Living Research Two
Emotions and research
in Go home?

This section critically reflects on the role of emotions in fieldwork, particularly when researching ‘sensitive subjects’ that have serious implications for both research participants and the researcher. Using examples from our own research practice, particularly in focus groups, we consider the ethics of research in a broad sense, including the effects on researchers, research partners, and participants of both conducting research, and the choices made in the process of researching.

Living Research Two: Emotions and research

Operation Vaken's posters, newspaper adverts, immigration surgeries and mobile billboards were a dramatic display, designed to reassure some citizens that the government was ‘getting tough’ on irregular immigration. However, the campaign also increased worries and anxiety. The survey carried out for us by Ipsos MORI of a nationally representative sample of 2,424 people (for further details see the Appendix) found that the advertising vans that drove around London in 2013 stating ‘In the UK illegally? Go Home or Face Arrest’ made 15 per cent of the people who were aware of them ‘concerned that irregular/illegal immigration might be more widespread than they had realised’.1 That Vaken may have distorted perceptions and feelings about the problem of irregular immigration was also a point made by Rita Chadha, Chief Executive of the Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (one of our community partners in the research). Chadha was quoted in a local newspaper in August 2013, saying that Vaken ‘incites racial hatred and … inflames community tension. It's just going to scare people to think that immigration is a huge problem when it's not’ (Ilford Recorder, 2013).

The inciting of feelings and emotions is a crucial part of immigration campaigns, yet is challenging to research. How might we identify, track and convey multisensory experiences of fear, anxiety, sadness, shock, anger, shame, disgust? How do such emotions circulate, intensify, linger and change? To what extent do social media – the content of what people post using different platforms – convey these experiences? And what about atmospheres and flows of feeling – how the sight of an immigration raid or the words ‘Go Home’ can elicit panicky feelings, or make some of us feel unsafe? And then there are the feelings of researchers and how these can have an impact on fieldwork, the analysis of data and ethical relationships (see Living Research Four).

Because feelings can be unconscious and are difficult to express in words, the risk is that research can end up flattening out experience. An interview transcript, for example, will have inevitably lost bodily expression and vocal nuance. This is why some researchers work between an audio/visual recording and a transcript. Listening to or watching an interview or research interaction can enrich analysis, helping us to notice extra-linguistic data – when someone is being sarcastic or feels uncomfortable. This type of work is also more time-consuming, so needs to be addressed in the planning stages of a study. Dissemination is another point in research where it is possible to reanimate data with some of its emotions and sensuality. As our project developed, we began to experiment with methods of conveying the emotional and embodied aspects of experiences of immigration control by using film and dramatisations of fieldwork scenes (practices that are discussed in the growing literature on ‘performative social science’, see FQS, 2008).

Although all research is emotional and sensual, immigration is a subject that arouses strong feelings across social and political divides, bringing with it particular methodological and ethical challenges. It is what methodologists sometimes call a ‘sensitive topic’, meaning that it can feel threatening to both research participants and researchers. Among the challenges of researching sensitive topics, Julie Brannen (1988), drawing from the ideas of the sociologist Erving Goffman, has identified the increased risks of sanctions and stigma for those participating in such research. In addition, she suggests:

respondents are likely to find confronting and telling their stories a stressful experience. This is a problem for researchers as well as respondents. The researcher therefore has some responsibility for protecting the respondent. Protection is required both with respect to the confidences disclosed and the emotions which may be aroused and expressed.

(pp. 552–3)

Building relationships with research participants over time, demonstrating knowledge about the politics of an issue and carefully anonymising data are all ways of ‘desensitising’ and ‘dejeopardising’ qualitative research (see Lee, 1993). For example, the policy-makers whom Will interviewed (see Chapter 3) felt uncomfortable when talking about the government's approach to immigration as they are expected to be neutral implementers of policy. One way of reducing the threat of the interviews was not to record them. In quantitative surveys, thought needs to be given to the format of questions, the order in which they are placed and how they are contextualised (see Bhattacharyya, 2015).

But is it unrealistic or even patronising to think that we can shield individuals from the emotionality of a topic such as immigration? And how ethical is it for us to treat difficult emotions and experiences as data? The latter point was an issue that came up in one of our focus groups with asylum seekers and refugees, facilitated by Kirsten. During the focus group, a young woman began to talk about the existential insecurity of being an asylum seeker, of feeling that she was wasting her life. She was unable to plan for a future, unable to study. She felt as if she was waiting in limbo while the Home Office made a decision about her immigration status. Overcome in telling us her story, she broke down in tears.

