Emotion and Sensitive Research

  • Virginia Dickson-SwiftEmail author
Reference work entry


Qualitative research on sensitive topics is often an emotional journey, not only for the participants but for others that may be involved along the way. It is now more than 20 years since Raymond Lee authored the seminal works Doing Research on Sensitive Topics, Researching Sensitive Topics, and Dangerous Fieldwork that raised the awareness of the challenges that researchers can face. More recently, Lee and Lee (2012) warned that the emotional challenges that researchers face when doing fieldwork are now difficult to ignore. Given this warning and the growing numbers of reports from researchers, both empirically and in reflective accounts, an examination of the issues is timely for both novice and experienced researchers. Drawing on earlier empirical work with researchers in Australia (Dickson-Swift 2005) and published accounts, this chapter provides an overview of the emotional challenges inherent in this type of research. Suggestions for researchers, research supervisors, and others involved in the research team are presented. These can be adopted by academic or research institutions to ensure that researchers have the necessary support to carryout this important research.


Sensitive research Qualitative Emotions Emotional labor Ethics Training 


  1. Anleu S, Mack K. Magistrates’ everyday work and emotional labour. J Law Soc. 2005;32(4): 590–614.Google Scholar
  2. Ashforth B, Humphrey RH. Emotional labour in service roles: the influence of identity. Acad Manag Rev. 1993;18:88–115.Google Scholar
  3. Australian Guidance and Counselling Association. Code of ethics. Canberra: Australian Guidance and Couselling Association; 1997.Google Scholar
  4. Australian Nursing Council. Code of conduct for nurses in Australia. Canberra: Australian Nursing Council; 2003.Google Scholar
  5. Australian Psychological Society. Code of ethics. Melbourne: Australian Psychological Society; 2002.Google Scholar
  6. Bahn S. Keeping academic field researchers safe: ethical safeguards. J Acad Ethics. 2012;10(2): 83–91.Google Scholar
  7. Bahn S, Weatherill P. Qualitative social research: a risky business when it comes to collecting ‘sensitive’ data. Qual Res. 2012; Scholar
  8. Bailey S, Scales K, Llyod J, Schneider J, Jones R. The emotional labour of health-care assistants in inpatient dementia care. Ageing Soc. 2015;35(02):246–69.Google Scholar
  9. Band-Winterstein T, Doron I, Naim S. ‘I take them with me’ – reflexivity in sensitive research. Reflective Pract. 2014;15(4):530–9.Google Scholar
  10. Bellas ML. Emotional labor in academia: the case of professors. Ann Am Acad Pol Soc Sci. 1999;561:91–110.Google Scholar
  11. Benoot C, Bilsen J. An auto-ethnographic study of the disembodied experience of a novice researcher doing qualitative cancer research. Qual Health Res. 2015; Scholar
  12. Bloor M, Fincham B, Sampson H. Qualti (NCRM) commissioned inquiry into the risk to well-being of researchers in qualitative research. Cardiff ESRC National Centre for Research Methods. Cardiff University, Wales; 2007.Google Scholar
  13. Bloor M, Fincham B, Sampson H. Unprepared for the worst: risks of harm for qualitative researchers. Methodol Innov. 2010;5(1):45–55.Google Scholar
  14. Bowtell EC, Sawyer SM, Aroni RA, Green JB, Duncan RE. “Should I send a condolence card?” Promoting emotional safety in qualitative health research through reflexivity and ethical mindfulness. Qual Inq. 2013;19(9):652–63.Google Scholar
  15. Campbell R. Emotionally involved: the impact of researching rape. New York: Routledge; 2002.Google Scholar
  16. Carroll K. Infertile? The emotional labour of sensitive and feminist research methodologies. Qual Res. 2013;13(5):546–61.Google Scholar
  17. Coles J, Astbury J, Dartnall E, Limjerwala S. A qualitative exploration of researcher trauma and researchers’ responses to investigating sexual violence. Violence Against Women. 2014;20(1):95–117.Google Scholar
  18. Corden A, Sainsbury R, Sloper R, Ward B. Using a model of group psychotherapy to support social research on sensitive topics. Int J Soc Res Methodol. 2005;8(2):151–60.Google Scholar
  19. Cotton S, Dollard M, de Jonge J, Whetham P. Clergy in crisis. In: Dollard M, Winefield AH, Winefield HR, editors. Occupational stress in the service professionals. London: Taylor and Francis; 2003.Google Scholar
  20. Darlington Y, Scott D. Qualitative research in practice: stories from the field. St. Leonards: Allen and Unwin; 2002.Google Scholar
  21. Dickson-Swift V, James E, Kippen S. Do university ethics committees adequately protect public health researchers? Aust N Z J Public Health. 2005;29(6):576–82.Google Scholar
  22. Dickson-Swift V, James EL, Kippen S, Liamputtong P. Risk to researchers in qualitative research on sensitive topics: issues and strategies. Qual Health Res. 2008;18(1):133–44.Google Scholar
