Why you should care about reflexivity in prevention research

In today’s post, Angelina Brotherhood, doctoral researcher at the University of Vienna, invites us to reflect on ‘why’ we conduct our research and how our own values and beliefs influence our research. She argues that being clear on research purpose and underlying values is especially important in fields such as prevention research.

As a full-time doctoral student, one of my favourite things is having the opportunity to think, read, listen, and talk about things that are not strictly project-related. Though I might receive my degree sooner if I focussed solely on ‘getting the job done’, I take the view that the doctorate is not just about completing a research project. Ultimately the doctorate (and the early career phase generally) should be about determining what kind of professional you want to be, right?

Sometimes it is worth going a bit slower but having time to breathe and look around (picture © Mike Brotherhood, used with permission)

Sometimes it is worth going a bit slower but having time to breathe and look around
(picture © Mike Brotherhood, used with permission)

In this post, I summarise where my thinking has led me thus far. I highlight some questions that I found useful and illustrate how answering them has helped me in my research.

What are your underlying values, beliefs, and assumptions?

A while back, our doctoral student group had a heated debate about how to do research on topics that one is emotionally involved with or has a stake in. As a follow-up, my supervisor suggested that we each write a reflective piece regarding our innermost values, beliefs, and assumptions concerning our topic (with no obligation to share or submit). The idea was that these thoughts and emotions, if not brought to the surface, could creep into the research and affect it negatively.

Because my thesis is about socio-spatial aspects of substance use (e.g. how substance use is related to where you are, who you are with, or what meaning a place holds for you), I started by writing down my personal thoughts and feelings about ‘drugs’ and ‘drug users’, about ‘drugs as a professional field for me to work in’, and finally I asked why I was interested in ‘space’. What came to my mind? How did I feel? I wrote until I could not think of anything more. I then reviewed my writing to try and tease out what guides my thinking and hence influences my research.

What is your research purpose, what is your lens?

More recently, I came across a text on research purpose1. The authors argued that researchers do not think enough about why they are doing a particular project. Yet, it is crucial to consider the ‘why’ because study design depends on the main purpose for carrying out the study. Lack of clarity on research purpose could therefore lead to studies that are perfectly executed but useless.

The authors also introduced the concept of a ‘lens’ through which researchers view and conduct studies. This lens is the product of researchers’ “autobiographies, who they are, their lives […] their values, beliefs, experiences, age, and gender as well as their social, psychological, and spiritual development”2. That certainly explains why two researchers, given the same research question, will come up with two completely different projects!

I found this text inspiring because it prompted me to think and write about i) why am I doing a doctorate at all, ii) why am I doing this particular project, and iii) what is my lens?

Reflexivity

Such exercises are just examples of how reflexivity (reflecting on the relationship between the researcher and the research) can be nourished. Another way to embed reflexivity in the research process is to keep a research diary3. I started keeping an electronic diary for my doctoral project last year. In it, I document and reflect on study-related developments, challenges, doubts, questions, decisions and so on.

This brings us right to the qualitative vs. quantitative (or interpretivist vs. positivist) paradigm wars. It appears that due to the way scientific traditions have developed historically, interpretivist/qualitative researchers stress “the intimate relationship between the researcher and what is studied”, while positivist/quantitative researchers are seen to believe that “their work is done from within a value-free framework”4. Hence, qualitatively orientated researchers consider reflexivity to be a crucial aspect of their work and will often include in their reports reflections on their own role, while in my experience it is rare to find such reflections in more quantitatively orientated pieces of work.

But surely we should all seek to be ‘reflective’ about our research, regardless of our methodological or paradigmatic orientations. If we take the idea of the ‘lens’ seriously, then we must realise that our own lens will always influence our research (e.g. what questions we ask and why). Our research is never value-free.

Implications for my own research

The first exercise (values, beliefs, assumptions) facilitated a massive personal catharsis, while the second (research purpose, lens) helped me to refine and better justify my research questions, choice of theory, sampling strategy and methods. The third exercise (keeping a diary) lets me track my progress, and it will certainly support the thesis write-up.

I would like to highlight one issue to give you an idea of the kind of insights I have had and how they have shaped my research – the presumed tension between being a critical sociologist and a preventionist.

My sociology department always encouraged us to try and expose how inequalities are (re)produced through societally embedded power relations (think of e.g. Marx, Foucault, feminist theory). Taking such a critical approach can seem to be at odds with working in prevention, as prevention (and health promotion in general) can be perceived as perpetuating and deepening, rather than questioning, power relations and social inequalities5,6,7,8,9. Although I believe that substance users should not be scared, stigmatised or punished, unfortunately (and, in my view, wrongly) ‘prevention’ is often equated with exactly those kinds of approaches.

