When fieldwork hurts: on the lived experience of conducting research in unsettling contexts
Prolonged exposure to the lived experience of others—by observation as in ethnography or vicariously through interviews—can be deeply unsettling. Human misery is contagious. Some of what makes research unsettling is context specific. Thus, repeated encounters with, for example, those living life behind bars (Rogers, Corley, & Ashforth, 2016), victims of rape (Whiteman, 2010; Zilber, 2002), human trafficking and street-level sex workers (Eberhard, 2017), or drug addicts (Lawrence, 2017) will likely impact the one collecting data. Occasionally, contexts are not obviously unsettling but reveal incidents or exposure to the emotional experiences of others that can be. Research can also be experienced as deeply troubling for reasons not specific to context in forcing us to front up to moral questions around voyeurism and exploitation, the answers to which are often deeply personal.