Qualitative analysis for sensitive research - how to protect against researcher vulnerabilities

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Dr Olivia Brown is a social psychologist in the School of Management, University of Bath https://researchportal.bath.ac.uk/en/persons/liv-brown


Qualitative analysis requires a great deal of time and concerted effort. When coding a dataset, researchers must remain focused to ensure the analysis is conducted consistently and reliably. This is challenging in any circumstance, but what about when the data contains offensive and/or disturbing material? How can you ensure that the analysis is conducted stringently while also being mindful of your own vulnerabilities in viewing the data? Here, I reflect on my experiences conducting sensitive research and provide some top tips to protect against researcher vulnerabilities.

For the purpose of this blog, sensitive research is defined as “research which poses a potential threat to those who are or who have been involved in it” (Lee, 1993). Example topics of sensitive research might include drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, terrorism, migration and disability. Each of these topics are capable of evoking feelings of anxiety and distress and, as such, researchers are more likely to experience vulnerabilities when investigating them. Researcher vulnerabilities may include feelings of burn out, fatigue or experiences of vicarious trauma.


Reflecting on my own experience

I have recently undertaken an ESRC CREST funded project analysing the online postings of a sample of convicted and non-convicted right-wing extremists. From a research perspective, our project presents an important opportunity to better understand the online behaviour of extremists and to explore how differences in the postings of convicted and non-convicted individuals might be used to infer future risk.  However, when considering researcher vulnerabilities and ethical issues, the project has presented a number of challenges.

In the first instance, embarking on this project required a great deal of preparation to ensure that the research met ethical guidelines. For example, while all of our data from extreme right-wing web-forums was available in publicly accessible repositories, it was difficult at times to determine exactly what constituted “public vs private data”.  To ensure that I had clarity on this, I spoke with colleagues who had worked in similar domains and consulted the British Psychological Society’s guide for Internet-based research. I then followed a strict protocol when obtaining and parsing the data to make sure it was acquired ethically.

Once we had obtained the data, further challenges arose due to the content of the online postings. While we knew the data would include hateful language and extremist propaganda, some of the content was extremely offensive and went far beyond what we were expecting to find. Coding this content was exhausting, especially in the early stages, making it difficult to remain focused and to approach the data without introducing any of my own biases. On reflection of this coding process, I have included some of my top tips to combat researcher vulnerabilities when analysing sensitive material. I hope that you find my tips helpful in anticipating associated challenges that you may experience.


Tips to combat researcher vulnerabilities in the analysis of sensitive material

  1. Preparation - identify useful resources and have a protocol in place before you begin your analysis
    Before beginning your analysis, try to identify relevant sources that might be useful. In my work, I found resources outlining the ethical challenges of examining disturbing extremist content (https://gnet-research.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/GNET-Report-Researching-Extremist-Content-Social-Media-Ethics.pdf) and those that suggested ways of maintaining well-being (https://www.voxpol.eu/researcher-welfare-2-wellbeing/). In addition, make sure you have established a protocol to follow in case you come across any material that: (i) indicates a risk to another person and therefore needs to be disclosed to relevant authorities or; (ii) causes you a level of distress that necessitates further support from the University. For example, we contacted the Director of Policy, Planning and Compliance to register our study under the PREVENT duty as I would be accessing materials that may relate to terrorism.
  2. Take regular breaks – build these into your weekly schedule
    As already highlighted, qualitative analysis is an intensive activity that requires a lot of concentration. Taking regular breaks is vital to allow you to maintain consistent and accurate analysis and more importantly to provide some distance between you and the data. You do not want to become all consumed by the content you are analysing as it may have a negative effect on your well-being. 45 minutes coding followed by a 15-minute break is a good place to start. I found it important during my breaks to physically move away from the data – a short walk or moving to another room for a different view can be helpful.
  3. Talk to fellow members of your research group about your work – schedule regular meetings
    Feeling isolated when researching sensitive topics is common. If you have immersed yourself in a difficult and challenging topic or have spent a great deal of time interviewing a vulnerable population, you may feel as though others cannot understand your experiences. Make sure that you take the time to talk about your work with other members of your research group and schedule regular meetings with collaborators as you code the data. If you are working alone on a piece of work, ensure that you have included at least one other person when applying for ethical approval. This will ensure that you can comfortably (and ethically!) discuss the content of the analysis with another person, especially if the content is distressing.


In Conclusion

Despite the challenges, qualitative research offers an important alternative to existing approaches in understanding online extremist postings. Many recent papers are dominated by computational and quantitative approaches that, while very useful, do not always contextualise and characterise the meaning and intent behind posts. Instead, much of the analysis focuses on frequency of postings or sustained engagement in a forum over time. Qualitative approaches offer an exciting opportunity to begin identifying the nuanced intent and purpose behind postings and to extend our understanding of intra and inter-group dynamics in extremist forums.

I hope that you find my reflections of interest and if you would like to share your experiences and any further tips you may have – do reach out to CQR (cqr@bath.ac.uk). In addition, please do get in touch if you are interested in writing a short blog on research vulnerabilities.


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