Researcher Emotional Safety as Ethics in Practice

Why Professional Supervision Should Augment PhD Candidates’ Academic Supervision
  • Martin TolichEmail author
  • Emma Tumilty
  • Louisa Choe
  • Bryndl Hohmann-Marriott
  • Nikki Fahey
Living reference work entry


Guillimin and Gillam’s concept of ethics in practice in qualitative research is a given in that unexpected ethical dilemmas emerge within qualitative research’s iterative frame reconfiguring how researchers manage potential harm to participants. Not so widely acknowledged is the threat the emergence of ethical dilemmas creates for researchers’ own physical and emotional safety, especially those who are PhD candidates. This chapter explores a PhD student’s emotional safety when her research design unfolded on her unexpectedly leaving her to ask the question, “What just happened?” Her two PhD supervisors, a bioethicist and a health professional, provide an answer and a solution that is generalizable to qualitative research PhD students in general. A review of the literature finds this situation remarkably commonplace yet academic supervisors are either oblivious to them or limited in what they can offer students. Professional supervision offered to this PhD student was an example of best practice, allowing her to reveal her vulnerabilities in a neutral setting and outside a normal academic supervision hierarchy that routinely inhibits these disclosures.


Ethics in practice Postgraduate research Researcher safety Qualitative research 


Qualitative research comes in many forms. Sometimes it involves discrete one-time interviews with participants, and sometimes it involves multiple interviews with participants over time. In these interviews, participants are asked to relay their experiences of something and researchers recognize that this recounting may bring up negative or difficult emotions and offer additional support to participants as needed (e.g., referrals to agencies). When, in social science research, researchers conduct multiple interviews with participants, it allows them to grasp the past as well as to learn how the participant deals with the present. In ongoing interviews, researchers themselves are, to a greater or lesser degree, drawn into the participant’s life. This can be disruptive when interviews affording entry into participants’ lives generate an ethnography inclusive of participant observation. Here the research ethics considerations escalate: the researcher records not only the participants’ voices but also the researcher’s own thoughts and emotions in relation to their participants. This process initially is unfiltered. The rapidly evolving situation is not always predicted or predictable by researchers. The researcher’s formal ethics review application to their (usually university) research ethics committee may be circumscribed. That is not unexpected. Qualitative researchers routinely find their ethical considerations obscured in the formal procedural ethics review system designed mainly for biomedical researchers (Bosk and De Vries 2004). While researchers are able to describe what the research is about and what ethical issues are relevant, they cannot predict with any certainty how the research might develop new ethical considerations in the field (Tolich and Fitzgerald 2006). Guillimin and Gillam’s (2004) demarcation between procedural ethics (or formal ethics review) and ethics in practice predicts with some certainty that the iterative and emergent research design that accompanies qualitative research produces an ethics in practice assessment of ethical considerations in research by qualitative researchers. This is a “known unknown” expectation. Punch points out that many ethical problems “have to be resolved situationally and even spontaneously” (1994, p. 84). The focus of these ethical considerations is on the safety of the research participants. This chapter expands the focus to how unexpected ethics in practice creates situations for researchers that challenge the safety of the researcher. Thus, the focus of this chapter is less on the ethical considerations for the research participant and more on the researcher whose ethics in practice can manifest unexpectedly, endangering researcher safety and well-being.

