Reflection is one of those weasel-ly words that can mean anything and nothing. Most of us acknowledge that we need to do it, but what does it actually mean as a practice?
You are probably familiar with Donald Schön’s (a) work on reflection. He proposed two different kinds:
(1) reflection-in-action – thinking that goes on while you are doing something, it’s thinking in the present – and
(2) reflection-on-action – thinking that goes on after the action, when you think about what happened and what it might mean.
Schon talks of moving between these two steps as the way of improving professional practice.
Schon‘s two types of reflection can be brought to the processes of research, but they are often extended in order to make them more adaptable. Many action researchers, for example, talk of an addition to reflection-on-action, namely, reflection-for-action – thinking about the implications of what’s happened in order to prepare for the next action.
Maria Pantanida and Noreen Garman (b) have done just this adaptive work – worked with Schon’s propositions – and they have tailored their version specifically to the kinds of work that interpretive researchers need to do. Their particular thinking tools are designed to support systematic reflection about the meanings of an experience. They are intended for use post-field work or post-source work – that is, after the experience of ‘being in the field/archive’. Their thinking tools are not meant to support the day-by-day thinking that invariably goes on during this research experience, but rather they are intended for use at those points in the research where there is a pause, a taking stock.
Piantanida and Garman offer three stages of post-experience reflection:
(1) reflection as recollection
This is where researchers recall the specific events that happened, creating detailed recounts of who or what was involved, when and where. This may, for example in ethnography, involve putting together a load of ‘stuff’ such as field notes, interviews, documents and images. In archive work, it might involve bringing together multiple primary and secondary sources around a topic.
(2) reflection as introspection
Here researchers examine their own emotional and intellectual responses to the research experience. The point here is not to create a touchy feely text, but rather to try to accumulate the “insights, questions, speculations, hunches and tentative interpretations” (p 143) that occurred, and which have been recorded, perhaps in a researcher field journal. Over time, the introspective reflection provides an account of the way in which interpretations emerge. This kind of introspective record allows these emergent interpretations to not only to be a resource for the final text – the portrayal of the overall story of the research – but also allows the responses to be critically examined. In other words, these introspective reflection accounts are an important way to support researcher reflexivity.
(3) conceptual reflection
Researchers need to connect their experience with broader theoretical concepts and issues. In this third stage of reflection, researchers bring their recounts (recollections) and accounts (introspections) into dialogue with the wider literatures pertinent to the topic/phenomenon. They will already know these –or much of what’s relevant – and it is important that these theoretical resources are systematically and seriously used in this final stage, in order to make sense of the experience. As Piantanida and Garman put it, “What researchers bring to the inquiry is as important as what they discover as they live with the study” (p. 144)
As I read it, Piantanida and Garman suggest that doctoral researchers use these three stages quite explicitly and at key points in the research, moving through (1) to (3) as three distinct pieces of writing, in order to come to grips with what happened. Separating the three stages avoids muddling up personal responses with theory, and losing sight of the original experience in the process.
Because Piantanida and Garman work at the borders of social sciences and humanities, these tools will not be appropriate for all situations. But isn’t it always a case of having the right tools for the particular job at hand.
(a) Schön D (1983) The reflective practitioner. Basic Books: New York; Schön D (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA
(b) Piantanida, M and Garman, N (1999) The qualitative dissertation. A guide for students and faculty. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE