Researching
Sensitive
Topics

How to ask, so that
no one gets hurt

Select category

Sensitive topics
Deciding if something is sensitive or not is not always an easy job.
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Sensitive topics don't exist

There are no sensitive topics, there are only concepts that are differently sensitive from person to person. A topic that is not perceived as sensitive by one informant may be sensitive for another one.

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Some topics may not seem sensitive at first glance

For some, it may be sensitive to talk about finances, for others about a car in their garage.

Before the Research
The work starts long time before you start talking to people.
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Prepare diligently

You want to know as much as possible even before the research itself (eg. through desk research). It will help you to identify many potential problems that could arise during the research. At the same time, it will help to discover ways to establish a better rapport with the informants.

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The researcher should be as close to the topic as possible

The researcher should understand the topic, know what a typical informant is roughly going through, know the necessary terminology and habits. It's great if you can find an insider to help you with that.

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Determine which topics are extremely sensitive or taboo

The researcher needs to know in advance which topics to avoid, as they may be too sensitive for the informant to talk about.

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Use respondent's terminology

Researched social groups often use their own terminology to name certain things and phenomena. Research such terms beforehand and use them. If such a term appears during the interview, it is recommended for the researcher to adapt it and use the term as well.

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Data that are accessible without questioning the informants are good to acquire elsewhere

For informants, the research on sensitive topics can be challenging, it is, therefore, better to ask only about information that cannot be found elsewhere.

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The ideal way to find out the sensitivity of individual subtopics is to find an insider

Insights into the environment of future informants can help the researcher estimate the sensitivity of individual topics. A person that knows the environment but is not part of the researched population can help you with the degree of sensitivity of certain subtopics.

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Gatekeepers or insiders can also act as a source of indirect data

They can offer you valuable insights too. However, these data are mediated, so it is necessary to subsequently validate them with the target informants.

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Gatekeepers and insiders can help you find new informants

At the same time, they can be used as a mediator to overcome the initial fear and build more trust.

Safety
The safety of all participants is super important. Make sure that nothing goes wrong.
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Safety of respondents is your priority #1

That’s just it.

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Make it safe

The informant should not reach the moment when he/she feels threatened in any way

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Have a plan, what can go wrong and how to deal with it

An extremely important part of the preparation is to think about hypothetically problematic situations that may occur and prepare possible solutions so that the researcher can react promptly.

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Think also about the researcher’s mental and physical safety

Topics challenging informants are often challenging even for researchers listening to their stories. The researcher may experience signs of secondary trauma. The interview transcriber too.

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Choose a friendly and well-known environment

To make the informant comfortable, it is good to use an environment that will be pleasant and well-known to him or her. This can help the informant feel relaxed and open up about challenging topics.

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Informants often do not care about remorse and special treatment

Informants need to be handled with care and sensitivity. On the other hand, excessive guardianship needs to be avoided.

Confidentiality
As everything is super sensitive, you gotta keep everything safe and quiet.
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Keep it private

It must not happen that anyone else interrupts or secretly listens during the conversation.

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Recording the session?

Researchers didn’t find a unified view on this question. In the case of recording, of course, the consent of the informant is required.

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Anonymize

All collected data must be anonymized.

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If the segment is small, respondents must be unidentifiable

When examining small social groups where people mostly know each other (e.g., people belonging to a similar institution), care must be taken to ensure that people cannot identify each other when accessing research results or anonymized quotes.

Interviewer’s Approach
How should researcher behave?
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One researcher per interview

As a researcher, you should try to create as little pressure and indifference between you and the informant as possible. If more researchers sit by a single interview, they unnecessarily strengthen their superiority over the respondent.

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Behave professionally but not too strict, be empathetic and pleasant

Researchers recommend having a professional approach, but at the same time being human and sensitive.

During the Interview
There are couple of things that can help you be closer to the informant.
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The ice-breaking phase, in the beginning, is the key

In researching sensitive topics, overcoming initial fear, and establishing mutual trust is even more important than on other topics.

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Make sure they know they can say stop or refuse to answer at any time

Volunteering is essential for any research. In this case, however, it is necessary to emphasize that if at any moment the interview ceases to be pleasant, they can stop the conversation and go to a different topic or end the interview.

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Adapt to the pace and ways of communication of the respondent

The informant may want to talk about the topic in various ways - emotionally, austerely, scientifically… The researcher should always approach the communication the informant’s way.

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Ask the most sensitive questions at the end of the interview

When planning the structure of the interview, it is better to place the most challenging topics at the end of the interview. Of course, the closing part and debriefing of the interview must still follow.

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Keep a spare time in case something goes wrong

In case of any problem, it is always good to have some spare time to deal with it.

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The interview must always be sensitively closed to ensure that the informant has not been harmed

In the case of harm, it is the researcher's duty to resolve the situation and, in serious cases, to forward the respondent to a specialist.

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Be careful with group methods

Approach group research methods carefully and be sure that they cannot lead to problems such as mutual shaming due to overly personal questions, conflicts between informants, etc.

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Ethnographic approach may be used too

For a better understanding of the situations of the informants, it is also possible to use approaches such as observation or diary studies, either in the form of notes, photos, or videos.

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An informant may be threatened by a third party who may not want them to discuss the topics

In the context of certain topics, the informant may be under pressure from a third party who may be disturbed by his participation in such research.

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Try validating the researched data

Some researchers recommend having the researched findings subsequently validated by respondents themselves and confirming that they understood the informants' views correctly.

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Be transparent about data handling

Always explain to the informants how the data will be handled in the future and who will have access to it.

About the Project

This project has been created as a part of diploma thesis by Marek Augustin.
These guidelines are based on the recommendations of 8 researchers who have participated in the diploma thesis reasearch and have been interviewed about their career experience with sensitive topics.