Interpretation, Reflexivity and Imagination in Qualitative Research

  • Yiannis Gabriel


Reflexivity has emerged as the new gold standard for qualitative researchers who reject positivist methodologies and traditional criteria of rigour, reliability and validity. But what exactly is reflexivity? How is reflexive different from reflective? And does reflexivity offer a guarantee for quality scholarship? These are some of the questions I will address in this chapter. Reflexivity is a difficult concept to define and an even harder one to deploy or practice. ‘Reflexivity’ is now routinely used as a pompous synonym for ‘reflectiveness’, that is the ability to take a step back from a situation in order to reflect on it. According to this view, reflexive researchers are those who take a step back to question their own assumptions, the interests served by their research, the ramifications of their findings and the ethical foundations of their practice. All this is fine and good, but it is not what reflexivity is all about, or at least it is not all that reflexivity is. If reflexivity is to have some meaning beyond fashionable cliché, it has to recover its fundamental quality. As I see it, this amounts to the ability of human statements to alter the state of what is being stated and the person who states it. More generally, a reflexive activity is one in which subject and object co-create each other. At every moment, the storyteller creates a protagonist, whose predicaments redefine the storyteller. This is an idea present in the now almost forgotten Marxist concept of dialectics where humans and the conditions of their existence co-create each other. A reflexive researcher recognizes that what she says or writes influences and redefines that about which she is writing as well as herself as the author. Reflexivity may be important but it is no guarantee of good quality research work. All the reflexivity in the world will not turn a dull piece of work into an interesting one. Quite the opposite—it will make it still duller. What reflexivity will not replace is the researcher’s intelligence and craft that are equally alert to similarities and exceptions, continuities and discontinuities, plans and improvisations. Above all, what reflexivity cannot replace is the active and inquiring imagination that pressingly and persistently asks two related questions ‘Why?’ and ‘What if?’ In fact, I will argue that without imagination, reflexivity itself ends up as dull academic ritual, another formula with which to elicit the yawning approval of one’s peers.


Hermeneutics Interpretation Reflexivity Imagination Qualitative research 


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© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yiannis Gabriel
    • 1
  1. 1.Bath UniversityBathUK

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