Paper One: Academia, Emotion and ‘Lived-Experience Research’

Paper One: Academia, Emotion and ‘Lived-Experience Research’

I had hoped to make life a little easier and just post a video of my recent conference presentation. Unfortunately, being out of practice at this style of public speaking, I misjudged content length and ran out of time resulting in this:

When you get told to stop mid-point and prior to the big finish…

Argh. So, instead, I’m publishing the content below…..

The ‘Martin Effect’: reflections on ’emotional labor’ facets in qualitative suicide bereavement research.

Academia and ‘emotion’

The Academy has traditionally had a problem with emotion. The argument has been framed in a way that determines ‘visible emotion’ as causing lost legitimacy (of researcher and research) (Blackman 2007, cited in Jamieson, L., 2014: 2), primarily because “sharing personal stories can be seen as being self-centred and an act of ‘navel-gazing’” (Visser, 2016: 2). Essentially, in traditional circles (those adhering to the established notions of ‘scientific’ – or what constitutes ‘scientific’ – research), emotion has generally been perceived as not just problematic, but as something to be almost feared (and therefore avoided). As a result, researchers on the whole have learned (and to some extent still learn) to mould and manage feelings and associated actions to toe the non-emotion-line of academic preference.

The knock-on effect of “This holding of emotion” (Dickson-Swift 2009: 66) has been that researchers have often neglected the self. The implication that personal connection to research can instantly challenge the degree to which researchers can claim both themselves and their work are ‘professional’ (Kleinman and Copp in Dickson-Swift et al., 2009: 63) has in turn encouraged the moulding (if not outright suppression) of researcher emotion-work attached to projects academic in nature. Researchers, including social scientists, remain “‘trained [own emphasis] to suppress emotions’ (Bellas, 1999: 104)” (in Dickson-Swift et al., 2009: 66); and it is rare that such rules and ‘instructions’ of behaviour/attitude are questioned at the novice level. Yet, as Highet points out, these “Theoretical debates about ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’, ‘engagement’ and ‘social action’ do not prepare you for how it feels [own emphasis]” (cited Jamieson, L., 2014: 86)

Emotion enters all research. Particularly within the social sciences, personal experiences have a role in shaping research in that we all do come to research with preconceptions, indeed biases. Thus, as Grant and Zeeman argue, accusing researchers of self-indulgence if the personal is visible in research is only to assume that the researcher is “autonomous and culturally, dialogically and relationally disconnected from other people” (2012: 2), which is not, and cannot be, the reality. As Barbalet (2002) has pointed out,

“A well-developed appreciation of emotions is absolutely essential…because no action can occur in a society without emotional involvement.” (Barbalet, 2002: 2)

The question should become, then, not about whether or not emotion should come into play, but about how emotion that is naturally there is to be managed.

‘Expert by Experience’ – ‘Lived-Experience Researchers’

I am conducting my research because of ‘lived experience’ – losing my brother and only sibling, Martin, to suicide, when I was 30 and he was 27, led me back into the world of academic research, to explore and record the experiences of other adult siblings after this form of loss. I came into the project with a proposal that followed the traditional focus on topic-content and the participants of the project. At the outset, I thought of only what I wanted to compile and write after talking to other people. I failed to appreciate my role and position in the research, as someone directly affected by the subject under examination.

Perhaps the assumption was ‘experience makes this research workable’ – essentially, I viewed my experience as an advantage, as crude as that sounds, in that it implied “ease of access to the field…expediency of building rapport; nuanced and responsible data collection, taking into consideration community norms and values; and richness in the interpretation of the data in light of deep knowledge” (Ross, 2017: 2). However, delving closer into other (though not bountiful) accounts of ‘lived-experience researchers’, and drawing on some of my initial emotions, it has become clear that multiple obstacles/potential trip-ups do have to be navigated.

