Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Reflexivity is a term with rather different meanings in different contexts: in general, it means 'reflecting' and specifically, as part of the social research, reflexivity is the process by which the researcher reflects upon the data collection and interpretation process.

explanatory context

Reflecting has a number of meanings in everyday usage and these are mirrored by the term reflexivity.

At the simplest level, a relationship is reflexive if the relationship is self-referring (i.e. one part of the relational statement reflects the other), for example, 'the tower is as tall as itself'. Here 'as as tall as' is reflexive.

At a second level, reflexivity refers to the process of reflecting on rather than just reflecting. The former is an active process the latter passive. So, for example, in ethnography the researcher is (usually) expected to be reflexive, that is, to reflect upon the data gathered. (Ethnographic reflexivity usually involves reflection on the impact of the researcher on the data). Reflexivity is usually regarded as central to all variants of ethnographic research.


Reflexivity in ethnographic research involves two things. First, it requires that researchers reflect upon the research process in order to assess the effect of their presence and their research techniques on the nature and extent of the data collected. Crudely put, researchers must consider to what extent respondents were telling them what they wanted to hear; did the researcher(s) inhibit respondents; did the format of the data collection restrict the kind of data being collected, and so on.

Second, and probably more importantly, ethnographic reflexivity requires that researchers critically reflect upon the theoretical structures they have drawn out of their ethnographic analysis. Again, crudely put, researchers are expected to reconceptualise their evidence using other possible models, to think laterally. Ethnographers should not just fit details into a preformed schema but try to reform the schema to see if the details have different meanings.


Some commentators expect this dual reflexive process to be overtly discussed in the reporting of an ethnographic study.


In practice, reflexivity applies to all forms of first-hand research; that is, all researchers shouldadopt a reflexive approach to the data they collect. This is often overlooked in quantitative research, where the data takes on an objectivist existence once converted to manipulatable statistics.

A third level of reflexivity operates at a simple philosophical level, that of the self-referring paradox of the type 'this sentence is false'.

A fourth level is a more complex philosophical one, namely the idea of reflexivity as self awareness (i.e. reflecting back on oneself). The problem of possibility and implications of self-awareness is as old as philosophy. However, reflexivity, in this sense, has emerged as a major concern more recently. The modern denial of the possibility of knowledge (as in structuralism, semiotics, cultural relativism, the theory dependence of observation, etc.) raises a reflexive problem, viz. how may one know that knowledge is not possible?

See Lee Harvey's (1985) review of Reflexivity: The Post-modern predicament by Hilary Lawson for an exploration that focuses on self-reflexivity.

On a fifth level reflexivity is used as a means of critique. Such critique adopts an approach that tries to show that the theory presented in a text itself reflexively denies the possibility of the theory. (Hegel, for example, uses a reflexive critique in his engagement with Kantian philosophy.)

On a sixth level reflexivity is construed positively as an alternative to knowledge. This is a rather complex and contentious notion. Arguably, this is the approach adopted by Neitzsche, Heidegger and Derrida who endorse reflexivity and address the problem of writing a text in the light of the implications of its own relexivity. They have attempted to harness reflexivity as a positive force and defuse reflexivity by moving from subject to text. They offer different resolutions of the problem; Neitzsche advocates anarchistic assertion; Heidegger suggests endless postponement; and Derridada suggests perpetual unravelling. Each proposes a new mode of language and with it different notions of truth and value. Yet they all confront reflexivity in processural terms and thus deny the possibility of 'truth' or 'falsity'.

analytical review

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'reflexivity' as:

This includes self-consciousness, but also all of those aspects of modern life that are monitored.


For an example of the worst excesses of non-commicative sociology the following account of reflexivity is offered by Donoghue (2008, pp. 344–5):

Fundamentally, reflexivity is the causal nexus of a social function. In this regard, reflexivity is linked to re-evaluation: a social ‘activity’ is reconsidered and redefined in perpetuum via the use of information relating to that activity (Giddens, 1994: 86). Yet reflexivity is not simple ‘reflection’ or ‘observation’. Ferguson (1997: 225) describes reflexivity as ‘the circularity of social knowledge’, and within this paradigm exist reflex(ive) responses by individuals and by institutions. When institutions behave ‘reflexively’, they are responding to the consequences of a previous existing ‘simple modernity’. Essentially, institutional reflex(ive) responses create new frameworks (and spaces within those frameworks) for individuals to reflect upon – crucially, it is these responses that respectively alter the institutional processes that the individuals are responding to (Beck, 1994; Ferguson, 1997: 224). Hence, a circular relationship exists between reflex and reflection (Beck, 1994; Ferguson, 1997). [A translation might be: reflexive social action is a constant process of reflection, new action and further reflection]


associated issues


related areas

See also



Researching the Real World Section 1.11


Beck, U., 1994, ‘The reinvention of politics: towards a theory of reflexive modernisation’, in Beck, U., Giddens, A. and Lash, S. (Eds.) Reflexive
, Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 1–55.

Donoghue, J., 2008, 'Antisocial Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) in Britain contextualizing risk and reflexive modernization', Sociology, 42(2), pp. 337–55.

Ferguson, H., 1997, ‘Protecting children in new times: child protection and the risk society’, Child & Family Social Work 2(4), pp. 221–34.

Giddens, A., 1994, Beyond Left and Right, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Lawson, H., 1985, Reflexivity: The Post-modern predicament, London, Hutchinson.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013 page not available 20 December 2016.

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