Tears, fears and stiff upper lips: reflecting on emotional labour in qualitative research
Emotionally demanding research (EDR) “demands a tremendous amount of mental, emotional, or physical energy and potentially affects or depletes the researcher’s well-being” .
Maybe the research you are conducting is a little too close to home, and you share many of the lived experiences of your participants. Maybe the subject matter is upsetting, hard to move on from or you are feeling a particular sense of protection towards your participants. If this sounds familiar, the chances are that you have experienced emotional labour, a reductive act whereby one consistently employs a mask to protect themselves and/ or others from an emotionally charged situation.
Emotional labour (EL) was first explored in the 1980’s, specifically framed in the service industry to explain how flight attendants suppressed their private feelings in the course of their role . Latterly it has been cited in sensitive and feminist research, criminology, and health psychology, where the subject matter can often be deeply personal and intrusive, however it is ubiquitous. This raises the question, is performing emotional labour the price we pay for human understanding? .
When you add the ‘performance’ of emotional labour to working within an unprecedented (in our time) backdrop of a global pandemic, researchers have been sharing similar experiences to their participants for the past two years; experiencing a pandemic, health concerns of self and loved ones and, living in (albeit variable) lockdowns, away from support networks.
Hiding emotions or using emotions?
Historically “good researchers were those who could remain neutral and emotion-free” .
Experiencing emotions and being affected by the subject matter was somehow seen as less ‘scientific’ and may explain how many feel they need to suppress their feelings and reactions to data. But surely feeling less of a researcher and questioning your own professionalism  intensifies emotional labour? I certainly felt this as a researcher when interviewing frontline workers at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Through carrying out subsequent research into the emotional labour experiences of this work with colleagues we were able to acknowledge and disclose how the burden of the stories that we were hearing affected us. The relief was palpable and has, we believe, made us more effective researchers.
Helpfully there is a growing body of literature that is challenging the stiff upper lip approach to scientific inquiry. It talks about ‘bringing yourself to the data’, how an authentic emotional response to what you are hearing in an interview might make the participant feel heard and understood, that developing a rapport can lead to more enriched data. However, there is also a lack of clarity on how we use emotion in research especially for early career researchers who are busy trying to establish their academic identities while also trying to learn the right way to perform .
Navigating emotional labour
One way of turning the dial on the ‘don’t show emotion, show emotion’ debate is to acknowledge that there are emotions involved in all research and that by talking about them more in the context of how they impact the research process we begin to normalise them. Talk about your subjective position, make sure you’re reflecting on all the decisions surrounding what you decide to research and how, what assumptions have you made about how you might feel when you are interviewing participants, for example. This will help prepare you not to be surprised by your emotions.
When we are experiencing emotional labour in research, knowing that others do too is helpful. What also helps is knowing what strategies are available to help you manage emotional labour. We are all responsible for this at different levels. On an individual level, you might write a journal, or set up a call with a colleague to decompress. On a project level, has your lead researcher or lab lead scheduled de-brief meetings, or provided access to therapeutic counselling? At an organisational level, could emotional labour be more explicitly referenced within ethical frameworks, or could emotional labour be taught as part of research methods 101?
Participant welfare is of course the cornerstone of all research, however there is relatively little investigation into the emotional investment of the researcher. Maybe this is because there is a wider-held perception that it is simply the price we as researchers pay for doing a job we love.
- Kumar, S., & Cavallaro, L. (2018). Researcher Self-Care in Emotionally Demanding Research: A Proposed Conceptual Framework. Qualitative Health Research, 28(4), 648–658. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732317746377
- Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. University of California Press
- Sampson, H., Bloor, M., & Fincham, B. (2008). A Price Worth Paying? Considering the “Cost” of Reflexive Research Methods and the Influence of Feminist Ways of “Doing.” Sociology, 42(5), 919–933. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42857196
- Hughes, S., Lemon, S., Stonebridge, N. & Scott, S. (In Press): Researching emotional topics during emotional times: Reflecting on best practice for the management and negotiation of emotional labour in qualitative social research. In: Miller, M. (Ed.) The Social Science of the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Call to Action for Researchers. Commissioned by Oxford University Press (expected 2022).
- Mallon, S. & Elliott, I. (2019). The emotional risks of turning stories into data: an exploration of the experiences of qualitative researchers working on sensitive topics. Societies, 9(3), 62–62. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc9030062