Researching Trauma in the Arts and Humanities

This event was generously supported by the Cohort Development Funding from the Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities. This event involved training from Wendy Brotchie and her colleague, from Forth Valley Rape Crisis about the nature of working with difficult issues in everyday work contexts and the potential effects that this can have on the researcher and how we might mitigate them.

The event also included a panel on the issue of researching ‘trauma’ in Arts and Humanities with Professor Karen Boyle (University of Strathclyde), Dr Erin Jessee (University of Glasgow) and Dr Churnjeet Mahn (University of Strathclyde) who shared valuable insights from their own research and experience. There are a number of significant pieces of learning from across the training day.

1. Beware of fetishising trauma

One of the key things that emerged from the day was the importance of how we talk about ‘trauma’ and vitally, that we do not fetishise trauma. Professor Karen Boyle and Dr Erin Jessee warned of this and the danger of using the word ‘trauma’ to describe the emotional impact of research as it can undermine the reality of lived experiences of trauma and fails to acknowledge the power resilience and agency. Trauma is rarely the sum of a person.

Dr Churnjeet Mahn also cautioned against (re)performing trauma in the research process. It is helpful to consider how we frame this type of research and public interest in it, but also how to critically engage with potential issues that arise unexpectedly as a result. She asserted that there is no easy way to do this, therefore, researchers must constantly engage in critical reflection and reflect on the power differentials between the researcher and research participants, and how that material is used. Being mindful of this, I’ll talk about the emotional impact of research rather than ‘vicarious trauma’.

Furthermore, the use of trigger warnings can be reductive as it is difficult to anticipate the wide and diverse range of material that could be triggering to survivors.

Literature on Trigger Warnings mentioned by Professor Karen Boyle:

Halberstam, J. (2017) Trigger Happy: From Content Warning to Censorship, Signs, Winter 2017

Cameron, D. (2014) Minding Our Language, Trouble and Strife

Stonebridge, E. (2014) We need to talk about Process.

2. You are not alone

The idea that we can work with difficult subjects on a daily basis and not be affected by it in some way is perhaps unrealistic. Particularly because in Arts and Humanities we understand that researchers are rarely pure, disinterested scientists, but sometimes forget to let go of the assumption that good researchers ‘don’t get emotionally involved with research subjects.’ Elizabeth Stanko argued (1997) that our own emotional responses can be a resource for our research through reflexivity, suggesting that:

“Recognising the emotional effect of our work on sexual violence on us is important regardless of the many personal histories we bring to its study” (emphasis in original)

The value of peer support and discussing the variety, and sometimes contradictory, emotions we can feel as part of the process of conducting research were also highlighted. The importance of finding sympathetic researchers in similar areas, who are dealing with similar challenges was a powerful takeaway from the day. The possibility of setting up a network going forward was discussed and is currently in the works, so please watch this space.

3. Self-care

Recognising that our work has the potential to have an emotional impact on our personal life or work is the first step to taking action. Self-care should be viewed as an active and continuing practice where we acknowledge the possible impact and try to take some practical steps to prevent feelings of burn-out or compassion fatigue among a number of others.

It is important to check in with yourself regularly, take breaks, and seek extra support if you feel you need it. In order to better identify your needs we created two action plans, one for emergencies and one for building general resilience. The idea is to tailor them to meet your own emotional, physical and social needs but I’ve provided examples of both as possibly helpful tools.

Emergency Action Plan

What do I like to do when I feel good?What will help me relax?
What helps me get through the day?

What can I tell myself when I’m having a hard time?
Are there patterns of thought I fall into when I’m struggling?
For example;

Eating chocolate (maybe not a whole packet of biscuits on the daily but defo can binge to get through)
Petting my cat

I get to write a PhD/article/blog etc, rather than I have to write a PhD/article/blog etc

Though I have plenty of repetitive thought patterns, it is important to disrupt your thinking and actively challenge it

I can be withdrawn


Which people, activities, media or habits are helpful to avoid if I’m struggling?


Which people or organisations can I speak to when I need support?

Social media

Anyone and anything misogynistic

Family, friends, partner etc


Resilience action plan

Here is an example of some of the things that were discussed in the workshop and what an action plan for resilience might look like:


4. Setting boundaries

Another important method of mitigating the effects of research is setting boundaries between work and home life. This can be particularly difficult as a PhD student, but this separation can be particularly helpful in combating the emotional impact of our research.

In order to create a greater distinction a number of suggestions were made such as creating a timesheet to monitor the time you are working; or perhaps colour coding your diary with separate colours for work and personal events, which would provide a visual representation of the way you are spending your time.

5. Some additional references

I am also including some literature that I have found useful when writing about the emotional impact of research my own PhD which involves researching men’s violence against women that you may find helpful:

Kelly, L. (1988) Surviving Sexual Violence, London: Polity Press

Code, L. (1993) ‘Taking Subjectivity into Account’, in L. Alcoff & E. Potter (eds) Feminist Epistemologies, London: Routledge

Small, W. (1997) “Keeping Emotion Out of It”: The Problem and Promise of the Investigator’s Feelings in Social Research’, Australian Journal of Social Research, 4/1: 97-118

Stanko, E. (2000) “I Second That Emotion”: Reflections on Feminism, Emotionality, and Research on Sexual Violence”, in D. Schwartz (ed.) Researching Sexual Violence Against Women: Methodological and Personal Perspectives, London: Sage

Finally, I would just like to thank SGSAH for supporting the event and a huge thank you to Mairi Hamilton, Clare McKeown and Maja Andreasen for all their hard work in bringing it together.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Brittnee via email at or connect with the blog on Twitter

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