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Reflexivity in Social Work Research

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Reflexivity (Social Work Research)

In social work, reflexivity (also known as critical reflection, self-reflexivity and reflectivity) is an important aspect of anti-oppressive practice (AOP)theory(10), feminist theory(6)(8), structural social work theory(5),critical research(7),participatory action research (PAR)(10),emancipatory research(7) and Indigenous research methodology(1)(7). Reflexivity means ‘to bend back upon oneself’(3). It is a complex inductive and qualitative methodological research process involving critical self-reflection through a de-construction of the self(2)(9) in order to recognize the impact of social location upon a research relationship(1)(3)(4)(5)(6)(8). Reflexivity focuses on transparency; uncovering the social hierarchal and political powers influencing an individuals’ social construction by dismantling the notion of existing Western epistemologies as the only form of knowledge(1)(2)(3)(7)(10)(11). Reflexivity challenges power imbalances inherent within the researcher and participant relationship by recognizing and honouring issues of representation(1)(5)(11). Reflexivity places great emphasis on shared responsibility, ownership and accountability of knowledge creation(2)(3)(4)(9)(10)(11) in order to avoid Western research practices of appropriation through colonization(4)(7). Reflexivity produces reflexive knowledge, which is morally motivated, reflective and critical, and is in contrast to instrumental knowledge which is factual, impartial and neutral(1).By recognizing research is not neutral(11), reflexivity places emphasis on a research process with political purpose(10)(11) and works to decolonize and incorporate historical contexts such as cultural exploitation, appropriation, colonization and oppression(1)(4)(11).  Broad generalizations and assumptions of truth are avoided(2)(4)(8) in order to honour individual experiences and  strengthen conscientization. Reflexivity aims for research to be emancipatory (9), morally meaningful(9) and representative of  people in an ethical, empowering, non-exploitative, anti-oppressive manner(2)(10)(11).


1) Absolon, K. & Willett, C., (2005). Putting ourselves forward: Location in Aboriginal research.

In L. Brown and S. Strega (Ed), Research as Resistance: critical, indigenous, & anti-oppressive approaches (pp.97-126). Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press/Women’s Press.

2) D’cruz, H. & Gillingham, P., & Melendez, S. (2007). Reflexivity, its meaning and relevance            for social work: A critical review of the literature. British Journal of Social Work, 37,                    73-90  

3) Finlay, L. & Gough, B. (2003). Reflexivity. A Practical Guide for Researchers in Health and

Social Sciences. London: Blackwell Publishing.

4) Herising, F. (2005). Interrupting positions: Critical Thresholds and Queer pro/positions. In L.

Brown and S. Strega (Ed), Research as Resistance: critical, indigenous, & anti-            oppressive approaches (pp.127-152). Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press/Women’s Press.

5) Heron, B. (2005).  Self reflection in critical social work practice: subjectivity and the

possibilities of resistance. Reflective Practice. 6(3), 341-351.

6) Kimpson, S. (2005). Stepping off the road: A narrative (of) inquiry. In L. Brown and

S. Strega (Ed), Research as Resistance: critical, indigenous, & anti-oppressive.(pp73-96). approaches (pp Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press/Women’s Press.

7) Kovach, M. (2005). Emerging from the margins: Indigenous methodologies. In L. Brown and

S. Strega (Ed), Research as Resistance: critical, indigenous, & anti-oppressive            approaches (pp.19-36). Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press/Women’s Press.

8) Mooa-Mitha, M. (2005). Situating anti-oppressive theories within critical and difference-

centred perspectives. In L. Brown and S. Strega (Ed), Research as Resistance: critical,            indigenous, & anti-oppressive approaches (pp.37-72). Toronto: Canadian Scholars’            Press/Women’s Press.

9) Neuman, L. W. (2006). Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches.

Boston MA: Pearson Education Inc. (pp. 32).

10) Potts, K. & Brown, L. (2005). Becoming an anti-oppressive researcher. In L. Brown and S.

Strega (Ed), Research as Resistance: critical, indigenous, & anti-oppressive approaches            (pp.255-286). Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press/Women’s Press.

