Terror and horror: Understanding difficult emotions

Zoë Boden, LSBU

I have recently contributed a chapter to a new book on suicidal experience: Phenomenology of Suicide: Unlocking the suicidal mind (edited by Prof Maurizio Pompili, Springer). The book is due out in October this year. 

In my chapter I drew on my reflections of interviewing a man – Roddy (not his real name) – about his near-lethal suicide attempt. This was part of a larger piece of research, which you can read about here. Writing this chapter gave me the opportunity to think about how difficult it can be to really understand our participants’ experiences, especially when those experiences are deeply troubling. I’ve previously argued that as qualitative researchers we should be attempting to understand the Other’s experience as fully as we can, and that to do so, we must understand at an embodied, felt level. I’ve suggested that creative, embodied, and metaphorical ways of doing qualitative research can help us to get closer to the phenomenon of interest – especially when that is a felt, emotional or affective aspect of human experience. I’ve also argued that interviewing people about suicidal experience requires us to acknowledge our intersubjective and emotional relationship with that person – and to be ethically sensitive to the nuances of our interactions.

But… my experience interviewing Roddy, reminded me of the limits of empathic, felt-understanding and about my own limits as a qualitative researcher. Sadly, Roddy’s experiences were very painful. In particular he described feelings of “abject terror” prior to his attempt, and a scene of horror in recounting what happened. However, Roddy was persistent in expressing his desire and need for others, including me, to understand what he had been through. He felt that my/our understanding was not only necessary to potentially help others, but that telling his story was necessary to help him make sense of his own experiences. Spontaneously, he drew on vivid metaphorical language, and recruited me directly into his story, in order to help me understand. In my chapter, I explore what happened to me, when he did this. Ultimately, I did understand, and I understood in a way I never had before, despite all my research and previous interviews. But this came at some cost. Sometimes, I argue, that in that moment, real deep, embodied and emotional understanding can feel too difficult, too frightening, too much. Of course, therapists know this and develop their practice to avoid burning out or becoming overwhelmed, but I feel as qualitative emotion researchers, this is an area we can explore further.

This has led me to revisit my thinking around reflexivity, and I will be hosting a second workshop event, on May 4th 2018 to encourage further dialogue about this. More details will follow, but the event is provisionally titled: ‘Revisiting reflexivity in theory, research and praxis: Situated, relational, emotional, embodied’. I have some fantastic speakers lined up, who will draw on pragmatic, feminist, phemomenological and psychoanalytic ideas from several disciplinary perspectives. They will think about reflexivity from a conceptual and practical perspective, including in research, psychotherapy, teaching and community work. I will also be sharing some of my thinking around frightening feelings and the limits of our understanding.

Please feel free to contact me for copies of any papers, or to join the QuAFE mailing list and hear more about the conference event: bodenz@lsbu.ac.uk


If you are feeling suicidal: In the UK you can call the Samaritans free on 116 123. For a list of crisis helplines worldwide see here. Consider telling someone, contacting your family doctor, or going directly to hospital.


Fears & Angers conference, London

Thomas Dixon and the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London have recently announced:

Fears and Angers: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

19-20 June 2017. QMUL.

This event has been jointly organised with our colleagues at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.

To register and download the draft programme, please visit:


New special issue published: Emotions & qualitative research

Affiliate member, Dr Leeat Granek just edited a special issue of Qualitative Psychology on ‘Emotions and Qualitative Research’.