Firstly, there is no such thing as a ‘Total Insider’ – there are only insiders of own experience. I remain an outsider to others’ grief experiences, no matter the common factor of suicidal death. Secondly, self-disclosure can also distance (Pezalla et al., 2012: 167) as well as unite – Finlay for instance describes this issue as being about a “threatening [own emphasis] path of personal disclosure”, whereby “the researcher treads a cliff edge where it is all too easy to fall into an infinite regress of excessive self-analysis at the expense of focusing on the research participants” (2002: 532). Recognition of this leads to, thirdly, the highlighting of other emotional elements: for instance, there is much guilt that brings forward questions – am I exploiting the death of my own brother? Am I exploiting others’ pain? Will I result in providing an example of how, to cite Kvale and Brinkmann (2009), a lived-experience researcher’s “knowledge of how to create rapport and get through a participant’s defences may serve as a ‘Trojan Horse’ to get inside areas of a person’s life where they were not invited”? (75) None of these are pleasant to think on, yet they inevitably arise, demanding consideration.

Other researchers in a similar position to mine have cited emotional tolls manifesting in regret, feeling powerless to aid their respondents (Highet cited in Jamieson, L., 2014: 87) and high-levels of “frustration, physical and emotional exhaustion” (Ryan cited in Silverman, 2016: 41), due to the cumulative nature of the emotional impact of the research (Jackson et al. cited in Jamieson, L., 2014: 139-40). Indeed, the analytical and dissemination stages of a research endeavour can be just as taxing as the data collection phase. For instance, there are accounts of (re)traumatisation developing during qualitative data analysis (Frambach, 2015: 957), and it has been described that researchers can find it hard to make decisions as to what to keep in and leave out – all can appear important, leaving the researcher anxious, not wanting to misrepresent or exclude. This can also filter down into spoken presentations, even to “needing to manage emotions while talking.” (Jackson et al. in Jamieson, L., 2014: 140). Overall, there is strong potential for researchers with lived-experience to reach “saturation point”, leaving them “feeling ‘emotionally drained’” (McKenzie et al., 2016: 6).


Turning specifically, then, to my own project, realisation of the need to think about personal strategies to manage my emotional connectedness to the project began early on. Reflection and reflexivity are often put forward as crucial in an academic sense – as Finlay argues, “Ideally, the process of reflection and reflexive analysis should start from the moment the research is conceived.” (Finlay, 2002: 536) These aspects are certainly crucial to my study, but it also must be said that reflection and reflexion are not the be all and end all – indeed Pillow (2003) for instance, “problematizes the notion that self-reflexivity ‘provides a cure for the problem’” (cited in Ross, 2017: 3) – engaging in this R&R does not solve all the issues pertaining to lived-experience researchers, and clear articulation regarding specific decisions/strategies is also required.

Some of the key areas for my work are as thus follows:

1.My ‘Insider knowledge’ is to be recognised as useful for logistical decision-making, and is not something that always needs justifying through connection to already-published literature, particularly with regards to research questions. I will engage actively in “using emic understanding of the studied phenomenon to develop appropriate interview questions” (LaSala in Meezan and Martin 2003: 19). I know, for example, that loss by suicide can affect career choices, employment relationships etc.; I know that loss by suicide can encourage previously unconvinced people to seek out mediums and conversations with the dead – so why not use these insights to form questions? As LaSala points out,

“Qualitative researchers who are members of the groups or communities they study have a unique ability not only to elicit emic perspectives, but also to understand their importance…personal familiarity with issues affecting their respondents’ lives may enable them to formulate research questions” (LaSala in Meezan and Martin 2003: 17).

Furthermore, in terms of practicalities, I know the effect that ‘celebratory’ days (Christmas, Easter, even Hallowe’en and Mother’s/Father’s Days) (Omerov et al., 2014: 3412) can have on adult siblings specifically, so I will draw on that to plan interview timings. I know that restricting the length of time for an interview may be counter-productive, given that many siblings are in their lives often not afforded space to talk – I will therefore enter the interview scenario “prepared to listen for as long a time as…needed. (Dyregrov, 2004)” (Omerov et al., 2014: 3412). What will simply be important will be to explicitly outline and acknowledge where my ‘insider knowledge’ has been utilised, and how it has been incorporated.

