McCaffrey, T., & Edwards, J. (2015). Meeting art with art: Arts-based methods enhance researcher reflexivity in research with mental health service users. Journal of Music Therapy, 52(4), 515–532.

Merriam, S. B., & Tisdell, E. J. (2016). Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation (4th ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Roulston, K. (2010). Reflective interviewing: A guide to theory & practice. SAGE.

Shelton, S. A., & Flint, M. A. (2019). The value of transcription in encouraging researcher reflexivity. SAGE Research Methods Case Studies.

Smith, J. A., Flowers, P., & Larkin, M. (2009). Interpretive phenomenological analysis: Theory, method and research. SAGE.

View the autosave

Swaminathan, R., & Mulvihill, T. M. (2018). Teaching qualitative research: Strategies for engaging emerging scholars. Guilford Press.

For more resources, see

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s