The issue includes the following articles (some of which are available open access):

  • Granek, Leeat
    In this special section, 5 experienced qualitative researchers who study emotion laden topics (health care professionals who treat cancer, women at end of life, sexual assault victims’ experiences with the criminal justice system, the mental health of sexual minority parents, and African American women suffering from infertility) explore the ways in which their own emotional responses to their research topics and participants affected them personally and professionally. This exploration is dual and bidirectional in that we examine both the ways in which our participants and topics elicit emotional responses in us and the ways in which our own emotional and personal development affected the way we conducted research, and responded to our participants. Together these 5 papers challenge the reader to think critically about a vast array of subjects, lives, and realities. These include the qualitative research trajectory and the role of emotions and the body in our projects, about how, why, and whether we choose to document these emotional and bodily processes in our final publications, and finally, about what an inclusive, embodied, emotional, and integrated field of psychology might look like if we demanded a more holistic approach to doing and documenting the messy realities of our research in our academic journals. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2017 APA, all rights reserved)
  • Campbell, Rebecca
    Qualitative fieldwork can be emotionally challenging for researchers. In this article, I reflect on my experiences conducting a mixed methods, multidisciplinary action research project with stakeholders in Detroit, Michigan to address the problem of thousands of untested sexual assault kits (SAKs) in that jurisdiction. To understand how and why police decided not to submit these kits for forensic DNA testing, my research team and I reviewed archival police records, interviewed law enforcement personnel, and conducted ethnographic observations over 4 years. Such in-depth engagement in research is bound to stir complex feelings, and in this article, I explore 3 touchpoint moments of intense emotionality that challenged traditional assumptions about the role of emotions and advocacy in social research. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2017 APA, all rights reserved)
  • Ceballo, Rosario
    Although social portrayals of infertility often draw images of high-income, White couples seeking medical interventions, African American women with infertility typically remain invisible. Relying on a theoretical framework of intersectionality, I conducted a qualitative study to examine how African American women, from different socioeconomic classes, cope with infertility. In this article, I examine the emotional aspects of conducting this research and the process of interviewing 50 African American women about their experiences with highly personal, emotionally charged reproductive difficulties. Here, I specifically review the emotional journey that accompanied this research at different stages of the project, from its very beginning, including the decision to conduct a study, through the method and analyses (sample recruitment, data collection, and interpreting results) to writing and publishing the findings. Themes of silence and breaking silence are explored as a framework for understanding the process of bringing emotionally difficult material to light—for both participants and researchers. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2017 APA, all rights reserved)
  • Granek, Leeat
    In this paper, I cross-hatch the theories of “affective transmission” in the research process and the “transnational optic” to explore how my emotional life has both been affected and affects my qualitative research projects as a result of a new geographical, political, cultural and social environment. To achieve this aim, I use examples of identical qualitative research studies conducted in Canada and Israel on oncologists’ experiences of patient death to explore and describe the differences in affective transmission because of my location. I use my experience as a bicultural qualitative researcher to develop a theory I call the “transnational affective kaleidoscope” that I argue is a central component of conducting binational and local qualitative research. This theory includes 3 components that I describe in detail: (a) intersubjectivity, (b) the moral and political gaze, and (c) structure of feeling. I conclude by giving concrete examples of how other qualitative researchers can put this theory into practice in their own research studies. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2017 APA, all rights reserved)
  • McClelland, Sara I.
    In this paper I reflect on an important and infrequently discussed aspect of qualitative research: listening. Listening is often imagined as easy. It is however, is a difficult skill that not only takes practice, but also comes with possibilities and challenges for a researcher. In an effort to develop and elaborate a practice of listening in a research context, I develop the idea of vulnerable listening and offer 3 scenarios from my own research. These include: (a) emotional dangers associated with listening, (b) the often unacknowledged role of the listener’s body, and (c) the role of extreme emotions in research, such as feeling outraged. Drawing on my own experiences interviewing women diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer, I highlight how researchers who collect data by listening might care for their own and others’ vulnerability. Toward this end, I outline several strategies for researchers looking to support and maintain a practice of vulnerable listening. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2017 APA, all rights reserved)
  • Ross, Lori E.
    The benefits and challenges of insider positionality have been much written about in relation to qualitative research. However, the specific emotional implications of insider research have been little explored. In the article, I aim to bring the literature on insider positionality to the study of emotion in qualitative research through a reflection on my experiences as a “total insider” conducting interviews for a longitudinal qualitative study examining mental health during the transition to parenthood among sexual minority women. On the basis of this experience, I highlight emotion-related benefits and challenges of my insider positionality, as they pertain both to the quality of the research and to my personal experiences as a qualitative researcher. In particular, I examine the potential benefits of my insider positioning for establishing rapport and my capacity for empathy, and the personal emotional growth and learning that my insider positioning made possible for me. With respect to challenges, I examine how my emotional investment in the researcher-participant relationship influenced my role as a research instrument, and discuss the difficulties I encountered in managing appropriately boundaried relationships and making decisions about self-disclosure. I close by highlighting promising avenues for further exploration of the emotional implications of insider research, from the perspectives of both researchers and participants. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2017 APA, all rights reserved)