To bring to life these issues, what follows presents a case of a single ethnographer whose research followed all the prescribed and proscribed steps as if research ethics followed a well-worn path. The formal ethics review application focused on the experience of adolescent girls whose unstable housing disrupted their lives. It included referral plans for participant safety. These girls experienced unstable housing first-hand but not in a synchronic form; their experience was diachronic meaning the researcher had multiple interviews and observed first-hand the girls’ experience of unstable housing. The researcher’s personal research philosophy and therefore approach to her participants enmeshed her in a situation which itself created vulnerability for her. Not only were the ethical issues in this study of unstable housing emergent for the researcher but so too was the physical, emotional, and professional safety of the researcher as she immersed herself into her participants’ world by meeting them weekly to window shop or drink hot chocolate at McDonald’s. What is new in this chapter is how it highlights ethics in practice, viewed not from the participants’ perspective but focused on the researcher’s vulnerability beyond the physical and obviously emotional already described elsewhere (Choe forthcoming). This vulnerability reveals invisible boundaries between participants and researcher demonstrating how procedural ethics are insufficient in addressing the philosophies and practices of social science researchers in the field. Training for postgraduate students conducted prior to entering the field may also be insufficient (Pollard 2009). For this researcher, academic supervision bolstered by active professional supervision provided the ability to create new boundaries and overcome unexpected panics.

Academic supervisors can certainly help if academic and personal crises occur, but in their Eleven Practices of Effective Postgraduate Supervisors, James and Baldwin (1999, p. 34) advise:

Don’t try to act as a counsellor. To do so is exhausting and dangerous if you are not trained in counselling skills. … your role is to be generally and genuinely supportive. Serious problems require expert help, and the University offers a good deal of this. Know where to refer your students, and, if necessary, help them to make the contact and even the appointment.

Social workers often have clinical supervision (Howe and Gray 2013), that is regular meetings with a peer external to their chain-of-command with whom they can debrief and discuss the emotions arising from their work. The professional supervision the PhD student received in this case study was outsourced to a health professional within the university whose task was to support PhD students during their studies. This role had only been in existence for 6 months and we discuss it highlighting the importance of such a service as best practice for PhD students augmenting academic supervision.

This chapter brings together a bioethics professional, the PhD student, her two academic supervisors, and the health professional employed by the University of Otago. Together, they examine a case study the postgraduate student provides, capturing harm when good intentions lead to unravelling boundaries that caused problems on the researcher both emotionally and professionally.

Section “Background” begins with a brief overview of the original research question followed by a narrative where a PhD student describes how the situation evolved and eventually threatened her safety. Section “Expecting the Unexpected” of the chapter positions this unique case within a wider literature that suggests this case study is not unique. Section “Professional Supervision for PhD Candidates” explores the issues that arose and how they were managed differently by academic supervision and professional supervision ending with recommendations for others’ future practice that enhance research safety. Although this chapter is a “case study” related to a specific discipline (social science/social research) and a related methodology (qualitative research/ethnography), the issues raised should be of concern for the physical and emotional safety of any researcher and the proposed supportive mechanism could work equally well with most other disciplines and methodologies.


The origin of the PhD student’s research question began when she was working as a bank teller in a low socioeconomic suburb. The banking behaviors of poor or low-income customers were apparent – the poor paid more, not only in terms of serving bank fees, but also in terms of emotional costs and time. Once the monthly rental payments and other direct debit payments were taken out of their account, customers living on a government welfare benefit were often left with a small sum or nothing at all for other living expenses such as medical bills or food. As such, they were often overdrawn on their accounts and were charged hefty fees and interest for keeping their banking facility.

The “private troubles” faced by poor and low-income customers at the bank were a “public issue” in a C. Wright Mills (1959) sense. The PhD student’s reading of Desmond’s work “Eviction: Poverty and Profit in the American City” (2016) describing ground-level research of how eight families struggled with their lives after paying almost everything on rent informed her enquiry. Desmond (2016) described the families who paid more not only in monetary terms but also in terms of opportunity costs, security, time, and hassle; for them, there was no buffer against the poverty penalty. The student’s research question asked if “the poor paid more,” especially within the domain of rental housing instability in New Zealand.

