Unpacking sensitive research: a stimulating exploration of an established concept

Mallon, Sharon; Borgstrom, Erica and Murphy, Sam (2021). Unpacking sensitive research: a stimulating exploration of an established concept. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 24(5) pp. 517–521.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13645579.2020.1857965


We are living in turbulent times. The hashtag #MeToo went viral in 2017; the death of George Floyd propelled the Black Lives Matter movement back into international headlines; and the emergence of COVID-19 has brought to the fore issues around illness, death, dying and bereavement, it seems that emotions and sensitivities are running high for many people, if not for everyone.

In 2018, when we conceived this special issue, we noted in our proposal that since the term ‘sensitive research’ first emerged, there has been a growing acceptance that many research topics are ‘sensitive’ in nature (De Laine, 2000; Lee, 1993; Lee & Renzetti, 1990). Writing this, in late 2020, it now feels as if all topics are ‘sensitive’ in ways we have only begun to consider, and the emergence and ongoing debate about ‘cancel culture’ has added a new and highly controversial element to these sensitivities. It seems therefore that this special issue is more important than ever, given our overarching objective was to critique and challenge some of the presuppositions that have emerged around ‘sensitive’ topics of research.

This special issue emerges from a perspective that proposes that affording the moniker of ‘sensitive’ to a research project has wide-reaching epistemological implications and dictates the basic methodological parameters under which much ‘sensitive’ social science research is undertaken. Indeed, at the core of this special issue is the theoretical argument that the assumed nature of the term ‘sensitive research’, including how it is normatively and routinely applied to a range of topics, uncritically reproduces ways of categorising the social world and sets of relationships. From ethics committees presuming what harms research may present and who needs protecting, to implicit practices in academia that promote research that is deemed less socially or politically ‘risky’. Yet, attempting to contain sensitive research in this way fails to adequately account for the experiences and complex mix of emotions at the heart of many research encounters and across research careers. We acknowledge that the recent turn towards emotional aspects of such research is helpful. However, we also feel it is about much more than ‘just’ emotions. It is our suggestion that broader experiences, including the reactions of others to our research, and complex emotions that fundamentally affect how researchers make knowledge claims about all sorts of divergent issues.

Consequently, the articles which follow have emerged from a collective endeavour to reflect upon a range of research practices around ‘sensitive research’ and to provide in-depth explorations about what this label means to different researchers; how the research is undertaken, including the need to be ‘sensitive’ as a researcher; the sensitivities engendered and required by the research; and thus the impacts this all has on methodologies and knowledge creation. As such, we do not seek to offer a unifying definition of what sensitive research is or how to best undertake it. Indeed, the overall aim has been to enable researchers from all sectors to critically engage with what it means to do ‘sensitive research’ in the twenty-first century and to reflect on their own research practices. As such the inclusion of articles which are drawn from a range of disciplinary backgrounds from researchers who have explored a diverse range of research topics, has been entirely purposeful.

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