Handbook of Research Methods in Health Social Sciences pp 2145-2162 | Cite as
Emotion and Sensitive Research
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.
KeywordsSensitive research Qualitative Emotions Emotional labor Ethics Training
Undertaking qualitative research is often an emotional journey, not only for the participants but for others that may be involved along the way. There is growing evidence that researchers, research supervisors, transcriptionists, and research assistants face a number of emotional challenges while participating in qualitative research, particularly when that research focuses on sensitive topics and/or vulnerable populations (see Liamputtong 2007). Interest in the issues researchers face when researching sensitive topics is not new. More than 20 years ago, Ray Lee and Claire Renzetti authored a number of seminal texts outlining some of the key challenges researchers may face (see for example Lee and Renzetti 1993; Lee 1995; Renzetti and Lee 1993). The focus of their work was on both physical and emotional risks for researchers and participants across the spectrum of research methods. More recently, Lee and Lee (2012) warned that the emotional challenges researchers face when doing fieldwork cannot be ignored. Given this warning, and the growing numbers of empirical and reflective reports from researchers, an examination and consideration of the issues researchers face is timely. While much of the information in this chapter is drawn from accounts from qualitative projects, the key messages are also applicable to those researchers working on quantitative or mixed method studies. In this chapter, I draw on my earlier empirical work with researchers in Australia (Dickson-Swift et al. 2005) and a range of published accounts from across the globe, drawn from a range of disciplines to provide an overview of the emotional challenges faced by researchers. I provide some suggestions for researchers, research supervisors, and others involved in the research team. These can be adopted by academic or research institutions to ensure that researchers have the necessary support they may need.
2 Research Work as “Emotion Work”
Emotion work theory can provide a framework for understanding researchers’ experiences throughout the research process. The concept of “emotion work” was initially developed by Arlie Hochschild in her now classic study The Managed Heart (1983), which explored the experiences of flight attendants and how they managed their emotions on a day-to-day basis on the job. The terms “emotional labor” and “emotion work” are often used interchangeably in the literature. Initially, these two concepts were developed by Hochschild (1983) to mean different things. “Emotional labor” was used to refer to emotional management during work done for a wage, and “emotion work” was used to refer to the work involved with dealing with other people’s emotions (James 1989). In her definition of emotion work, Hochschild (1983, p. 7) states that it is “management of feeling to create a publically observable facial and bodily display whereby people work on managing their own and the other people’s feelings to comply with a set of ‘feeling rules’” that direct the type, intensity, and duration of the emotion (Stets and Turner 2014). The concept of emotion work and the resultant consequences of undertaking it have been documented in a range of occupations including airline staff (Hochschild 1983), front line service (including retail assistants (Van Maanen 1990; Ashforth and Humphrey 1993; Grandey et al. 2012), nurses and caring staff (Pisaniello et al. 2012; Bailey et al. 2015; Lovatt et al. 2015), physicians (Larson and Yao 2005), beauty therapists (Sharma and Black 2001), call center staff (Mulholland 2002), teachers (including academics) (Bellas 1999; Ogbonna and Harris 2004; Isenbarger and Zembylas 2006), barristers and legal staff (Harris 2002; Anleu and Mack 2005), clergy (Grauel 2002; Cotton et al. 2003), and sex workers (Sanders 2004), models (Mears and Finlay 2005). While there is not yet an extensive body of work focusing on emotion work done by researchers, interest in the other members of research teams in this area is growing (see for example, Campbell 2002; Dickson-Swift et al. 2009; Carroll 2013; Fitzpatrick and Olson 2015).
For the purposes of this chapter, I use the phrase emotion work when referring to any effort made by those participating in research (participants, researchers, or other members of the research team) to manage emotion and emotional displays. In relation to research, emotion work can take the form of what has been termed “surface acting” and “deep acting” (refer to Goffman 1959 for an in-depth discussion of these concepts). Surface acting takes place when individuals manage the observable emotional expressions by controlling verbal or facial expressions (e.g., holding in tears) as well as other gestures and/or bodily displays (e.g., altering facial expressions) (Hochschild 1979, 1983). Deep acting, on the other hand, is thought to be a more complex activity requiring utilization of the techniques of cognitive emotion work. This can include attempting to alter the emotion by changing the thoughts associated with that emotion. For example, bodily emotion work includes attempts to change bodily processes to alter the emotional responses and expressive emotion work includes altering outward expressions to shape underlying emotions (Hochschild 1983). More recently, authors interested in emotion work in research have also utilized the concept of “habitus” to explain and extend the theory to include the unconscious, embodied, and habitual aspects of emotion work (Fitzpatrick and Olson 2015).
