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EMR0010.1177/1754073914544710Emotion ReviewFitzpatrick & Olson Reflexivity in Qualitative Research Into Emotions

Emotion Review
Vol. 7, No. 1 (January 2015) 4954
The Author(s) 2015
ISSN 1754-0739
DOI: 10.1177/1754073914544710

A Rough Road Map to Reflexivity in

Qualitative Research into Emotions
Petya Fitzpatrick

National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University, Australia

Rebecca E. Olson

School of Science and Health, University of Western Sydney, Australia

In qualitative research into emotions, researchers and participants share emotion-laden interactions. Few demonstrate how the
analytic value of emotions may be harnessed. In this article we provide an account of our emotional experiences conducting
research with two groups: adults living with cystic fibrosis and spouse caregivers of cancer patients. We describe our emotion
work during research interviews, and discuss its methodological and theoretical implications. Reflections depict competing
emotion norms in qualitative research. Experiences of vulnerability and involuntary emotional callusing illustrate the insight
into participants experiences afforded to us through emotion work. This prompted us to extend Hochschilds theory to incorporate
unconscious activity mediated through habitus, allowing us to demonstrate how the emotional nature of emotions research can
galvanize analytic insight.

emotion work, habitus, qualitative research, reflexivity

Emotions are central to everyday life (Damasio, 1994; Elias,
1987), and fundamental to how we understand ourselves and
others (Denzin, 1984). They are an essential part of conducting
qualitative research as without empathetic connections between
researchers and participants it would only be possible to gain a
superficial understanding of participants experiences (Cain,
2012). Qualitative research into illness and caregiving can be
particularly emotionally involving. When the illness is lifethreatening, grief and sadness are central themes and participants often articulate feelings of sorrow and despair. It is
common for researchers within this area to experience distress
during and following fieldwork (Cain, 2012; Dickson-Swift,
James, Kippen, & Liamputtong, 2008). The growing body of
research on the emotional experiences of researchers has generally focused on the (negative) effects of doing research on emotionally sensitive topics with a tendency to frame discussion of
researchers emotions in terms of risk (Dickson-Swift, James,
Kippen, & Liamputtong, 2007; Hubbard, Backett-Milburn, &

Kemmer, 2001), either to the validity of the data or the researchers emotional wellbeing (Cain, 2012; Widdowfield, 2000).
In a similar vein, methodological texts continue to emphasize
emotional neutrality to eliminate the risk of over-identifying
with participants, going native, and losing his or her distance
and objectivity (Fontana & Frey, 1994, p. 367). Although some
guides on conducting qualitative research acknowledge the
importance of emotions to research, there is little formal direction as to how researchers emotions may be systematically and
reflexively incorporated as data or to aid analysis (Cain, 2012;
Widdowfield, 2000). In this article we attempt to move beyond
an emotions as problematic approach to a broader understanding of researchers emotions as inevitable and integral aspects of
A growing number of publications examine researchers
emotions and their importance to the research process. Hubbard
et al. (2001, p. 121) argue that emotions are vital to research
processes and both researchers and participants emotions

Author note: Funding for primary studies, on which this reflexive (secondary) analysis was based, was provided by an Australian Postgraduate Award, the Australian National
University and Cystic Fibrosis Australia for Fitzpatricks study and by Cancer Australia, Cancer Council ACT and the Australian National University for Olsons study.
Corresponding author: Rebecca Olson, Lecturer, School of Science and Health, University Western Sydney, Penrith, New South Wales 2751, Australia.
Email: Rebecca.olson@uws.edu.au
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50 Emotion Review Vol. 7 No. 1