Call for papers – conference on ‘Emotions and Social and Political Change’

The BSA Sociology of Emotions Study Group Event this year is on Friday 15th September, 2017 in Salford, UK. They have a call for papers now out now on the theme of emotions and social and political change. They’re particularly looking for sociological papers, but researchers from other disciplines exploring social aspects of emotion are welcome to submit abstracts too. Abstracts go to mary.holmes@ed.ac.uk by 31st July.

You can book the conference and find out more here. Cost just £15 BSA members /£30 non-members and students/£5 BSA concessionary members.

The emotional journey of qualitative research

Virginia Dickson-Swift

My name is Virginia Dickson-Swift and I am currently Honorary Associate at La Trobe University in Bendigo, Australia. I am best known internationally for my research work that explores the issues faced by researchers when undertaking qualitative research on sensitive topics. I have published a number of academic papers in this area Dong sensitive research: What challenges do researchers face?, Blurring boundaries in qualitative health research on sensitive topics; Researching sensitive topics: Qualitative research as emotion work; Risk to researchers in qualitative research on sensitive topics; and a book titled Undertaking Sensitive Research in the Health and Social Sciences Managing Boundaries, Emotions and Risks

This field of research is growing all of the time and I am constantly asked to review papers, present at conferences and teach masterclasses both in Australia and overseas. Qualitative research is often an emotional journey- not only for the participants but for others that may be involved along the way. There is growing evidence that researchers, research supervisors, transcriptionists and research assistants can also be emotionally challenged whilst participating in qualitative research, particularly research that focuses on sensitive topics. It is now more than 20 years since Raymond Lee authored the seminal works Doing Research on Sensitive Topics, Researching Sensitive Topics and Dangerous Fieldwork highlighting that researchers may face a range of challenges throughout their research projects.  More recently he warned that “the emotional challenges that researcher’s face when doing fieldwork is now difficult to ignore” (Lee, 2012:114). Given Lee’s warning and the growing numbers of reports from researchers both empirically and anecdotally I felt that it was time for a new empirical study to investigate these challenges. This study extends my earlier work in this area with researchers in Australia (Dickson-Swift, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008),

For this project I will be using a blog to data from researchers who are interested in the topic from across the globe about their experiences in undertaking qualitative research with a view to using the data collected here to provide some guidelines for researchers in this area. The purpose of this blog is to provide a space for researchers to share and talk about their experiences when conducting qualitative projects. In my work there were a number of specific areas that researchers talked about including researcher emotions, boundary blurring, ethical issues and risks. You are welcome to post about any of those types of things or contribute your own experiences. Writing about our experiences as researchers is important as it adds the growing empirical evidence in this area and ensures that researchers, research supervisors, ethics boards and universities understand the nature of the work that we do. There is an paper recently published in Qualitative Health Research titled An Auto-Ethnographic Study of the Disembodied Experience of a Novice Researcher Doing Qualitative Cancer Research which provides an excellent summary of the issues researchers can face.

I look forward to hearing from you either via my blog QUALEMOTO or via email communication to v.dickson-swift@latrobe.edu.au. If you have any questions I would be happy to talk with you.



