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Bridging the Gap: Unleashing the Power of Research Communication Through Reflexivity

May 9, 2024

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In the realm of research communication, especially within social sciences and humanities, effective communication isn’t just about transmitting information. It’s about fostering understanding, interpreting meaning, and building bridges with an audience. 

A crucial aspect of research communication, especially in a time where disinformation and misinformation is rampant, and trust in science and our institutions is fraught. It doesn’t help that the proverbial we as scholars often speak with authority instead of approachability.

But we have to start somewhere. 

One way to lower the wall between town and gown is through reflexive research communication. It’s a powerful practice that encourages scholars and research communicators to be self-aware, transparent, and acknowledge the limitations of their perspective. Reflexivity also helps us recognize how our bias impacts our work so we can be responsive in our communications.


Related post: How does Knowledge Deficit Model Impact Researchers


What is Reflexive Research Communication?

Reflexivity involves critically examining our positionality, underlying assumptions, potential biases, and our lived experiences that inevitably shape how we approach our research. Reflexive communication is an active process that involves shifting your communication style in real time based on an understanding of your positionality. Reflexive communication essentially helps you to take the temperature of your audience and shift accordingly in real time. 

Without this reflexive lens, our communications runs the risk of being misconstrued and misinterpreted due to unacknowledged biases, blind spots, and limited perspectives. This can potentially turn off our audience, create mistrust, and silo the very people we wish to help.

Why Does Reflexivity Matter?

Researchers aren’t isolated beings. Our experiences, training, and worldviews shape our research, interpretation of findings, and how we communicate. Reflexive communication, though, can help us:

  • Mitigate bias: Recognizing our biases allows us to take steps to minimize their influence on communication, and be better received by our audiences. 
  • Build trust with our audience: Transparency fosters trust. When our audience understands how our positionality impacts our perspective, they can better evaluate our research and its findings.
  • Spark critical thinking: Reflexivity encourages us to critically examine our methodologies and interpretations, leading to a better understanding of our work and our intrinsic motivations. 

Reflexivity can help strip away this idea of pure objectivity surrounding our research. While pure objectivity is something that we all aim for, it is an unreasonable goal. Elements of the research process might be objective, but research interpretations are based on subjective lenses we all carry. This is ok. So when we acknowledge how our personal backgrounds, theoretical commitments, academic training, and sociopolitical forces frame our perspective, our communications can be shifted. Reflexive research communication occurs when our interactions with the public, the words we use, and how we carry ourselves are adjusted in real time.  

The Difference Between Reflection and Reflexivity

It is easy to confuse these two terms. Both involve thinking critically about ourselves, our work, and our perspective. However, there’s a key difference in their approach and outcome:

Reflection

Reflection is the internal process of examining your thoughts, feelings, and experiences after an event or project. It’s about learning from past experiences to inform and improve future practices. For example, imagine watching a recorded video of yourself giving a presentation. You can reflect on your body language, the clarity of your explanations, and areas for improvement so your message can be better received by the audience for the next presentation.

Reflexivity 

Reflexivity is a more dynamic and ongoing process. It involves actively and critically examining your assumptions, biases, and positionality during the communication exchange. It’s about self-awareness in the moment, allowing you to adjust your approach as needed. For example, imagine giving a presentation live. While presenting, you might notice your audience seems confused or uncomfortable with a specific term. They start shifting in their seats and looking at each other when the term is discussed. Seeing this, you explain and rephrase the term, adding a personal narrative or comedic approach (if appropriate).

Putting Reflexivity into Practice

Self-Reflection Exercise

So how can we integrate reflexive practices into our research communication efforts? It begins with intentional self-examination before you begin communicating your research with the public. Consider these questions in a practice to understand your positionality in relation to your audience: 

  • How do your identities, lived experiences, and belief systems shape your research interests and the way you communicate with your peers, the public, your students? How do you talk differently about your research to these various audiences? What does that say about your assumptions about them?
  • In what ways has your academic training and prevalent disciplinary paradigms defined both what and how you study? How did your training challenge your perspective or reinforce your preconceptions? Is your discipline inclusive of other cultures and voices outside of your dominant culture? 
  • What larger socio-political structures, funding mechanisms, and power dynamics have enabled or constrained your scholarly pursuits? What external systems motivate you to do the work you do? 

Once we’ve evaluated some of these influences, we must directly acknowledge them to foster better research communication. As our friend G.I. Joe said, “knowing is half the battle.”