Access to the adolescent girls was gained by volunteering at youth groups in various parts of New Zealand as a mentor. The mentoring opened doors into the life worlds of girls aged 15–18 years. Friendships were formed, and many of the girls became informants and collaborators to the research. A group of 12 senior girls regularly shared their experiences about unstable housing with the researcher. Some of these themes were previously written in a book chapter entitled “Faking Friendship” (Choe forthcoming) discussing friendship as a methodology (Tillmann-Healy 2003). This friendship strategy ran the risk of being inauthentic and one-sided during the research process (Duncombe and Jessop 2002). The inauthentic nature of the research and the fear that it was extractive are very much central to this research chapter. Together they produce a sense of guilt culminating in an affective response not predicted by the researcher or her supervisors or an ethics review system. In particular, the experience with one girl, who we are calling Hannah, exacerbated this feeling of guilt in ways that were not expected.

Louisa’s Narrative: What Just Happened?

I went into the research hoping to learn about the girls’ past experiences of moving houses, but I failed to realize that if they were always moving then they were probably going to continue moving during the course of this 3-year study. I was not prepared for how this instability would embroil me and I had to adapt and learn as the research unfolded. I became part of this ethnography but I never consciously consented to this level of involvement. Previously, I had enrolled in an ethics class learning from mistakes done by other researchers but nothing prepared me for minimizing harm to myself and the need to establish boundaries to protect myself physically, emotionally, and professionally.

The initial part of my study focused on the girls’ experiences moving houses. I built rapport and trust, allowing the girls to share with me their lived experience. Outside formal interviews, as is the case in small city research, I would “bump” into the girls or meet them by chance in public places, such as the supermarket or outside McDonalds. They would update me on their recent housing moves. However, there was a period of time after I had finished transcribing my second round of interviews the girls felt that I “neglected” them as I had not been replying to their messages. In their words, “Why are you snobbing us?” This exchange made me more conscious about how I maintained my relationship to the girls. I did not want the research to be extractive. I wanted to make sure that they did not feel as though rapport was only built because I wanted information from them. I wanted an ongoing rapport where I could be supportive as a mentor to them with basic life skills, such as writing a job application.

At first I created and kept my boundaries with the girls. One girl said, “If you want to know about how we live you can come for a sleepover.” She added that another participant frequently stayed over at her place when she ran away from home. As a novice researcher, I thought “what’s a better way to know about something than to experience it?” However, when I asked my supervisors, they raised the ethical issues highlighting my own physical safety. That was my first revelation, was my research was becoming too personal? Boundaries were important but they could easily be undermined. I wanted to be close, but not too close.

Recently, one of my participants Hannah ran away from a violent situation in her home and found herself homeless. Hannah reached out to me in a text stating that “if I wasn’t desperate, or that if it wasn’t my last resort, I wouldn’t contact you.” It was then I realized that I had become part of these unstable housing stories. That’s when I panicked. I did not know how to respond. I read Hannah’s message as serious. I tried calling her immediately but her phone was turned off or out of battery.

I took a screenshot of the message and sent it off in an email to my two supervisors. I was desperate. Deep down, I knew that Hannah could not stay at my house as I had concerns with how this would affect my family, especially as this request stemmed from a threat of violence from Hannah’s uncle.

After Hannah charged her phone, she contacted me telling me “if she had stayed one more night at home, she could have died and that she was in danger.” I went straight into “solution mode.” Again, I knew her staying at my home was not possible so we started brainstorming options. My main concern was preventing her from being homeless that night. Hannah’s plan was sleeping at the 24/7 McDonald’s after the public library had closed at 8 pm. Focusing on solutions, I contacted Women’s refuge and found she was ineligible. We then went to the city’s Night Shelter and their admission policy was more straightforward but short term for a maximum of 5 nights in any 3 months. After a few basic few questions, they gave her dinner and a bed.

We then met the next day for lunch, and that’s when Hannah opened up more about what had happened. The problem was triggered by the lack of money. Both her parents were in prison, she was living under the care of her uncle. Hannah’s uncle had not been doing well financially. She normally paid a set amount for board to her uncle, but that week he wanted more. Her uncle threatened to hit her and to kick her out of the house if she was not going to pay more.

