Qualitative Researchers at risk to emotional harm

Reflection Iqaluit BlizzardThis research resonated with my own experience providing me with a body of literature, a lexicon and and lens through which something that left me speechless might someday be spoken. 


“The first thing to note is that the concept of ‘duty of care’ is spelled out from the outset. This includes a reference to a moral obligation on behalf of those working in the University: The University must exercise a “duty of care” to employees and to those under supervision and this duty is recognised in both criminal and civil law. There is also a moral duty that the teacher has towards the pupil. (University ‘A’ Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Unit 2004: 4) It is then explained that it is through a system of ‘line management’ that the University’s statutory requirements are expected to be met. In University ‘A’ formal responsibilities for issues of fieldworker safety are delegated to Heads of Departments. It is therefore for the Head of Department to ensure that the risk assessment for the fieldwork is made and to ensure that safe systems of work have been established for all staff and students. Frequently the Head of Department will delegate this duty to a particular member of staff as Departmental Safety Officer, or to different research managers – PhD supervisors and Principal Investigators (Bloor, Fincham and Sampson 2007-06).”

A number of authors have stated that researchers can be negatively affected emotionally and physically by research on sensitive issues (Alexander et al. 1989; Burr 1995; Cowles 1988; Dunn 1991; Gregory, Russell and Phillips 1997; Lee 1995; McCosker, Barnard and Gerber 2001). Some of the possible negative outcomes include gastrointestinal problems (Dunn 1991), insomnia and nightmares (Cowles 1988; Dunn 1991; Etherington 1996), headaches (Dunn 1991), exhaustion and depression (Ridge, Hee and Aroni 1999) and threats to physical safety (Langford 2000; Lee 1995). (Dickson-Swift et al. 2006: 857) (Bloor, Fincham and Sampson 2007-06).”

“There are two manifestations of resistance to researchers documented in the literature. One relates to unwillingness on the part of potential research participants to cooperate, and to be obstructive, and the other relates to unco-operativeness on the part of those connected with research participants – for example ‘gate keepers’. For anthropologists the separation of these two sites of resistance is often complicated, as in a study of a particular community there might be no distinction between a participant and a gate keeper (Bloor, Fincham and Sampson 2007-06:32).”

The process of ‘pain by proxy’ described by Moran-Ellis (Moran-Ellis 1997: 181) appears to have resonance for many researchers. The emotional strain of having to deal with distressing situations or narratives can be acute. It should be noted that there is also a literature concerned with the emotional impact of disturbing data on those not directly involved with the gathering of the data. Transcribers and PIs have been singled out as particularly vulnerable to this effect (McCosker et al. 2001). Hochschild’s description of ‘deep acting’ (Hochschild 1983: 42-3), may mask levels of upset or even trauma suffered by researchers who feel their professional integrity would be brought into question if such upset were acknowledged. However, increasingly there is recognition that the issue of emotional well-being is of great importance to researchers, research institutions and the integrity of qualitative research itself (Bloor, Fincham and Sampson 2007-06:34).

“With regard to PhD students, several contributions highlighted the ambiguous position of research students when it comes to the requirements of PhD research and risk to well-being. It is often the case that a precondition of PhD funding in the social sciences is that it is original research. In some instances this means that the specific research arena has not been previously entered. Therefore the potential risks in such research arenas are, to certain extent, untested. In these circumstances it is inevitable that PhD students become their own risk assessors and the least experienced in research can find themselves in the most exposed positions when it comes to potential harm (Bloor, Fincham and Sampson 2007-06:34).”

“There was discussion of what one contributor called ‘re-entry shock’. This was described in relation to both returning to a research site, but also adjusting back to a ‘normal’ life after extended periods of field research. One researcher reported the isolation they felt when trying to readjust to their life after particularly intense fieldwork. The final area of discussion in the emotional impact involved the possible damage done by the misrepresentation of results, particularly in popular media. Once again the need for specialist training and awareness programmes to be provided through institutions was highlighted (Bloor, Fincham and Sampson 2007-06:45).”

Sampson, Helen; Bloor, Michael; Fincham, Ben. “A Price Worth Paying? Considering the `Cost’ of Reflexive Research Methods and the Influence of Feminist Ways of `Doing.’ Sociology, 42:5:919-933 (2008) DOI: 10.1177/0038038508094570.

