Conducting research on sensitive and traumatic topics during a pandemic

Sep 15, 2020

Alison Gregory
Research Fellow at the Centre for Academic Primary Care, University of Bristol
Emma Williamson
Reader in Gender Based Violence and Head of the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol
Maria Barnes
Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Academic Primary Care, University of Bristol.

_This blog was originally posted on Transforming Society_*

In January 2020 we published an article on the impacts of conducting research on sensitive and traumatic issues. It received considerable interest, with researchers wanting more proactive support from their organisations.

Since then, the coronavirus pandemic has hit and, in line with lockdown regulations, all face-to-face research was halted. For many qualitative researchers, this wasn’t a large problem, and merely required a switch to online platforms. Among those of us working in the field of domestic violence and abuse (DVA), however, there are fears about lockdown escalating abuse (including for our research participants), and these concerns have raised questions about who we should continue to interview, what enhanced safety measures are needed, and the impact that conducting this work from home has on researchers. This article discusses some of the issues we are encountering.

Safety risk: The first challenge is the heightened difficulty in assessing safety; it is absolutely paramount that researchers are able to accurately evaluate participants’ welfare, but interviewing by phone or online allows us no way of knowing who else is in the room, or likely to walk past, listen or interrupt. We have little control over participants’ environments, and we know that they might not either.

Intersection of disadvantage: The second issue is that, given concerns about the virus disproportionately impacting communities already experiencing inequalities, including poverty, ethnicity, disability and age, we have to consider how technologies will work for these different groups, and whether participants can access the means to connect.

Interview structure: Our interviews conducted during lockdown have been longer, in part because many people have had more time than they would usually to reflect on issues that are affecting them, to think in advance about what they want to say regarding the research, and possibly feel more confident in their home environments to be more expansive. Participants have also used the interviews as valuable human interaction, and to talk about pandemic-related issues. Several participants have mentioned feeling better for having had the space to talk.

Reducing power differentials: One of the positive aspects we’ve found of working from home is that power differences between participants and researchers have reduced. The status of the researcher is less apparent when they are seen in their home context. And the ‘we are all in this together’ attitude has enabled researchers and participants to easily establish common ground and rapport.

How does this affect researchers?

Words colleagues have used to describe how they feel at the moment include ‘rocky’, ‘delicate’, ‘fragile’, ‘resigned’, ‘tearful’ and ‘unhinged’. Our paper highlighted the more usual impacts of conducting DVA research, but now there are added extras:

  • The burden of technology: Trying to remember everything you need to do technologically, while being both observed AND having a demanding conversation is a challenge. In particular, there are worries about losing computer connection, particularly at inopportune or upsetting moments.

  • The jarring between view and content: One colleague described an online interview where the participant was sitting in a bedroom with Disney characters on the wall whilst describing horrific abuse. This contrasts with interviews in the ‘blank’ settings of professional/community buildings.

  • People need more of you: Participants seem to really appreciate the additional time offered, but researchers describe feeling ‘utterly wired and rung out’ following lengthy interactions. Additionally, since accessing support is both increasing and more challenging right now, participants are asking researchers to provide advice that they wouldn’t normally expect to give.

  • Maintaining boundaries: Most of our colleagues keep their work away from home to maintain a ‘safe haven’, unpolluted by the distress and toxicity of our work. Simply shutting the study door at the end of the day creates too thin a barrier and, without a commute to reset and recalibrate, home can feel besieged. There is also too little headspace available to compartmentalise or assimilate the experiences we have heard.

  • No ‘downtime’: Usually, informal interactions with colleagues researching DVA provide the helpful combination of being understood, in the context of the work we do, without necessarily having to talk about it. Now, relaxed conversations, peppered in between emotive tasks, are few. What remains is a dissonance between our work and the ‘other stuff of life’ which is currently pretty mundane. This can create a sense of disconnect from the world: ‘it’s like there’s a band on my head, and I can’t always make space’.

What helps?

Despite the challenges, there are tools we’ve found helpful to process our work and install some boundaries. Some are standard professional techniques, such as writing notes straight after an interview, to help sort and ‘dump’ the information, or debriefing with peers and counselling professionals.

Other practices reported by colleagues as particularly beneficial during this time are:

  • Giving permission for emotion: We can be hidebound by academic notions of ‘objective researchers’ who are unemotional; indeed emotion can be seen as weakness. Here reframing is helpful: qualitative researchers working with sensitive or traumatic issues need emotions to do our job well:

‘…we have to open ourselves up to feeling other people’s pain – we wouldn’t be good at what we do otherwise’

  • Pacing work more than usual: Leaving several days between interviews, if possible, is beneficial, as is spreading out tasks so that the emotional load of working on intense subjects (without the usual workplace support) can be diffused.

  • Symbolically letting the participants’ emotional distress ‘out of the room’, for example, by opening the window (during and after an interview), burning a candle, etc.

  • Changing clothes, taking a shower, or walking round block to ‘end’ the working day. Moving and looking up and out can cue the brain into the adjustment from work to home ‘as a kind of virtual commute’.

  • Increasing self-care, both by being creative about what this looks like – everyone is different – and being mindful that self-care is part of the work day.

It is also worth reflecting on the coping strategies gender-based violence researchers use when not in the midst of a pandemic – be they having a (now socially distanced) drink with friends; physical exercise; activities involving chips and cake; or reading crime stories where the baddy gets it! – and paying more attention at this time to our own needs as researchers working on difficult topics with potentially vulnerable populations. At the risk of sounding glib, we should probably heed the advice we would give to others: ‘be kind to yourself.’

Alison Gregory is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Academic Primary Care, University of Bristol.

Emma Williamson is a Reader in Gender Based Violence and Head of the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol. She is a co-editor of the Journal of Gender-Based Violence.

Maria Barnes is Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Academic Primary Care, University of Bristol.

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