During lunch, we sought a solution attempting to contact [the government’s] Work and Income office on the phone to make an appointment for an emergency benefit. However, being in a public place with background noises, it was challenging to make that phone call especially when talking to an automated phone system. We failed. Instead, we walked into the Work and Income office to schedule an appointment but it could not be arranged within 5 days and outside the Night Shelter timeframe. However, the first thing Work and Income asked was for her ID, but she did not have it with her because she had left home in a rush. Thus, it was frustrating to secure an appointment and this time poverty was insightful.

I could sense Hannah’s anxiety about the appointment process. Plus having to witness her navigating through the bureaucratic system with frustrations and disappointments left me feeling guilty. I was not physically threatened but I had not prepared myself to be part of this unstable housing consequences story. My response was emotional and guilt ridden.

This was not the first time Hannah had exposed my boundaries. The initial “alarm bells” were some months prior when I went shopping with a number of participants and Hannah asked me to buy her some headphones and I said no, I did not have the money for that. Hannah looked disappointed but she said “she got it.” When we left the store, I noticed that the two other participants were really angry and upset. Initially, I failed to pick up what had happened until I saw the headphones in Hannah’s hands. The headphones were the same pair she had asked me to purchase. I was shocked. I confronted her about how she had the headphones, she explained that she had already had them before, and that she had wanted me to purchase another set. I felt compromised and embroiled as an “accomplice” in a shoplifting incident.

Now months later when I said no to taking Hannah to my house, I question if my actions contributed to her homelessness. It is difficult to maintain a relationship with this participant and keep boundaries in place. That’s why I panicked. I was blindsided. I feared she was going to be homeless and the danger of living on the street made saying no harder in this situation.

Part of my emotion was a feeling of academic guilt. I always remember Kevin Carter taking a photograph of a starving child in Africa with a vulture perched behind her. He went on to win the 2004 Pulitzer Prize but what happened to the child is unknown. My fear is that social research could end up like that with a thesis written through the generosity the girls sharing of their stories but the girls’ lives continuing being the same (see Stacey 1988). That situation disturbed me highlighting how inequality can be perpetuated within research settings. For example, the girls ended up homeless, but after listening to their story, I go back to transcribing interviews within the safety of my own home. I find this reality uncomfortable.

I resolved many of these situations through the support of my supervisors and their debriefing sessions. These allowed me to articulate and revisit my priorities. If I had said yes to sleeping over in a participant’s houses or allowing Hannah to spend the night in my own house, I would do more harm than good. Learning that by saying no, I was minimizing harm for my participants helped me to reconcile my decision. In the end, I do not regret saying no. But this does nothing to curtail the tears of guilt. I was grateful for the opportunity to speak to a health professional to place the situation into perspective.

This perspective is that the benefit of the research stems from talking to my participant-collaborators; what they really wanted was for more people to be aware of their stories. I too want their voices to be heard. The more people know about their experiences and hear about their stories, people might reflect about how unstable housing is affecting those around them.

What I have learned from these boundary incidents is that being reflexive is not just about being ethical towards your participants but also for yourself as a researcher. The duty of care goes both ways. I now have revisited the resource sheet in my participant information sheet. Initially, that’s where I made my blunder. I realize that the information sheet was designed as a resource within an “interview” setting: for example, if during the course of this interview the participant feels uncomfortable, there is a list of services they can talk to people. But my study had evolved into an ethnographic one. The resource sheet needed to be relevant to the whole process. I now include other resources such as Women’s Refuge, Night Shelter, and also Rape Crisis on top of the mental health support helplines. Also, the resource sheet needs to be relevant to the young person’s literacy or numeracy. They wanted something more resourceful. This resource sheet is for me, too, as it protects both me and my participants in times of crisis.

Expecting the Unexpected

In Louisa’s narrative, we see multiple vulnerabilities that she confronts during the course of her work. The potential for physical harm in staying at a participant’s house, the emotional stress of dealing with a participant in crisis, the professional jeopardy of being with participants engaging in illegal behaviors, and the reconciling of one’s identity within a situation of unequal power relations.

