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Warning: Doing research can be bad for your health

Date Released: Thu, 23 July 2015 11:20 +0200

There are many reasons why students find doing research difficult. Mostly it is because research is difficult. It is not for nothing that books like When research goes off the rails: why it happens and what you can do about it (Streiner & Sidani, 2010) fly off the shelves. The agonies and the ecstasies of doing research have been well documented and many students not only live it but will pay to read about it too.

But the kind of difficulty I am talking about here is not the common-and-garden variety of research difficulty.  As researchers we take the more common kinds of difficulties for granted.  Difficulties like losing data, not saving a draft or having to accept that you may just have spent the better part of a month pursuing a line of thought which leads nowhere.  It happens.

In the Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction (CSSR) unit we anticipate difficulties of a different kind owing to the tricky kinds of research topics we pursue. Johnson and Clarke (2003) define this kind of research as research which involves direct contact with vulnerable people with whom sensitive topics are raised in difficult or problematic contexts.  Up until now little attention has been directed to the ways in which researchers respond to and cope with research that is personally very demanding as well as being highly charged emotionally and ethically.

The hitherto relatively neglected aspects of research are the extent of the emotional unease that certain topics can generate for the researcher and the people around them. Sometimes this kind of research process gets messy and sad (and it can’t be cured by watching an uplifting TED talk, I’ve tried). The patience of even the most doting grandparent or understanding partner can be strained in trying to understand exactly what it is that you are researching.  And why anyone would want to.  The funny thing is that pretty soon you become inoculated against the uncomfortable vibes or the surprised reactions of other people.  Rather like having that strange and awkward relative - you get used to the weird and forget that others might see them in the same way.

But help is at hand.  If you are unsure if your topic legitimately falls into the category of sensitive, there is a quick and easy test which you can perform.  A lot like the Interpersonal Sensitivity Measure (ISM) just more scientific.  The Researchers’ Risk of Possible Trauma due to Extended Exposure to Sensitive Topics which could Induce Discomfort in Others Measure (RRTEESTIDOM) is under construction and luckily for you it is being piloted here.  As a valued reader you can use the research instrument and find out immediately if you are at risk of developing TESTS (Trauma due to Exposure to Sensitive Topics Syndrome).  It is so easy - just answer these three simple questions:

  1. Have you noticed that after the initial enquiry into your research, subsequent enquiries dry up altogether (as do invitations to social events)? 
  2. Have you found that others sometimes are hesitant to say your research topic in full and out loud, preferring to mouth keywords silently?
  3. Do you find that people have difficulty remembering your name but recognize you from afar as “the menstruation guy”, “the porn freak”, “the sex pervert” or “that woman who hates babies”?

I don’t mean to be alarmist and be the one to break it to you but if you have answered a tentative “sometimes” to any of these three questions you could still be at risk.  Stay calm and try not to panic!  The treatment for this disorder (which is currently being tested by the CSSR team) is free and not unlike the more famous Twelve Step plan.  Research has shown (CSSR, soon to be forthcoming, 2015) that the very best way to mitigate the risk of developing TESTS is to spend time at a CSSR colloquium or retreat.

At the beginning of June I was fortunate to be part of another such successful intervention. As a recovering researcher I participated in the sharing of experiences in a safe and confidential space.  This took the form of work-in-progress reports, conference papers and Pecha Kucha presentations. These topics ranged from a genealogy of pregnancy in official documents to exploring different women’s actual experiences of pregnancy and abortion in a variety of locations. It included exploring sexual socialization in spaces such as talk between sisters to conversations with high-school learners. We unpacked the difficulty of understanding sexualities in relation to sexual violence and tried to think about the implications of our responses to gender-based violence. We looked at modes of health communication in public health facilities and at the birth of puberty science in medical journals. We were curious about everything from posters of anti-rape campaigns and beauty pageants for drag queens to gendered isiXhosa mourning practices. Sometimes it was difficult, often it was risky but it was always necessary.  By employing a feminist ethics of care as researchers we choose not to shy away from being open about the ways in which our lives and work are irrevocably intertwined. A CSSR colloquium always inspires because important work around sensitive topics is valued, challenged and celebrated.

I have been counselled to understand that the first step to lowering my risk profile is to admit that I am critical feminist researcher.  I need to accept help in managing my sensitive topic.  So for now I am taking it one day at a time knowing that I am in good company at the CSSR.  This is not just any research team - these brainiacs know their Foucault from their Fanon.  And if you think this hoo-ha about sensitive topics is rubbish and these researchers are probably socially awkward and boring, you would be very wrong.  I can confirm from recent experience that not one of us has ever been called a bore. And so in the spirit of giving back, I have decided to speak out on behalf of all the other researchers (who may be affected by TESTS).  I am making a public declaration (to all six of you reading this blog): I have information about a sensitive topic and I have been empowered to share it.  

By Tracey Feltham-King


Johnson, B. & Macleod Clark, J. (2003). Collecting sensitive data: The impact on researchers. Qualitative Health Research, 13(3), 421-434. doi: 10.1177/1049732302250340  

Streiner, D.L. & Sidani, S. (2010). When research goes off the rails: Why it happens and what you can do about it. New York, NY: Guilford.

Source:Tracey Feltham-King