2. ‘Researcher-participant’ friendships. As a suicide bereaved person, meeting those who ‘get it’ are worth their weight in gold. But then I am also a researcher. The usual academic advice is to ‘avoid dual relationships’ (LaSala in Meezan and Martin, 2003: 22) – they are often considered too blurry to be beneficial. Yet there is research to show that being open about the nature of the relationship with the interviewees can allow a form of friendship and research-relationship to co-exist relatively un-problematically. For instance, Ross has described how:

“I addressed them directly… ‘I feel the same way, about how great it is to be in touch with someone going through such a similar experience…Because of that I have to tell you I’m struggling a bit with figuring out what kind of relationship with you is ok considering I’m the principal researcher of a study you’re participating in, do you know what I mean? Just ethically in terms of making sure that you do not feel coerced to continue to participate, do not share information with the study you wouldn’t otherwise necessarily choose to share and so forth because of a relationship between us. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that it’s on my mind, that I’m juggling these roles, so that if you feel any distance on my part, you will know that’s where it is coming from, and definitely not from a lack of interest or connection.’” (Ross, 2017: 6-7)

This to me emphasises that ‘mutual agreement’ here is more than helpful. Being emotionally honest and open, making the tensions visible is important and, I believe, a best way to demonstrate respect for participants, allowing successful handling of relationships when the research topic is entangled with the personal life of the researcher.

3. Closely linked to this aspect is the issue of self-disclosure (Visser, 2016: 3). As a person affected by suicide loss, I can say that what you reveal to whom can depend very much even upon the day of the week, never-mind anything else. And sometimes things are said on the spur of the moment, just because a pertinent memory pops up, for example. For research purposes then, extra concentration needs to be given to thinking about the questions: a) what would I want to share/feel comfortable in sharing? and b) under what circumstances would I speak my memories/experiences? The care I wish to take is to not speak my thoughts in a manner that can be taken as advice – I am not a therapist; I am merely a peer. Therefore, I have decided to stick to factually-based comments, rather than offering interpretations of my own experience. It may also be beneficial with regards to self-disclosure to be interviewed using my own research questions/interview schedule, as a means of thinking about what information I would share if I were a respondent, (to help reduce possible impulses to speak within actual interviews (when I should concentrate on asking questions), and also to perhaps determine a protocol of own-information open for disclosure, should respondents seek out such information). I will also not offer, but only respond, if asked. In this respect, I aim to entirely engage with Finlay’s suggestion that “the self is exploited only while to do so remains purposeful” (Finlay, 2002: 542).

4. It is also important to make explicit reference to the acceptance and appreciation of physical emotion as a feature of my decision-making. ‘Outward signs of emotion’ are largely overlooked in discussions regarding research interactions, although there are comments to be found where researchers have “reported holding on to emotion” (Dickson-Swift et al., 2009: 67) rather than displaying bodily reaction in interview contexts. This comes back to the idea that academic value rests on an idea of “being professional…involve[ing] not showing any outward signs of emotion.” (Dickson-Swift et al., 2009: 69) I highly anticipate that at some stage I will encounter a participant story that will prompt an emotional response – it would thus affect my professionalism and sense of stress as an interviewer to not allow crying, and therefore I will be explicitly mentioning crying as part of my methodological (and ethical) decision-making.

5. And lastly, self-care will be prioritised and built into my research design. Essentially, I “acknowledge[…] feelings as part of the research process” (Dickson-Swift et al., 2009: 62), as a means of self-empowerment. I have placed myself in the position of researching this topic; but I also have a duty to look after myself. The argument may be that “Universities (and research centres) have a duty of care to researchers” (Dickson-Swift et al., 2009: 74), but it is also the case that researchers should seek to care for themselves and express this so, without trepidation. As Highet comments, “We must be prepared to draw our own lines as we navigate our way through our work” (cited in Jamieson, L., 2014: 87). As this is a work in process, I’m not entirely sure what form this self-care will take, but I’m working on, and articulating the need for, it!