  23. Dickson-Swift V, James BL, Kippen S, Liamputtong P. Researching sensitive topics: qualitative research as emotion work. Qual Res. 2009;9(1):61–79.Google Scholar
  24. Etherington K. Working with traumatic stories: from transcriber to witness. Int J Soc Res Methodol. 2007;10(2):85–97.Google Scholar
  25. Fahie D. Doing sensitive research sensitively: ethical and methodological issues in researching workplace bullying. Int J Qual Methods. 2014;13:17.Google Scholar
  26. Fincham B, Scourfield J, Langer S. The impact of working with disturbing secondary data: reading suicide files in a coroner’s office. Qual Health Res. 2008;18(6):853–62.Google Scholar
  27. Fitzpatrick P, Olson RE. A rough road map to reflexivity in qualitative research into emotions. Emot Rev. 2015;7(1):49–54.Google Scholar
  28. Gair S. In the thick of it: a reflective tale from an Australian social worker/qualitative researcher. Qual Health Res. 2002;12(1):130–9.Google Scholar
  29. Gilbert KR. Collatoral damage? Indirect exposure of staff members to the emotions of qualitative research. In: Gilbert KR, editor. The emotional nature of qualitative research. London: CRC; 2001. p. 147–61.Google Scholar
  30. Goffman E. The presentation of self in everyday life. Harmondsworth: Penguin; 1959.Google Scholar
  31. Grandey A, Foo S, Groth M, Goodwin R. Free to be you and me: a climate of authenticity alleviates burnout from emotional labor. J Occup Health Psychol. 2012;17(1):1–14. Scholar
  32. Grauel T. Overseeing the overseers: supervision of christian clergy in Australia. In: McMahon M, Patton W, editors. Supervision in the helping professions: a practical approach. Sydney: Prentice Hall; 2002. p. 261–72.Google Scholar
  33. Gregory D, Russell CK, Phillips LR. Beyond textual perfection: transcribers as vulnerable persons. Qual Health Res. 1997;7(2):294–300.Google Scholar
  34. Harris LC. The emotional labour of barristers: an exploration of emotional labour by status professionals. J Manag Stud. 2002;39(4):553–84.Google Scholar
  35. Hochschild A. Emotion work, feeling rules and social structure. Am J Sociol. 1979;85:551–7.Google Scholar
  36. Hochschild A. The managed heart: the commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1983.Google Scholar
  37. Hubbard G, Backett-Milburn K, Kemmer D. Working with emotions Issues for the researcher in fieldwork and teamwork. Int J Soc Res Methodol. 2001;4(2):119–37.Google Scholar
  38. International Federation of Social Workers. Ethics in social work: statement of principles. (2006).
  39. Isenbarger L, Zembylas M. The emotional labour of caring in teaching. Teach Teach Educ. 2006;22(1):120–34.Google Scholar
  40. Jafari A, Dunnett S, Hamilton K, Downey H. Exploring researcher vulnerability: contexts, complications, and conceptualisation. J Mark Manag. 2013;29(9–10):1182–200.Google Scholar
  41. James N. Emotional labour: skill and work in the social regulation of feelings. Sociol Rev. 1989;37:15–42.Google Scholar
  42. Johnson N. The role of self and emotion within qualitative sensitive research: a reflective account. ENQUIRE. 2009;4:23.Google Scholar
  43. Johnson B, Clarke J. Collecting sensitive data: the impact on the researchers. Qual Health Res. 2003;13(3):421–34.Google Scholar
  44. Kennedy F, Hicks B, Yarker J. Challenges and work experiences of oncology researchers. Psycho-Oncology. 2012;21:14.Google Scholar
  45. Kenyon E, Hawker S. “Once would be enough”: some reflections on the issue of safety for lone researhers. Int J Soc Res Methodol. 2000;2(4):313–27.Google Scholar
  46. Kiyimba N, O’Reilly M. The risk of secondary traumatic stress in the qualitative transcription process: a research note. Qual Res. 2015;60:1–9. Scholar
  47. Kiyimba N, O’Reilly M. An exploration of the possibility for secondary traumatic stress among transcriptionists: a grounded theory approach. Qual Res Psychol. 2016;13(1):92–108.Google Scholar
  48. Lalor JG, Begley CM, Devane D. Exploring painful experiences: impact of emotional narratives on members of a qualitative research team. J Adv Nurs. 2006;56(6):607–16.Google Scholar
  49. Larson EB, Yao X. Clinical empathy as emotional labor in the patient-physician relationship. JAMA. 2005;293(9):1100–6.Google Scholar
  50. Lee RM. Dangerous fieldwork. Thousand Oaks: SAGE; 1995.Google Scholar
  51. Lee R, Lee Y. Methodological research on “sensitive” Topics: a decade review. Bull Sociol Methodol. 2012;114(1):35–49.Google Scholar
  52. Lee R, Renzetti C. The problems of researching sensitive topics. In: Renzetti CM, Lee RM, editors. Researching sensitive topics. Newbury Park: SAGE; 1993. p. 3–12.Google Scholar
  53. Lee-Treweek G, Linkogle S, editors. Danger in the field: risk and ethics in social research. London: Routledge; 2000.Google Scholar
  54. Liamputtong P. Researching the vulnerable: a guide to sensitive research methods. London: SAGE; 2007.Google Scholar
