Rethinking Vulnerability and Sensitivity

Research ethics committees are very concerned with the potential vulnerability and sensitivity of research participants. So far, so laudable – but I don’t think they show their concern in particularly useful ways. Gaining formal approval from a research ethics committee is a hoop many researchers have to jump through, but then the real work of ethics begins.

For most research ethics committees, vulnerability is an attribute of some groups and not others. Groups who may be deemed to be vulnerable include children, older people, or adults with learning disabilities. These categories are specified by UKRI who oversee government-funded research in the UK. But if you look at this in more detail, it doesn’t stand up. Take children. Say a competent 14-year-old is a young carer for their single parent who lives with severe and enduring mental health problems and drinks alcohol all day. Which of those two people might be better able to give informed consent to the child taking part in research? Conversely, people are not necessarily vulnerable because they are older. President Biden is 79 and I can’t imagine him being seen as vulnerable. Learning disabilities don’t necessarily make people vulnerable either, as some of my dyslexic friends would no doubt agree.

Vulnerability is not an attribute, it is a state we all move into and out of in different ways. The start of the Covid-19 pandemic made this abundantly clear. Quite suddenly we were all vulnerable to illness, perhaps death; to increased anxiety; to fear for loved ones who fell sick; to bereavement. Heads of state were no safer than ordinary people living in apartments or suburbs, and researchers were every bit as vulnerable as their participants. Perhaps one small positive side-effect of the pandemic is this: we can see more clearly that we are all vulnerable to changing circumstances resulting in trouble or trauma. Which does not mean we are all vulnerable all the time – but that any of us may be, or may become, vulnerable at any time. As researchers, I think it is essential for us to be aware of this, and ready to face and manage it when it occurs.

Vulnerability and sensitivity have something in common. Just as it is not possible to predict from group membership who is and is not vulnerable, so it is not possible to predict who will and will not be upset by a topic. Of course some topics are likely to be upsetting: female genital mutilation, suicide, sex work, and so on. And we need to put whatever precautions we can in place if we are investigating topics like these, that are evidently sensitive: to make the experience as safe as possible for our participants, and for ourselves. But we cannot be sure that everyone will find these topics equally sensitive; there are people who can take such topics in their stride.

Conversely, some people may be upset by apparently innocuous topics. Suppose a market researcher is investigating people’s perceptions of homewares. In one interview, the researcher asks their question about teapots, and realises their participant is struggling to hold back tears. The participant explains that the last gift ever given to them by their beloved mother, who died exactly one year ago, was a teapot. Perfectly plausible; impossible to foresee.

So, we can’t always predict everything everyone will be sensitive about, and we shouldn’t pretend we can. But, again, we need to equip ourselves with the mental and emotional intelligence and dexterity to be able to deal with the unexpected. Because if there is one thing we can predict, it is that at times we will face the unpredictable.

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Let’s Talk About Self-Care

This has been such an unkind year that those of us who can practise self-care need to do so more than ever. I say ‘those of us who can’ because practising self-care requires resources in itself – time, at least, and often money too – and so is a manifestation of privilege.

With privilege, I believe, comes responsibility. This is often construed solely as responsibility to care for others. Yet I argue that self-care is also part of that responsibility, particularly for those on whom the responsibility to care for others falls more heavily, such as women, and for those who face daily oppression, such as people of colour and trans people.

Self-care is also part of our responsibility as researchers. Research work can be enormously stressful, and researchers are not often well supported. Research ethics committees rarely consider researcher well-being, an omission I regard as quite unethical. Also, researchers often work alone, gathering and analysing data, which may involve hearing and revisiting distressing stories or phenomena, and is always a mentally taxing business even when it’s not emotionally draining. We are the people who know what we feel and experience, and what we need by way of support and help. It is our responsibility to look after our own wellbeing.

My colleague and friend Dr Petra Boynton has written a really useful book for anyone who is at all uncertain about how or why they might take care of themselves. It is called Being Well in Academia but it has relevance far beyond the ivory towers. The book’s subtitle is Ways To Feel Stronger, Safer And More Connected, and those are topics in which we all have an interest. Petra offers a huge amount of guidance, support, and resources in her concise, readable book, which I recommend highly.

There is a potential problem with emphasizing self-care if it is hijacked by the neoliberal agenda and used to supersede the importance of combating structural inequalities. And there is a potential problem in the opposite direction too, if we pour all our resources into combating structural inequalities and so burn out. For me, self-care and activism need to go hand in hand: if we take good care of ourselves, we will have more energy for working to dismantle structural inequalities. Also, we will be better able to care for others. You have probably heard the saying ‘put your own oxygen mask on before helping others’ – it refers to a drop in aeroplane cabin pressure, and is now used as a metaphor for the importance of self-care.