Kirsten, herself a minoritised and migrant woman, did not record this part of the conversation (another participant in the focus group had asked her to turn off the audio recording). Kirsten's fieldwork notes describe how she and the group rallied around the young woman, trying to reassure and comfort her (the group had been meeting for three months, so people knew each other relatively well). In this case, Kirsten's response went beyond that of the ‘empathic witness’ (Kleinman, 1988) and had practical consequences: audio data were lost from the recording and the time given to comforting the young woman also meant that the focus group was cut short; there was less time for others to speak, resulting in a partial and shorter interview. For Kamala Visweswaran (1994) such redacted accounts are full of vital information. They can force us to feel and hopefully investigate further how historical and insti­tutional contexts can affect the micro-interactions and ethical relationships produced by a project. For Riessman (2005: 473), ‘The investigator's emotions are highly relevant to conversations about ethics because emotions do moral work: they embody judgments about value’.

Although we can never know in advance how emotions might play out in a study, we had anticipated that the focus group interviews could be upsetting for some people and this was where our community partnerships were important. The local organisations that we each worked with set up our interviews and were able to provide initial support to research participants and, if necessary, refer them to other local services for more specialist help. In practice this never happened (as far as we are aware). None the less, we need to think more critically about the ethical and political implications of this outsourcing of emotional support in the aftermath of research, especially when partnership working is increasingly valued by funders. Did we leave trails of damage behind us with consequences for others?

Looking back on the project and thinking about what we might have done differently, it feels as if we should have talked more about how we would respond to the emotions and feelings that are evoked by and which surround immigration campaigns and that become a part of research. We should also have talked to one another about our assumptions and ideas about what emotions and feelings are. The latter point is especially important because it impacts upon the methods that are chosen for a project and how we interpret research data. For instance, if we recognise that research participants and researchers are ‘defended subjects’ (Hollway and Jefferson, 2013), whose own biographies and feelings of anxiety can affect what is said and/or observed, then more complex forms of reporting and interpreting data are needed, which do not valorise what is said as a source of access to a true self (Atkinson, 1997). This might include providing contextual description before using interview extracts to give a sense of where an extract is situated within a wider interaction, social context or biography and why there might be layers of meaning underneath what is superficially meant. It can also include the iterative analysis of interview extracts with fieldwork notes, identifying areas of tension and/or contradiction between and within accounts.

In hindsight it is apparent that as a team we took different approaches to emotions, which had an impact on our observations, interviews and basic recording practices. For instance, some of our fieldnotes are rich in description about localities and research interactions. They are more varied in the attention given to our own feelings and how we might make sense of these within the wider project, as individuals and as providing insight into our varying social differences, research roles, the differential distribution of emotional labour within the research team and how these might all impact on partnership working. As always the work of research and the thinking and feeling that goes with it extends far beyond the funding of a study. Even the publication of this book does not bring it to a close.


Atkinson, P. (1997) ‘Narrative turn or blind alley?’, Qualitative Health Research, 7 (3): 325–44.

Bhattacharyya, G. (2015) ‘Immigration control, racism and public opinion’, Mapping Immigration Controversy blog, 7 January, [accessed 1 March 2016].

Brannen, J. (1988) ‘The study of sensitive subjects’, Sociological Review, 36 (3): 552–63.

FQS (2008) Performative Social Science. Special Issue, 9 (2), [accessed 2 March 2016].

Hollway, W. and Jefferson, T. (2013) Doing Qualitative Research Differently: Free Association, Narrative and the Interview Method, 2nd ed., London: Sage.

Ilford Recorder (2013) ‘“Go home or face arrest” van driving around Redbridge is a “political stunt”’, 2 August, [accessed 1 March 2016].

Kleinman, A. (1988) The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing and the Human Condition, New York: Basic Books.

Lee, R. (1993) Doing Research on Sensitive Topics, London: Sage.

Riessman, C. (2005) ‘Exporting ethics: A narrative about narrative research in South India’, Health, 9 (4): 473–90.

Visweswaran, K. (1994) Fictions of Feminist Ethnography, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

1 92 people of 603 (weighted base 627) who were aware of the Go Home vans.

Go home?

The politics of immigration controversies


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