Reflexivity in Research: Reflections from a Field Trip to Belarus

kineticcreation-comThis summer when I was doing my fieldwork, I explored a bit a Baptist church located in the sleeping area of Minsk. That was the biggest church I have seen so far. It was built in the 1990s, when Protestant communities did not face such building restrictions as they are in place today.

It was Saturday. I entered the church building. It looked quite impressive inside.

 A big board with announcements and information regarding the activities for church members drew my attention. “What a lively community!”, I thought. As people were gathering for some activity, I decided not to disturb anyone with questioning. After a quick eye-spying, I left. Although I was so tempted to approach these people and start talking to them, I refrained myself from doing that. Instead I sat down on a bench in front of the building, responded to peoples’ greetings, smiling back to them. This stepping back from the church provoked me to think over a few issues.

Researcher’s Identity

“Who are you?” – someone could have asked me then. How did those people perceive me? How would they have been perceiving me after talking to me, learning about my research, my background? How would that have influenced their attitude towards me?

We have so many different faces when doing research. For example, I am a woman, Polish from a borderland, religious,  I am a researcher, and, finally, a mother. Entering the fieldwork, I can

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The Baptist Church that I mention in the text.

juggle with my identities, but always have to remain honest to my respondents, sources and all those who agreed to help with research.

That day when I was sitting on the bench outside the church I realised how important reflexivity is. I have read an interesting article by A. Takada (2012) on “Reflexivity: unmarried Japanese male interviewing married Japanese women about international marriage”.

To put it briefly, reflexivity relates to the researcher’s ability “to stand outside the research process”. This might help to understand our feelings and can provide us with valuable knowledge too. It involves positionality which is about others perceiving us, with our networks, background, etc.

How others see us affects our research

I also reflected on how my own positionality affected my fieldwork. Speaking Belarusian, being a Polish student in the UK, also being a mother … – these are probably just a few messages that my respondents got about me. For example, why some people opened up during the interviews with me, and others remained a bit sceptical and cautiously filtered the information. At the same time, I think I need to reflect on positionality as a two-way communication process.

Thanks to such reflexive approach we can better understand why the research is going in a certain direction, what may influence it  and what complicates it – perhaps it is our own cultural identity, or perhaps the choice of the topic itself has an impact on us, as Takada suggests? I think it is also important how my so far knowledge and understanding of the subject influence me. These issues are definitely worth considering and I believe, everyone sooner or later should sit down on his bench and address them too.

Further reading: Takada, A. (2012) “Reflexivity: unmarried Japanese male interviewing married Japanese women about international marriage”, Qualitative Research, 13(3), pp. 285-298.

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