The emotional vulnerability of a researcher in the field in part stems from the unknown ways she may relate to her participants. When designing research and explaining it to ethics committees for approval, the relational aspects of the work are never fully interrogated. How the researcher might approach a participant, how they will be invited and consent to participate, how the researcher will communicate with them, how the researcher will ensure the participants’ physical and emotional safety along with their own physical safety are general aspects requested by ethics committees in describing social research work. But the question of what will your attitude as researcher be towards your participants, what are the necessary boundaries, how will they be maintained, and how might you feel spending time with these participants in the field are never raised. As social science scholars have called for greater relational practice with participants to avoid exploitation and calls of “tarmac professor” (those who explore the lives of others by metaphorically and sometimes physically “flying in and out” of a given situation), the idea of what boundaries are and how they are maintained has become complex and for emergent researchers especially fraught. What is the purpose of our research and how do we conceptualize exploitation in undertaking it? This is the first step to understanding how we define our roles in the field with our participants and what boundaries should be established.

The 2000 Safety in Social Research guidelines (Craig et al. 2000) cover some aspects raised in Louisa’s case. In response to the growing awareness of the risks involved in social research, the guideline group called for a wider discussion of safety aspects for social researchers and the need to develop a code of practice for safety which increased awareness of potential risks (Craig et al. 2000). These included:
  • Risk of physical threat or abuse.

  • Risk of psychological trauma as the result of actual or threatened violence.

  • The risk of being in a compromising situation leading to improper behavior.

  • Increased exposure to general risks of everyday life and social interaction from travel, infectious illness, or accident.

The new code of practice recognized that risk was carried on both sides of a research interaction, both the researcher and the researched. Social researchers were vulnerable; they often work in private situations, and the topics of enquiry may be sensitive and invoke strong feelings among those people participating (Lee 1993).

Some of these risks can be forewarned for new staff in induction training yet even with this training unexpected or unpleasant situations may arise for the researcher even when they are following guidelines. The effects of physical or emotional violence or the threat of violence may be traumatic (Craig et al. 2000).

Gender is highlighted as a factor in these safety guidelines. Craig et al. (2000) claim:

Lone female researchers are, in general, more vulnerable than lone males. Even when the threat of physical violence is not the issue, certainly more orthodox cultures may find woman researchers unacceptable and react with hostility.

Having identified these gendered risks the social research guidelines point out that some risk is inherent in the fieldwork:

Researchers are often left to rely on their own judgement or intuition in arranging and conducting an interview. The quality of much social research depends on establishing the appropriate distance between the researcher and respondent – a distance neither over familiar nor too detached. It may not always be easy even with prior briefing, to know what that distance should be. (Craig et al. 2000)

Hubbard et al. (2001) suggests that one of the reasons that the emotional impact on a researcher is low on the list of concerns is that there is an assumption that we tend to “screen ourselves out” of projects that we consider personal danger areas (2001, p. 120). Equally, Hubbard et al. say researchers may not always anticipate emotional challenges. The threat from the emotional spill over goes beyond the research. Thus, more work is needed to understand the potential for emotional threats and discuss their amelioration.

Lalor et al. (2006) discuss the emotional vulnerability of not only researchers but also transcribers and supervisors when dealing with research on sensitive or traumatic issues, while Woodby et al. (2011) discuss the emotions that can arise when coding transcripts relaying distressing content. There is an emotional vulnerability in being exposed to the difficult stories of others – how do we plan and then deal with our responses to hearing the suffering or sadness of our participants (see Granholm and Svedmark 2018). Researchers may be more aware of these issues than ethics committees who generally ask researchers how they will protect participant emotional safety but rarely ask about the researchers’ plans for their own emotional well-being. In part we could speculate that this is not only as Hubbard et al. (2001) described because of a presumption of “screening out” but also because ethics committees that grew out of a biomedical tradition (Israel and Hay 2006) see the researcher as a removed observer. They may fail to grasp the relational nature of some qualitative work with participants. How are researchers, especially emergent researchers, meant to conceive of their vulnerabilities in research?

