Sensitive research refers to those the discussion of which tends to generate an emotional response, such as traumatic experience or death or sex. To ensure safety, both in the physical and psychological sense, for all participants, from interviewers to interviewees, it is crucial to be responsible.
Physical safety issues may arise for example in studies of domestic violence or child abuse. An appropriate assessment of the source and nature of the threat should be carried out and a clear protocol should be developed around it. Issues to cover include: (i) how to establish contact with the interviewee; (ii) when to interview; and (iii) where to interview. The researcher should develop a plan to best avoid the physical threat both to the interviewer and the interviewee. In addition, researchers are advised to check the environment before the interview and take safety precautions such as to copy the details of interviews to colleagues or the police, and to carry a mobile phone. After the interviews, evaluation of the protocol should be conducted.
Due to the nature of sensitive research, some interviewees may suffer secondary damage during the process of disclosing their personal experience. On the other hand, the interviewers as listeners may encounter psychological problems such as developing attachments to the interviewees, feelings of guilt and exhaustion. Psychological safety is also a live issue of research responsibility.
To deal with the interviewee side, it is important that the researchers build rapport with the interviewees who are usually vulnerable. They should definitely not appear privileged to the interviewees but should show empathy. This could be done by some degree of self-disclosure, and to give time to the interviewees to express significant emotion if they want. The interview should be terminated if the interviewee shows excessive distress.
On the researcher side, in addition to informal peer support from colleagues or trusted friends, prior skill development and counseling afterwards could help to alleviate the psychological impact on researchers. Wise design of the research process is also an important tool to minimize the psychological harm. For example, in a study of women and abuse, the researchers adopted measures such as limiting the interviews to one per week and conducting all interviews in the morning to cope with psychological distress.
Dickson-Swift, V., James, E. L., Kippen, S., & Liamputtong, P. (2007). Doing sensitive research: what challenges do qualitative researchers face?. Qualitative research, 7(3), 327-353.
McCosker, H., Barnard, A., & Gerber, R. (2001, February). Undertaking sensitive research: Issues and strategies for meeting the safety needs of all participants. In Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research (Vol. 2, No. 1).