What is ‘sensitive’ about sensitive research? The sensitive researchers’ perspective

Mallon, Sharon and Elliott, Iris (2021). What is ‘sensitive’ about sensitive research? The sensitive researchers’ perspective. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 24(5) pp. 523–535.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13645579.2020.1857966


There is growing consensus in the literature about the emotional consequences for researchers involved in sensitive research. There is also concern about the support provided to these researchers. Such concerns are amplified by a lack of discussion on what exactly researchers themselves consider is ‘sensitive’ about their involvement in this type of research. This paper draws on data from a roundtable with 12 researchers working across a range of ‘sensitive’ research areas. It presents an examination of their views on these issues presented in themes that emerged from our analysis of these data. These themes are interconnected with examples from the literature that contextualises and add to our methodological understanding of the issue of sensitivity. Our analysis suggested these researchers’ sensitivities were closely linked to the context of the research. In addition, they described how issues of identity, as well as political motivations, meant there was a strong personal and professional investment in the research. We conclude by reflecting on these sensitivities, arguing that although they are supported by current definitions of sensitivity, they are more nuanced than broader discussions of sensitivity allow.

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