I first heard about Reflexivity Practice during my applied psychology studies. It is a practice used in critical psychology to raise awareness of how one’s subjective worldview can influence research. But I think it is a great practice to use in our daily lives to help us clarify the opinions we hold so dear and in the process, reduce our conscious or unconscious bias.
In a sea of articles just like this one, shared and reshaped, recapped and regurgitated, how can we know what we really think about something rather than being influenced by the majority (or the loudest!) voice?
Is Reflexive and Reflective the Same?
Most of us tend to be reflective, we think about what happened and we ask ourselves what we have learned from it and how we can apply it to our lives.
We ask questions such as:
- What happened?
- How did I feel?
- What can I do differently next time?
We probably focus some (or all) of our journaling time on reflective practice.
But How Is Being Reflexive Different?
Reflexive practice is when we reflect on what we have learned (from a situation, but also from a book, research or a conversation) and how this learning applies to our broader social context. Archer (2007) defines reflexivity as “the regular exercise of the mental ability, shared by all normal people, to consider themselves in relation to their social contexts and vice versa.”
As a reflexive practice, we ask questions from the stance of an actor rather than action, such as
- Why did it happen?
- What were the underlying assumptions?
- What were the automatic ways of thinking and doing?
Reflexivity practice is crucial in critical psychology and research. It is absolutely imperative that a researcher is aware of how he or she is affecting research because all of us are ‘subjective’ in the sense that we are all products of our own social, political, and cultural elements which also affect our worldview.
Reflexive practice can help us develop critical thinking and become aware of how our social positioning may influence our opinions and observations.
For example, do you come from a position of social privilege?
Are you male, cisgender, or heterosexual?
Are you the majority race/nationality/ethnicity in your environment?
Are you affluent or poor?
Are you neuorodivergent?
Elderly? Muslim? Christian? Atheist?
Are you a migrant or a refugee? Or perhaps an expat?
How do these social positions shape the way you see the world and others? And also based on that, how do others see you?
Keeping a journal is a great way to work on your reflexive thinking (research psychologists are encouraged to keep a reflexive journal during their research projects).
Writing reflexively can help us consider ideas and issues; it can open up things we hadn’t noticed before and help our overall growth and self-awareness.
As you write, ask yourself how your personal background and life experiences have shaped your roles and views. Next time you proclaim how ‘homosexuals should keep it private” or that “abortion is murder” try to engage in some reflexive practice.
- Why were your opinions formed?
- What influenced them?
- Does your social standing have anything to do with the way you think about a particular issue?
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
This quote is attributed to Aristotle, but is probably a mistranslation – but nevertheless, it is a fitting quote to describe Reflexivity Practice.
Personal Reflexivity Practice
I have spent years working all over the world among different cultures with practices so very different from my own. I was 23 when I first ventured out into the big wide world. Back then, like most twenty-somethings, I was very opinionated, wanting clarity and feeling very uncomfortable with the so-called grey areas.
But there is nothing better than truly engaging with different cultures to understand how much you are the product of your own environment. There is nothing inherently bad about that, of course, we are! We exist in relation to others after all. What is bad about that though is not being aware of it.
Examples of Where Reflexivity Practice Would Be Useful
I remember when my then fifty-something boss from the USA, a colleague from Uganda, and a few other colleagues had a chat over a cup of tea. The Ugandan colleague talked about his childhood with his three mothers, one his biological and two of his father’s other wives. When he left, my boss said: “Three mothers? How can he be normal being raised by three mothers?” What struck me was not her absolute conviction in that statement, but how sad it was that after working internationally for over 30 years of her life and all over the world which she loved to talk about, she didn’t realize that what is ‘normal’ for her is not necessarily the norm for everyone else. Thirty years is too long not to engage in any reflexive practice. Sad to never change your opinions or at least be able to entertain other opinions and practices.
I am often amused to see how horrified some people are when I tell them that in some countries I’ve lived in people don’t always use seatbelts (or the laws on using seatbelts aren’t always strictly enforced). They always forget that only several decades ago the same was true in the ‘developed’ world and that their opinion about it changed, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it was enforced by the law.
Think about smoking indoors now vs 20 years ago. Nothing about smoking being bad for you has changed, but so much about our social standing and its influences (including legal enforcement) has.
Individual–society dualism is the most enduring theme in social psychology.
There is the tendency to think that on the one hand, we are individualists, and our opinions and beliefs are uniquely our own, but on the other hand, we are, of course, heavily influenced by our social sphere.
There is now a growing recognition of the ways cultural discourses ‘get inside’ and come to feel truly part of our own ‘authentic’ selves. Media discourses do not remain within the media as static messages, nor are they simply taken up wholesale. Complex processes underlie the formation of subjectivity.Riley et al. 2018, p.6
For the reasons above, Reflexivity Practice should be on our minds all the time and hopefully expressed formally, through journaling.
Writing is when most of us do our best thinking.
Archer, M. S. (2007). Making Our Way Through the World: Human Reflexivity and Social Mobility. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 343 pp.
Riley S., Evans A., Robson M. (2018) Postfeminism and health, London, UK: Routledge.