While not all research into researcher emotions uses the concept of emotion work to describe the work undertaken, there is a growing body of research that refers directly to researcher emotion. Examples from the UK and Europe (Bloor et al. 2007, 2010; Mitchell and Irvine 2008; Parker and O’Reilly 2013; Benoot and Bilsen 2015), USA and Canada (Campbell 2002; Carroll 2013), and Australia and New Zealand (McCosker et al. 2001; Dickson-Swift et al. 2009; Johnson 2009; Bahn 2012; Bowtell et al. 2013; Mckenzie et al. 2016) provide both empirical and reflective accounts across a wide range of health and social science disciplines (including health, sports psychology, urban studies, geography, marketing, and occupational research). While this list is not exhaustive, it is illustrative of the breadth and depth of the documented accounts of the emotional challenges researchers might face.
3 The Research Process
In this section, I draw a range of published material to outline some key challenges documented by researchers throughout the research process. These will be provided in sections relating to ethics and risk, data collection, and data analysis and include some discussion of the impacts on transcriptionists and research assistants.
Each aspect of the paperwork required significant levels of detail and thought, to ensure no harm was done to my vulnerable research participants. But what was missing was a section that led me to consider any potential harm to myself as the researcher, let alone an opportunity to debrief.
Nothing that I read in planning this study prepared me for the emotionality of the research process. I read recommendations about how I should address confidentiality, harm, deception and privacy, but there was not much written on such things as the impact on the researcher of listening to people talk about their grief, their fears and anxieties, sometimes being expressed for the first time and times of crisis. (Rowling 1999, p. 175)
Susanne Bahn’s (2012) paper outlining the issues in relation to risks in fieldwork highlights that risk reduction policies for researchers often fail as they mostly rely on Heads of School/Department, PhD supervisors, or Chief Investigators to decide on the level of risk. Since early 2000, there have been a number of publications relating to risk in research questioning whose responsibility it is to ensure that researchers are safe in the field (see for example, Kenyon and Hawker 2000; Johnson and Clarke 2003; Dickson-Swift et al. 2005; Bloor et al. 2007).
In a study focused on researcher safety, Kenyon and Hawker (2000) set up an online discussion board which attracted 46 participants from the UK, Australia, USA, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Italy, and Canada. Only one of the 46 participants had ever been issued with a safety code of practice that outlined key issues for researchers and how to handle them. Similarly, in an Australian study completed in 2005, Dickson-Swift and colleagues investigated 37 university ethics application forms to determine the number that addressed the safety of the researcher. They found that in 78% of cases, there was no reference to researcher safety across the domains of physical, emotional, and psychological safety (Dickson-Swift et al. 2005). While there has been no follow-up work in this area within the Australian context, there has been some similar research undertaken in the UK. In 2007 Bloor and colleagues undertook a Commissioned Inquiry into the Risk to Wellbeing of Researchers in Qualitative Research (Bloor et al. 2007) conducted by Qualiti (Qualitative Research in the Social Sciences: Innovation, Integration and Impact; a node of the Economic and Social Research Centre’s National Centre for Research Methods). As a follow up to this study 83 PhD students were invited to post their stories onto a website and then 13 participated in an in-depth interview to elaborate on the practices in place to protect researchers in the field (Bloor et al. 2010). The recommendations from the inquiry, the study report and subsequent publication included providing safety in the curricula, health and safety audits for all university departments, and specific questions in ethics applications that addressed contextual safety issues (Bloor et al. 2010, p. 52).
While we have not seen the widespread adoption of this approach to identifying and managing risk for researchers, a number of guidelines have been suggested which will be presented later in this chapter.
3.2 Data Collection
At times, I felt sadness and frustration in response to his stories, but I didn’t cry. I was aware of my facial expressions and actively tried to sustain an “open” and “active listening” expression: lips closed, gaze fixed on either Joe or my tea cup. I left the interview feeling tired but indebted to Joe for his honesty. Several days later, while watching television with a group of friends, as a character learned his father was dying from cancer, I felt the sadness of Joe’s and other interviewees’ stories and cried for half an hour.
As I listened to her preface her story with the information about her rape I realized this was something more than just a research interview. I was not just the project director, not just a researcher, I was the first person she was going to tell to trust with this information. I was being given something very fragile, and yet very strong. It was a sobering responsibility. We both knew what was coming was going to be hard for both of us.
