Reflexivity: a journey with twists and turns

Becoming reflexive throughout the research journey in my PhD is a process which I have not always found easy. As my study has progressed and I have continued to chart my thoughts in an attempt at being reflexive either in my electronic diary notes or in hand written notes in my PhD “jotters”. (I have perhaps not been as systematic as I should have been.) However, recently I have been looking back at some on my earlier reflexive notes along with comments on early drafts of my work to see how my study has developed and I am glad to see that some progress has been made. But it is still work in progress.

I started out on my PhD thinking I wanted to explore a specific aspect of nursing however, my starting point was flawed and the process of realising this and changing focus was difficult. Sometimes it is challenging to be reflexive when you are heavily invested in an area and stepping back might be the wisest option. Fortunately my supervisors were wiser here and they challenged me to refocus my study which meant I wasn’t wholly entrenched in my own profession. Initially I wasn’t completely happy with the new focus, it didn’t feel like “my study” but I have come to enjoy the focus and feel much more open to the process of discovery.

I am now focussing on the experience of being diagnosed with MS, for the person and their closest support person. Reflexivity is still as important as before, my own experience as a nurse in the acute hospital setting and the hospice environment meant that my reference point for someone with MS was of individuals with significant physical symptoms. I had to explore how this might influence my preunderstanding of what a diagnosis of MS might mean for someone. My assumptions about being diagnosed with MS were that this would be a catastrophic event.

On reading the literature there is significant support for this view, particularly in the terms used by theorists such as Charmaz (1983) and Bury (1982).  Charmaz refers to the ‘loss of self’ as a result of chronic illness and Bury describes a theory of ‘biographical disruption’.  Both terms communicate the negative impact of the illness and led me to assume that this would lead to a negative psychological impact with an expressed need for support.

Additionally, on speaking to people about my research I met with further confirmation for my assumptions, an instance I recall which particularly confirmed this was when I met with a former colleague whose brother had had neurological symptoms for the previous year and was waiting and expecting a diagnosis of MS.  She described him as ‘beside himself with worry’ and like ‘a cat on a hot tin roof’ when outside the neurologists office.  This led me to become further entrenched in my own assumptions believing them to be true.

The challenge to look at how some people do get on with life as normal and learn to live with and adapt to having MS offered another possible alternative which my supervisors kept on encouraging me to consider.  Whilst I acknowledged this as a possibility and stated that I would be open to this possibility throughout the research I still held firm to my beliefs that a diagnosis of MS would be life changing.

A few years ago I attended the MS Society conference where I listened to a woman with MS give a talk about her experiences of living with the illness and how it had changed her life.  This I believe was the turning point for me in seeing a more positive projection of the impact of MS.   She then described how being diagnosed with the condition made her re-evaluate her life and ‘take stock’. The woman described how lucky she felt to have been given this opportunity which she put down to having MS changing her as a person.  One hearing this woman speak I was transfixed.   I thought to myself how fantastic it would be if some of my participants could describe so profoundly how MS has affected them. The main value of this experience for me was having my own previously entrenched assumptions exposed and challenged.

This experience and looking back on my reflexive notes helped me become more aware of my assumptions and how entrenched they were.  Instead of looking to my data for confirmation of my assumptions, being reflexive leaves me open to new possibilities and to be open to alternative (socially constructed) realities that exist.

As researchers it is important to expose and articulate our assumptions but it is not easy. My message in this blog is that keeping a reflexive diary is worthwhile, it is good to look back on and see the journey, re-remembering the significant points. I had forgotten about the chance meeting with my former colleague and how I felt this justified my stance until I revisited it in my diary. 

I would be interested to hear if any of the readers of this blog have had any other turning points in their studies and whether the process of being reflexive has helped refocus.  As I said in my first paragraph my reflexive journey is still work in progress, this is a mere punctuation in the process.

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