Reflexivity in Practice

It may be easy to discuss your research using jargon and dense words, something ingrained in training and discipline paradigms that positions us to appear as if we know more than we do. This *might* be acceptable amongst our peers. But imagine using that same style with a community group or someone curious about your work. A reflexive communicator would recognize glazed looks in the eyes of our audience and adjust their diction. They might shift to a personal story or narrative that connects with the audience. Clear conversational language doesn’t diminish the research or its message. It repackages your message in a different gift box. 

Above all, reflexive communication is about exchange. And research communication means actively listening to and co-creating knowledge with our public audiences through open dialogue—not unilaterally delivering pre-formed conclusions and assuming the receiver will accept it at face value.

Examples of Reflexive Research Communication In Social Science & Humanities

Here are some ways researchers can apply reflexive practices in communicating their work:

Anthropologist Studying an Indigenous Community

An anthropologist delving into an indigenous community for an upcoming book recognizes their outsider status and research focus. Aware of potential bias, they engage in self-reflection. They examine how their own upbringing in a major metropolitan city, experience in the private education system, access to healthcare, and cultural experiences might influence their interpretations of life within the indigenous community. This reflection also helps them identify similarities and differences in lived experiences.

Building Trust Through Reflexive Communication

Throughout the research, the anthropologist holds regular community meetings. They practice transparency by openly sharing research findings, developments, and even their own story. This personal narrative includes their interests in the community and their own background, highlighting both similarities and differences. More importantly, the research gives space to the community members to speak on their concerns and questions. This fosters two-way dialogue where active listening to the community’s perspectives is crucial. The researcher takes notes of the conversations and recaps them into a blog post to promote transparency but also to update and inform the public who are following the project. 

Benefits of Reflexivity

By embracing this reflexive approach, the anthropologist builds trust with the community, expands their research lens through the inclusion of community voices, and ultimately gains a richer understanding for their book project.

Sociologist Examining Poverty and Inequality

A sociologist studying poverty and inequality grapples with their own positionality. Recognizing their middle-class upbringing as a stark contrast to the lives of their research subjects, they initially fall prey to a surface-level assumption: low income equals unhappy childhood.

Embracing Reflexivity

However, the sociologist engages in reflexive communication. Through observations of children in the low-income community, they witness firsthand the joy and resilience that can exist despite challenging circumstances. This observation clashes with their initial, poverty-equals-unhappiness assumption, prompting them to re-examine their research tools and terminology.

Shifting the Lens

This reflexive approach leads to a crucial shift. The sociologist recognizes that joy can transcend socioeconomic boundaries. They adjust their approach, adopting more sensitive language and interaction styles as they work to implement their research-based interventions. This allows for a more nuanced understanding of the lived experiences of those experiencing poverty. When they go to write an op-ed about the experience, they include a short discussion of their assumptions and how it impacted their work. They could also center the piece to focus on the stories of the community, without their centered experience.  

The Bottom Line: Reflexivity is a Conversation Starter, Not an Ending Point

To be sure, fostering reflexive communication is challenging. We personally face ingrained cultural norms, institutional roadblocks, and incentive systems that discount this vital practice. There will be discomfort in exposing our vulnerabilities and limitations. This recently happened to me after I attended my first science communication conference in Mexico, recognizing my American-centric lens and how it has impacted my perspective on research conducted outside the USA. It was shocking to the system, but now I know, and knowing is half the battle. 


Related post: Unpacking Science Communication at the PCST Mexico Symposium: A Reflection on Language, Reflexivity, and Praxis


References:

Flores, N. (2017). Práticas reflexivas em blogs de ciência escritos por cientistas. MATRIZes11(3), 197-219. https://doi.org/10.11606/issn.1982-8160.v11i3p197-219

Jensen, E. A. (2022). Developing open, reflexive and socially responsible science communication research and practice. Journal of Science Communication21(4), C04.

Salmon, R. A., Priestley, R. K., & Goven, J. (2017). The reflexive scientist: an approach to transforming public engagement. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences7, 53-68.

Miller, S., Fahy, D., & ESConet Team. (2009). Can science communication workshops train scientists for reflexive public engagement? The ESConet experience. Science Communication31(1), 116-126.

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Alicia Cintron, PhD

Research Public Communications Trainer & Coach + traveling Scholarpreneur

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