emotional research – not ready to make nice

A couple of things happened this last week that made me think about the question of emotions and research, or perhaps I should say emotional research. By this I mean research on something that the researcher feels emotional about.

The first thought I had on the matter of emotional research was while I was preparing a lecture. It’s an annual lecture about social justice in education, and my version focuses largely on poverty and inequality. It’s not something I’m researching about at the moment, but I do have stuff to call on. (For a long time I worked in communities and schools with high proportions of people doing it pretty tough and I’ve periodically done research on the topic. In fact, my PhD was about poverty and education policy and it finally ended up as a book, Schooling the rust belt kids). As I was sorting out the lecture and going over the current statistics I experienced the same levels of anger that I had felt when I was working in the field. I began to think that maybe I had one more bit of research that I needed to do.

My second thought was provoked by a tutorial with a doctoral researcher who is working on school food. I won’t give away her actual research; it’s enough to say here that she has dynamite data on the realities of the situation. Our tutorial coincided with the release of a report about school dinners and a government decision to test whether extending school meal provision would make any difference to the growing food poverty in England. Her research really will have something important to say to the current debate and its media coverage. And when I saw what she had by way of results it really added to my general sense of outrage about current UK ‘austerity’ politics.

So what do you do as a researcher when you feel this kind of strong emotion? Is it impossible to do research in the field because you have a position? Do you (I) need to calm down and get dispassionate in order to do proper research?

Ruth Behar addresses the question of researcher emotions in her book The vulnerable observer, and this is still one of the best books about the mythology of detached research. Behar argues that when working on questions of social justice it’s impossible to be distanced and uninvolved, and what’s more it’s immoral. I’d be interested to hear views on this, but I agree with Behar. I think that the kind of anger I currently feel is highly motivating. I’d been ready to give up doing any more research about questions of poverty until this last week, and now I’ve changed my mind.

Being angry doesn’t mean that I’m going to set up a research project which is highly biased. In fact it’s the reverse. I’m going to do my utmost to make sure that any research I do related to poverty and inequality is unable to be challenged on the grounds of lack of rigour. I want to have very solid ground to speak from.

However, the way in which I speak and write about any research results – like previous research I’ve done on poverty and young people who suffer from the way that educational and judicial systems work – will benefit from some emotion on my part. I won’t be writing dead prose. I won’t be presenting a dry and dull set of statistics. That has its place, but it’s not what I want to do.

I’d rather own my outrage and put it to work to find the best and most generally accessible way to present what I have to say. This may mean turning to journalism, to fiction, to film, to photo-essay if it’s appropriate. As long as the research is demonstrably defensible, then my emotions, in this case anger, might well help me to make my research more engaging and, I hope, powerful and influential.

(For more on this topic start with Morwenna Griffiths 1998 Educational research for social justice. Getting off the fence. Open University Press. It’s not just about education.)

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in emotional research, Morwenna Griffiths, research, Ruth Behar, social justice and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to emotional research – not ready to make nice

  1. manuelinor says:

    Great post, thank you! I utterly agree that being emotionally-involved in your topic is motivating, inspiring and even downright essential. In fact, it’s the number one reason I haven’t quit my phd yet! 🙂
    I also think that research actually benefits from the researcher being emotionally involved. Like you say, they will do their utmost to design a project that can’t be challenged. I also think they are more likely to probe deeper, ask more questions and do more follow-up research, compared to a researcher who is apathetic about the topic they’re given to work on.


  2. This post resonates with me too. The deeper I get into my thesis, the angrier I get (I’m researching early intervention orientation and mobility work with children who are blind). It has definitely kept me motivated and determined to finish because I want to get my research out there. I can’t think of anything worse than trying to complete a PhD on a topic you weren’t that interested in!


  3. M-H says:

    I love Ruth Behar’s book. It taught me a lot about how important emotional involvement is in research, but more importantly it made me think about how to weave my emotions into writing so that they don’t overwhelm the reader, but still have impact. I don’t want my readers to feel manipulated, but I do want them to be moved. It’s a tricky line to walk.


  4. Tseen Khoo says:

    Thanks for this post, Pat. It resonated with me significantly because my area of research has always been about ‘things I get angry about’ – social exclusion (racism/discrimination), stereotyping and racialisation, historical elision.

    Your point about wanting to do ever more rigorous research to have that strong position from which to speak is so valuable. Working in the area of mulitculturalism, I’ve found a lot of papers being ‘pro’ or ‘con’, but few projects that seem to give a full picture.


  5. Dale Reardon says:


    I am doing a PhD on disability anti-discrimination laws in the field of employment and am blind myself so have a very strong personal interest in the topic which I think makes the research better.

    I think an emotional involvement is well supported in the fields of participatory and emancipatory research in the field of disability.



  6. Jee Ching PANG says:

    Thanks for the post which I resonate fairly well. Coming from the field of working with young people with learning differences and their families has incurred much emotions from me too. That’s the reason I am embarking into my PhD research, with the hope to minimise the gap between academic and the community, to have a solid ground to speak from (agree with you) where I believe research done should be applicable, and influential for making positive change in the lives of the community.


  7. Kate Thomas says:

    Thanks for the post and the Ruth Behar reference – I’ll seek that out. My reflections on emotion, motivation and their application at this early stage of my doctoral writing are at http://bit.ly/1329ccN


  8. Pingback: My viewpoint on emotions in scholarly research – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD

  9. Pingback: Emotional research – not ready to make ni...

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