Call for papers – Special Issue on Qualitative emotion research

UQRPMartin Willis and John Cromby (a QuAFE steering group member) are editing a special issue of Qualitative Research in Psychology: “Feelings, affect and emotions in qualitative psychology”.

You can find the full call here. Papers can be empirical or methodological, but Martin says they are keen for authors to “highlight some of the conceptual and methodological issues faced when trying to engage with feeling, affect and emotion in qualitative research”.

Martin and John would like short abstracts outlining ideas for papers (500 words maximum) submitted to Martin Willis by 1 June 2017. Full papers will be due by 15th January 2018.

New Book: Emotion and Discourse in L2 Narrative Research by Matthew T. Prior

IMG_3687 - Version 2

Matthew Prior

My name is Matthew Prior and I am an assistant professor at Arizona State University, where I teach and conduct research in the interdisciplinary fields of applied linguistics, second language (L2) and multilingualism studies, and discourse studies. I am pleased to join the QuAFE blog and its network of scholars interested in qualitative approaches to emotion research. One of my primary areas of interest is how emotion and related socio-psychological matters intersect with language and identity, particularly for L2 users and multilingual groups and individuals.

Prior_book cover

My book, Emotion and Discourse in L2 Narrative Research has just been published by Multilingual Matters/Channel View Publications (2016). In it I engage with and critique the emotional space of contemporary narrative and ethnographic research on multilingualism and transcultural belonging. Based on the published literature and interview-based studies I conducted with adult immigrants living in the US and Canada, this book brings attention to emotion as an interactional and institutional resource. The nine chapters explore the central role emotion plays in speakers’ identities and experiences through a close examination of its dynamic representation and management.

Emotionality—emotion as action, topic, and resource—forms the theoretical and analytical heart of this book. Within the research context, emotionality is an ever-present component of the identities and stories that speakers and listeners take up and avoid, and the ways in which those identities, stories, and related matters get reshaped and responded to over time. While answering questions such as How do interactants construct and manage their own and each other’s emotionality?, this book aims to make visible the emotional and interactional ‘realities’ of the researcher, the research participants, and the research.

This shifts the focus away from taxonomies and intra-psychological processes to micro-interactional resources and discursive practices (e.g., question-answer sequences, feelings talk, discursive organization, storytelling, interpretive framing, emotion formulations) in addition to macro-social concerns (e.g., immigration, displacement, discrimination, community histories). However, I avoid reifying micro-macro binaries by exploring how both are mutually constituted by and constitutive of the production and reception of this emotional work. As a means to empirically ground this investigation of emotionality and the representation of self and experience, this book advances a discursive constructionist approach that draws on ethnomethodology, conversation analysis, discursive psychology, and cognate lines of discourse analysis (e.g., Buttny, 2004; Edwards, 1997; Peräkylä & Sorjonen, 2012; Sacks, 1992).

This approach to emotion discourse and emotion management is also informed by psychological research on emotion regulation as well as Hochschild’s (2012) work on emotion labour. Along with discussing the various points of convergence between narrative interview research and therapeutic discourse, I consider the predominance of ‘negative’ (e.g., sadness, anger, fear, shame) emotionality, the resistance to ‘positive’ emotionality, and interactants’ collaborative efforts to manage distress and humour.

Finally, although I align with critiques that label some lines of contemporary qualitative inquiry as overly ‘emotionalist’ or ‘romantic’ for their tendency to elevate “the experiential as the authentic” (Silverman, 2011, p. 179), I argue that researchers should reclaim the ‘emotionalist’ label by actively attending to participants’ emotional work while pursuing greater reflexivity and analytical rigor.


Buttny, R. (2004). Talking problems: Studies of discursive construction. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Edwards, D. (1997). Discourse and cognition. London: Sage.

Hochschild, A.R. (2012). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Peräkylä, A. & Sorjonen, M-L. (Eds.) (2012). Emotion in interaction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sacks, H. (1992). Lectures on conversation. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Silverman, D. (2011). Interpreting qualitative data (4th ed.). London: SAGE.