Consequently, as I am exploring socio-spatial aspects of substance use, I worried that if I was to highlight ‘preventive’ implications, I might inadvertently justify measures such as increased video surveillance, police presence, being searched, or new laws. Though others make such recommendations under the banners of prevention and public health, encouraging such measures would seem incompatible with my professional beliefs (e.g. that sociologists should seek to improve the living conditions of disadvantaged groups).

For these reasons, I was long hesitant to frame my thesis as a ‘prevention’ study. Thinking about my lens, however, I realised that prevention is a big part of it and that inevitably in the conclusions section I will be highlighting how my study could inform future prevention efforts. In fact, it has been argued that a researcher’s lens will often only become apparent in the discussion or conclusions section10. Moreover, I found that my ‘critical sociologist’ background is not something separate, but that it shapes my understanding of prevention. So I was slowly able to see them not as opposing perspectives, but as mutually enriching ones. I have consequently amended my research design to look especially at the spaces in which people choose voluntarily not to use substances (or to use less)11, and I hope to report more on my study in a future post.

Why you should care

I hope I have convinced you that reflexivity is not unscientific or ‘touchy-feely’ nonsense but an important part of professional ethics and development. I have also argued that it is not something that should only be undertaken by qualitatively or critically orientated scholars or certain disciplines, but something that we need more of overall, especially in fields such as prevention science. To summarise:

  • There are many different ways to address a topic, so being clear on research purpose, lens, etc. will help to focus the study and justify the research design. Though I alluded initially that reflexivity might slow me down, actually it may save me time in the long run. For example, being unclear about the purpose of a project may mean you get stuck at the end because you cannot write a coherent narrative.
  • Later on, reflexivity helps to keep the study useful. If we do not pause to reflect, we might lose sight of our research purpose. For example, prevention researchers can become so used to measuring substance use as a proxy dependent variable that they forget that it is not actually substance use per se that they are trying to prevent but potential negative consequences12.
  • Reflexivity also helps to ensure that our research is compatible with our personal and professional beliefs, and that we do not inadvertently support projects (political, moral or otherwise) that run against our own convictions. We should always keep in mind that, as health researchers, we have a particular responsibility because our work may impact on people’s lives13.

Perhaps most importantly, becoming aware of your own position is, in my view at least, an essential step in the transition from early-career to independent researcher.

An invitation

If you have never done this kind of thing before (or not in a while), why not take 20 minutes today and try out some reflective writing yourself. If you are unsure how to start, freewriting is a great approach. If you would rather read someone else’s reflection, try this one by Rebecca J. Haines-Saah14.

So, finally, how do you ensure reflexivity in your own work? How has being reflective helped you? Or are you not convinced of its value? I look forward to your comments.

About the author

My name is Angelina Brotherhood and I am a doctoral student at the Institute of Sociology, University of Vienna, Austria. My thesis is a mixed-methods study on how perceived characteristics of everyday spaces relate to substance use in socially integrated users. I trained as a sociologist and entered the drug prevention field in 2007 as an intern at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Since then, I have worked on various policy- and practice-related activities, including evidence reviews and quality standards in drug prevention. I have been an EUSPR member since 2010 and am currently serving on the EUSPR Board as the early-careers lead (until 2017). You can find me on Twitter as @pbm_AB.

