Skip to content

In the intricate world of research, reflexivity acts as a beacon to guide researchers through the challenging areas of ethics, power dynamics and cultural differences.

Reflexivity refers to the critical reflection on one’s research role (Patnaik, 2013), which might initially seem abstract to new researchers. However, when there are opportunities to be supported in reflecting on research experiences with other researchers, this term can become clearer and more concrete. Reflexivity can be especially impactful where the researchers inhabit the roles of both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’, such as indigenous researchers in their home context, especially regarding revealing the challenges (such as unconscious cultural inertia of researchers) and power differentials (for instance unbalanced researcher–participants power relationship).

‘Reflexivity can be especially impactful where the researchers inhabit the roles of both “insider” and “outsider”, such as indigenous researchers in their home context, especially regarding revealing the challenges and power differentials.’

This summer, like two clumsy baby ducks entering the water for the first time, we joined a real qualitative research project as research assistants for the first time. The project we contributed to was titled, ‘Tackling Ethical Challenges in Research with Children: Contextualising Children’s Rights in China’, led by Yan Zhu (Zhu et al., 2023). This research involved 30 Chinese participants who had close contact with children, including researchers, teachers and social workers. These participants delved into the ethical challenges they faced while conducting research with children in China through six focus group discussions for different groups of children. This project led us to slowly walk through the door of qualitative research and start thinking about the significance of reflexivity for researchers.

As indigenous Chinese researchers, our deep understanding of the cultural nuances and unspoken societal norms assists in efficiently accessing and communicating with participants. However, this insider perspective also carries the risk of ignoring the influences of certain cultural norms or being swayed by personal biases. For instance, one participant revealed that influenced by the Chinese traditional views that children were incapable of self-expression and needed to obey elders’ decisions, she rarely sought formal consent from children in her previous research endeavours. What is shocking is such ignorance of international views of children’s rights and the marginalisation of children within child–adult power relations are quite common (Mayne & Howitt, 2015). Many researchers, as reported in focus groups, have unconsciously overlooked these issues in their research. This revelation reminds us of the importance of reflecting on our taken-for-granted values out of the social and cultural context in which researchers grew up, to challenge the bias and stereotypes. When we keep ourselves in a box, we risk creating an echo chamber in the box that hinders the generation of new knowledge and better practices.

However, researchers stepping outside their cultural norms to gain new perspectives also face the challenge of adapting these insights to their indigenous contexts. A Chinese researcher who was educated in the UK shared the challenges she faced during her fieldwork in Chinese schools. She attempted to implement a common Western practice – asking children to address researchers by their first names instead of formal titles like Mr and Miss – aiming to balance the power dynamics between child participants and the adult researcher. However, this approach backfired, causing discomfort among the children. This discomfort, she realised, stemmed from challenging the deeply ingrained norm of ‘respect the authority’ in Chinese education and introducing unfamiliar cultural practices. This experience underscores the importance of reflecting and adjusting ‘imported’ ideas according to the local socio-cultural context before practising them.

Fortunately, researchers with dual ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ roles have a unique advantage in adapting innovative ideas from outside. Their deep understanding of local culture allows them to tailor external perspectives to fit the local context more effectively. Nevertheless, they must remain alert and reflective to avoid any single viewpoint dominating their research decisions. Importantly, this reflective process should not be solitary. Collaborative spaces are essential for researchers to challenge and support each other, fostering a balanced and culturally sensitive approach to qualitative research. As emphasised by Guillemin and Gillam (2004), during ‘ethically important moments’, we must challenge ourselves and our colleagues to maintain a balance of perspectives and respond with actions that uphold the integrity of our research and the communities we engage with.


Guillemin, M., & Gillam, L. (2004). Ethics, reflexivity, and ‘ethically important moments’ in research. Qualitative Inquiry, 10(2), 261–280. 

Mayne, F., & Howitt, C. (2015). How far have we come in respecting young children in our research?: A meta-analysis of reported early childhood research practice from 2009 to 2012. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 40(4), 30–38. 

Patnaik, E. (2013). Reflexivity: Situating the researcher in qualitative research. Humanities and Social Science Studies, 2(2), 98–106.

Zhu, Y., Wang, Y., Xu, Y., & Tan, R. (2023). (Re)Constructing equality, diversity, and inclusion in Chinese childhoods: Intersectional perspectives and transdisciplinary approaches. Global Studies of Childhood, 13(2), 95–101.