Maintaining an awareness and understanding of the potential implications of our own thoughts, views and emotions as a researcher is of vital importance. Although individual biases and predispositions can never completely be negated, taking steps to reduce the impacts of possible biases – or an awareness of how they effect sociological inquiry – is a key component of becoming a successful researcher. Adopting the term ‘emotional labour’ (Hochschild, 2012) this blog will focus on how researchers can apply this notion of suppressing their true feelings in order to remain professional, unbiased and as impartial as possible when conducting interviews on sensitive research topics.How might emotions might be considered within qualitative interviewing methodologies? How are we to deal with bias when researching messy sets of social issues?
Reflecting back on planning, organising and completing my own qualitative interviews for a Sociology master’s degree was a real eye-opening experience. I remain amazed at how open, willing and accepting my participants were to talk and discuss – face-to-face with a relative stranger (me!) – a complex and controversial topic. The depth and detail participants delved into, and the breadth of associated explanatory opinion-based ‘data’ generated was far deeper and moe extensive than I expected it to be. Alongside the buzz and excitement of completing my very own study, I also came to appreciate how much time, energy, and passion for your project goes into the whole research process.
Compared to reading and researching studies completed by others, conducting my own research felt so much more ‘real’ and meaningful.The basis of my study was to explore the attitudes and opinions of students – who were official members of the university’s feminist society – towards female sex work. Conducted using a qualitative methodology of participant-led, semi-structured interviews, 11.5 hours of interview audio content was recorded with the consent of all participants.
Throughout the interviews many participants recalled and reflected on their own personal experiences and views, concerning not just sex work but other linked and related sensitive topics. These included often difficult-to-discuss personal accounts of sexism, borderline sexual assault and relationship histories. As such, ethics were paramount, both in terms of adhering to ethical guidelines and signposting services, and of being sensitive to power dynamics and questions associated with disclosure. Throughout the interviewing schedule it was emphasised that participants could skip any questions, end the interview or withdraw from the study at any time. Upholding the safety, confidentiality and wellbeing of participants was of paramount importance. In addition, pseudonyms were assigned to each participant and contact details for support services were provided if required.
Thinking back on my experiences of formally conducting my very research study my thoughts turned to my own position as the researcher. Trying to create a space for participants to speak openly can be challenging with respect to a researcher’s own biases and emotions. The concept of emotional labour as developed by Hochschild (2012: 7) outlines how an individual may “induce or supress feelings” in particular tasks, situations or occupations settings. As an example of such, Hochschild (2012) discusses the role of a flight attendant: in order to provide the most professional, efficient or socially-desirable service, individuals relinquish something of their own personal needs, views and opinions at that moment in time. In her analysis, Hochschild (2012) emphasises that emotional management and feeling suppression is in that context a useful skill. Such ‘emotional suppression’ can be added to the complexity to role of the researcher when using qualitative interviews. Interviewers striving to display impartiality with respect to participant’s responses, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with their interviewees, creates a particularly formalised social relation. In relation to sociological interviewing, managing one’s emotions as a researcher involves high level social-emotional competencies involving one to actively and thoughtfully reflect back on responses and asking probing and relevant follow-up questions. Furthermore, and as emphasised in Back’s (2008) work on ‘The Art of Listening’, showing humility, care and empathy within social interactions is crucial, for its own sake and to ensure that participants’ voices are not ignored.
Successfully completing the question-answer interviewing process can be an extremely rewarding experience. Firstly, by acknowledging the responses of their participants and asking relevant, open-ended follow-up questions researchers can create a comfortable social atmosphere for the interview. This both allows and encourages participants to freely express their honest thoughts without interruption on a potentially tough-to-discuss topic. Secondly, by allowing participants to be open and content during interviews large amounts of valid qualitative data can be generated directly and first-hand from interviewees. These ‘golden nuggets’ of reflection may not always be forthcoming, but the researchers’ approach is key to encouraging them.
Relating back to Hochschild (2012), during interviews researchers adjust which elements of themselves they display and present to their participants. Researchers’ thoughts towards the topic and emotional reactions cannot altogether be left outside the interview room ; thinking back to my own experiences of interviewing, I consciously sat back and allowed my participants to freely talk and lead the interview. My role, on the other hand, was to gently steer the interview topic using a preplanning question bank; alongside some more spontaneous and relevant additional question to elicit further detail. Due to the highly contested nature of the research topic, spanning sex work and other related feminist debates, I wished for participants to feel able to freely discuss and recall what was on their mind.
In conducting my interviews for a MA dissertation, I have reflected on how I presented myself throughout the question-answer process; applying Hochschild’s (2012) notion of emotional labour, it is important that researchers attempt to manage views and emotions (this is not the same as suppressing them, but rather an attentiveness to the ways in which they may shape an interview interaction). Although biases and preconceptions can exist amongst researchers, having a knowledge and understanding of their presence and potential impact on research is vital in an interviewing environment. This ‘emotional skill’ is an important element of being a successful interview researcher and ought to be adopted when conducting this research method.