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Reflections on the emotional impacts of undertaking work related to traumatic content, people, places and events

Event Type: 
Event Date: 
26 September 2017 - 8:00am
EOS Seminar Room (N2-01b-28)
Dale Dominey-Howes
About the speaker: 

Dale holds a BSc (Hons) and PhD in Geography. His interests and expertise are in natural hazards, hazard, risk and vulnerability assessment, disaster and emergency management. He is particularly interested in the interconnections between biophysical systems and the socio-economic contexts in which disasters unfold and considers ‘natural hazards’ in terms of coupled human-environment systems and policy. He has worked on natural hazards such as earthquakes, river floods, tropical cyclones, tsunami, volcanic eruptions and bushfires in places as diverse as Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh, India, Greece, Turkey, Ireland, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Thailand, Iceland and the Maldives.

At the present time, he is involved in a variety of externally funded research projects across the globe and has completed research projects and consultancies for organisations as diverse as the United Nations, The World Bank, major insurance and reinsurance companies, State and Federal government departments and risk/disaster management agencies. Dale is an ongoing advisor to State and Federal disaster and emergency service organisations and he is Chairman of the United Nations UNESCO-IOC Post-disaster Policy and Protocols Working Group (2010 – present).

About the event: 

We all ‘do’ research, but in ‘doing’ research, we rarely spend time thinking about the outcome of that research on our own emotional well-being, let alone on our writing and analytical research practices. This omission is partly because in the neoliberal university we do not have the time to insert ourselves into our own research practice and because we are taught to think about our participants and that self-reflection might seem indulgent. We frequently keep ourselves, and our emotional responses, separate as a matter of practice. 

As researchers, we are taught to remain vigilant about the ramifications of our research and subsequent methodologies on our participants. University ethics approval processes contain specific clauses about the potential for research methodologies to cause trauma to participants, the measures we must implement as researchers to mitigate and or remedy such trauma and processes of debriefing participants. Yet we seldom consider how our research topics, methodologies and subsequent work affect us as researchers.  What are the impacts and outcomes of working in traumatic research environments and places, or venturing into stressful and distressing research topics, content and practices? 

Recently, a body of critical work has begun to emerge that explores and shines a light on ‘researcher trauma’. This talk builds upon this developing scholarship. Specifically, it acknowledges ‘the [my] dark passenger’ of emotional vicarious trauma associated with conducting post-disaster research. As a disaster researcher, I have been affected by vicarious trauma. ‘Direct personal’ vicarious trauma is where I experienced trauma associated with witnessing devastation making a professional separation from my objective subjects impossible. ‘Indirect professional’ vicarious trauma occurred when PhD students and others under my supervision that I sent to disaster affected places, experienced significant negative emotional responses and trauma as they interviewed their participants. In these situations, I became traumatised by my lack of training and reflected on how the emphasis on the participants came at the expense of the researcher in my care. In acknowledging and exploring the emotions and vicarious trauma of researchers embedded in landscapes of disaster, it becomes possible for future researchers to pre-empt this phenomenon and to consider ways that they might manage this.

The talk also briefly examines the implications of researcher trauma in relation to the growing movement for ‘slow scholarship’ and its intersection with the modern neoliberal university.