Beyond Fieldwork: emotions, facial ‘disfigurement’ and a PhD #Fieldnotes

What does it feel like to do fieldwork? How does one encounter experiences of suffering, trauma – even death – while maintaining the desired degree of objective detachment? Or is this even our shared ideal any more?

Today we are very pleased to open our summer Fieldnotes series with a personal account by Anne-Marie Martindale on the emotional side of ethnography. This post addresses a crucial element of our shared professional endeavour, yet one far too seldom discussed. Simultaneously it sets the mood for the series of Fieldnotes that we received via our Call a few weeks back. We feel very honoured for the privilege to share them during the forthcoming months, and to thus showcase the most exciting methodological aspect of our beloved discipline. (Allegra’s Editors)


Beyond fieldwork: emotional work, facial ‘disfigurement’ and the PhD journey 

My friend had my three children after school and I went for this appointment. And I can remember standing at the bus stop and she told me to phone her and she would come over… and I can remember standing at the bus stop and… not wanting to phone her. I was going to get a bus home, I was going to be totally independent. I can do this! And it was dark and it was cold and I thought well all I have got is erm… actually they didn’t tell me it was cancer then, he just said that there was something sinister so, I thought I am just going to get on with this and get it sorted…’  (Sylvia).

When I set out to explore the relationship between acquired facial ‘disfigurement‘ and identity shift for my PhD I was very naive. Though already an experienced researcher I was unprepared for what my participants (like Sylvia) would disclose when I asked them about their lives and faces. I was also unprepared for the amount of emotional work that they and I would have to engage in. In the following paper I use my experiences and my interview with Sylvia to explore the relationship between qualitative research, researchers, participants and emotional work.

The concept of emotional work was developed by Hochschild (2003) who argued that all work involved not just physical or intellectual labour, but also emotional labour. In a research situation this might involve maintaining an outwardly calm countenance in light of distressing participant revelations during an interview.

However, few published academic accounts include the emotional work that the researcher has gone through during the research process (Lee-Treweek, 2000; Sampson, Bloor and Fincham, 2008).

In order to be useful to other researchers, emotional accounts need to be discussed as data and in relation to the generally unspoken emotion rules of the setting under investigation’ (Lee-Treweek, 2000, p. 114).

The issue of emotional work in its ethical dimension is worthy of exploration. However, I am not entirely sure I agree with Lee-Treweek’s (2000) positioning of this work as data. I see emotional work as a normative aspect of human existence, and as both a tool and an outcome of the research process. To count emotional accounts as data without qualification potentially diminishes the years of professional skills, training and research experience the anthropologist amasses and applies in the pursuit of situated and complex cultural understanding. Though I do agree with Lee-Treweek (2000) that doing emotional work is an aspect of the research process and that it can enhance the production of thick description (Geertz, 1973).

The Healing Touch by Michele Angelo Petrone (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Healing Touch by Michele Angelo Petrone (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Towards the start of the journey I thought I knew what to expect. As I was already working in an academic environment and I thought I could learn vicariously from fellow PhD students. Though their insight was incredibly helpful it soon became clear that emotional work was something that I had to experience for myself. When thinking what this might entail or when it might occur, one might be tempted to select the fieldwork phase with its new people, places, complexities and negotiations. However, I have learned that emotional work is an ongoing, evolving aspect of the whole research process.

Long before I sat down to listen to my participants facial ‘disfigurement’ narratives I had to build and maintain relationships with my supervisors, try not to get too stressed about navigating academic bureaucracies, and negotiate (sometimes unsuccessfully) with key gatekeeper organisations and individuals. After a while I realised that the challenge of the PhD wasn’t just getting it done, it was getting it done whilst fitting in the rest of your life and making all of that work. In my case this meant remaining employed, getting married, moving house, maintaining relationships, keeping my vegetable allotment going and dealing with the loss of older, much loved family members.

The more I read about embodiment (Grosz, 1994) and biographical disruption (Bury, 1982) during the pre-fieldwork stage, the more disembodied and disrupted I felt. Anthropologists may advocate viewing people as embodied individuals, but academia perpetuates a culture of Cartesian separation, prioritising the development of mental capital and its outputs at the expense of the body.

I spent significant amounts of time sitting, reading, thinking, writing, editing, drinking coffee and eating chocolate to remain alert and productive. This took away time and energy from things I usually did such as sport, consequently I put on weight, slept badly and felt at odds with the inert, larger body-self I became.

The fieldwork and analysis phases saw a return to feelings of mind body connectedness through hearing participant’s bodily focused stories. Like William Foote Whyte (1993) I learned about embodied experiences, identifications and disruptions that I would never have asked about. These disclosures were a testament to the openness of a narrative methodology, where the participant is free to disclose what they feel is relevant.

However, I under-anticipated the degree of emotional work for both researcher and participant. As Williamson (cited in Hallowell Lawton and Gregory, 2005, p. 16) notes there are no ‘safe’ questions and no ‘safe’ participants. During the interviews I was told about thoughts of self-harm, feelings of inner ugliness, an episode of domestic violence, job loss and divorce. This was in addition to episodes of bodily, emotional and social suffering caused by the event of the facial ‘disfigurement’ and its disruptions to lives, relationships and perceived futures.

