Bearing witness to suffering: a reflection on the personal impact of conducting research with children and grandchildren of victims of apartheid-era gross human rights violations

SOURCE: Social Epistemology
OUTPUT TYPE: Journal Article
DEPARTMENT: Impact Centre (IC), Impact Centre (PRESS), Impact Centre (CC)
Print: HSRC Library: shelf number 11083
HANDLE: 20.500.11910/15037

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Social scientists who conduct qualitative research frequently use emotional engagement to gather information about participants thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in relation to a particularly research question. When the subject under investigation is related to trauma, listening to, or being exposed to personal accounts of participants traumatic experiences can carry a significant emotional cost for researchers. This may place them at risk of secondary trauma. In this article, I examine these issues from the context of my doctoral field research in South Africa, which focused on intergenerational trauma amongst descendants of victims of apartheid-era gross human rights violations. I reflect on my positionality as both an insider and outsider and feelings of guilt that emanated from my sense of being privileged and an imposter. I also reflect on the emotional turmoil brought about by my engagement with the trauma of participants and their families. I conclude by sharing the lessons I have learnt, and that have enabled me to sustain my scholarly engagement with intergenerational trauma. Ultimately, this article gives insight into, and raises awareness about, the emotional consequences of conducting trauma research. It offers practical suggestions to help researchers navigate the emotional minefield involved in conducting trauma research.