should inform analysis. A participants emotional outburst, for

example, can signal to researchers what is significant (Hubbard
et al., 2001). Reflecting on their feelings of anger, Kleinman and
Copp (1993) describe how they were alerted to inequities worthy of further investigation. As Hubbard et al. (2001, p. 121)
note, this emotionally-sensed knowledge, allows researchers
to gain insight and give meaning to their interpretations.
Recently, attention has turned to emotion work undertaken by
qualitative researchers. Dickson-Swift, James, Kippen, and
Liamputtong (2009, p. 68), in their study of public health
researchers, found that emotion work was central to research
on sensitive topics. Carroll (2013), reflecting on the intensified
emotional labor she undertook during interviews with infertile
women, details how she came to recognize her own emotional,
social, and bodily realities through her research. Despite these
encouraging steps, there are few worked examples in the sociological literature demonstrating how researchers harness their
emotional experiences in the field to inform their findings and
This article extends the literature on researchers emotions
by offering an empirical analysis of two researchers encounters
with sadness during fieldwork. Followers of Bourdieu might
call this practicing reflexivity: turning methods of constructing
the research object back on themselves (Fries, 2009, p. 326).
We reflect on our emotional experiences of interviewing two
populations dealing with life-threatening illness: spouse caregivers of cancer patients and adults living with cystic fibrosis,
describing the emotion work we performed and its consequences. Finally, we consider the value of reflecting on our
emotional experiences for generating analytical insight and
offer Eliass conceptualization of habitus, which emphasizes
involuntary dispositions within emotional experiences, as an
extension to Hochschilds theory of emotion work.

Emotions are inseparably biological, social, cognitive, and sensual. They emerge through relationships with others (Theodosius,
2006), and have a communicative function (Hochschild, 1983).
Arising through interactions they are both embodied intersubjective phenomena (Williams & Bendelow, 1996) and embodied self-feelings (Denzin, 1984).
Hochschild developed the concepts emotion work and
emotional labor (Hochschild, 1979, 1983) to explain what
gets done to emotions and how feelings are permeable to what
gets done to them (Williams & Bendelow, 1996, p. 146).
Emotion work refers to the management of feeling to create a
publically observable facial and bodily display (Hochschild,
1983, p. 7) in which people work on their own and others feelings to comply with cultural norms (feeling rules) directing the
type, intensity, and duration of emotions (Turner & Stets, 2005).
She distinguishes emotion work from emotional labor, the
latter being emotion work performed in an organizational or
paid context. In her seminal study she argued that flight attendants performed emotional labor to comply with organizationally
desired feeling rules (Hochschild, 1983). In our article emotion

work denotes any effort to manage emotion and emotional displays. Our reluctance to use the term emotional labor arises
from uncertainty about whether the researchers emotions truly
come to assume the properties of a commodity (Hochschild,
1979, p. 569).
Emotion work takes a number of interrelated forms. In display work or surface acting individuals manage observable
emotional expressions by controlling verbal and facial expression, as well as gestures and other bodily behaviors (Hochschild,
1983). Work on emotions themselves, or deep acting,
involves the techniques of cognitive emotion work, attempts to
alter an emotion by changing thoughts associated with emotions; bodily emotion work, attempts to change bodily processes that accompany emotions in order to alter them; and
expressive emotion work, changing outward expressions to
shape underlying emotions.
Although Hochschild acknowledges that unconscious processes play a part in peoples emotional lives, her theory of
emotion work does not account for the habitual, embodied
techniques of emotion work that operate below consciousness.
To extend Hochschilds theory we apply the concept habitus. Habitus may be understood as the social embodied
(Shilling, 2005): the dispositions or orientations through
which people interpret, classify, and respond to the world
around them, and which incline persons towards certain
thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in particular contexts
(Burkitt, 1999). Ones emotional habitus provides a language
and a set of practices which outline ways of speaking about
emotions and of acting out and upon bodily feelings within
everyday life (Burkitt, 1999, p. 117).
We use Eliass formulation of habitus to develop Hochschilds
theory of emotion work. Eliass work is in many ways complementary to Hochschilds: it is concerned with how emotionality
is shaped to comply with social expectations, and, unlike
Bourdieus work on habitus, explicitly addresses emotions. For
Elias, the function of emotional expression is communication;
expressions of emotion are signs in the network of social relations (original emphasis; Burkitt, 1997, p. 45) and communicate ones social position. Eliass (1987) work demonstrates
how techniques of emotional management may be deployed
unconsciously, automatically, and involuntarily. We suggest,
through our emotionally reflexive journey, that Hochschilds
theory of emotion work can be expanded using the concept of
habitus to explain the unconscious, embodied, and habitual
aspects of emotion work.

