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Approaching Sensitive Research

Research and literature on child abuse has increased since the 1960’s and it has initiated the International Journal of Child Abuse and Neglect.  Although despite increased awareness of the issue, there is still a lack of research in terms of intervention and treatment.  What may be available is not always transferable into agency settings either due to lack of resources or time constraints that prevent thorough evaluation of recommendations.

Research on the subject normally falls within five categories of studies.  This may involve definition of the issue because abuse can vary in form and overtime so definitions will evolve.  Or it may involve epidemiology studies that will consider the socio-demographics and the levels of incidence. Or it may involve typology studies which will consider the division of abusive families according to similar characteristics.  Or it may involve therapeutic studies which will describe the work that may take place with families.  Or finally management studies which will consider the law, service delivery and inter-agency interface.  Despite the diverse types of research common features of each will be the intimate nature of subject matter at its core and the necessity for sensitive research.

The term “sensitive research” has broad interpretations, it is only by exploring different scenarios of research that one can fully understand and appreciate the meaning behind the terminology.  Research has many variables, from the choice of subject matter under investigation, to the location at which it is conducted, to the type of methodology applied.  Consequently, the diverse scenarios have made definition of the exact nature of sensitive research difficult.   Many contemporary psychologists have deliberated over this matter whilst attempting to reach a consensus view. 

Sieber & Stanley (1988;49) defined ‘socially sensitive’ research as ‘investigation involving consequences or implications for participants or the class they represent’.  But this is an over generalised definition which could arguably be applied to most research.  Lee (1993:4) offers one of the more widely accepted definitions of sensitive research.  This is the topic, the consequence, the situation and any number of other issue’s that may arise by saying that sensitive research is ‘that which may pose a threat to those who are or have been involved’.  If then we consider the investigation of behaviours such as child abuse, rape, and domestic violence, it becomes very clear why some areas of research may be more challenging, complex and difficult to conduct.

Of course the perceived sensitivity of a research subject will often depend on factors such as culture, age or gender at which it is directed.  According to Lee (1993) sensitive research may pose an intrusive threat, such as revealing sexual practices.  Or it may pose a threat of sanction, such as exposing criminal conduct.  Or even a political threat, such as exposing flaws within the systems of social control.  Although more qualitative approaches may involve supporting the researched to reveal extremely personal experiences that may typically involve reliving either acts of deviance, force or control. 

Oakley, 1981; Stanley & Wise, 1991; suggest that researchers need to form a special relationship with their participants.  Although, Oakley 1981:58 suggests that personal involvement can introduce unsafe bias, because inevitably it will involve participants and researcher needing to become familiar with one another and aspects of their lives.  This level of interface with a participant is an important element of researching sensitive issues but moreover highly influential to the subjective nature of qualitative interview.   Because rather than qualitative interview seeking to establish causes for behaviour, it aims to explore and seize the experiences of participants.

Ramos (1989:59) highlights concerns surrounding the use of in-depth interview referring to the ‘Pandora’s box’ effect, whereby the use of probing questionnaires will almost always evoke the distress and memories of trauma. By Contrast Hutchinson, Wilson & Wilson 1994; claim that participants express that interview provides the opportunity for release and expression which many claim acts as therapy, which in turn leads to empowerment and a regained sense of purpose. 

However Patton (1990) argues that although interview for all the aforementioned reasons may seem like intervention, its primary objective is to gather data and not to modify individual’s behaviours.  These are the diverse range of effects which researchers must be appropriately skilled and prepared to manage.  Therefore in researching sensitive issues researchers should demonstrate a fusion of good judgement, consideration of ethics and protection of participant well-being but whilst also remembering the main objective that is investigation.

Qualitative research is usually the favoured method of researchers who relate to constructivist theory.  A key concept of the theory is the belief that there are many truths and many realities (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005b; Daly 2007).  The concept is further explained by Vertsthen (Weber, 1949) with the notion that researchers should be prepared to impart their own experiences and emotions with the researched as a means to gaining access to their lives and in order to fully understand the meanings of their experiences. 

Qualitative methodology often receives criticism due to the subjective nature of the researched and researcher interpretation but it is often misunderstood.  Qualitative data can be converted to quantitative data using ratings scales from which more scientific claims can be made.  Therefore research should not choose to ignore sensitive issues because they may present more of a challenge to its methodologies.  But rather persevere with the challenges that sensitive issues present, because it can only ever hope to provide answers and prevention by exploring the how they affect individual’s lives.

 ‘Researchers must confront seriously and thoroughly the issues that these topics pose’.  Lee & Renzetti (1993:10). 

‘The province of qualitative research…..is the world of lived experience’. (Denzil & Lincoln, 2005).



Categories: Uncategorized
  1. March 14, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    Firstly, it must be said that when dealing with any type of abuse as you pointed out the researcher must take extra care and caution not only for their participant but also for themselves. Even more so for when a researcher is studying any form of child abuse.

    Much of the research which has been conducted on child abuse tends to focus rather more so on the retrospective spectrum of research. This is due to many reasons, for example the abuser covering up their actions and forcing the abused child to not speak out. It would be highly unethical for a researcher to know that a child is going through abuse and to let it carry on. When a child is abused it is much more of a different situation than when an adult is abused. This is because they most likely won’t know what is going on, and the lack of knowledge to know their possible options of how to terminate the abuse.

    Retrospective data can have its own limitations provided as well. There are issues with generalizability, financial cost and also the reliability of the information given by a child after a long period after their abuse. The child’s perception of the events will change and there have been studies that have shown this. Ceci and Brook 1995 analysed children’s testimonies in court, they found that there can be issues with the reliability of the child’s testimony as children’s imaginations can sometimes be prone to add events in that might not of happened, and also that it is difficult to measure the true extent of repressed memories.

    By using retrospective data you are essentially analysing their memory, sometimes this can be quite a difficult concept to operationalise.

    I am not saying that we should not research child abuse just because it is a sensitive area of research. However, it is a very controversial topic and there are many extraneous variables a researcher would have to take into consideration.

  2. March 14, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    There is in no doubt considerable controversey concerning the validity of recovered childhood memories of physical/sexual abuse. There are indeed claims that those using psychodynmic methods of therapy with clients have applied pressure during interview and consequently many clients have reported that caused them to recover false memories.

    However, recovered repressed memories of chidhood trauma in the majority of cases are considered by most experts to be genuine. Andrews et al (1999) conducted a survey with over 200 patients with recovered memories. For the multitude, recall of memories had occured before the intervention of therapy, therefore ruling out therapy as a causal factor . Furthermore in as much as 40% of cases of recovered memories there was additional supporting evidence of abuse provided by another person.

  3. March 19, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    This blog is too long

    • March 19, 2012 at 5:48 pm

      I see an improvement from my last blog in terms of word count. Can you give me additional feedback on what you would omit from the blog, I think this would help me. I am trying to be more succinct honestly but its difficult not to want to elaborate more on subjects.

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