Memory & Emotions

Emotions, Vulnerabilities and Care in Sensitive Research

Jenny Barke, Aleema Gray, Jessica Hammett, Kate Mahoney and Yewande Okuleye

Introduction: Reflective Methodologies – Jessica Hammett

Research is emotional. Whether we are working with challenging material, carefully building relationships with participants, or unexpectedly hear or read a difficult account, we can be deeply impacted by our research. Yet open conversations about our wellbeing at work are unusual, and few of us feel that we are adequately supported by our institutions. In response to this, a group of researchers working in history departments and a counsellor met for a series of workshops at the beginning of 2021 to explore these issues and propose improvements to accepted ways of working. This process is described in another article for HWO and our recommendations are freely available: Researcher Wellbeing: Guidelines for History Researchers.

In this article, we reflect on how the workshop process and resulting guidelines have reshaped our research practice. While the Researcher Wellbeing Guidelines focused on practical steps to mitigate risks and improve wellbeing, reflective practice was a significant element of the work we did together. This helped to legitimise difficult feelings, placed greater value on emotional connection to research, and prompted us to rethink the boundaries we put around our work. We want to normalise conversations about the impact that our work can have – however challenging or sensitive it might seem to others – and we want to experiment with writing ourselves and our feelings into our research.

Ethics and Emotions – Aleema Gray

The project initiated important discussions about our ‘personal vulnerability factors’ and the role they play in shaping our research. The idea that historians are blank canvasses, who can recover aspects of the past through a rigorous objective methodology, has often removed some of the hidden transcripts that shape historical work. As someone researching silenced and erased histories, and as someone whose own history has been one marked by centuries of colonisation, forced migration and rupture, I had always felt that that the idea of ‘ethics’ within academic research fell short in addressing the question of emotional labour. If done properly, academic ethics forms are often predicated to protect the institution and at best, protect the researched, but rarely do they consider the protection of the researcher.

The sessions allowed me to reflect on the methodological gaps in historical approaches to writing and doing community histories. Above all, the discussion demonstrated that there is a need for more holistic approaches to the writing and doing of history that centres an ethics of care. It was clear from the conversations with the wider group that each historian has been emotionally impacted by their research. Oral history interviews, for example, can almost provide a therapeutic space for the researched community, but the impact of their stories on the historian is often felt years after the recording. During interviews, I was given the role of a counsellor and friend as well as a researcher, and yet, I struggled to find any safe spaces to release the ‘burden of knowing’. I have also found that in writing community histories, historians rarely incorporated self-reflexive practices that made visible the less documented spheres of academic work, such as the relationships developed, the burnout and the emotional hesitations. From this, I see the Researcher Wellbeing Guidelines as a step towards disrupting historical approaches that have silenced the emotional implications and power dynamics at work between the researched, the researcher and the academic institution.

Being a Vulnerable Researcher – Jenny Barke

As a psychologist, reflecting on my emotional reactions and considering my positionality within my research is second nature; it’s something that I’ve been trained to do. I’ve been taught to actively reflect on, explore and write about emotion as part of my practice. I’ve always believed this makes my work with participants and my analysis of data stronger and deeper. For me, participatory research involves creating and maintaining relationships within an ethic of care (see Joan Tronto) adopting a relational approach (see Anne Edwards). Rather than aiming to be a detached researcher observing a phenomenon from a distance, I aim to adopt an empathetic stance. My research relies on building and maintaining complex personal relationships that support engagement and collaboration, and interweave diverse forms of expertise.

Participating in the group workshops and co-developing the guidelines has made me consider how much this approach relies on allowing oneself to be vulnerable. I often jump into research projects and develop relationships quickly in order to recruit co-researchers and participants. As I complete projects, relationships often continue. My research relies on this, and it is part of my work that I love. My approach is informed by Carolyn Ellis who wrote that ‘Relational ethics requires researchers to act from our hearts and minds, acknowledge our interpersonal bonds to others, and take responsibility for actions and their consequences.’

I believe that allowing myself to be vulnerable and adopting a relational approach to my practice supports the process of participatory research. However, as I reflected on this in our workshops, I realized that I have given little thought to what this vulnerability means for me, and how it impacts on my own wellbeing. Taking time to care for oneself often feels like a luxury rather than the essential maintenance of personal wellbeing and resilience. Developing the guidelines has foregrounded the importance of actively caring for and prioritizing my own wellbeing so that I am able to be vulnerable.

The Online Disinhibition Effect – Kate Mahoney

In December 2020, my colleagues and I embarked on a remote oral history project, conducting around sixty interviews over four months via telephone, Zoom, and the podcasting software Zencastr. This was the first time that I had conducted interviews remotely. As I carried them out, I became aware of the effects of online disinhibition on the oral history process. Online disinhibition refers to people’s tendency to ‘self-disclose […] more frequently or intensely’ when communicating online (see John Suler). The interviewees that I spoke to remotely talked in increased detail for longer, and discussed traumatic experiences more frequently. I was incredibly grateful to my research participants for sharing their stories. However, at times, I felt very anxious about whether I had responded adequately to their recollections and often felt overwhelmed afterwards.

Through the workshops, I gained a deeper understanding about the emotional effects of online disinhibition on researchers and developed strategies to support myself. These included taking walks to encourage closure after interviews, and doing grounding breathing exercises when feeling overwhelmed. I realised that I had subconsciously adopted comparable strategies when conducting face-to-face interviews; I frequently use the journey home from face-to-face interviews to emotionally decompress. The workshops confirmed the importance of understanding the emotional impact of interviewing for researchers, and the need to provide opportunities to develop effective support strategies.

radical self-care manifesto – Yewande Okuleye

This poem speaks to the journey of the intellectual trauma associated with researching race as a racialised academic. The poem highlights the need for racialised researchers to find ways to practice self-care to manage stress and trauma. Breathing is offered as an empowered first aid technique to self-soothe, before turning to informal or formal networks of care.




racialised as black




the past

is always



in black



as each text

leaps off the page

assaults our senses

because of our heritage

nervous systems


immune systems



what a burden

what a joy

from the margins

to the front line

holding the line

we go round

and round

in circles

missing the centre

like a

tipsy spirograph

trying to

walk a straight line

yet we carry the load

till we become

the load


I dream of doing my best

as I collect my thoughts

in cupped hands

  • bullet point

everything is the same

while nothing is the same

they say something is always missing

they make us seem hollow

they make us seem flat

although we are black as black

selective sight

makes them blind as bats

as they weave spells of

beautiful white spots

attempted erasure

can never bring closure

  • Indefinitely

weight we matter

because we are moved to

<>in tern<>

<>in ter po late<>

<>in ter ca la tion<>

<>in ter ca la tor<>

<>in ter lo cu tor<>


after the storm

I taste sweet san. CT. U. ary


earth rests


time re sets


time to sit

ischial tuberosity has such a lovely ring doesn’t it

sit bones

find there


in the snow




still life dead

we breath in:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

– six—-five-four———–three-two–one

…………………………………………………and hold

observe molecules of self-love

shimmer and sway through your lungs

we breath out::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

– six-five-four————–three-two-one


be bold









epigenetic racial trauma

and pain





Enter the Center of Afrocentric Wellness


here we are revitalised *                  I am still

here we are refreshed *                    I am so grateful

here we breathe with ease*             I am not hateful

here we are (re)humanised

we seal radical

we ooze self-care

we manifest manifesto


©Yewande Okuleye 2021

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