One little trick can help you gain more accurate research results, improve personal relationships, and avoid professional pitfalls. All it takes is answering questions you inherently know the answer to and then taking a few steps to make those answers useful.

How do you see the world? What paradigms structure your life? How are you influenced by the people and places around you? And vice versa?

These questions are part of what are answered with a reflexivity statement. They are crucial to understanding yourself and your place in the world around you. In research, best practices mandate that you write a reflexivity statement before penning a proposal  or stepping into a community.  You must understand why you are asking particular research questions, how your perspective may be limited, and how you may be prone to bias. Though knowing your inner workings does not prevent them from playing a role in research outcomes or conclusions, it does help to limit their influence and gives you the power to correct for your own shortcomings.

For instance, I recently wrote a grant that would fund work with a local community to improve their multi-use urban trail. I made a case for my methods, which included inclusive planning and design that gave meaningful decision making power to a diverse group of stakeholders.

My reflexivity statement included a look at myself in the context of this research. I wrote about how I came from a middle-class family in a suburban, middle-class, predominately white area and how that compared to the community I was entering and the people I would be working with. In some ways it was both an advantage and disadvantage.

I included information about my athletic and recreational involvement and how that offered ways to connect with the trail-building community while also biasing me to see the potential for this trail in optimistic terms. I also contemplated my role as a female, young adult, doctoral student entering the community, and how my positions of power (or lack there of) might influence community decisions.

My reflexivity statement was about half a page long, but in some cases, researchers’ statements can be many pages long and very detailed, depending on their contextual needs. This is important for transparency and increased understanding. It adds dimensions to the flat statistics that often come out as the headlines of research projects.

Reflexivity statements aren’t only important for academic research. They can be used for shining a light on professional endeavors, personal pursuits, or relationship dynamics.

Benefits include strengthened potential for positive social and professional relationships, greater self- and situational understanding, and heightened ability to foresee potential downfalls (at least those caused by personal blindspots and shortcomings). All it takes is a bit of time, some starting place tools (provided below), and a willingness to take a critical look at yourself.

Where to start

First, it is helpful to reflect on how you define yourself and your origins. To start, think about the things you care about, how you are perceived by others, and how you view yourself. One exercise that can help get this ball rolling is completing the social identity wheel(pictured here).

To complete this activity, begin by filling in the spaces on the wheel with how you identify each category. Next, answer the questions inside the circle.

Depending on what you are writing a reflexivity statement for, these questions may suffice to answer how you relate to your situation, or they may just be a jumping off point. Things I’ve explored in different situations is how I was raised, what I believed was right and wrong, how I view capitalism, and what my relationships were like with family, friends, and community (to name a few).

Adding context to your self reflection should help determine how far you need to go.

How to contextualize

Once you have taken time to define your personal identity, you need to put them into context. This means that you need to define the endeavor you are pursuing. Once you have that, ask the questions:

  1. How do specific parts of my identity advantage me (in particular endeavor/situation)
    • relationships, acceptance, trust
    • motivation, perspective, knowledge
    • societal benefits
    • And so on…
  2. How do specific parts of my identity disadvantage me (in particular endeavor/situation)
    • biases I hold, closed mindedness
    • relationship, acceptance, trust
    • societal disadvantages
    • And so on…

You may use the social identity wheel to help with these questions if it is helpful (which it was for me). You may think about how your identity is uniquely qualified or how it comes with a unique perspective for a given challenge. You may think about how it influences how you interact with others, what you expect of the world, and how others see you.  The sky is the limit here; you define your own boundaries and decide what is relevant.

How to put it together

Next, write about how your identity, background, circumstance, etc. come together with your context. One way that my classmates and I did this was to write as much as we could for our reflexivity statement for 5 minutes. In this time, our hand was to keep writing, even if we weren’t sure what to say next. Later, we used this free flow of thought to shape our formal reflexivity statement.

Writing a reflexiivty statement is mutually beneficial to the writer and those she or he interacts with. It clears ambiguity, limits effects of bias, and offers a sort of personal accountability to people interacting with others. It limits shame because we realize that everyone has strengths and weaknesses that come from their unique perspective and experience.

For me, I found it freeing. It allows me to get to the heart of the matter. I find what I am really wanting, afraid of, or trying to say. It puts the words to what I know but sometimes can’t reach, and it allows me to share them with others in a healthy and responsible way.