Mirror Mirror by Anath BS (CC BY 2.0)

Mirror Mirror by Anath BS (CC BY 2.0)

I went home and I went to the mirror in the bathroom… and I had to take out this obturator, because I had lost my teeth. The obturator is an artificial part for the palate and enables you to speak, and I had to go and clean this thing and I just was in total despair thinking how can I live the rest of my life with this? This is unimaginable, I just can’t do this. And then I heard the children coming up…the door was never locked, but I locked the door. From then on I started locking the door and I was aware that that image that I saw of myself wasn’t one that I was familiar with…’ (Sylvia).

I maintained an interested, calm demeanour at all times, though there were moments when I became distinctly aware of my own embodiment. I felt hot and sick when a couple of participants relayed their stories of becoming ‘disfigured’ through unanticipated car accidents. And I felt deeply upset when one participant told me he had previously contemplated suicide as he was unable to control his facial appearance, in the process illustrating that severity of ‘disfigurement’ did not necessarily relate to the extent of identity disruption and transition.

I will never ever, as long as I live come to terms with this, what I will do is learn to accept who I am now. And that was the challenge, to actually reach that stage’  (Sylvia).

An event occurred during the interviewing and analysis phase of the research which added an additional layer to my emotional work and my reconnection of mind and body. A much-loved Uncle died after a two-year battle with throat cancer. I chose not to tell the participants about this episode. Disclosure to the participants with a cancer diagnosis may have led to greater rapport and richer data. However I did not feel confident that I could control my own emotions. And, I may have changed the trajectory of the participant’s narrative. I was there to hear their life stories, not mine. In addition, some participants were in remission, one with advanced (stage four) cancer. It would have been deeply insensitive to remind them of their mortality and that was not my role. However, it revealed some research tensions and formal training gaps.

Portrait of a man by Gert Germeraad (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Portrait of a man by Gert Germeraad (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Lee-Treweek (2000, p. 115) notes that great emphasis has been placed on safeguarding and supporting research participants. However, efforts to protect researchers have not been pursued with the same vigour. And until recently writings on researcher danger have largely focused on physical threats experienced during the fieldwork stage (Lee-Treweek, 2000, p. 115).

The advent of feminist research and reflexive discussions about the production of knowledge (Letherby, 2003) have by their nature opened up the topic of researcher risk and with it considerations of emotional investment and expenditure throughout the whole research process. Unfortunately the findings from this work have not yet permeated into all higher education researcher support mechanisms. To protect, or support my participants I asked for a period of two years to lapse between the ‘disfiguring’ event and the proposed interview.

‘… I can remember reading your notes here it said, oh whereabouts is it erm… oh yes adults with an acquired facial difference which occurred at least 2 years ago, who will not be unduly upset by discussing their experiences. Whenever I give my presentations and lectures I always go back to those feelings and I never ever go through them without getting upset. It’s, it’s not upset it’s, it is reliving it’s opening that box, and taking out those feelings and sharing them because they are still there. They are part of who we are and our identity but they make us richer people for it’ (Sylvia).

I pointed out that if potential participants were in any way unsure about their mental health they were to seek medical advice before agreeing to take part. I developed information sheets with generic and specific facial ‘disfigurement’ support groups, explained in written documents and verbally that participation was voluntary and that participants were free to leave at any point. Prior to the fieldwork period I undertook a one day training course to become more sensitive to people living with a ‘disfigurement’.

Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with these participant safeguards, at no point did the university ethics forms require the same effort be paid to the emotional well-being of the researcher during the fieldwork process or beyond.

When I undertook the analysis phase, which involved several months intensive listening, reading and thinking I experienced the most challenging emotional work of the project. Not only were many episodes and emotional states upsetting to hear again, I completed the analysis in isolation, partly to maintain confidentiality and anonymity and partly because I needed to work on my own to concentrate. I am inclined to agree with Exely (cited in Hallowell, Lawton and Gregory, 2005, p. 17), that ‘the research world can be a very lonely place’. My family, friends and supervisors all provided very satisfactory emotional support throughout. Though, I didn’t always tell them how I was feeling, perceiving my emotional work as another aspect of analysis.

Run along the Edges by Hartwig HKD (Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

Run along the Edges by Hartwig HKD (Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

Through undertaking emotional work during the PhD a few things have become clearer. I have learned that being quiet and listening can yield rich rewards. In addition that identity disruption, reformation and facial ‘disfigurement’ is a complex, transitional and potentially lengthy phenomenon involving other life experiences and social actors.

I have also learned that emotional work takes place over the course of the whole research project not just the fieldwork phase and that it can be challenging and enriching. Nevertheless, some things should not be left to serendipity. With a growing body of academic work, it is time to give equal time, energy and resources to supporting both participants and anthropologists in the emotional aspects of their research work.



Bury, M., 1982. Chronic illness as biographical disruption. Sociology of health and illness, 4, pp. 167-82.

Foote Whyte, W., 1993. Street Corner Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Geertz, C., 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Grosz, E., 1994. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Hallowell, N., Lawton, J. and Gregory, S. eds., 2005. Reflections on research: the realities of doing research in the social sciences. Berkshire: Open University Press.

Letherby, G., 2003. Feminist research in theory and practice. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Lee-Treweek, G. and Linkogle, S. eds., 2000. Danger in the field: risk and ethics in social research. London: Routledge.

Sampson, H., Bloor, M. and Fincham, B., 2008. A price worth paying? Considering the ‘cost’ of reflexive research methods and the influence of feminist ways of ‘doing’. Sociology, 42(5), pp. 919-933.


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