…by the time I got home I was just like exhausted, just emotionally exhausted. I was just interviewing all day, I would have done more than five interviews – I was just interviewing all day, by myself and I was really buggered, yeah I was had it. I found it really emotionally draining … it got to the point where I had to allocate time … I can go and do the interview in the morning but then I will have to block out the rest of the day because after that I need to go home and I need to digest what has happened … go through it in my head. (Dickson-Swift et al. 2009, p. 71)
I cried pretty much the whole way through it because once she got upset it was impossible not to be upset you know.… seven no its eight – eight out of ten people I interview cry and they cry sometimes uncontrollably, it’s a very sad thing to talk about … and how can you, as a person not get caught up in those feelings of sadness. (Dickson-Swift et al. 2009, p. 64)
3.3 Data Analysis
The complex emotions I experienced while collecting the data were relived and recounted through the passing months and years when I conducted manual data analysis. On reflection, I realise that during both the data collection and analysis phases, I engaged in an amount of emotional management. Storing away sadness and fear during the exhilarating fieldwork phase only to be unexpectedly revisited by it during the long and lonely phases of data analysis. (Jafari et al. 2013, p. 1189)
They “got to me”, I was touched, they managed to break through my walls. At first, I tried to keep my distance and let the person talk. After some time, I found myself shamelessly asking questions about their personal lives. And I felt that I was connecting with them. They had waited for me, which was very touching and I don’t know how to explain it, only that “I am taking them with me.”
The act of coding and transcribing made me relive the emotions I suppressed while conducting an interview, without the necessity of controlling them. This was because I was alone at that time, which gave me more freedom to express my feelings, and also because I had had more time to take the story in. Moreover, the repeated listening, replaying, and typing intensified the emotional responses to sensitive materials.
4 Issues for Other Research Team Members
In addition to considering ethics and risk to the researcher, there has been an increase in acknowledgment of the possibility of physical and/or psychological harm being extended beyond participants to include transcriptionists and research assistants and those working with secondary data.
It is definitely important to know what you are getting into, not to think of it as a typing job, think of it, um, as something that will have repercussions that you will wake up in the night and think about it on a level that you just wouldn’t expect from that sort of, that level of clerical work really (Kiyimba and O’Reilly 2015, p. 102).
People who undertake transcription of interview data are one of the few people (besides the researcher) to hear the actual voices and expressions of emotion of those people participating in the interview (Kiyimba and O’Reilly 2015). Concern for those that undertake transcription work has been documented for almost 20 years with Gregory et al. (1997) and McCosker et al. (2001) examining the role of the transcriber as a vulnerable person. A transcriptionist must listen and re-listen to the data to undertake the process of capturing the spoken word which can result in the data becoming embedded within their consciousness. They are often not considered in the ethics process except for the signing of a confidentiality agreement. This poses a problem when the data refer to disturbing events or traumatic life experiences (Gregory et al. 1997). There are a number of accounts of transcriptionists becoming emotional when listening to the data (Gregory et al. 1997; McCosker et al. 2001; Wilkes et al. 2014; Kiyimba and O’Reilly 2016). One recent example draws on research with 12 transcriptionists in Australia and New Zealand (Wilkes et al. 2014). Some transcriptionists reported finding the process of transcription overwhelming resulting in them deciding not to take on any more work related to some research projects. Participants also highlighted that they faced a number of challenges during the process including negative emotional effects (e.g., anger and sadness) and negative physical effects (sleeplessness, vomiting, headaches, and stress) and that they used a number of personal strategies to manage these effects (including debriefing, support from family and friends, and taking time out).
Evidence has shown that there is emotional risk for transcriptionists which are heightened if opportunities are not provided for support that includes debriefing and training including opportunities to talk about the emotional impacts of the work that they do (Etherington 2007; Kiyimba and O’Reilly 2015). A recent study undertaken across the UK involving 9 transcriptionists showed that emotional distress was perceived as a threat to the emotional welfare of those involved (Kiyimba and O’Reilly 2015). In some studies, the process of transcription has been considered as a form of emotion work which has may lead to burnout (Hochschild 1983; Dickson-Swift et al. 2009; Kiyimba and O’Reilly 2015). In order to ameliorate the risks to transcriptionists, they also need to be provided with practical and emotional support throughout the research process.