In writing this article we draw on field notes, a shared semistructured interview, and transcripts from qualitative research
with two populations: people caring for a spouse with cancer,
and adults living with cystic fibrosis.
The second authors (RO) study examined caregivers
responses to their spouses cancer diagnoses. Within a larger
study on cancer caregiving, she conducted longitudinal, narrative, and semi-structured interviews with 18 husbands and 14

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Fitzpatrick & Olson Reflexivity in Qualitative Research Into Emotions 51

wives (n = 32) caring for a spouse at various cancer stages.

Participants ranged in age from 30s to 80s; most (69%) were in
their 50s or 60s. Findings showed that caregivers experience
temporal anomie in response to the cancer diagnosis; the
diagnosis prompted caregivers to reflect on their taken-forgranted assumption of a shared future with their spouse, reprioritize, and manage their emotions to either maintain a
future-oriented perspective or adopt a present-oriented perspective (Olson, 2011).
The first authors (PF) study investigated the experience of
living as an adult with cystic fibrosis (CF). CF is a life-shortening, progressive genetic disorder affecting multiple organ systems. In the late stages individuals experience severe shortness
of breath, pain, weakness, and restricted mobility. Currently,
average survival is to the mid-thirties (Cystic Fibrosis Australia
[CFA], 2012). Photo-elicitation interviews were conducted with
40 adults with CF aged between 21 and 68, most participants
being in their twenties and thirties. Participants described doing
work on their own emotions and on behalf of others. This
involved a progressive refining of emotion work techniques and
the development of an emotionally tough or strong identity.
Like ROs caregivers, they described a disjuncture between the
present-day orientation they were to varying degrees required to
adopt, and the prevailing cultural norms of future orientation.
The studies share a concern with the prospect of, and emotions surrounding, death. University ethics committees approved
both studies; the risks to participants were deemed sufficiently
low.1 However, we were struck by our emotional responses to
participants expressions of sadness. While we experienced joy
as often as sorrow while conducting the interviews, our experiences of sadness brought us together to reflect and write this
article. To facilitate reflection, we discussed our experiences of
conducting these interviews using a semi-structured interview
guide. We recorded our discussion and analyzed the transcript
thematically. The paragraphs that follow illustrate the themes
that emerged.

We experienced excitement and trepidation as we anticipated
interviews; as we listened to participants tell their stories we felt
joy, hope, sadness, and anger. Participants spoke of their anguish
and grief as they confronted the prospect of their own or their
spouses death. Sometimes a catch in their voice was all that
revealed their otherwise hidden emotions. At other times sadness burst forth in its fullest expression.
The following vignettes illustrate those encounters, the emotions experienced and the emotion work performed.
An hour into Esthers interview we began talking about the
implications of her illness for her long-term survival. Her voice
rose in pitch and wavered as she struggled to contain her emotions. I felt a wave of sadness in sympathy but I shaped my
expression to hide it. I was conscious of balancing various concerns: I wanted to encourage her to keep talking but I didnt
want to ignore her tears. I wanted her to feel in charge of the
interview but not abandoned. I worried that my questions would

make her feel sadder but I was also wary of inadvertently shutting her down. I felt anxious because I seemed to be juggling
many things. I was conscious of altering my facial expression
and body posture to reflect the change in emotional tone. I nodded and made sounds to assure her that we were in a suitable
space for her to talk about death. Although I had worked with
people with CF in the past and understood the progression of
the disease well, I believe that it was not until this moment that
I truly confronted the fact of their death. Until that moment, I
knew, but I did not know that CF will cut short the lives of all
these participants. Esther began to cry and I allowed tears to
well in my eyes, hoping that showing that I was affected was a
permissible way to acknowledge her story. I blinked them away;
the interview continued uninterrupted. Esther kept talking and
soon stopped crying.
Joes wife died from ovarian cancer a few years prior to our
interview. We sat at his kitchen table while he made tea and I
asked him about being a caregiver. He talked about lying in bed
and hugging his wife. His eyes welled up, tears rolled down his
cheeks and he had trouble communicating for several seconds.
He cried again, describing the way his wife made him feel appreciated. Despite her debilitating cancer and reliance on a wheelchair she successfully organized a surprise birthday party for
him. The cancer diagnosis, he explained, drew them closer
together. Later on, he spoke heatedly of difficulties he faced in
taking his wife to medical appointments, sporting events, or grocery stores. Handicap parking was often taken by others whose
need for it had long passed and venues were often challenging to
navigate with wheels. While he, to a small degree, relived these
memories, I tried to appear comfortable with his tears and
angeracting as if it was expected. At times, I felt sadness and
frustration in response to his stories, but I didnt cry. I was aware
of my facial expressions and actively tried to sustain an open
and active listening expression: lips closed, gaze fixed on
either Joe or my tea cup. I left the interview feeling tired but
indebted to Joe for his honesty. Several days later, while watching television with a group of friends, as a character learned his
father was dying from cancer, I felt the sadness of Joes and other
interviewees stories and cried for half an hour.

