Good Research Relies on Reflexivity

Erin Sharoni illustrates how the feminist principle of reflexivity can be broadly applied to support structural changes that promote good science.

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Self-awareness of positionality allows for the interrogation of our hidden biases. If we remain unaware of our position in life relative to others––based on gender, race, class, and species, for example––then the scientific research we do remains similarly unaware.

The feminist research ethics principle of reflexivity directs us to engage in critical self-reflection on our positions of power relative to research subjects, so that we can make our work more inclusive and adaptable to challenges. Reflexivity rejects the demand for objective neutrality in research by recognizing the contribution of each participant’s unique position.

Photo Credit: Understanding Animal Research/flickr. Image Description: Beagle Dogs in Research for Animal Testing.

I recently applied the principle of reflexivity to the study of animal research ethics in my bioethics coursework at Harvard Medical School. As an individual involved in animal welfare activism, the ethical practice of questioning whether animal research is morally justifiable presented a challenge because such research often causes great harm to animals. Because reflexivity asks us to reflect on ourselves and on our unique position in the world relative to others, it requires that we integrate both our rational minds and our emotional bodies. And so, for the first time in my professional or academic career, I engaged my emotions without judgment instead of filing them away as unhelpful to my work.

I became an animal welfare activist because I feel sadness and anger when I witness the suffering of another living being. Most people share these feelings, but not everyone agrees that harming animals for human gain is morally wrong. Emotion and reasoning do not always agree but we can still dance with them both. In my work as an activist, I embrace emotion to change social views, laws, and industry standards for the benefit of animals. In my work as a bioethics student, I embrace rational thinking to learn about frameworks and tools that support human flourishing. But the aims of animal welfare and human flourishing are not separate. A reflexive assessment of our relationship to other living beings on this planet reveals that we are all interconnected and interdependent. We can flourish together by expanding our sphere of moral concern to include different people and different species.

What is my position relative to a nonhuman research subject? I hold more power than them. I don’t speak their language and cannot obtain their consent. I may not experience pain the way they do. These things also hold true for my position relative to certain human subjects. What does this tell me about my normative commitments to both human and nonhuman subjects? If I do research that benefits a scientific aim but harms a subject, am I also hurting myself by engaging in morally questionable activity?

Engaging in this reflexive assessment with other bioethics students prompted us to ask uncomfortable questions about why, how, and when to include animals in research. It helped us reflect on our positions of power relative to other species and analyze how internal biases rooted in upbringing and culture impact decision-making in scientific research.

That said, we should acknowledge the gap in scholarship on reflexivity; it does not provide a clear framework for determining which obligations to prioritize in the practical execution of research. We can look to a parallel example for a solution: In transcultural research, the question of how to prioritize competing cultural obligations presents a similar challenge. In his work on transcultural differences in AIDS research conducted by Westerners in the non-Western world, sociologist and physician Nicholas A. Christakis provides what may be a useful framework for practicing reflexivity (though he doesn’t name the principle). He implores us to engage our differences by reflecting on our position relative to others, negotiating between competing obligations, and compromising on imperfect solutions.

Accepting imperfection is challenging in a culture that rewards perfection. Reflexivity makes space for a reality where imperfection does not necessarily equal failure.

We can begin to practice reflexivity by acknowledging that we are beings of multiplicity, capable of good and bad, not binary choice machines––internal inconsistencies make us messy and imperfect vessels. This is often excluded from the exercise of scientific research. Reflecting on the messy, imperfect self is hard because it reveals hidden biases. It seems optimal then, to engage our innate humanity, our emotions and intuitions, alongside logical reasoning in the doing of science.

Reflexivity is one of many tools at our disposal. But it is a mistake to employ it with the expectation that it will de facto shift power inequity among social groups or deeply entrenched scientific paradigms that diminish the moral status of animals and use them as means to an end. Rather, reflexivity can be a gateway to structural change. It helps makes us aware of our position in the world. The hard work follows in bearing witness to that picture and adjusting our approach.

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Erin Sharoni is a Master of Bioethics candidate in the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School. She is the Chief Product Officer of FOXO Technologies and sits on the Advisory Board of Animal Save Movement.

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