11) Trinder, L. (1996). Social work research: the state of the art (or science). Child and Family

Social Work, 1, 233-242.



Social Work: The focus of social work varies in its modalities. The most common pertains to anti-oppressive practice and structural model of social work which places emphasis on social contexts—liberal, neo-conservatism, capitalism, patriarchy, racism (rather than individual failings (Baskin, 2003). As a profession, social work should: bring about social change; promote social stability; enhance harmony and well being; respect unique cultures and traditions and strive to achieve social justice with responsibility and harmony (Sewpaul& Jones, 2005 in “Redefining social work standards in the context of globalization lessons from India” (Alphonse, 2008).

Anti-Oppressive Practice (AOP) theory:  As a form of social work practice AOP addresses social divisions and structural inequities present within micro practice between ‘clients’ or workers. It works to respond to people’s needs by embodying a person-centered philosophy that focuses on developing an egalitarian system that reduces the effects of structural inequalities. AOP uses a methodology of process and outcome that aims to empower service users by reducing immediate hierarchal negativities within worker and client interactions (Danso, 2007). AOP plays an important role within reflexivity in that it deals with multiple oppressions and experiences of marginalized person(s) and groups.

Feminist Theory: Focus is placed on asserting the importance of understanding the influence that societies and cultures have in shaping and constraining the lives of marginalized people. The feminist view that the ‘personal is political’ encapsulates the belief that individual’s personal need and problems should take a “social view to social issues” (Millar, 2008, p. 366). There is a vision of achieving an anti-oppressive practice model that handles all structures of oppression. Marginalized feminists have a perception that their oppression is not attended to in this model of anti-oppressive practice. Thus, there is a commitment to understanding anti-oppression practice through particular historical and social conditions of inequity. This concept is important to note within the concept of reflexivity because it places importance on acknowledging historical and social inequities that perpetuate and maintain people within marginalized and oppressive positions (Barnoff & Moffatt, 2006). 

Structural Social Work Theory: The ongoing commitment towards hearing the voices and experiences of those who have been silenced by oppression. The model of structural social work theory and practice places a focus on achieving emancipation from socio-economic structures in order to become agents of social change. The importance of structural social work theory and practice helps to reaffirm humanity and address the gaps occurring and re-occurring within a person(s) life. As a form of reflexive practice, structural social work theory and practice works in developing and formulating knowledge that systematically includes the views of research participants and oppressed individuals (George, Coleman & Barnoff, 2007).

Indigenous Research Methodology: Focuses on the aspects of disseminating and decolonizing research by opposing the worldview that embraces dominion, self-righteousness and greed. It opposes dominant oppressive Western Eurocentric epistemologies by using indigenous values, beliefs and practices that strengthen true identity and culture while challenging the internalization of the oppressor’s consciousness (Hart, 2002). This methodology is crucial when using the concept of reflexivity within practice and research because it focuses on deconstructing knowledge by decolonizing it and acknowledging historical truths and reforming knowledge with sensitivity to its representation. 

Critical Self-Reflection: Embodies the belief that social work practitioners must reflect on critical incidents within their practice in order to recognise the various ways in which their interpretations and behaviour renders their own sabotage. The ‘self’ is used in contrast to the practitioner’s role in order to force a further conceptualization of knowledge and theory that works to espouse relations of power/knowledge and its generation. It then works to take a critical stance as to by whom and what consequences this knowledge carries? Thus, critical self-reflection has an ‘emancipatory element’ that works to “question and change existing power relations” and to also develop strategies in resisting the effects of globalization and managerialism restricting human service practice (D’Cruz et al, 2007, p. 83).

Social Location: Originally became prominent within North American feminist writing in the 80s as a way of deconstructing ‘Whiteness’. Also, pertains to the contextualization of an individual’s personal, political, cultural and social status by taking into consideration areas of: race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, culture, knowledge, experiences, beliefs, practices and political ideologies. Using an individual’s social location as a form of reflexive practice is one of the key elements within the concept of reflexivity in that it provokes an interrogation of relations of power inherent and reproduced by a researcher and participant(s).  Social location also works to uncover the impacts of power and privilege relations within relationships and can help to develop rapport within participants through this engagement. It is crucial to understand social location as a way of acknowledging privilege while also demonstrating a critical awareness of its ‘short handedness’ in which complex positions can become fixed positions that can then be named (Heron, 2005).