Bibliographic references and notes

  1. Newman, Isadore; Ridenour, Carolyn S.; Newman, Carole; DeMarco, George Mario Paul, Jr. (2003): A typology of research purposes and its relationship to mixed methods. In Abba Tashakkori, Charles Teddlie (Eds.): Handbook of mixed methods in social & behavioural research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 167–188. []
  2. Ibid., p. 174. []
  3. For an example, see Watt, Diane (2007): On becoming a qualitative researcher: The value of reflexivity. The Qualitative Report 12 (1), pp. 82–101. Available online at http://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/QR12-1/watt.pdf, checked on 1.4.16. []
  4. Denzin, Norman K.; Lincoln, Yvonna S. (2000): Introduction: The Discipline and Practice of Qualitative Research. In Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln (Eds.): Handbook of Qualitative Research. Second edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, p. 8. []
  5. Bell, Kirsten (2013): Where there’s smoke there’s fire: Outdoor smoking bans and claims to public space. Contemporary Drug Problems 40 (1), pp. 99–128. []
  6. Haines-Saah, R. J. (2013): After the Smoke Has Cleared. Reflections from a Former Smoker and Tobacco Researcher. Contemporary Drug Problems 40 (1), pp. 129–153. DOI: 10.1177/009145091304000107. []
  7. Lock, Margaret M.; Nguyen, Vinh-Kim (2010): An anthropology of biomedicine. Chichester, West Sussex, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. []
  8. Mik-Meyer, Nanna (2014): Health promotion viewed in a critical perspective. Scandinavian journal of public health 42 (15 Suppl), pp. 31–35. DOI: 10.1177/1403494814544496. []
  9. Roumeliotis, Filip (2015): Politics of prevention: The emergence of prevention science. The International Journal on Drug Policy 26 (8), pp. 746–754. DOI: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2015.03.011. []
  10. Newman et al., A typology of research purposes and its relationship to mixed methods. []
  11. Brotherhood, Angelina (2015): Exploring drugspheres: what characterises settings where substances are (not) consumed? 6th International Conference and Members’ meeting of the European Society for Prevention Research (EUSPR). Ljubljana, 10/24/2015. []
  12. For more on this point, see Fernandez-Hermida, Jose Ramon; Calafat, Amador; Becoña, Elisardo; Tsertsvadze, Alexander; Foxcroft, David R. (2012): Assessment of generalizability, applicability and predictability (GAP) for evaluating external validity in studies of universal family-based prevention of alcohol misuse in young people: systematic methodological review of randomized controlled trials. Addiction 107 (9), pp. 1570–1579. DOI: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2012.03867.x. []
  13. Duncan, Peter (2007): Critical perspectives on health. Basingstoke [England], New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 94–96. []
  14. Haines-Saah, After the Smoke Has Cleared. In this article, the author opens up about her experiences of entering the tobacco research field as a smoker, having to hide her smoking status given other researchers’ antismoking sentiments. She also urges fellow researchers to “consider how their personal views about ‘smokers’ and smoking influence the nature of their work”; yet she doubts whether the field has the necessary “capacity for reflexivity” (p. 151). I would certainly like to believe so, and I hope we will be able to discuss some of these questions at this year’s EUSPR conference in Berlin. []

6 thoughts on “Why you should care about reflexivity in prevention research

  1. Dear Angelina,
    Thank you for sharing your ideas and for putting a spotlight on the importance of reflexivity. I agree with you, it is very important and useful to think and to write about the steps we make. I first realised the importance of this process while I was in education in psychotherapy, in which keeping a diary was an obligation. This helped me a lot to get in touch with some core parts of myself, and to be aware of my choices, goals and behaviours. Although I haven’t been actively thinking about this process for a while, I was also keeping a sort of a diary while I was working on my PhD. This material with my ideas, thoughts and dilemmas helped me a lot while I was writing my dissertation, especially the discussion chapter and recommendations for future research. So, thanks again for reminding me how important this is, also in my everyday work and life.
    All the best,
    Dijana

    • Thanks, Dijana, for sharing your experiences. Interesting that keeping a diary was an obligatory part of your training to become a psychotherapist! I can very much see the value of that. I’ve also been thinking that I should try and keep up the reflective writing routine after the PhD but you’re right that different work priorities often mean these kinds of things move into the background and can almost become like a luxury. I guess we could also draw some parallels there to our shared interest in trying to improve the quality of drug prevention activities – both rely on making the time to periodically reflect on our doings and act upon what we’ve learnt…

  2. Well done Angelina, some good thoughts. I think we could all benefit from finding some time to reflect on the values and priorities in our work.

    • Thank you very much for your positive feedback, David! I wonder how can get beyond the need to “find” time for such reflection, in other words: how we can embed reflexivity so that it becomes an integral part of our research practice? My feeling is that qualitatively orientated scholars are taught how to do this, but quantitatively oriented scholars (I think most prevention researchers, at least at the moment, would fall into this category?) are left to their own devices. Perhaps we can explore if EUSPR can play a role in this regard?

  3. Dear Angelina,

    I enjoyed your article very much. I have forwarded it to some of my colleagues who are currently enrolled at the sociology PhD program at my university (University of Bucharest).
    I came to appreciate the value of reflexivity in research, even if sometimes it made me feel doubtful on whether I would ever finish my thesis.  In the end, I was pleased, even in the situations when I was not able to take a different path (because of lack of time or difficulty). At least I got the chance to acknowledge in my writing what alternative or better approaches one could employ to research a particular topic.

    I wish you a great spring,
    Fidelie

    • Thank you very much Fidelie for your feedback. I’m glad you enjoyed reading my text and thank you also for sharing it with others. Thank you for raising this additional point – I hadn’t thought it previously like this but you are absolutely right. I have also found myself discussing with myself (so to speak) if I should do my research this way or another, and what could be the advantages and disadvantages. So while reflexive writing is useful for decision-making, I think your point highlights the added benefit of how it can also make you feel ‘at peace’ with the decisions you make: “I acknowledge that I could do it this way, but for reasons X and Y I won’t”. So if you have doubts later on, or can’t remember why you did something a certain way, you can always come back to this and remind yourself of what you thought at the time. Useful!

      All the best to you too,
      Angelina

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