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Too big to mention: vulnerability in academia

Language, Discourse and Communication PGR Blog
Pippa Sterk

PhD Candidate, School of Education, Communication & Society, King's College London

06 April 2022

As social science researchers, our work often emerges from a societal problem we have identified in the world around us. Although there are, of course, variations in degrees to which work is applicable to everyday life, researchers in the social sciences can’t escape the dreaded ‘now what?’ that comes with a field that is so caught up with the world around us.

We have to be able to explain what societal good our research will do, and this often starts with an investigation into a social injustice – even if we do not necessarily have the opportunities or expertise to fix these injustices. In fact, not-yet-knowing how to fix these injustices (or not being in a position to do so) might be what drives our research: through it, we can find out who can fix things, on what scale, and how.

What is often most fascinating about these projects tends to be our personal, immediate experience with the subject. This may be the ‘hook’ that provides funding, or the introduction to a particularly good paper, the clarification for why we need to do a particular study, rather than someone else. Our personal touch can uncover as well as create the ‘leak’ where theory oozes into practice (Stewart, 2007; Boon, 2018).

My own research deals with issues of LGBT+ mental ill health and community building within universities. This is a topic which is close to my heart as someone who spent years organising within LGBT+ student societies. Seeing the toll that poor access to mental health services, unaccepting family homes, and everyday hostilities within the university played on my friends and colleagues, and how vulnerable it left them (and myself), is what brought me to my research topic. It is this vulnerability that shows the urgency of my research, but the attempt to balance urgency and vulnerability also reveals deep-seated issues within academia as it currently operates.

Firstly, there is the obvious problem with having to use one’s vulnerability as a ‘hook’ for funding, publishing, or speaking opportunities. The fact that we are made to compete for these (often unpaid or low-paid) opportunities in the first place is evidence of an academic structure that fosters individualism rather than cooperation. More importantly,

the need to transform the self into valuable data, an asset to the investigation, can feel profoundly dehumanising and fragmentary, especially at moments when we have to see ourselves in both the first and the third person – as I am struggling to do in this piece.– Pippa Sterk, PhD Candidate

Furthermore, exposing yourself as having an emotional, personal, traumatic, or otherwise vulnerable connection to your research can in turn leave you more vulnerable. As much as there are pockets within academia that are aimed at creating spaces to be radically vulnerable, the reality of this sector is that the university is a workplace. In a capitalist world which favours robustness, we might end up with our vulnerability evaluated as a weakness within this workplace.

There may also be an extent to which you don’t want to broadcast your vulnerability for more practical, rather than emotional reasons too – your research participants or (for those of us who teach alongside our research) your students may find out about this personal aspect of your research, which will influence how you relate to them – and them to you. While I firmly believe that showing and being shown care can only ever be a good thing, we also need to ensure that research participants and students do not feel responsible for taking on our vulnerabilities.

On the other hand, sometimes that which makes us vulnerable is too big not to talk about. Sometimes we encounter events, stories, and traumas in our lives and/or in our fieldwork, that seem to eclipse any other aspect of our research. It might feel obscene not to mention it. In some cases, it might also feel obscene to mention it because at some point you’ll have to stop mentioning it, and you’ll have to make a decision about how many words are enough to sum up an experience of injustice. Taking again my own research as an example, how do I even begin to tell the stories (my own and others’) of homophobic, biphobic or transphobic harm? How many paragraphs are sufficient to explain the fear of walking down the street with your partner? How many pages can we devote to parental rejection before we can move on to our methodology? Once we start talking, how can we ever be expected to find a good place to stop?

Indeed, the stories we encounter might cause a crisis of conscience about the whole research project altogether, it certainly has for me. Researching my communities feels bourgeois when there is so much work to be done to guarantee LGBT+ people’s basic wellbeing and safety, even if my research aims to identify what that work needs to be, and how we can best do it. Would it not be more worthwhile if I took these three years of funding and spent them caring for my community? I could spend whole days cooking meals or fostering my interpersonal connections to my communities. By the end I wouldn’t have a PhD, no longer-term solutions to anything, and the funding body might be royally pissed off, but it would provide three years of funding to take care of those around me.

Which leaves me again with the question ‘now what?’. How can we allow our personal voice to “lead the reader [...] into the enormous sea of serious social issues” (Behar, 1996) without drowning in the feeling? How do we foster vulnerability within academic spaces, while also taking care of our own and other people’s boundaries?

My inconsistencies regarding pronouns of address in this piece was unintended. As I was writing, I ended up using whatever pronouns felt appropriate for the sentence, veering between ‘my’ research and ‘our’ teaching responsibilities, between ‘your’ writing decisions and ‘their’ vulnerabilities. I could edit it out, but I don’t want to – the struggle to write from a variety of viewpoints and to a variety of audiences, both of which I have inconsistent membership of, is exactly an illustration of how difficult it is to balance one’s writing with the expectations of how this writing is to be perceived.

Who do we write for, and how? An age-old question, and if there was a simple answer we would have probably found it by now. Perhaps there is also valuable vulnerability in acknowledging we don’t and can’t always get it right. Research is a constant grappling; if we stop being vulnerable, if we stop paying attention to the parts of our process that could be improved, we’re probably doing it wrong.


Behar, R. (1996) The Vulnerable Observer - Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. Boston: Beacon Press.

Boon, S. (2018) ‘Water: Flooding Memory’, in Boon, S., Butler, L., and Jefferies, D. (eds) Autoethnography and Feminist Theory at the Water’s Edge: Unsettled Islands. Springer International Publishing AG, pp. 59–63.

Stewart, K. (2007) Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke University Press.

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Pippa Sterk

Pippa Sterk

PhD candidate

Language, Discourse and Communication PGR Blog

The LDC PGRs Blog is an initiative from PGR students in the Centre for Language, Discourse and Communication, to share reflective accounts of experiences as PGR students and early career…

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