As the above vignettes demonstrate, we experienced strong

emotional responses to participants distress. Some responses
were immediate: frustration or a sympathetic wave of sadness. At other times, emotions unfolded over days or weeks. Of
the range of emotions that we experienced, sadness and anxiety
Throughout the interviews we did emotion work on behalf of
our participants, managing our own emotions and emotional
displays. We identified three forms of emotion work: a new
form we term context work and two others, display work,
and deep acting, in line with Hochschilds theories.

Context Work
We worked on the interview setting to accommodate the emotions we encountered. The interviews were often conducted in
participants homes: biscuits and teacups served as props to
indicate the informality of the setting, boxes of tissues indicated
the appropriateness of crying. By conducting interviews in settings in which sadness and crying could be accommodated we
hoped to reduce our participants felt need to conceal or work
on their sadness; we hoped to undermine prevailing norms that

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52 Emotion Review Vol. 7 No. 1

inhibit emotional expression during interactions with strangers.

Sometimes we needed to change the setting in order to accommodate participants emotions.
We have two interviews to talk about things, and this
photo how do you feel about talking about it at
I am not too concerned but yeah, I know what you
Cause, you know things can get teary.
We could delve more into that in the second interview;
maybe we can do that at home.

Emotion norms in the research interview were subject to an

ongoing process of negotiation. Throughout interviews, we
decided, with our participants, the types, intensity, and duration
of emotions that were appropriate at different stages. Facial,
verbal, and bodily expressions, modifications to the sociospatial
setting and explicit discussion all played a role in establishing
interview feeling rules.

Display Work
During the early phase of the interview we performed practical, routine activities such as organizing consent forms, creating facial and bodily displays to convey friendliness and
emotional neutrality, and masking inappropriate emotions.
These displays of organizationally desirable emotions
formed part of the self-presentation ritual. To present as professional, we drew on images of the competent, detached
researcher, concealing our nervousness behind friendly
smiles. Our displays of highly managed emotionality united
with other cues to our legitimacy, such as our association with
a university and the consenting process, to create an atmosphere of trust. These preliminary emotional displays served to
dispel apprehension in participants and mitigate our own feelings of anxiety (this expressive emotion work transformed as
well as masked our feelings). Displays also initiated the process of communicating and negotiating the emotion rules of
the research interview.
Throughout the interview we vigilantly monitored and managed emotional displays. We employed facades of neutrality and
controlled emotional involvement so that our participants emotions took center-stage. When participants became upset we
moderated our vocal and bodily expressions to accommodate
the shift in emotional timbre: speaking quietly, allowing for
longer silences and adopting open postures.

Deep Emotion Work

As demonstrated in our vignettes, we regularly experienced sadness in response to the interview content. Often a display of
detached concern overlaid genuine concern or distress, which
we then attempted to alter to a more manageable feeling. Twice
PF allowed herself to cry with a participant: an expression of
genuine sadness was modified to an intensity appropriate to the
role of an interviewer. RO, in contrast, performed expressive

emotion work to embody the role of the removed but concerned

The deep emotion work we performed allowed us to achieve
a more embodied and practical understanding of our participants stories. Drawing on memories and imagination (cognitive
emotion work) we attempted to put ourselves in participants
places, and move our understanding from sympathetic towards
empathetic. We both, for example, drew from our experiences
of ill-healthROs experience with a serious illness and PFs
experience of chronic pain. In connecting participants experiences with our own uncertainty, fear, and distress we imaginatively walked a mile in their shoes: although we did not and
could not share their experiences fully, we began to understand
their distress at a more embodied, emotional level, not just a
cognitive level.

