The Emotional Risks of Turning Stories into Data: An Exploration of the Experiences of Qualitative Researchers Working on Sensitive Topics
2. Vulnerability and Emotions in Sensitive Research
4. Subject and Methods
5.1. Personalisation: Guilt, Shame and Risk
… qualitative research is something that really lays itself open to disclosure of very unexpected things, you know. (Participant A)
… too often… in qualitative interviews … you ask a question and then you know they start answering and they want to talk about something else … and trying… some ways to kind of move back onto the interview schedule. (Participant B)
… you are supposed to turn these experiences and stories into data but they are not, they are still stories and experiences with you (…) they just sit with us for years and then we mine them every now and again and then feel guilty about it. (Participant C)
… I felt like I was using people’s tragedies for my own gain almost, because you know, it was about finding out about what had happened to them and … hopefully changing practice through dissemination but there is always that worry that actually it was almost a bit selfish to go in there and sort of use a story which would get me a PhD and then would later get me a job. (Participant A)
… I feel like I am kind of going in and hearing a lot from them […] they take part in research, they are giving something of themselves and hopefully they do get something out of that as well but I think, there is a risk for them as well as a benefit. (Participant D)
(a fellow researcher), has written (in an article) that we are beneficial to participants. I want to write up the ones where I don’t think I was beneficial, where actually I felt they should have been left alone and I should not have gone out … (Participant E)
… (there) was a feeling of slight shame actually, … something about it which is to do with the ethics of … going into someone’s home … interviewing them about very intimate issues (…) but then withdrawing going back out into the world, going back to the office or wherever and then maybe actually having no further contact with them for months, if at all …(Participant E)
5.2. Professionalism: Permission, Identity and Personal Intrusions
… I had this kind of perception that you know, I should be able to handle it, I should be able to manage it … because I didn’t recognise my own needs in that situation … and I didn’t have that kind of acceptance around, because I just thought it was part of the job description of what we are supposed to do. (Participant B)
it’s amazing to see how I think anxious (she) was that she wasn’t perceived as being an over emotional hysterical woman. Where (he) and I were able to just throw these things out unproblematically and know that people would understand how traumatic this had been… (Participant C)
… you feel emotionally attached to these people so when your supervisors start to critique what they have told you, that is a problem, you know … But you are not in a position where you can say actually hold on a minute you know … (Participant A)
… some of the interviews we were doing, I found them very emotionally affecting and then I had all the dilemmas about (it) but I want to be seen as a professional researcher, I don’t want to risk being signed off sick, I don’t want to risk losing my job, all those things, but sometimes I just couldn’t help it … (Participant E)
… now that I am not a contract researcher any more I feel much more comfortable … How do you as a contract researcher admit that you are struggling because it is your job, you can’t, you need to not be signed off, you need to not damage your career, your reputation, so that nobody will employ you to do that job again … (Participant E)
… it is not only (for) ourselves but it is also (for) participants in the research as well, like an emotional risk for them if we are not really grounded … (Participant F)
We are humans, we get affected and impacted by other humans so, acceptance around that … being in a supportive framework that allows, like that’s natural that is going to happen … (Participant B)
… you are listening to stuff that was so close to your heart that it was just really distressing to sort of see people that you identify with … it kind of heightened my emotional sensitivity. Then when I was out in the world it made me much more emotional when those issues just came up. (Participant F)
… a few years later, I can imagine myself right back in that room and I can see the person, I can hear them, you know. So we are talking about going in once but actually we revisit these stories many times don’t we … (Participant A)
… one of the (interviewees) … talked about going down and standing by the river and hearing the waters rushing and then hearing this voice saying to him no it is not your time … but just every now and then that quote comes back to me if I am out for a walk or something, I see a river and think oh my goodness that was probably 15 years ago that we did that work, it is still there somewhere. (Participant D)
5.3. Support Needs: Family Intrusions, Peer Support and Self-Care
… I was coming home and telling my 16-year-old son, and thinking afterwards that I was traumatising him, you know just having to talk about it to somebody. (Participant G)
peer (support) thing … happened by accident and that was when we realised that we were going home and being and saying things to our families that we didn’t want to. (Participant C)
your principal investigator is too close to the material and has this other hat on, wanting you to finish your research (Participant B)
Both myself and my colleague … anticipated that it wouldn’t be ok to ring … the principal investigator … we didn’t have access to anybody outside so we used to ring each other… (Participant D)
… (the) peer supervision that we set up within the research team it became a lot easier because of being able to be kind of raw, honest outside of the hierarchy … that was incredibly useful that you were able to choose the peer … (Participant C)
… there needs to be somebody who is … familiar with research but not involved in that project to be giving some sort of emotional therapeutic supervision … where supervisors are like you will be giving therapeutic supervision to my PhD students and I will be doing it for maybe your PhD students … (Participant B)
… if you are working on a research project, these are the sorts of things that if you are working in this department. This will be provided for researchers. There will be a forum for discussion … (Participant C)
… the university … was very good at you know, lone worker policy, so if I went into a house on my own I would have to ring (a nominated person) … but (they) didn’t acknowledge that emotional risk is a thing … (Participant E)
Sometimes I find it quite hard because I don’t always have support (…) sometimes … I come out from doing an interview, I think, oh there’s stuff in there … I can leave the office, I go for a walk … that is one of my strategies, coping strategies … (Participant D)