4.2 Research Assistants
I knew we had something set up for the participants. But suddenly I wondered if we had it set up for the research assistants. If I carried this story home in my head for a couple of days, what might be the impact on a more junior team member? I must make a point of meeting up with <> for a chat. It will be useful for me too. Self awareness can be such a draining thing, ha, ha? (Bahn and Weatherill 2012, p. 8)
… it’s not just about saturation of when you don’t get new themes…it’s about your saturation as well – how much you can actually take and I could not, could nothave fronted for another one of those interviews.
As a consequence, I started to internalize the bodily complaints my patients had, which means that I often literally could feel the pain symptoms or nausea from the patient I was interviewing at that time. Another consequence was that the fear of getting cancer myself grew with every interview I took (Benoot and Bilsen 2015, p. 5).
5 Working with Secondary Data
I felt appalled by what I was finding out, and I felt much pain by proxy for the children who had been subjected to what amounts to physical as well as emotional and sexual assault. I could barely contemplate the pain they had felt…And yet I found I couldn’t not think about it. (Moran-Ellis 1996, p. 181)
6 Sources of Researcher Support
In the following section, I outline some of the supports that may be useful for researchers.
6.1 Informal Support
At the time, I did not realize how vitally important it was to protect myself. The organization I worked for did not provide an embedded support system for its staff. Our support came from each other as colleagues and friends, and to an extent, this enabled me to survive mentally, but it did not help me eradicate the root causes. I became adept at burying the emotional stress but, of course, it continues to surface in a number of guises.
Whilst it is inevitable to a certain extent that there will be off-loading at home, the formal exploitation of informal networks – for example, building them into research designs – is not deemed appropriate, and such strategies do not absolve research funders and institutions of their responsibilities to researchers.
While it is clear that undertaking qualitative research can be emotionally challenging for many researchers, it is important to note that some disciplines may better prepare researchers to deal with the emotional challenges through their postgraduate programs. But this may not be the case for all researchers (novice or otherwise). Most postgraduate students have access to regular supervision within the university setting from their immediate supervisors. However, other more experienced researchers attached to universities or large research centers may not necessarily have access to regular formalized supervision (Campbell 2002; Carroll 2013). If we are to truly create a space for researchers to explore the emotional nature of the work that they do, then we need to ensure that appropriate support is offered, both institutionally and individually for researchers to do that (Benoot and Bilsen 2015).
6.2 Protocols and Guidelines
Most academic research programs can provide advice on when logistic regression is a better tool than discriminate function analysis, but few have mentors who can talk about how to handle your uncontrollable tears late at night after a day of conducting interviews with victimized women.
Despite the many calls to introduce standardized protocols to protect researchers and research team members from emotional harm, it appears that few institutions and research centers have formalized them to date (Bloor et al. 2007; Dickson-Swift et al. 2008; Kiyimba and O’Reilly 2016). Questions have been raised about whose responsibility it would be to ensure that any protocols are implemented. Arguably, the safety (both emotional and physical) is as much a responsibility of ethics committees as participants (Dickson-Swift et al. 2008; Bowtell et al. 2013). Researchers have been encouraged to consider the ethical mantra of “do no harm” in relation to themselves as well as their research participants (Lee-Treweek and Linkogle 2000).
In the absence of any standard formalized recommendations, researchers have outlined their own approaches to emotional and physical risk management. Declan Fahie (2014), a social researcher from the UK, recommends the following personal safety tips for researchers (see Box 1).
Box 1 Personal Safety Tips for Researchers
Undertake a risk assessment as part of the design
Do not disclose personal details (home address or phone numbers)
Ensure that your interviews are carried out in public places as much as possible (libraries, public meeting rooms, community houses, etc.)
Inform your supervisor of your location and carry a mobile device and SMS when you arrive and leave
Get a dedicated SIM card or voice mail box just for the research (these can be destroyed later)
Monitor carefully the interview to assess the emotional impact and response of the interviewee
Monitor your own response and have a plan for debriefing
Make sure you have regular sessions with your supervisor (or mentor) so you can talk through the research process and any effects on you
Don’t be afraid to write, talk, and discuss your responses and seek help when it is needed
Adapted from Fahie (2014).
In Australia, Bowtell et al. (2013) have called safety protocols to include training to teach researchers about being aware of how they feel in relation to emotion saturation and tips for recognizing emotional exhaustion and strategies to reduce researcher fatigue (see Box 2). They recommend that the assessment of emotional safety risks “predate or at least be developed concurrently with the ethics application for any research project” (Bowtell et al. 2013, p. 659).