For much of this year I did not practise what I’m preaching. This has been partly due to circumstance: the first three months of the year were very busy with work including a lot of travelling, then the pandemic put paid to holidays I had planned, and losing my mother to the virus threw everything out of whack. As a result I took my eye off the self-care ball, and so had a big health dip in the autumn. That is now resolved and I’m back to more diligent self-care. So over the next few weeks I will be taking a break from creating content in particular and being on social media in general; I do this every year and it always does me good. I’ll be back the second week in January. This holiday season will be difficult for many people and I would encourage you all to take whatever steps you can to care for yourselves. And remember, here in the northern hemisphere, this time next week the days will be getting longer. The wheel of the year continues to turn, bringing the hope of warmer, sunnier days ahead. I wish you all as happy a holiday as possible, whatever and however you celebrate.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $68 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $68 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Ten Ways To Reduce Negative Mind Chatter

talkingSo many of my friends and colleagues mention negative mind chatter. Only the other day I had a woman tell me she doesn’t feel like a good enough mother (she is), and a man tell me he doesn’t know how he got to where he is in life (because he’s clever, kind, and hardworking). I could quote numerous other examples, and I think writers are particularly prone to this.

Negative mind chatter sits in between the social self-deprecation that is practised by some cultures, including mine, and full-on impostor syndrome. It is the little voices in your mind that tell you you ought to work harder, you’re too fat/thin, your writing is rubbish. And so on. Almost everyone has them, I think, to some degree or another. They’re a nuisance at best, hard to get rid of, and can be destructive, sabotaging our conscious wishes to move forward in our lives.

The good news is there are things we can do to help reduce our negative mind chatter. Here are ten ideas to consider. None of these will work for everyone, but each of them should work for some people.

  1. Aim for calm acceptance of each voice and its message. If it can’t upset or scare you, it will have much less power; maybe even no power. Imagine it has come to visit; welcome it in politely, as you might a tradesperson who has come to fix something in your house, then let it do its own thing while you focus on whatever you want to be doing.
  1. Visualise the character who is speaking. Feel free to make them as comic and grotesque as you like. Then visualise yourself batting that creature away in any way you choose. This is your visualisation so there are no holds barred: if you want to visualise yourself pushing it off a cliff, or punching it into oblivion, that’s your call. Mine is a little coal-black goblin who I belt out of sight with a frying pan. I have no idea why, but it is, and it works – at least for a while.
  1. Take a step back from the voice. Think about what it’s saying to you and why. Then imagine one of your friends is in the position you are in, and think about what you would say to them. I bet you anything you like it’s not the same. Then try saying to yourself, out loud, what you would say to your friend.
  1. Flip the voice. Whatever it is saying, find the opposite and say it out loud. So if you have a voice that says you don’t work hard enough, you might choose to say ‘I work effectively and well and I value my work-life balance’. You could also write your statement on a Post-It note and stick it somewhere you’ll see it regularly.
  1. Positive affirmations may sound airy-fairy but they can be helpful. They should be in the present tense, include the word ‘I’, and contradict some of your mind chatter. So if you have a voice muttering that you’re unattractive and nobody will ever love you, you might decide on the affirmation ‘I am beautiful/handsome and I am loved.’ Say it out loud, ten times, every day, with as much conviction as you can muster.
  1. Meditation helps to rest the mind from all thoughts, not only the negative ones. For seated meditation, find somewhere quiet that you can be comfortable and close your eyes. Focus on your breath at the tip of your nose: in and out, in and out. If thoughts intrude don’t worry, let them go and bring yourself back to your breath. Any single moment free of thought is a success. It takes years, maybe decades of practice to let thoughts go for a sustained period. But don’t let that worry you either because even sitting and focusing on your breath for five minutes, with a couple of moments within that where you’re truly thought-free, will leave you more rested than you expect.
  1. Walking meditation is also great, particularly if you’re restless or don’t have easy access to quiet space. Walk slowly and steadily, through a green space if you can. Focus on the movement and sensation of walking and the sights and sounds around you in the present moment. Feel your connection to the earth and the sky. Hear the traffic or the birdsong, notice the air on your face, any aromas – pay attention as fully as you can to all the sensations from your body walking and the place you’re in. If thoughts intrude don’t worry, let them go by or walk away from them and bring your focus back to your body and your surroundings. Some people find this easier or preferable to seated meditation; others like to use both depending on their mood, the weather, etc or as a complement to each other.
  1. Writing can be useful for particularly persistent voices. Divide a page into two columns, whether hard copy or electronic. In the left column write whatever the voice says. In the right column write a counter-argument. Repeat this, always writing the same thing in the left column and something different in the right column, until the arguments in the right column become convincing. Keep the document handy and refer back to it any time that voice starts up again.
  1. Smile at yourself in the mirror and give yourself three honest compliments, out loud. This can be a great way to start and finish the day. If you use this regularly, vary the compliments. They can be about small actions or qualities: ‘Well done for letting that woman with the crying baby go ahead of you in the queue.’ ‘Good job staying calm when your co-worker was being really annoying.’ Or of course they can be about bigger things when that’s appropriate.
  1. Remember that thoughts, and their associated feelings, move and change. They are not static and you are not stuck with them. Look back and remember times when you thought and felt differently from the way you think and feel today. Know that you can think and feel differently in the future.

If you suffer from negative mind chatter I hope you will find something here to help you and so help your writing. If none of these work for you, or your negative mind chatter feels overwhelming, please consider seeking professional help. I’ve used professional help in the past, and I still use some of the tactics above, to quiet my own negative mind chatter. It’s not completely gone but I can deal with it now. So can you. Good luck!