How then to sum up this very brief consideration of ‘emotion labor’ with regards to my researcher activity in examining that of which I have lived-experience? I would stress that emotional management is as much a research skill as any other, deserving of respect and recognition, especially when direct experience of the research topic is at the heart of an endeavour. In my (part time) case, I am currently a long way off fieldwork, yet focused consideration of the emotional connectedness and facets to my work have already come to the fore. I obviously do not know how I will react in interview situations, in relation to data analysis etc., but the point is to recognise, to anticipate possible impacts in as much detail as possible, in order to identify or design strategies to manage and combat should the need arise. Within academia the impression upon me is very much that “connections between…research and…private lives are not often publicly acknowledged because ‘the norms of scholarship do not require that researchers bare their souls, only their procedures’ (Lofland and Lofland, 1995)” (cited in Primeau, 2003: 11), so then my aim is to try and openly integrate the private life into the procedural process valued within academic communities. That, I hope, is a route to trust in me as a researcher, and in the work I produce.


Reference List:

Abell, J., Locke, A., Conder, S., Gibson, S. and Stevenson, C. (2006). ‘Trying similarity, doing difference: the role of interviewer self-disclosure in interview talk with young people’ in Qualitative Research, Vol. 6., No. 2., pp. 221-244.

Barbalet, J. (Ed). (2002). Emotions and Sociology. Blackwell Publishing.

Carmack, H.J. and DeGroot, J.M. (2014). ‘Exploiting Loss? ethical considerations, boundaries, and opportunities for the study of death and grief online’ in OMEGA, Vol. 68, No. 4, pp. 315-335.

Dickson-Swift, V., James, E.L., and Liamputtong, P. (2008). Undertaking Sensitive Research in the Health and Social Sciences: managing boundaries, emotions and risks. Cambridge.

Dickson-Swift, V., James, E.L., Kippen, S., and Liamputtong, P. (2009). ‘Researching sensitive topics: qualitative research as emotion work’ in Qualitative Research, Vol.9, No.1, pp.61-79.

Finlay, L. (2002). ‘ “Outing” the Researcher: The Provenance, Process and Practice of Reflexivity’ in Qualitative Health Research, Vol.12., No.2, pp.531-545.

Frambach, J.M. (2015). ‘Balancing Vulnerability and Narcissism: who dares to be an autoethnographer?’ in Medical Education, Vol. 49., pp. 952-958.

Grant, A.J., and Zeeman, L. (2012). ‘Whose Story Is It? An Autoethnography Concerning Narrative Identity’ in The Qualitative Report, Vol. 17., Article 72, pp.1-12.

Jamieson, L., Simpson, R., and Lewis, R. (2014). Researching Families and Relationships: Reflections on Process. Palgrave Macmillan.

Kvale, S. and Brinkmann, S. (2009). InterViews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing. Sage.

McKenzie, S.K., Li, C., Jenkin, G. and Collings, S. (2016). ‘Ethical Considerations in Sensitive Suicide Research Reliant on Non-Clinical Researchers’ in Research Ethics, pp. 1-11.

Meezan, W. and Martin, J.I. (2003). Research Methods with Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Populations. Routledge.

Omerov, P., Steineck, G., Dyregrov, K., Runeson, B. and Nyberg, V. (2014). ‘The Ethics of Doing Nothing. Suicide-bereavement and research: ethical and methodological considerations’ in Psychological Medicine, 44, pp.3409-3420.

Pezalla, A.E., Pettigrew, J. and Miller Day, M. (2012). ‘Researching the Researcher-as-Instrument: an exercise in interviewer self-reflexivity’ in Qualitative Research. Vol.12, No.2, pp.165-85.’

Primeau, L.A. (2003). ‘Reflections on Self in Qualitative Research: Stories of Family’ in The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, Vol.57., No.1. pp.9-16.

Ross, L.E. (2017). ‘An account from the inside: examining the emotional impact of qualitative research through the lens of ‘Insider’ research’ in Qualitative Psychology, pp.1-12.

Visser, R.C. (2016) ‘‘Doing Death’: reflecting on the researcher’s subjectivity and emotions’ in Death Studies, pp.1-8.


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