How to be Vulnerable in Research and Aid Work

I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability lately, as I spend the first days in Nairobi figuring out what I’m really doing here and how I should spend my time.

Whilst I’m here with a purpose – to conduct field research on stress and burnout in the aid sector – the actual reality of what this entails for me as a doctoral researcher, with no person or organisation here to guide me, is hard to grasp. I’ve come here alone and it is only I who can make my time here successful. When a doctoral researcher arrives to conduct their field research, there is no great fanfare or welcoming party, nor a fixed agenda with specific deadlines. We simply have to get on with it, whatever ‘it’ may be.

For me this has meant setting up several meetings and networking with aid workers. This side of things is in itself a bit nerve-wracking; working out when it is I’m being a researcher and when it is I’m just being ‘me’ – a new arrival to Nairobi (although I have the advantage of having lived here before), who is genuinely wanting to meet people and make friends.

The challenge I’m describing will be familiar to anyone doing ‘insider research’ – in other words, researching one’s own social or professional community. Putting aside the debate as to whether any researcher, given their status, can ever truly be an insider, I do think having experience in the community one is researching brings its own dilemmas and difficulties. We do not want to appear a fraud in our relationships with research participants, and the chances are as an insider we are sympathetic towards their cause. Yet at the same time we are aware of the ulterior motives that often lie behind each interaction with individuals who may be both friends or colleagues and potential informants. This becomes even more problematic if informants who we have a relationship with outside the research open up emotionally in an interview in a way they haven’t done in normal friendship conversations. How do we respond? As a researcher or as a friend or confidant?

This potential challenge in my research highlights how vulnerability is at the heart of the interaction between researcher and informant, and none more so than in my chosen study topic. I do suspect that for some aid workers, who operate in an organisational culture that discourages the display of too much raw emotion, speaking to a researcher about their feelings may be easier than revealing them to their friends or colleagues. Many aid workers avoid showing their emotional discomfort when assisting poor or war-affected populations or documenting human rights abuses. To do so seems inappropriate in the face of far greater human suffering. And in this way vulnerability is repeatedly pushed aside and denied. This denial becomes so commonplace that it can at times seep into friendship interactions as well, so that when asked how you feel about the work you are doing it is difficult to articulate in a genuine, emotional way.

Being vulnerable is difficult for everybody, not just aid workers. As Brené Brown, vulnerability ‘expert’ says,

The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.

And it’s difficult for researchers too. Like aid workers, researchers feel they must maintain a level of professionalism that hides vulnerabilities such as self-doubt and guilt over not ever doing ‘enough’, over not meeting our own expectations or those of our informants.

I have a growing belief that recognising and working with these vulnerabilities rather than pushing them aside has value both for aid work and the Phd research process. Staying with our emotions as they arise can help us gain insight into the emotional behaviour of others. Mindfulness, which I discussed in more detail in another blog post, is one tool with which to practise this emotional presence and awareness. Through mindfulness we can observe without judgement our emotions as they come and go in the present moment. By recognising our own suffering, we become more in tune with and compassionate about the suffering of others – whether these are friends, colleagues, research informants or populations being assisted by aid workers. At the same time, acknowledging emotions as they arise through the practice of mindfulness may be an important way of developing resilience in the field, as an aid worker or as a researcher.

Being emotionally engaged – and vulnerable – can deepen researchers’ understanding of themselves, including their status and position in relation to those they are researching. For researchers of development and aid, this level of emotional awareness may enrich their insights into the hopes, passions and desire for justice that underscore much aid practice. It is these same emotional states that are often the drivers for academic research and which should be integral to understanding how data is collected, generated and ultimately used for constructive ends.

2 thoughts on “How to be Vulnerable in Research and Aid Work

  1. michaelh

    Not sure I agree with Brene Brown’s assessment of vulnerability. Is recognition of one’s own vulnerability really a weakness? As long as vulnerabilityis recognised, through mindfuless or even through the comments of others,it can be a strength when it comes to forming relationships with strangers. and can inspire trust. Self acknowledged vulnerability can be endearing and encourage others to respond openly and positively – as I’m sure they will when they meet you. Well that’s my opinion anyway. More please

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  2. AidSoulSearch Post author

    Brene Brown’s assessment isn’t that acknowledging one’s vulnerability is a bad thing; on the contrary, this is precisely what she is trying to debunk, because generally in society we as individuals feel that showing one’s vulnerability is a sign of weakness. She is arguing that if we could get over this narrative, we could become more connected towards others and more daring in the way we live our lives. As well as studying a Phd on this subject, she also did a great TED talk about this – I highly recommend you watch it (it’s only 15 minutes): https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en

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