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $17 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $17 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Self-Care And Privilege

France summer 2009 2 for Helen 137I wrote a post in December 2014 about the importance of self-care. I’m taking my own advice again and going on holiday for a fortnight. That means this blog will be quiet too, as the pre-holiday frenzy of client work and writing deadlines did not allow for preparing and scheduling posts.

There’s a lot of talk about self-care for researchers, the self-employed, and people who do scholarly work. Quite right, too; it’s important in these 24/7 professions. But it’s easy for us to forget that self-care is also a privilege.

I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege, partly because I’m writing about ethics and partly because of world affairs. There’s a lot of talk about white privilege, for good reasons, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. For me, privilege is intersectional, just like disadvantage. So some of my privilege is about being white, but I have other forms of privilege too. I have enough time, money, health, and support from others – and I need all of those privileges to be able to take this holiday. There are white people with no privilege beyond their whiteness; they still have privilege, but it does not help them much.

I have a lot of privilege other than my whiteness. For example, I haven’t had to ask anyone for permission to take time off, and I’m not using up a portion of precious annual leave. In fact, I can take as many holidays as I like, in theory, though in practice I have to prioritise working for a living. But that’s going OK because I also have enough money, not only to pay for a holiday (albeit a cheap one), but also to spend a couple of weeks not earning. I thought about my health privilege this morning, as I spoke to a family member, younger than me, who hasn’t had a holiday in years for health reasons. And I have the privilege of a loving partner, family, and friends, who support me.

There are even more forms of privilege in play here. For example, I will be thinking about my freedom-of-movement privilege as I travel through Calais, where so many refugees are suffering. And of course white privilege counts too: I will not experience racism at any point on this trip, and nobody is likely to harass or try to kill me because of the colour of my skin.

I have been reading articles about people living very different lives, dealing with monstrous injustice around the world. I have been reading about people in my own country who can’t afford to eat. Part of me thinks that, with all these horrors going on, I shouldn’t even have a holiday. But a bigger part of me refuses to feel guilty for taking this opportunity. I will, though, be aware of how very lucky I am.

The importance of self-care

2014-12-08_1418066953Very unusually for me, I don’t feel like working. I have a list of my current projects, all of which are interesting, and usually I’d look at the list and decide what to focus on next: either the most urgent, or the most appealing. But right now – and this hardly EVER happens – none of them are urgent. And, oddly, I’m finding it hard to motivate myself to work on any of the non-urgent ones either. Even though they do need doing, and will become urgent if I don’t do them at some point.

I love my work and am usually highly motivated. Also, I don’t work well under deadline pressure, so prefer to finish tasks with time to spare. I’m not ill, and I don’t have any difficult personal stuff going on. So I’ve been asking myself: why this unusual lack of interest in, or motivation to do, my work?

I think the answer is simply that I need a few days’ break. I’ve had such a busy year, without much downtime: a ten-day holiday in France in June, a handful of long weekends, and a week in Wales in October when I was finishing the second draft of my book. Talking of which, the book has taken up a huge amount of time this year, and I’ve also been working on several papers and a couple of book chapters, with one of each accepted for publication. I spend quite a bit of time, most weeks, on Board work for the UK’s Social Research Association, and editorial board work for the International Journal of Social Research Methodology also takes up time. Then of course there’s my paid work: I’ve had two big and demanding national research projects to work on with clients, and several smaller projects. As a result of all this, I rarely work fewer than six days a week, though I do try hard to have one full rest day each week.

I find it hard to take more time off, partly because I love my work, and partly because I find the gear changes difficult to manage. It’s not easy to wind down, and equally problematic to rev up again. Sometimes it feels simpler just to keep going. But that’s not sensible, is it?

If anyone else was telling me this story, I’d be saying: for goodness’ sake, you fool, take a break! For once I’m telling myself that – and I’m listening. My plan is to have complete rest and recreation for the rest of this week, when I’m at home with no big commitments. I hope then I’ll be ready to rev up the following week, and get some of the tasks on my list done before they become urgent.

There seems to be a lot of it about this year. Hugely productive researchers and writers like Pat Thomson and Raul Pacheco-Vega are advocating self-care in general and taking time off in particular. I know this can be particularly difficult for PhD students – several of the doctoral students I interviewed for my last book, Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide, spoke about the difficulty of taking time off when your head is full of your thesis. Other forms of writing can also have this effect; it’s hard to pick up a piece of work if you put it down for too long, whereas writing ‘little and often’ can help you to maintain the essential flow of ideas. But even if you’re doing a PhD, or have publishers’ deadlines – try to have at least the occasional rest day here and there, and ideally a proper break. Really, this is I an ethical requirement: certainly for researchers, who won’t produce good quality research if they’re exhausted and stressed. And I believe it’s important for writers too. If you’re working seven days a week, try reducing it to six, and having a proper rest day on the seventh. I bet you’ll get as much work done and be less exhausted. But whatever you decide, I wish you a happy holiday, and I’ll be back in 2015.