Video Interview: Abdallah Rothman
Reflecting on reflexivity
In Box 2.4 in Chapter 2 in the book, we see Victoria Uwannah reflect on how her positions as a researcher and a Pentecostal Christian played out in her doctoral research on Pentecostal Christians’ representations of and responses to people with mental health conditions.
In the video below, Abdallah Rothman discusses reflexivity in relation to his PhD research in which he used a grounded theory approach to develop an Islamic psychotherapy. He reflects on how his positions as a Muslim and as a counsellor and therapist shaped and informed his research. He discusses how he presented those reflections in his PhD and, in a different way, in publications.
In the video, Abdallah Rothman refers to a particular personal reflection that he included in his PhD thesis. It is reproduced below to help you understand what he is referring to and also to offer another example of a sophisticated personal reflection:
A believer and a scholar: Owning my perspective as a Muslim researcher
Within constructivist grounded theory, it is posited that the researcher inevitably brings his or her own epistemological frameworks and various interpretative lenses or predispositions to the analysis. From this approach to research, not only are such assumptions and lenses considered an inevitable and indeed necessary component of the research process but researchers are encouraged to make them explicit and to reflect upon the ways in which these commitments have contributed to shaping the research process and the research product. The notion is that the researcher is not simply observing and capturing what is there in some objective, detached way but that she or he is actively constructing the analysis and – in grounded theory work – any theory that comes from it in active dialogue with the data. Accordingly, as part of the grounded theory process, I made memos that included both reflections on the data and the connections I was seeing, and also reflections on how and why I was seeing what I saw.
The very first thing that became clear to me in the process of this research was my belief in Islam and the cosmological paradigm that the religion sets forth. As a believer who is convinced of the truth of the philosophy and revelation in the Islamic tradition, I found it very difficult to write from a purely academic stance which is often characterized both as an attempt to be objective and questioning and deconstructing every potential position. While I did want to approach the research as an academic and for my work to be received with credibility in the academic community, I also had a strong resolve not to compromise my position as a person of faith. I accept that a part of having faith or subscribing to ‘a faith’ is about accepting things that you may not understand or be able to explain. For me, one of the biggest transformations in embracing a religion was a shift in my paradigm which allowed me to actually feel comfortable and confident in fully trusting in a tradition based on a feeling, even though I didn’t fully intellectually understand it all.
As both a person raised in a secular culture of relativism and someone who was previously non-religious or areligious, I can appreciate the notion that a person speaking from a place of conviction in faith can often sound naïve or narrow-minded, seemingly not allowing her or himself to entertain ideas that are outside their paradigm. And yet now, as a deeply committed and practising religious person, I still have that same sense when it comes to people speaking from their viewpoint. While I have found myself to be a believer in Islam, it apparently did not come at the cost of sacrificing this value of honouring and allowing for different viewpoints. My own stance is that I can both simultaneously have my own convictions about what is ‘The Truth’ and genuinely respect, honour and allow for others’ differing positions. I do not feel the need to have others believe what I believe, nor do I believe that people with differing beliefs are necessarily lost or have gone astray. One of the things that struck me most deeply with the way that I learned Islam was the Islamic principle that only God knows what is in each person’s heart and that a non-Muslim could potentially be closer to God than a person who abides by the religion of Islam, all based on the inner state of their heart.
Having said that, I believe what I believe, and that is the epistemological and ontological paradigm of Islam. As a researcher, I did not want to deny that about myself and my perspective and felt that I did not have to in order to produce high quality research in an academic capacity. This is why the constructivist approach to grounded theory seemed most suited to my needs. Not only is it a tool for developing theory where there is no theory, as was the case with my topic, it also allows for and utilizes the stance of the researcher, seeing it not as a potential distraction from truth to be managed and minimized but as a strength to tap into.
However, I did not experience that until getting into the analysis of the data, where it was clear that my knowledge of and conviction about the Islamic paradigm was an advantage and helped me to draw connections and understand from an insider perspective the complex, interwoven paradigmatic framework that I was trying to elucidate for the purpose of the research aims. Earlier, in constructing the literature review, my religious convictions certainly did feel like an obstacle which I had to learn how to navigate. In some of my first drafts, my supervisor commented on how obvious my personal convictions were in my writing and that this mostly resulted in me making what he called ‘straw man’ arguments in that they were not grounded in sources but constructed from my own musings of conviction on a given topic. For example, I had claimed that, in spite of the diversity of interpretations and approaches to Islam, there is an ‘essence’ of what Islam is that justifies using the term ‘Islamic’ without drawing upon sources to convey a practical aspect of this sentiment. With sage guidance and helpful honest reflection from my supervisor, I came to see that not only did this not come off as credible or good quality academic work but it was actually not reflective of how I wanted to engage in the discourse. So in place of this ‘straw man’, I researched what aspects of that statement were grounded and demonstrated within the literature on how an Islamic Sunni orthodoxy has been established and preserved in the scholarly tradition. That work led me to a legitimate use of the term ‘Islamic’ that actually has meaning.
Thus, this was not only a learning process for me in becoming a good academic. It was also a growth experience that helped me to be more congruent with my own values and to find a harmonious balance between my religious convictions and my desire to engage meaningfully in conversations about the human condition with any and all people who share my interest in and passion for understanding and maximizing human potential.
Abdallah Rothman is Principal of Cambridge Muslim College in the UK and an experienced counsellor and therapist. His academic research and his clinical practice focus on approaching counselling and psychotherapy from within an Islamic paradigm and establishing an indigenous Islamic theoretical orientation to human psychology that is grounded in the knowledge of the soul from the Islamic tradition.
To find out more about the research that Abdallah Rothman refers to in the video, see:
Rothman, A. and Coyle, A. (2018) ‘Toward a framework for Islamic psychology and psychotherapy: An Islamic model of the soul’, Journal of Religion & Health, 57(5): 1731–44.
Rothman, A. and Coyle, A. (2020) ‘Conceptualizing an Islamic psychotherapy: A grounded theory study’, Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 7(3): 197–213.
For other examples of studies in which reflective materials were used, see the video interviews with Laura Moreno-Galindo on interpretative phenomenological analysis (Chapters 9 and 10), Maria Dempsey on grounded theory (Chapters 11 and 12) and Sarah Foley on a pluralistic approach (Chapter 17). Reflexivity is also addressed in Chapter 17 in the book, in the subsection entitled ‘The role of the researcher: Theoretical knowledge and biographical experiences’.