I have been to see a therapist in fact and I had gone to see them about some stuff that was nothing to do with work and actually then when I started doing research that was having an emotional impact on me I used our sessions, to talk about that … (Participant G)
I do think that counsellors should be available for researchers, not compulsory obviously, if and when the individual researcher feels that they need that … (Participant H)
I think what I am struck by is that we have talked a lot about peer support and this (the roundtable) very much feels like it’s peer support but … there doesn’t seem to be that outside of this … (Participant I)
… if you are a clinician there is a kind of expectation of reflection as part of your practice … you’re professionally trained that that is part of what you do … but I don’t really get a sense, (that) this is a valuable professional practice for researchers (Participant F)
5.4. Endings: Ownership and Outcomes
you feel like you want to give something back in a way … you type your findings up and at the end you can send someone a report and that’s where I always felt a bit, you sometimes feel a bit empty that you can’t do more with your research … (Participant J)
… if you are working with these things day to day, then you could have a very direct relationship to the processing of those experiences into strategies of care, care plans, whatever else, but we don’t, do we?. (Participant C)
we were clear that there was something going to happen with that; that was written into the project from the outset. Actually for us at least that was quite a heavy protective factor because … you are clear about that with the participant … you go in and say “this is what this (research) is for” and “are you ok with that?” and actually that clarity of objective I have found really useful … (Participant C)
… you have got the kind of formal objectives of the research project but also it is fine to have your own personal objectives which may well be related … (Participant G)
I am much more involved outside in campaigning … and I think rather than make that more emotionally challenging for me I think it makes it somehow easier because you feel as though you are doing something as well … (Participant F)
6.1. Resilience and Vulnerabilities
6.2. The Theoretical Position of the Emotional Labourer
6.3. The Realities and Professional Position of the Emotional Labourer
6.4. Responsibility for Supporting the Emotional Labourer
Conflicts of Interest
Appendix A. Topic Guide
- What were the emotional reactions and risks and reactions experienced by researchers and how have these been managed in research projects?
- What aspects of research practice are particularly emotionally risky?
- Was their role in the study impacted by their emotional experiences and reactions and how did they manage this?
- What training did receive in relation to the emotional impact of this work? What training would have been useful?
- What factors impact upon the degree and effect of emotional risk?
- Are certain methodologies more emotional/emotionally risky than others?
- Which theories are relevant to understanding research and emotional risk (self care and management, creating boundaries)?
- How do emotional experiences link with the stage of research?
- How were researchers affected after completion of the project?
- What kinds of supports have they been offered or made use of?
- How useful has this support been—and what factors determine this?
- How do you feel you/others process these emotions?
- What do you do to look after yourself (before/during/after event, ongoing, over time)?
Appendix B. Action Points for Qualitative Research into ‘Sensitive’ Topics
Appendix B.1. Action Points for Supervisors and Principal Investigators
- When developing budgets for funding applications, include costs for external support for researchers.
- Let researchers know what they can expect from the interview/fieldwork stage of the work and brief them on how the issue of vulnerability may affect researchers as well as research participants.
- If appropriate, sensitively explore the researcher’s motivation for working in a particular area of sensitive research.
- Work towards creating an environment and supervisory relationship in which researchers can openly discuss the emotional impact of this research both on their personal and professional identity.
- Work with researchers to ensure that outcomes are meaningfully designed, and develop opportunities that allow them to influence the impact of the research.
- Assist researchers in the management of emotions that emerge during the work by using examples from the literature and in particular by engaging them in the concepts of emotional labour.
Appendix B.2. Action Points for Institutions and Funders
- Invest in counselling supervisors who can be available to researchers undertaking interviews with participants about sensitive topics.
- Set up peer support networks within institutions to address issues of isolation among researchers.
- Ensure training and induction packages for research roles involving sensitive research topics, include training on issues relating of self-care and support services available to employees and students.
Appendix B.3. Action Points for Ethics Committees
- Check that applicants have acknowledged and considered both the emotional and physical risks associated with any proposed research into sensitive topics.
- As part of the review process, be mindful of and ask questions about, the particular vulnerabilities and impact on researchers of proposed research into sensitive subjects.
- Ensure research proposals provide researchers with both formal and informal opportunities to debrief, where they are able to freely discuss emotional reactions without fear of professional consequences.
Appendix B.4. Action Points for Researchers
- Acknowledge that research may have an emotional impact in ways that are not anticipated or easily rationalized.
- Keep a research diary to track ongoing areas of concern, identify particular areas of vulnerability and monitor the emotional impact of the research and responses to individual interviewees.
- Seek out both formal and informal opportunities to debrief, where it is possible to freely discuss emotional reactions without fear of professional consequences.
- Ask for supervisory guidance in identifying external, professional peer networks with other researchers undertaking similar research.
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Mallon, S.; Elliott, I. The Emotional Risks of Turning Stories into Data: An Exploration of the Experiences of Qualitative Researchers Working on Sensitive Topics. Societies 2019, 9, 62. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc9030062
Mallon S, Elliott I. The Emotional Risks of Turning Stories into Data: An Exploration of the Experiences of Qualitative Researchers Working on Sensitive Topics. Societies. 2019; 9(3):62. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc9030062Chicago/Turabian Style
Mallon, Sharon, and Iris Elliott. 2019. "The Emotional Risks of Turning Stories into Data: An Exploration of the Experiences of Qualitative Researchers Working on Sensitive Topics" Societies 9, no. 3: 62. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc9030062