Pollard’s (2009) study of 16 anthropology PhD students who conducted fieldwork from three universities found they were not prepared for the potential risks they experienced. From her thematic analysis, she identified the following themes in these students experience. They felt:

Alone, ashamed, bereaved, betrayed, depressed, desperate, disappointed, disturbed, embarrassed, fearful, frustrated, guilty, harassed, homeless, paranoid, regretful, silenced, stressed, trapped, uncomfortable, unprepared, unsupported, and unwell.

Pollard’s (2009) conclusion was that fieldwork training courses for anthropology students may be inadequate. Supervisors cannot and do not always provide appropriate support. Her suggestion is that PhD student should be prepared for a wide range of difficulties in the field, and that a significant number may face difficulties they never anticipated.

The consensus of the students Pollard (2009) interviewed claimed that the pre-fieldwork training course provided by the department was not satisfactory with little substantive preparation for novice researchers to enter the field. The 16 respondents’ main criticism was the training was too theoretical and not practical enough.

No training, however practical it may be, can ever really prepare you for fieldwork. You only learn how to do fieldwork when you are doing fieldwork. Adding to the mystery of what fieldwork actually is was the claim by the students that they were not privy to reading field notes of senior anthropologists (Pollard 2009, p. 29).

One impediment for these PhD students getting support was their expectation that negative experiences were part and parcel of their education. For example, Pollard found the students feared that a supervisor would see any claims of harm as a weakness on their part, that they could not handle the rigors of being in the field. Thus, no matter how well they do their jobs, student anthropologists will always be reticent about revealing difficulty in fieldwork, because they are worried that this will damage their fragile, emerging reputations as academic professionals (Pollard 2009, p. 37).

To alleviate this concern, Pollard (2009) recommended a mentoring system, where former fieldwork students could act as mentors for pre-fieldwork students. This mentoring system was premised on the idea that PhD students need support from people who understand ethnographic fieldwork but who had as little power as possible over their professional careers. The type of professional supervision offered by a health professional discussed below is similar but significantly different to a mentoring program. Those offering professional supervision are trained professionals as well as not being part of the academic supervision team.

Hanson and Richards’ (2017) study of researcher safety focuses on women who, as PhD students, experienced unwanted sexual advances in the field. Similar to Pollard, they found that PhD students felt they needed to deal with situations themselves, making ethnography a process of trial by fire. It was as if withstanding the difficulties of conducting ethnographic research is what makes one a worthwhile scholar (Hanson and Richards 2017, p. 8). One student reported that she felt that she was supposed to develop these really amazing, immense intimate relationships with informants (Hanson and Richards 2017). Intimacy may create access to high-quality data, but it also opens up the researcher to unwanted attention or advances, followed by blame and critique when these occur (Greenhill 2007).

Intimacy and boundaries are set up as a dichotomy – how to reconcile these required elements of research as symbiotic? Experienced researchers have developed strategies in the field to both elicit cooperation while maintaining professional roles. They need to share this experience with emerging researchers, but this kind of sharing is largely haphazard insofar as it depends on the choice of supervisors and their experience. As social researchers, it is particularly important to share how we conduct research in the field not just methodologically, but interpersonally.

What makes any social science PhD difficult is that they are set up on an individual basis. Collaborative research is virtually impossible, and there is very little training for how anyone should respond to dangerous situations in the field. We suggest universities professional supervision for PhD students.

Some scholars have written about the emotional vulnerability of working with marginalized and vulnerable populations. Similar to Louisa’s case, others describe the distress that can arise working with vulnerable populations (Davison 2004; Law 2016), especially those populations suffering economic hardship. Law (2016) specifically describes the importance of understanding one’s own privileged perspective in relation to the participants; the greater context of systems that create power dynamics historically, politically, and socially and especially in research. Understanding these dynamics is important in ensuring that researchers pay their participant the requisite respect both personally, but also epistemologically (Law 2016).