  55. Lovatt M, Nanton V, Roberts J, Ingleton C, Noble B, Pitt E, Seers K, Munday D. The provision of emotional labour by health care assistants caring for dying cancer patients in the community: a qualitative study into the experiences of health care assistants and bereaved family carers. Int J Nurs Stud. 2015;52(1):271–9.Google Scholar
  56. McCosker H, Barnard A, Gerber R. Understanding sensitive research: issues and strategies for meeting the safety needs for all participants. Forum Qual Soc Res. 2001;2(1):1.Google Scholar
  57. Mckenzie SK, Li C, Jenkin G, Collings S. Ethical considerations in sensitive suicide research reliant on non-clinical researchers. Res Ethics. 2016; Scholar
  58. Mears A, Finlay W. Not just a paper doll: how models manage bodily capital and why they perform emotional labor. J Contemp Ethnogr. 2005;34(3):317–43.Google Scholar
  59. Mitchell W, Irvine A. I’m okay, you’re okay?: reflections on the well-being and ethical requirements of researchers and research participants in conducting qualitative fieldwork interviews. Int J Qual Methods. 2008;7(4):31–44.Google Scholar
  60. Moran-Ellis J. Close to home: the experience of researching child sexual abuse. In: Hester M, Kelly L, Radford J, editors. Women, violence and male power. Buckingham: Open University; 1996. p. 176–87.Google Scholar
  61. Mulholland K. Gender, emotional labour and teamworking in a call centre. Pers Rev. 2002;31(3): 283–303.Google Scholar
  62. National Health & Medical Research Council. National statement on ethical conduct in human research. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council and Australian Vice Chancellors Committee; 2007.Google Scholar
  63. Noblet A. Building health promoting work settings: identifying the relationship between work characteristics and occupational stress in Australia. Health Promot Int. 2003;18(4):351–7.Google Scholar
  64. Ogbonna E, Harris L. Work intensification and emotional labour among UK university lecturers: an exploratory study. Organ Stud. 2004;25(7):1185–203.Google Scholar
  65. Parker N, O’Reilly M. “We are alone in the house”: a case study addressing researcher safety and risk. Qual Res Psychol. 2013;10(4):341–54.Google Scholar
  66. Paterson BL, Gregory D, Thorne S. A protocol for researcher safety. Qual Health Res. 1999;9(2): 259–69.Google Scholar
  67. Pisaniello SL, Winefield HR, Delfabbro PH. The influence of emotional labour and emotional work on the occupational health and wellbeing of South Australian hospital nurses. J Vocat Behav. 2012;80(3):579–91.Google Scholar
  68. Renzetti C, Lee RM, editors. Researching sensitive topics. Newbury Park: SAGE; 1993.Google Scholar
  69. Rowling L. Being in, being out, being with: affect and the role of the qualitative researcher in loss and grief research. Mortality. 1999;4(2):167–81.Google Scholar
  70. Sampson H, Bloor M, Fincham B. A price worth paying? Sociology. 2008;42(5):919–33.Google Scholar
  71. Sanders T. Controllable laughter: managing sex work through humour. Sociology. 2004;38(2): 273–91.Google Scholar
  72. Schwartz MD, editor. Researching sexual violence against women: methodological and personal perspectives. Thousand Oaks: Sage; 1997.Google Scholar
  73. Sharma U, Black P. Look good, feel better: beauty therapy as emotional labour. Sociology. 2001;35(4):913–9.Google Scholar
  74. Sherry E. The vulnerable researcher: facing the challenges of sensitive research. Qual Res J. 2013;13(3):278–88.Google Scholar
  75. Social Research Association. A code of practice for the safety of social researchers. 2006. Available at Accessed 19 Sept 2007.
  76. Stets JE, Turner JH. Handbook of the sociology of emotions. Dordrecht: Springer; 2014.Google Scholar
  77. Van Maanen J. The smile factory work at Disneyland. In: Frost PJ, Louis LF, Lundberg CC, Martin J, editors. Reframing organizational culture. Newbury Park: SAGE; 1990. p. 58–76.Google Scholar
  78. Warr D. Stories in the flesh and voices in the head: reflections on the context and impact of research with disadvantaged populations. Qual Health Res. 2004;14(4):578–87.Google Scholar
  79. Wilkes L, Cummings J, Haigh C. Transcriptionist saturation: knowing too much about sensitive health and social data. J Adv Nurs. 2014; Scholar
  80. Woodby L, Williams B, Wittich A, Burgio K. Expanding the notion of researcher distress: the cumulative effects of coding. Qual Health Res. 2011;21(6):830–8.Google Scholar
  81. Wray N, Markovic M, Manderson L. “Researcher saturation”: the impact of data triangulation and intensive-research practices on the researcher and qualitative research process. Qual Health Res. 2007;17(10):1392–402.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LaTrobe Rural Health School, College of Science, Health and EngineeringLaTrobe UniversityBendigoAustralia

Personalised recommendations