Blog Topics, Qualitative methods, Research Skills

Dr. Kate Sang: Tears on my podium: researching close to home

Kate Sang is an Associate Professor of Management at Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh. Her research focuses around equality and diversity in the workplace. You can follow her on twitter on @katesang.

In many disciplines, scholars are still encouraged to pursue objective research and to distance themselves from their chosen topic. To many feminists the idea that a researcher is distinct from the researched will sit uncomfortably. Looking at feminist critiques of scientific research, there are established arguments for epistemologies which recognise the social construction of knowledge (see Donna Haraway’s seminal work). Similar arguments are made within disability studies where there have been long held concerns that scientific research has resulted in the oppression and exploitation of disabled people. As a qualitative researcher driven by a social justice agenda, my own positionality to my research and the participants has been something I have considered at great length.

Academic careers are now characterised by metrics. Publish or perish, high teaching scores, citations, rankings and all those quantifiable things. Working in a UK management or business school context adds an extra layer of metrics, namely the Association of Business Schools’ journal ranking list. For a social justice researcher, there are limited options for publishing research in the ‘top ranked’ journals. However, publish I must if I want to stay in the sector, and progress. Which places me in a tense position with my research. In order to stay in my job (and to get that job in the first place), I have to publish research in recognised journals. My research moves from having the potential to enrich and enhance people’s working lives, to something which must be publishable, REFable and enable me to be an academic. It’s easy to get lost in that approach to research and I did for a while, particularly when I was on a temporary contract and looking for a lectureship.

In the past couple of years my relationship to my research has shifted and I have become more engaged with the purpose of my research, beyond REF and my own career. I have always cared about my work and my participants, often thinking about people’s stories long after the interview or focus group has finished. More recently I have reflected on the risks of this level of personal engagement with research participants and their narratives of working life. In 2015 I was part of a project researching in-work poverty in Scotland and a second project interviewing academic parents. In 2017 I completed research with disabled academics. These series of interviews stuck with me, in particular the disability research where I conducted all of the interviews myself, alone. Due to funding constraints I had to complete all the interviews within a few weeks, which sometimes meant doing 3 or 4 interviews a day. I would not recommend that! Interviewing is hard work. We have to listen closely to someone, and not in a conversational way that we are used to. In addition, for some people the research interview may be the only opportunity to share intensely personal aspects of their lives and distressing experiences. Yet we as researchers are often ill-equipped for this work.

If I were to conduct fieldwork overseas I would have to complete a risk assessment in order to be covered by university travel insurance. However, no such risk assessment exists for emotional situations we might face. While doing the disability interviews I found the discrimination and incivilities people told me about difficult to put to one side when the interview finished. This was no doubt harder as I am a member of the group whose experiences I was researching, in that I am disabled and an academic. Many of my participants’ experiences were all too familiar to me. The depth of the effect of the interviews was made clear when I presented the full study for the first time in March. Closing the presentation I told the audience about the gratitude interviewees had expressed to me for doing the study, and how some had told me how isolated they were and felt they had few, if any, friends. It was then that I started to cry, something which has never happened before. And once I started, I couldn’t stop. Someone kindly walked up to the podium and gave me a tissue and once I had finished crying (and my presentation), the audience members were unbelievably kind. Crying seemed to have created space for others to talk about the emotional labour they undertake as disabled people and disability activists.

So I cannot claim any objectivity or independence from my research, and perhaps this is ok, even desirable. Barnes (1996) critiqued the idea of an independent researcher, instead suggesting that academics are either with the oppressed or the oppressor. I care about my work and am driven to find a way to make people’s working lives better, and I am exploring ways to put my data into action. A few other qualitative researchers have said they have had similar experiences. So the question remains, how do we as researchers care for ourselves and engage with sensitive research? I am still puzzling this one, but I know I will never do more than 2 interviews a day again, will do a bit more running after interviews and always take a packet of tissues up to the podium.

Kate’s disability research is  funded by the EPSRC and Heriot Watt University.


Useful reading

Disability and academic careers – preliminary findings

ABS journal ranking list

Barnes, C. (1996). Disability and the myth of the independent researcher. Disability & Society, 11(1), 107-112.

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist studies, 14(3), 575-599.

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