Epistemologies: Used here to describe the transference of knowledge that is influenced by Western dichotomies. The influence of truth is held and reinforced through traditional Western stratification and highly connotes ambivalence towards ‘outsider’ truths. These outsider truths ultimately hold authenticity and traditional values that speak to personal experiences and influence the concept of reflexivity as well as, the generation of knowledge and its creation.

Representation: Marginalized groups and people are consistently negatively presented in society through advertising and media and a lack of representation through false degrading images that inferiorize these groups leaving no room or respect for expression of authentic values or beliefs. Representation is important within Reflexivity because it looks to respect these inherent values and beliefs particularly of marginalized groups and people’s indigenous roots. Through the process of reflexivity, a critical self-reflective approach is taken in valuing research participant’s ancestry, knowledge and experiences through the representation of the voices and perspectives of oppressed people (Mullaly, 2007).

Reflexive Knowledge:  Also used interchangeably with self-reflection and seen as central to structural social work practice in which reflection provokes a knowledge that uncovers one’s identities and their location within the social order. This is important because it creates a critical stance that enables room for new generation of knowledge while analyzing the power relations and privilege embedded within one’s social location (Heron, 2005). 

Cultural Exploitation: The suppression and subjugation of an individual or groups personal, historical, political and traditional identity in an attempt to gain power-over such a group. This process then creates an ‘inferiorization complex’ that is based on an ‘othering’ of a group whom remains unacknowledged. Cultural exploitation works as a commodity of imperialism and colonial power that threatens the survival of a culture.

Appropriation: Looks to uncover the historical effects of dominant cultural influence upon non Western Eurocentric cultures. Reflexivity takes an in depth approach in unravelling, deconstructing and decolonizing knowledge appropriation that intrinsically works to silence marginalized and oppressed groups. It is important to look at appropriation with a reflexive approach both in research and practice because it has a political purpose to challenge the asserted values, beliefs and traditions of one particular culture over another. Furthermore, reflexivity also works to challenge the silence that is caused by culture and knowledge appropriation which then allows room for emancipation from these dominant hierarchal systems of thought.

Colonization:  The process by which one entity rules over another in its entirety thereby obliterating any traces of indigenous heritage, customs, traditions, culture or people. A significant historical, present and current example is entrenched within the Ameri-Eurocentric Western system and their attempted abolishment of Aboriginal peoples. Colonization also can be viewed as a “globalization of knowledge” that is affirmed and reaffirmed and implied through Western culture and then “views itself as the center of legitimate knowledge” or the source of “civilized knowledge” (Hart, 2002, p.29).

Oppression: Traditionally used to mean the exercise of tyranny by a dominant group. It carries a significant connotation with conquest and colonial domination and refers to the systemic constraints on groups—implying the notion that oppression is structural rather than due to people’s choices and policies. The causes of oppression are found within unquestioned norms, symbols, habits and assumptions that underlie institutional rules and the consequences of following these rules (Young, 2000). Oppression is a critical focus in maintaining ‘Reflexive Practice’ or ‘Reflexivity’ throughout the contextualization of a researcher and participant’s positionality surrounding their realities, experiences and knowledge generation.

Conscientization: The inhibition and perception of an oppressive reality as a world that is vulnerable to positive transformation. This perception is the motivating force to achieving “liberation action” and is overcome once the action is sought at the individual, family, community and national level (Hart, 2002, p. 32).

Emancipatory: The overcoming of oppression through emancipation means that a transformation occurs within a researcher and participant relationship. Reflexivity allows for the politics of emancipation to occur through the politics of integration, cultural pluralism and difference. Emancipatory practice plays an important role in allowing for both a researcher and participant to free themselves from compartmentalization, one way thinking and ultimately allows for a more collaborative relationship to develop (Mullaly, 2007).

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