This chapter adds to an ongoing conversation by discussing how we can sustain the safety of emerging researchers by blending academic and professional supervision. Had the 16 students in Pollard’s study had access to professional supervision, many of their problems could have been addressed. In section “Professional Supervision for PhD Candidates,” the Graduate Well-Being Coach at University of Otago explains her emerging role.

Professional Supervision for PhD Candidates

My position as the Graduate Well-being Coach at the University of Otago was established in 2018 and is managed by the Graduate Research School. I am a registered occupational therapist with experience working in mental health settings. The initial thinking was that I would coach Ph.D. students who are struggling to be productive, supporting them to look after their well-being while achieving their goal of successfully completing their postgraduate studies, but as I visited the university support services, a need within the wider postgraduate community was identified.

Graduate Well-being Coaching is for any postgraduate student who needs some help with motivation, managing procrastination and imposter syndrome, keeping up with writing targets, concentration, managing the demands of their course of study, or any other issue related to keeping on track academically. It also focusses on general lifestyle balance and overall self-care and well-being to see if any changes can be made to support academic performance. The service also acts as triage, directing students to other services/supports they may find helpful. The other part of my role provides guidance to staff, when requested, about supporting student well-being. The development of my role has been quite straightforward.

What has been unexpected is that a number of students have sought out the service in the past 6 months reporting they were struggling with the research experience itself, to the point where it has caused them significant distress.

For these students, I had to draw upon my past experience of professionally supervising mental health clinicians to provide a different kind of support that potentially their academic supervisors could not or were not in a position to offer. These meetings focussed more on debriefing and guiding the student through critically reflecting on the situation, their emotional response and resulting actions, and then supporting the student to consider how they may change their approach or reframe their thinking based on their new learning. As the service is confidential and I have a level of distance from the research and department, it is a safe space for students to openly explore the situation at an emotional level and receive specific practical advice regarding establishing healthy boundaries and risk management.

As I grow into the role, I realize there is a real need to support students who face a crisis of confidence during their studies and to normalize their experiences of this. It is difficult to predict what challenges may occur in the field, or the emotional responses the students may experience. An increased openness about the potential for unexpected situations and reactions to occur may help to encourage students to proactively seek support sooner. As part of this, it is useful for the academic staff to know there is an alternative type of supervision I can offer that is similar to professional supervision that can complement the academic supervision they provide. Health professionals routinely receive clinical supervision as a safety net for both parties involved (clinician and service user), for researchers who are forming relationships with vulnerable populations, access to this alternative form of supervision, is one practical way to enhance researcher safety and well-being.


Many of Hanson and Richards (2017) researchers were blindsided by their experiences and as a result tried to ignore or set them aside. Louisa was also blindsided by her experiences with Hannah. She generated rich data, sharing the lived experience of the frustration of being homeless and attempting to gain an emergency benefit, but she felt guilty for a number of reasons. Was she there because she was only collecting data? At any time, she could go home to the comfort of her warm house and loving family. We see in Louisa’s story her genuine desire to be a certain kind of researcher, one that is not “extractive” when working with vulnerable and marginalized populations. What we also see is a transformation in understanding of what “extractive” means in this context. Her initial feelings showed her struggling with her professional identity; what does going home to a warm house mean for the researcher working with those living in precarious situations. There is an internal struggle to define a reciprocity, to establish that the relationship is not extractive and out of balance. This is accomplished in the end by describing the benefits of the research for the participants – their ability to have their story heard and the potential for the research to impact society.

In moving forward and sharing practice for the purposes of conducting better and safer research for all parties involved, it is worth mapping out what issues arose, how they were dealt with, and how we can deal with them in future.