Conscious and Unconscious Emotion Work

Some of the emotion work we performed was conscious, but emotion work also occurred below consciousness, in an automated
fashion. The expressive emotion work through which we managed
and transformed feelings of anxiety or distress that threatened our
display of professional emotionality, for example, involved both
deliberate and unconscious attempts to shape facial and bodily
expression. Likewise, bodily emotion work carried out to conceal
our emotions or express them in a modified form, frequently operated through activity occurring below our awareness. Throughout
the interviews the constant activity of monitoring and minute
adjustments to our facial and bodily displays, was often only intermittently at the forefront of our consciousness.

Consequences of Emotion Work

The interviews were emotionally and physically draining.
Repeated acts of display work resulted in an accumulation of
unexpressed and sometimesas emotion work became habitual
and automated unacknowledged distress. This had short- and
long-term effects. Immediately following interviews RO experienced fatigue while PF felt irritable and raw.
We were anxious about our capacity to maintain the
required emotional displays required of professional researchers. While interviewing Joe, for example, RO worried that her
inexperience in witnessing older men crying would undermine
her resolve to maintain an atmosphere conducive to open
I was worried that they would think, Oh gosh, Im making
another person feel awkward by bursting into tears and I
wanted them to feel like it was a safe spacenot a space where
they had to manage their emotions on my behalf. So I was concerned about appearing comfortable.

Another source of anxiety was navigating the ambiguous

and sometimes contradictory emotion norms that govern
qualitative research interviews. We experienced uncertainty
about the extent to which our own emotions were permitted. We were partly guided by the convention that researchers

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Fitzpatrick & Olson Reflexivity in Qualitative Research Into Emotions 53

emotional expression must be highly regulated. Bursting

into tears would be discrediting and would, at least temporarily, undermine our capacity to fulfill the role. Yet in qualitative research we also strive to establish emotional
connections with participants. We were unsure how to incorporate these seemingly contradictory roles.
The deep emotion work we performed, in attempting to
achieve empathetic connections with participants, had surprising consequences. Confronted by an acute awareness of our
own mortality we experienced, like our participants, disruption
to our largely unquestioned assumptions about the future. Like
our participants we were confronted with a disjuncture between
prevailing cultural norms of future orientation and our experiences of unpredictable, mortal bodies. We underwent a similar
process of questioning what we repeatedly heard in participants
Over time, we noticed our emotional experiences changing.
Repeated exposure to distress and ongoing emotion work
prompted emotional fatigue, sadness, and vulnerability. This
was followed by a period of involuntary emotional distancing or
hardening in which we became less acutely sensitive to participants emotions and less willing to perform the emotion work
necessary to form empathetic connections with participants.
Cracks appeared in ROs efforts to embody the role of the
removed but concerned professional when her grief erupted in
the form of tears after several weeks of interviews. A diminished
capacity for open listening and feeling with interview participants followed this episode. PF, towards the end of the fieldwork, experienced a bodily refusal to form the emotional
connections with participants possible in earlier interviews. For
both authors this emotional distancing or hardening was experienced as entirely involuntary.

In our findings we illustrate and reflect on the emotion work we
performed as qualitative researchers conducting interviews with
people facing loss. We performed display and context work to
put our interviewees at ease and establish the feeling rules of the
interview. In many instances this emotion work was interactive.
Deep emotion work allowed us greater insight into our participants experiences, but over time resulted in accumulated distress followed by what we refer to as involuntary emotional
callusing. Here, we consider the impetus behind, and consequences of, the emotion work we performed.
We reflect on the contradictory imperatives guiding qualitative research and the uncertainties we both experienced while
performing emotion work during interviews. This highlighted
the epistemological tensions that plague qualitative research. In
academia, affective neutrality is emphasized in data collection,
analysis, and dissemination (Bloch, 2012). However, qualitative
researchers are linked to emotion cultures within and outside of
academia. Fieldwork takes researchers into various contexts
governed by different feeling rules. Thus, researchers emotional experiences are linked to broader feeling cultures and
researchers are forced to navigate across epistemological