Box 2 Ten Emotional Safety Tips for Researchers
Researchers should acknowledge that an emotional impact is inherent to qualitative research.
Before applying to an HREC, the researcher and supervisory team should undertake a detailed assessment of potential risks to the emotional safety of the researcher, as well as to the emotional safety of research participants.
The research team should discuss the boundaries that lie between the researcher and participants and how individual researchers might maintain these while establishing rapport.
Research supervision should regularly include reviewing the emotional impact of the research process on the researcher through both discussion and review of field notes.
Supervisors should proactively arrange emotional support for researchers from a suitably qualified professional who understands the nature of the research. Regular debriefing should take place from the start of the study, rather than in response to an incident or event. To promote honest communication and uphold privacy, this person should not be a member of the research team.
Researchers should be encouraged to regularly practice mindfulness and engage in emotional auditing via memos or research diaries after each interview and when reviewing recordings and transcripts.
Researchers need to create boundaries between home and work. Having a balanced lifestyle reduces the risk of burnout.
Research supervisors should support the researcher to briefly “step away” from the intensity of the research process as an appropriate response to promoting emotional safety when major challenges arise.
Regular departmental meetings (e.g., seminar series) should encourage discussion of the emotional impact of the research on the researcher.
The challenging moments of research should be shared within the qualitative research community so that others can learn.
Note: HREC = human research ethics committee.
Reproduced with permission Bowtell et al. 2013.
Researchers may be well advised to participate in clinical supervision to deal with any issues that may arise throughout the research process that cannot be discussed openly with supervisors. This type of formalized supervision is now a requirement of many of the codes of ethics of professional associations across the world (Australian Guidance and Counselling Association 1997; Australian Psychological Society 2002; Australian Nursing Council 2003; International Federation of Social Workers 2006; Social Research Association 2006). It has been recommended that researchers and research institutions should also be encouraged to have arrangements for such supervision formalized within their guidelines (Bloor et al. 2007; Bowtell et al. 2013). There are a number of good examples of how supervision and support for researchers can be built into research projects. The Social Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of York used a model of group psychotherapy to support researchers who were interviewing recently bereaved parents (Corden et al. 2005). Similarly, Natalie Wray et al. (2007), in their study of gynecological cancers, reported using both the university counselor for debriefing after emotionally distressing interviews and utilizing a fee-for-service psychotherapist to assist in dealing with researcher distress.
6.3 Guidelines for Transcriptionists
Be included in the ethics process.
Be encouraged to have a process for self-care.
Be fully informed of the nature of research and type of data.
Be altered prior to the transcription of potentially ‘challenging’ or ‘difficult’ interviews.
Have regular scheduled debriefing sessions.
Have prompt access to an appropriate person for crisis counseling.
Have a clearly documented process for the termination after transcription is completed that includes a resolution of personal issues that may have arisen as a consequence of the work.
Be encouraged to journal thoughts and feelings which may then become a part of the fieldwork notes in some studies.
A discussion of these prior to undertaking any work would ensure that transcriptionists are fully prepared for the work that that they do.
7 Conclusion and Future Directions
As researchers, research assistants, supervisors, and transcriptionists we need to take emotions within research seriously into account. If we do then we open a space within which we can explore practical strategies to work with our emotional responses. Like Fitzpatrick and Olson (2015), in this chapter, I have demonstrated that rather than viewing researchers’ emotions as risks to be avoided, researchers, ethics committees, supervisors, transcriptionists, and colleagues should value emotions as integral to human life and respond accordingly by encouraging researchers to reflect on their own emotions. In this chapter, I have provided a range of examples from researchers that should encourage others to consider these risks. In doing this, we bring to light aspects of our experience that may be particularly problematic for novice researchers or those researching sensitive topics. I have outlined the need to put in place process and policies to protect all members of the research team from both physical and emotional harm and provided a number of tips to assist. By doing this, we create an environment where both researchers and supervisors feel able to talk about challenging issues and devise strategies to ameliorate any risks. As part of this, it is important for us to incorporate discussions of psychological well-being and emotional risk into professional development and research coursework programs and to demand that formalized guidelines are developed that address all harms that researchers may face.
Future directions for research in this area should include more empirical work that documents the experiences of researchers and others in the research team involved in a range of qualitative projects. With further evidence of the risks inherent in this research, a comprehensive and universal standard of minimum policy requirements can be developed. This type of policy could be implemented by researchers, ethics committees, research institutes and universities to ensure the emotional and physical safety of those involved in research is protected.
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