The other day, a conversation with a friend that started one way ended in an entirely different direction, which is pretty normal, but also left me thinking about how to articulate the emotional life of research within an increasingly quantified world, and where these stories of human-ness fit.
Bear with me…
If you count the start of my PhD as the length of my life as a researcher, I am coming up to my 9th anniversary – my PhD took a while. Apart from making me a million years old, it is almost nine years of working with stories of suicide, self-harm, and bereavement – and missing now – as much as stories of resilience, healing, and meaning-making.
During my PhD, I used to dream about a few of the participants, especially towards the end in the write-up – the ones who stood on the brink of the precipice with very little holding them back, apart from chance and hope. There is one woman who I’m certain is not alive now, who chose death because she didn’t want to live, whose words still hit me in the pit of my stomach when I read them. There is the veteran who I met at a workshop who told his traumatic story in such a straightforward way because he didn’t realise that everyone else didn’t live their lives with the same pain and worry constantly simmering just below the surface. There are the colleagues in remote communities who keep on doing the most amazing work amidst all the challenges and shared grief that come with living in remote communities (in Australia at any rate) that are very easy for people not to see when they live away from there.
Writing of her study on child suicide, the very wonderful Bec Soole wrote that her research meant “there is now a melancholy that I humbly carry within myself”. That hit home, for me and for others. It’s true – every story, whether told in a research context or on a plane or while cutting up fruit before a footy match, stays with you, even in the tiniest way. Even when you think you’ve forgotten. Some stories are heavy, some lighter, but they are all carried. What I’ve heard in the past impacts on how I see people now in terms of risk and vulnerability, how I see myself. It takes a concerted effort sometimes to turn it off, to not see everyone like this. The stories shared, often of people’s darkest moments standing on the precipice, are intimacies, held close, carried as a reminder of why the research is important, and why it needs to be done in a way that is rigorous and ethical (because badly-done research helps no one) but also in a way that is deeply human.
Research – at least for me, in this field I fell into – is more than just however-long-an-interview-lasts with a person asking them questions in whatever form they may take and then ending the conversation and walking away; the person then to become a line in a spreadsheet. Much research is, and has been, done in this way and well-written, heavily-cited papers have been created from the findings of such research. And lots of it really has been good research.
But participants are people. And people are more than their experience that has peaked research interest – they are more than their mental illness, more than their bereavement, more than their death even, because there is (or was) a whole world of life around them.
I am suicide bereaved and this unquestionably impacts who I am as a researcher – just as all experiences shape who we are as people and researchers. When I first started, ideas around research would be framed in my head around ‘Would I let my Ma participate in this?’, ‘Would I let someone ask Ma this question?’ Now, a million years on, this has evolved. There are more people in my mind when I think of how my research ideas would come across, how they would impact upon participants – there are people with lived experience who very kindly read drafts of things for me and tell me how to make it stronger and more appropriate and relevant. However, I am also far more aware of myself in a methodological sense – I’ve formed a kind of reflexive praxis, inspired by Jaworski and Tamas, which grounds every step of a project: what am I asking, what am I seeing, how am I hearing? Am I hearing what the participant is saying or are my experiences seeping through? There are times when being a sister and a friend makes me a very safe space for participants, and this has helped me become (hopefully) a good researcher. Yet, on the opposite end, during analysis, to be a (hopefully) good researcher, I need to be aware of how this could cloud others’ stories and I need to step away from those parts, to constantly reflect on the stories in front of me, shared by others. It can be exhausting – analysis is always exhausting – on intellectual and emotional levels. And it also takes time – sometimes it feels like the longest time – to sit with people’s narratives and work through the themes and the language, and how the different stories speak to each other. To make sure my analysis is constantly grounded into their experiences and my retelling is authentic to all of this. But this way of research, to me at least, honours the bravery it takes to participate in studies and the stories that I will then carry with me. I can’t imagine being a researcher in any other way. OK, that’s not true, I absolutely can, but this way feels honest to who I am and what I want to do. We always talk about making sure our methodologies suit our methods suit our questions – and perhaps who we are as well needs to factor in that same way?
Other researchers in similar fields have spoken of the stories they carry and I guess it’s more natural in a way to experience this when your research means interaction with lived experiences of trauma, as people tell their stories. But do other researchers in other disciplines have a sense of this too? Maybe an equation so close to being solved and yet… Or a finding seemingly familiar and yet just that little bit different to maybe be unique… Do other researchers, when in that position, carry that story too, of being so close to an answer with it just lingering out of reach?
The thing is – maybe I am too sensitive to the stories, maybe they shouldn’t make me cry, maybe I would write millions more papers if it was more distanced from me, if I didn’t need the time. So many maybes – they’re very pretty, like butterflies, but just as short-lived. Because the day that hearing one of these stories doesn’t make me tear up, or reach out for a hand, or just sit quietly with someone afterwards, is the day I walk away from this field and not look back. Because these stories should hurt – they should be felt. They should spark something. And however much we carry afterwards will always be far less than the person who experienced it in the first place. We don’t shed our humanity simply because we take on the mantle of ‘researcher’ – or at least we shouldn’t. And our research doesn’t become any less valid or rigorous simply by virtue of caring for our participants.
There will always be stories that weigh just a little bit, whose ghosts linger just a little bit longer, but these are reminders of what we should honour, and why ethics, rigour, and humanity of our research matters. Writing grants now, enacting myself as a quantified self, I wish a little that I could write in a more grant-like way and not get tongue-tied trying to explain why the emotion behind it makes for better science. I wish a little for graphs that demonstrate it. But I also know the work I’ve done (and the work I am asked to do) exists because of who I am as a person, methodologically-placed and all.