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Bringing the personal (back) in: Why emotions are vital to research

After six months of conducting research in South Africa, I look back at my experiences and ask what happens if we, as researchers, listen to our emotions. Here I reflect on two emotional moments, and consider what they reveal about my role and responsibility as a researcher.

And so it begins. I land in Johannesburg in twenty minutes time, and I am terrified. I have no idea what I’m doing, except stepping into an abyss. Underqualified and underprepared. What right do have to be here; to do this research?” (Personal journal, 1 February 2019)

The very first entry in my journal is both surprising and unsurprising. It’s surprising given that I had spent the previous 16 months reading and fine-tuning the methodology for my doctoral research on trauma and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, undergoing a rigorous ethics process and internal exam to prepare for what was ahead.

On paper I had a clear and well-defined research methodology, developed from studying various methodological texts, including scholarship on ethics, reflexivity and ethnography, and sensitive research in conflict-affected settings.

I planned to undertake qualitative research with an interpretivist lens, forming relationships with local gatekeepers in order to carry out semi-structured interviews and focus groups with local residents. This would then be supplemented with archival and institutional research that would provide me with sufficient data to answer my research question. In short, I had a plan.

But as any researcher knows all too well, my first journal entry was very unsurprising.

At first, I thought that my ability to undertake research in South Africa relied on preparation and skill. Quickly, however, it became clear that such a methodology relied far more on me as a feeling individual than the literature had prepared me for.– Hannah Goozee

It not only took time for me to feel comfortable in my surroundings, it also took endless courage to make cold-call after cold-call, reaching out to potential gatekeepers and organising interviews. Often, I did not have that courage.

It was during this early contradiction between my careful methodological plan and the feelings I was experiencing that I became aware of the central role that emotions play in research.

Whilst there is now a variety of literature on emotion in International Relations (IR) - from anthropological-inspired accounts to theoretical readings of emotion and international politics - I was not sure what to do with mine.

In her feminist analysis, Megan MacKenzie reflects on the fact that whilst the growing research on emotion in IR considers the appropriate methods with which to study emotion, “the question avoided by this concern relates to the epistemological bias within IR, which values rational, objective research and assumes that ‘distance’ between the researcher and the research subject is essential”.

With the benefit of hindsight, I believe that in South Africa, my emotions were an insight into this distance. Anxiety, fear, and discomfort demonstrated that despite my intellectual and personal commitments, this epistemological bias remains an insidious force within the academy and within me.

Today feels like a turning point, and it terrifies me. All I want to do is lay in the dark. A strange silence has settled, in the house or in me. I’m not sure which.” (Personal journal, 21 February 2019)

Thinking back to my time in South Africa, I still experience a surge of anxiety; a tide turns in my stomach. My journals, four in total, confirm that much of my time there was marked by anxiety.

The first month I spent in Johannesburg consisted largely of futile attempts to track down archival materials and make contact with gatekeeper organisations. Finally, after repeated calls and emails, on 21 February 2019, I made contact, and a meeting was set. I record in my journal:

And then she calls, we will meet next week and a weight has been lifted. But I am pacing, I’m nearly crying – after setting one meeting. Maybe I’m not made for this.” (Personal journal, 21 February 2019)

Fear and anxiety scream out from the lined page. What is telling from this extract is that I automatically interpreted the emotions I felt as a personal fault.

Whilst recent scholarship has documented the central role that fear and anxiety play in fieldwork, at the time I believed that my emotional response to a seemingly simple task meant that I was fundamentally incompatible with research.

I had internalised the division between emotion and reason that feminist researchers have long identified; a strategy keeping women and the feminine out of political spheres. In doing so, I overlooked what my anxiety was saying - precisely what MacKenzie identified - the epistemological bias and expectation within IR to produce of rational, detached, and masculinised research.

Intellectually I was committed to reflexive, embodied research, but in practice how I responded to my emotions in South Africa exposed the insidious nature of this epistemology.

So, what did I do with this fear and anxiety? In short, I ignored it.

When it came to undertaking interviews, I disconnected from my emotions, seeking to carry out my tasks guided by the professional ethics and rigor that I had internalised - carefully referring to my information sheet and consent form. The epistemological framework had succeeded in dividing my personal, my body, and the political which I was studying.

Reflecting now, it appears that I was also committed to my research plan at the expense of my emotions because I knew that this data was my original contribution. That gathering this personal information from gatekeepers and local citizens would give me the advantage when it came to publication, experience, and ultimately to my career. As Kušić and Záhora note, “the imperative to turn our fieldwork into ‘successful’ publications again points to systemic issues of the academic industrial complex”.

Even in my sensitive, ethical, and reflexive research agenda, the masculine-neoliberal academy prevailed. Ignoring my emotions meant that I did not see this, and that I missed the warning signs.

The pressure and economy of the neoliberal academy meant that I pursued a research agenda despite knowing, had I stopped to listen to my emotions, that I risked carrying out research that would lead to abandonment, betrayal and exploitation. Indeed, that I would perpetuate the colonial extraction of knowledge - and once back in the UK, be unable to fully engage with the people that I had benefitted from.

My emotions were signposts of what I was overlooking in order to meet the expectations of a neoliberal academy - questions of ethics, community, and care. With hindsight, fear and discomfort revealed to me that:

no matter how welcome, even enjoyable the fieldworker’s presence may appear to ‘natives’, fieldwork represents an intrusion and intervention into a system of relationships, a system of relationships that the researcher is far freer than the researched to leave. The inequality and potential treacherousness of this relationship seems inescapable”.

My experience in South Africa revealed the hugely emotional task of fostering an ethical and responsible research relationship, beyond intrusion and exploitation. Ignoring my fear and discomfort, seeking to evade and restrict them, I failed to do so.

This was a failure; but not a failure to run from. Rather, as Laura Sjoberg has taught us, it is an opportunity to re-evaluate systems and values. Why I failed to engage with my emotions raises important questions regarding the normative expectations, boundaries, and limitations of our discipline; questions that we all must continue to explore.

Hannah Goozee is a PhD Candidate in the Department of War Studies, researching the role of trauma in conflict and peace.

For a full list of references please see the Research Centre in International Relations Forum

This piece is part of a blog series accompanying the School of Security Studies online research conference on Global Shocks.


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