worlds. We found ourselves wondering what it means to handle the situation appropriately (Hubbard et al., 2001, p. 120).
Is, for example, holding hands (Dickson-Swift et al., 2007) or
crying with participants (Cain, 2012) appropriate?
The deep emotion work we underwent in interviews allowed
us, to a greater extent, to empathize with participants, their
emotive experiences reminding us of our own fears. Confronted
with our own bodily vulnerability we were forced to question
the fit between prevailing cultural norms of future orientation
and our own experiences of uncertainty and fear connected
with ill-health and the prospect of death. This experience parallels that of Carroll (2013) who experienced foregrounding of
her concerns about her own fertility when interviewing women
who had undergone IVF. Understood through an emotions as
problematic framework, our experience could be interpreted
as overinvolvement or going native and dangerous for
researchers (Fontana & Frey, 1994; Hubbard et al., 2001). We
argue that by alerting us to and helping us know in a more
embodied, practical way, our participants worlds, these experiences demonstrate the analytic value of reflecting on researchers emotions.
As Dickson-Swift et al. (2007, p. 342) note,
In listening to a persons account of their life or their illness experience,
we are effectively opening up in an embodied and personal way to the
suffering of that other person that may give us a heightened sense of our
own mortality and vulnerability.

During the later stages of fieldwork, in response to accumulated

distress, emotional fatigue, and vulnerability, we found ourselves becoming emotionally hardened or callused. Like calluses that develop on the hands from physical labor, this
hardening developed through repeated exposure to distressing
content and sadness, and through constant emotional work. Our
sensitivity to assaults on our emotions diminished with this
callusing, allowing us to withstand the interviews. The involuntary nature of this experience alerted us to the aspects of emotion work that occur below consciousness and are habitual,
automated processes, which prompted us to probe Hochschilds
theory and supplement her work with Eliass work on emotion
and habitus.
We suggest that many techniques of emotion work are
incorporated into an individuals habitus. These techniques
are revised and refined through practice. Any form of emotion
work a person undertakesdisplay work, context work, cognitive emotion workinvolves techniques that are an expression of that individuals habitus. The emotion work techniques
that are available to an individual will always be determined
by the language, practices, ways of being that constitute that
persons habitus. Similarly, an individuals habitus will
incline him or her towards certain emotion work techniques
and not others.
Our experience of vulnerability and emotional callusing
prompted us to thicken Hochschilds theory with Eliass formulation of habitus. While the concept of emotion work resonated with us, we found unconscious experiences
underrecognized in this framework. We suggest that pairing

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54 Emotion Review Vol. 7 No. 1

Hochschilds conceptualization of emotion work with Eliass

work on habitus expands the range of Hochschilds theory.
Furthermore, our reflections enabled us to question and
revise concepts guiding our analyses. Through our context and
display work we attempted to comply with contradictory feeling rules. However, we were unable to determine where emotional labor, guided by organizational feeling rules, ended and
emotion work, born out of interactions between two individuals began. Our reflections thereby pushed us to question this
distinction between emotion work and emotional labor. It
became apparent that feeling rules and identities involved in
emotion management were both interconnected and fragmented (Holmes, 2010).

We offer here an example of what it means to know the world
better as one knows oneself better (Bourdieu, 2003, p.
289): an example for others to build on as they undertake
reflexive research on emotions. We systematically considered
our own emotions within and about our qualitative studies by
reflecting on field notes and discussing them through a shared
semistructured interview. Then, we interrogated our emotional
experiences, asking why we felt anxious, and how our emotional reactions, voluntary and involuntary, came about.
Finally, we analyzed our accounts and used them to further
interrogate the literature, prompting us to extend Hochschilds
theory to include context work and pair it with Eliass theory
on emotions, to account for our experiences of unconscious
habitual emotion work and callusing. In doing so, we came to
recommend the valuation, rather than marginalization, of
emotions in research.
In viewing the social world as a community of sentiment
(Kleinman & Copp, 1993, p. 57), we suggest emotional
responses to interviewees as both unavoidable and desirable
in achieving a more embodied understanding of participants
experiences that allows for further consideration of theory.
Rather than viewing researchers emotions as risks to be
avoided, ethics committees, supervisors, and colleagues,
should value emotions as integral to human life and respond
accordingly by encouraging qualitative researchers to reflect
on their own emotions and emotional habitus as researchers,
keep field notes, discuss their emotions with supervisors and
colleagues, and acknowledge emotions reflexively for the
rich source of data that they are.


During the ethical review process, risks to us as researchers, referred

to in the introduction, were deemed negligible. Detailed implications
for ethical review boards is an important topic, but outside the scope
of this article.

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