The Trauma of Research

Research can be traumatic. It can reach inside of us and expose our own fears, insecurities, experiences and weaknesses. It can bruise and scratch and leak down to our deepest layers. It can expose what we are frightened of, the real life monster under the bed, and it can expose ourselves. We face an authentic self in the mirror when it stares back following a particularly harrowing visit. The self in research is not narcissistic. It is not a fad or a trendy pastime for the qualitative researcher. It is necessity.

We bleed in words. It is where we are most vulnerable. My participants write, and I write. I have found a way of processing the prison fieldwork experience has been to write poetry and prose myself. It’s a way of scraping everything out, of revealing vulnerability and anger that is part of the human condition. The objective researcher is a myth. Transparency and self-reflection are essential for credible research, but often we don’t know ourselves until we take up pen and write.

I am still digesting my research experiences thus far. Each time I listen to my recordings to transcribe, I re-live my emotions. I might re-inhabit trauma. This is important to admit and account for. Research is messy and chaotic. Too much criminology has pretended to be stony faced and clinical. But why would we celebrate sanitized research? Why would we pretend that the researcher and participant don’t leak out and affect the other?

Research can be euphoric, revitalising, inspiring, uncomfortable, upsetting, angry, disheartening, disappointing, traumatic. We need to talk more about emotion in research and let researchers know what to expect. Fieldwork has been the best part of my Ph.D, but it has affected me in profound and confusing ways. And that’s ok. I’m not separate from my research. I’m glad it has struck me the way it has. It should do. The issues I’m researching should bruise us all.

One way of coping and staying healthy has been to enforce a strict work/life balance. I love my research, but it is a job. I have a full life outside of it and this is important to me. When our research matters it is very hard to switch off and walk away. But self preservation is important. Our fragmented identities are important. The shards of glass remain, but removing ourselves away from our research role outside of working hours, helps to preserve us. We cannot be useful witnesses to these narratives if we are not strong and looking after ourselves.

Research takes it’s toll. It can be heavy, like a millstone round the neck as we wrestle the words, the feelings, the sights, the sounds that make up a picture we cannot and mustn’t forget. This doesn’t mean we are bad researchers, but rather we heard the stories. We leak into our research as it leaks into us. We need to open an accessible dialogue about trauma in research.