In this case, Louisa was never physically threatened. The one instance where there may have been an issue of physical unsafety was when she was asked by her participants if she wanted to attend a sleepover. She dealt with this in discussion with her supervisors and politely relayed her refusal to the participants. Her supervisors were there to help her establish boundaries when none were apparent.

Her professional vulnerability came to the fore in her experiences with the participants when she spent time with them outside of interviews. The shoplifting incident that may have occurred was unpredicted and arguably unpredictable. As social researchers working in the field, there is a need for a dynamic adaptability to ethical situations that arise as discussed earlier in this chapter. How we train researchers to have this skill is somewhat undetermined. Even the establishment of roles and boundaries does not necessarily provide answers to such a scenario. The murkiness of the situation leaves no clear pathway for researcher action. Discussing actions that may end a researcher-participant relationship such as an awareness by the researcher of illegal activity may be advisable. It is clear that one can explain this to a participant as necessary to keep both the participant and the researcher safe. The need to share strategies that one finds to deal with situations is apparent.

Her emotional vulnerability was twofold. On the one hand, Louisa obviously felt sympathy, worry, and stress for a participant and her situation. Her empathy and relationship with the participant was such that she even thought through the possibility suggested by the participant of the participant staying in her home. Though she rightly decided along with her supervisors this was inappropriate, the subsequent time spent with the participant helping her arrange an alternative was involved and caused emotional turmoil. One of the ways of dealing with this was a practical one generated in a supervision session. Together Louisa and her supervisors developed a more robust resource in the form of a participant information sheet that mapped out for her participants resources that they could use in the case of their homelessness.

A second aspect of Louisa’s emotional vulnerability was her sense of self as researcher in her relationship to the participant. As she describes it, she was guilt-ridden. She felt that her relationship with her participants who struggled with the precariousness of their living situations was one-sided – she reaped the benefits without providing them anything in return. This was especially so during the episode of handling the one participant’s homelessness in real-time (rather than through interview). Understanding her role as researcher, the boundaries and what reciprocity means within the researcher-participant relationship are crucial in ensuring both researcher and participant well-being within relationships that are by definition imbalanced. The idea of disinterested objective researcher is anathema to many qualitative researchers because of what it implies in relation to the participant (i.e., the participant as object to be observed). The drive to use the word participant over human subject was a drive to recognize that people are active participants in research (Oakley 1981). Moves for more relational practice, however, still require researcher-participant boundaries. These boundaries are required to underpin one’s work, but also to protect all parties. The need to fully identify what the outcome of one’s work is, what it means for participants (directly or indirectly) and what benefits participants gain from being in the research need to be thought through both prior, but as with much else in qualitative research, iteratively throughout the process. To understand one’s own position and feel comfortable about that position, it’s necessary to have scoped out what it is one is doing, how one is doing, and to what end. By understanding this, we can convey this to participants, and they can actively choose their informed participation.

In dealing with these emotional struggles, Louisa was able to access a health professional on the staff of the University of Otago to discuss issues that arose from this thesis. Such services make sense for all PhD students as they progress through their research, but especially so for students working with vulnerable and marginalized populations in the field. This chapter demonstrates the need for social science researchers conducting fieldwork to have access if needed to professional supervision in order to enhance researcher safety. It also demonstrates that we need to more open and explicit about our vulnerabilities in the field and how we manage them for shared learning and growth. These vulnerabilities and our responses, rather than exposing some failing on our part as researcher, show our ability to be ethically dynamic and our need for collaborative support and practices.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Martin Tolich
    • 1
    Email author
  • Emma Tumilty
    • 2
  • Louisa Choe
    • 3
  • Bryndl Hohmann-Marriott
    • 3
  • Nikki Fahey
    • 4
  1. 1.University of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand
  2. 2.Institute for Translational SciencesUniversity of Texas Medical Branch at GalvestonGalvestonUSA
  3. 3.SociologyUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand
  4. 4.Graduate Research SchoolUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand

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