Abstract: “Drawing on analysis of relevant literature, focus groups, and web-based discussion board postings, assembled as part of an inquiry into risks to the well-being of qualitative researchers, it is argued that emotional harm is more prevalent than physical harm and may be particularly associated with reflexivity and the important influence of feminist research methods. The particular concern of feminist researchers with reflexivity, with research relationships and with the interests of research participants may make them especially vulnerable to emotional harm.”

Bloor, Michael; Fincham, Ben; Sampson, Helen. 2007-06. Qualiti (NCRM) Commissioned Inquiry into the Risk to Well-Being of Researchers in Qualitative Research.

Risk to emotional well-being of researchers involved in qualitative research, Role conflict, Anxiety, Isolation, Resistance, Unanticipated long term impact of research, Staying emotionally/psychologically safe




Commissioned Inquiry. 2006-03. “Risk to well-being of researchers in qualitative research

Original Call for Evidence: Submissions/evidence are invited as part of an inquiry into risks to the well-being of researchers in qualitative research. Those persons submitting evidence may wish to draw our attention to lessons to be learned from experience. We are interested in submissions based on the experiences of researchers, research supervisors, members of ethics committees and anyone else involved in any aspect of the conduct and management of qualitative research. Submissions may embrace practical, regulatory and/or ethical issues and risks may include threats to mental/emotional health as well as exposure to physical hazards. The Inquiry is being conducted as part of the activities being undertaken by ‘Qualiti’, the Cardiff Node of the UK Economic and Social Research Council’s National Research Methods Centre. The aim of the inquiry is to produce guidelines for good practice of value to researchers, supervisors and other parties.

Broad Overview: There are risks to researchers in undertaking fieldwork. Some of these are obvious, some less so. These risks may impact on the physical, emotional or social well-being of researchers. Whilst there has been a concentration of effort in ensuring research ‘subjects’ are protected from the potentially harmful consequences of research (through ‘informed consent’ for example), there has been much less thought about protection of researchers from potential harm. It is likely too that researchers undertaking qualitative fieldwork are exposed to particular forms of risks, which arise from the characteristic emphasis of qualitative approaches on conducting research in naturalistic settings.

Qualitative researchers may experience a range of risks. Some risks relate to the physical well-being of researchers and correspond to conventional health and safety considerations in employment of all kinds. It is not difficult to think of situations in which researchers may be at risk of violence or other physical danger. Equally, researchers may become emotionally threatened, where, for example, the data being collected are distressing or the settings emotionally taxing. These different types of risk reflect the objectives of the research, the settings in which it is conducted and the characteristics of the participants in the research, both ‘subjects’ and researchers.

Researcher risks are a matter of urgent interest to a range of parties, not just researchers, but also research supervisors, research funders, insurers, ethicists, occupational health and safety personnel and others. Evidence and opinions are invited from all interested parties.

There have been past occasions where qualitative researchers have entered the field without fully understanding the implications of the research setting on their well-being. This is a situation paralleling a failure of ‘informed consent’, researchers should be able to make judgements as to the suitability of a research context with regard to ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ risk of harm to them. Clearly, it is desirable to develop ‘good practice’ guides and recommendations to reduce risks to qualitative researchers. However, practice guides should be such that they do not threaten the integrity of the research process itself. This is especially pertinent given that much qualitative research is carried out in naturalistic settings and, more specifically, is frequently dependent upon the quality of the relationships between ‘subjects’ and researchers.

It is recognised that researcher risk may vary by gender as well as by setting. Submissions are welcomed which document and explore this gender dimension.

This inquiry aims to collate and analyse accounts of qualitative research where issues of risk may have been present to locate these accounts in the existing research methods literature and to draw out practical recommendations.

Moderated Forum: Evidence for the inquiry will be gathered via a moderated web-based forum. On this forum contributors will be asked to submit evidence under one of four topic themes. This evidence will then be placed on the website in an appropriate topic stream. It is anticipated that aside from gathering evidence this will also generate online discussion around issues arising from evidence.


One Response

  1. This is good stuff! Thanks.

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