At this year’s Archival Education and Research Institute (AERI), held online July 12-16, members of the research team (Jennifer Douglas, Alex Alisauskas, Elizabeth Bassett and Ted Lee) presented on the emerging findings of our analysis of the interviews with archivists as well as on our research process. In particular, we spoke about our experiences of doing emotionally-demanding research, not only related to the archivist interviews, but also to the interviews we conducted with bereaved parents and our archival research in bereavement collections. In this post, I summarize some of our AERI panel discussion about emotionally-demanding research. For a more detailed reflection on the emotionally-demanding nature of our work, we invite you to watch our recorded AERI session (with thanks to Zeljko Trubsic for his work in setting up the AERI youtube channel!).

What is emotionally-demanding research? 

Kumar and Cavallaro (2018, p. 648) define emotionally-demanding research as “research that demands a tremendous amount of mental, emotional, or physical energy and potentially affects or depletes the researcher’s health or well-being.” They identify four possible types of “emotionally demanding research experiences” (p. 648):

  • Research on sensitive issues (e.g. violence, abuse, mental health, chronic or terminal illness, death)
  • Research similar to personal trauma experienced by the researcher
  • The researcher’s experience of traumatic life events while conducting research
  • Unexpected events that arise during research in what was previously not identified as a sensitive issue

Kumar and Cavallaro note that there could be other types of emotionally-demanding research, but these four types cover a lot of ground. In our research team, we’ve experienced all these types of emotionally-demanding research. Some of the interviews with archivists were definitely more sensitive or difficult than others, but every one of them at least touched on death, grief and loss. In some interviews, participants recounted personal experiences of traumatic grief or of secondary trauma; participants also told stories about dying donors and co-workers, about encountering traumatic records, about helping researchers who were themselves experiencing trauma or post-traumatic stress, and as Elizabeth discusses in her section of the AERI panel, about the sometimes-very-lonely position of the archivist as a caretaker of all these stories and experiences.

Listening as an emotionally-demanding research activity

I listened to all of these stories as I conducted the interviews, and then Christina, Elizabeth and Noah listened to them again (and again and again) in order to transcribe them. We all discussed the interviews  – key themes and stories – in our weekly meetings over a period of nearly two years.  It was the same with the interviews with bereaved parents. Each of those interviews began with the story of the death of a much-loved child and I cried in every one of them. I cried with the women I interviewed. Later, Alex listened to those interviews multiple times to transcribe them, learning the stories practically by heart.

In their parts of our AERI session, Elizabeth and Alex  reflected on the experience of listening to and transcribing the interviews, describing the inherently intimate nature of transcription work. Tilley (2003) writes that although transcription is often treated as a mechanical or technical act that can easily be contracted out, the transcriber’s role is in fact deeply interpretive and shapes the transcript in key ways; Tilley’s research on the role of the transcriber also led her to think more deeply about the emotional aspects of transcription. She interviewed a transcriber she had hired for a project, who talks about spending “10 minutes of working time for every minute of actual tape time;” “that’s a lot of time spent living in somebody else’s emotions,” he stresses (Ken, qtd in Tilley, p. 761)

The role of a transcriber, as Alex and Elizabeth discuss, is a strange position to be in: to be trusted with the intimate details of someone’s life and their intense experiences of grief brings a tremendous sense of responsibility to ‘get things right.’ At the same time, the role of the transcriber, who is typically invisible to participants and to future readers of the research, can be a lonely one; it is, as Alex noted, a “one-sided discussion,” and one that because of research ethics protocols and/or the difficult subject matter is not easily discussed outside our small research team circle. Both Alex and Elizabeth talk about feeling privileged to listen to the archivists’ and parents’ stories, but also about the need for space to talk safely about what they hear and how they feel.

Supervising emotionally-demanding research projects

In my own reflection during our AERI panel, I thought about my responsibility as a supervisor to provide or create this kind of safe space. I realized in thinking through this how little I really knew about how to prepare student research assistants, how much I relied on my own experiences of doing difficult research. What is the best way to prepare student research assistants for emotionally-demanding research? How do we know when students are prepared? The preparation – and protection – of student research assistants was not a consideration in the ethics application I completed for institutional review, which only considers harm to research subjects and not to the research team. It was not part of my training as a doctoral student with hopes of teaching and supervising future students.

Some things we have tried that seem to work: to talk a lot and to go slow. We meet regularly and always start with a chat. There have been times where I’ve wondered if the chat is superfluous, if we shouldn’t be getting down to business (if I’m completely honest, I worry I’m old and boring!). But through regular chat, we’ve developed relationships to each other and increased our ability to share when things are hard, when something is upsetting us, when we’d rather not do some part of the work, or need to take a break. Sometimes one person has found an interview too difficult to transcribe and another person takes it over. Often we make a collaborative decision to go more slowly: there are assignments to complete, other jobs to go to, children to take care of and interviews to transcribe, code and analyze. It all takes attention, and attention takes care, and care takes time.

Rager (2005) identifies some strategies for managing the stress and fatigue that can accompany “emotionally laden research” (p. 428-9). She advocates “individual self-care planning,” including journalling, seeking counselling, engaging in peer debriefing,  carefully “sequencing…intense interviews,” cultivating social support networks and balancing work and personal life; she also emphasizes the importance of teaching these skills in qualitative research courses.

The importance of preparing for emotionally-demanding research

Emotionally-demanding research “spans academic disciplines” (Kumar & Cavallaro 2018, p. 649) but is especially a concern in qualitative research where the researcher is herself a “research tool” (Gilbert 2000), where the experience, interpretation and the emotions  of the researcher are integral to knowledge production. Kumar and Cavallaro point out that all different stages of the research process can be emotionally demanding in different ways, but that this aspect of research is often only discussed as notes to or reflections on research projects. Like Rager, Kumar and Cavallaro argue that we need more attention paid to emotionally-demanding research in training and education. As I work on the syllabus for the next session of a course I teach called Archival Research and Scholarship, I’m thinking about how I’ll do this: just as our research is showing that archivists are unprepared for the emotional dimensions of archival work, we are finding that we are unprepared for the emotional dimensions of researching the emotional dimensions of archival work!

How do we prepare ourselves and our research teams for emotionally-demanding research? How do we know when we are adequately prepared? What do we do when we realize we are not prepared, that we need help? These are questions we continue to think about as a research team. We hope you will watch our AERI session, where we think in more depth about some of these questions and about the  ways in which our research has been emotionally laden. We’re also working on a full-length journal article that we hope will contribute not only to the growing literature on emotionally-demanding research but also to the training and preparation of archivists whose own work frequently involves particular types of research, much of it, because it is connected so closely to people’s lives and experiences, decidedly emotionally laden.


Works cited

Kumar & Cavallaro (2018) Researcher Self-Care in Emotionally Demanding Research: A Proposed Conceptual Framework. Qualitative Health Research vol 28, no. 4, p. 648-658

Rager (2005) Compassion Stress and the Qualitative Researcher. Qualitative Health Research vol. 15, no. 3, p. 423-430

Tilley (2003) ‘Challenging’ Research Practices: Turning a Critical Lens on the Work of Transcription. Qualitative Inquiry vol. 9, no. 5, p. 750-773