Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Sevaste Chatzifotiou (2000) 'Conducting Qualitative Research on Wife Abuse: Dealing with the Issue of Anxiety.'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 2, <>

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Received: 9/3/2000      Accepted: 6/9/2000      Published: 6/9/2000


Abused women are a very sensitive group with whom to conduct research. As such, researchers need to be aware of this inherent sensitivity and should design their research accordingly. The ethics of social research, the implications of conducting research on sensitive topics, the possible exposition of the participants to stressful moments for the sake of the interview are important issues to be taken under serious consideration by the researcher prior to undertaking the fieldwork. However, during the fieldwork the researcher might face issues which she had paid less attention to while designing the inquiry, namely issues of dealing with the anxiety that the interviews would expose on herself too.It is well recognised in the literature that the rights and safety of the participants must be of paramount importance to the researchers in every research project. Still, the researcher's 'safety' should not be underestimated or be given little attention. This paper, based on the experience of conducting research with abused women documents the issue of researcher's anxiety which was a salient issue throughout the study. Documenting the research process, from the research design through to issues which arose after the fieldwork, the paper draws attention on the issue of anxiety experienced by the researcher in various stages of the research, including prior, during and after leaving the field, and provides ways that these were dealt with.

Anxiety; Domestic Violence; Fieldwork; Qualitative Research; Women


Qualitative research can be described in terms of a huge multi-method paradigm containing competing ideas about knowledge and reality and how to investigate them. Within the arena of qualitative research there are many theoretical and conceptual debates that have been described as an interconnected family of concepts, terms and assumptions (Denzin and Lincoln, 1994). However, despite their multi- faceted orientation qualitative researchers of all types face "problems" when interacting with their respondents. There is a wealth of sociological analysis surrounding the problems experienced by qualitative researchers 'in the field', including suggestions of how to avoid some of these, however, anxieties and dilemmas associated with their interaction with those to be researched are not so easy to avoid. This is particularly the case for researchers investigating sensitive topics (Lee and Renzetti, 1990).

My research involved an exploratory study of the help-seeking behaviour of fifty three abused Greek women who suffered violence from their partners/husbands. Qualitative data were used and a feminist and context-specific approach was adopted. Interviews were carried out in the refuge for battered women in Athens, and the women's issues office and the laboratory of forensic medicine in Thessaloniki. The interviews were based on a structured interview schedule including both open-ended and closed questions and the data were organised around general themes. The questions started with the socio- demographic information about both the women and their partners, and then detailed accounts about a typical and the last violent events. Questions aimed to discover what happened, where, what the respondent did, and whether other people were present. All women participated voluntarily and the interviews lasted from one and a half to three and a half hours, with two hours being the average. In total, I was in the 'field' for five months.

Taking into consideration the above issues that I was expected to face while doing my research on wife abuse in Greece, I document how I tried to deal with them. Accordingly, this paper documents the research process, considering the stages of gaining access, meeting and interviewing the participants, safeguarding their rights and finally dealing with the effects that this experience had upon me both as a person and as a researcher. Throughout this documentation it is demonstrated that the researcher is left to deal with lots of anxieties and vulnerabilities present at every stage of the research. It is important that the researcher doing qualitative research on sensitive issues be aware of that and find ways to deal with these a priori the undertaking of the fieldwork.

Domestic Violence: Issues of Definition

It has been claimed that the social problem of violence against women involves acts where men/husbands "produce women/wives as victims" (Loseke, 1987: 231). It has been defined as "physical assault", "acts of violence", "physical attack", "savage abuse", "a pattern of physical abuse" (Loseke, 1987:232), or "real and serious physical assault" (Maynard, 1985). It is also defined as the use of "persistent, systematic, severe and intimidating force" (Dobash and Dobash, 1979), that yields "severe, repeated and demonstrable injury" (Strube and Barbour, 1983:785) and that produce "paralysing terror" (Loseke, 1987:232) or "terrifying intimidation" (Schechter, 1983). Also, wife abuse is characterised as "purposeful behaviour" (Schechter, 1983) and an act which "intents" to physically harm and inflict pain on a woman. In this way, violence can range from slaps and kicks, to a black eye, to broken bones, sadistic mutilation, torture and attempted murder and murder itself (Binney, Harkell and Nixon, 1981). As Evason (1982:32) quotes one of her respondents in her study: "For most of my married life I have been periodically beaten by my husband. What do I mean by "beaten"? I mean that parts of my body have been hit violently, and that painful bruises, swelling, bleeding wounds, unconsciousness, and combinations of these things have resulted...".

The violence may or may not necessarily include battery and rape, be related to sex or refusal of sex, or be related to drunkenness. It may also be related to emotional or psychological violence. Leonore Walker (1979) in her book "The battered woman" defines a battered woman as any woman who is coerced into doing what a man desires, whether this coercion is accomplished through physical force or psychological behaviour. In the body of the book, she discusses psychological abuse quite fully when she describes the atmosphere or terror that envelopes the family of a batterer. She states that the environment is a tense and emotional one even when no violence is being perpetrated because the possibility of the violence is always present. Thus, even when the violence does not reach these levels of physical force, constant fear is still engendered by living in a relationship with serious threats of violence. In this way, some men keep their wives effectively as prisoners[1], insist on controlling their every movement and knowing every detail of their lives, and some women although not being physically attacked, feel constantly threatened.

Summarising, Loseke (1987:230-232) points out five features of wife abuse events which characterise the very nature of the problem and which are the result of various definitions such as those described above. According to the author, the phenomenon of wife abuse pertains particularly to events including extreme forms of violence; is characterised by its repetition since it is not an event per se but rather a label for a series of events. Repeat victimisation also found by the British Crime Survey, 1996 which estimated that half of all victims of domestic violence are involved in incidents more than once. The third feature of wife abuse is that it produces physical injuries; the fourth is that it produces psychological injuries since the events involved are subjectively experienced by women as devastating, and finally the fifth is that the husband intends his behaviour to be extreme, controlling and consequential. This multi-dimensional definition of violence and abuse was adopted in my research as well and its various elements were reflected upon by the women's own descriptions of the violent events and the different meanings that violence and abuse had for them. For example, the element of the 'repetitive' nature of violence was obvious in descriptions similar to "I took him back because I believed it was an one-off event and that it would never happened again" (Int. 3). The 'physical' and 'psychological injuries' elements were always present in the Greek women's narratives: "He would pull my hair out, hit me all over my body, try to tear my shirt and at the same time he would shout at me the most horrible names…" (Int. 21). Or else "I felt constantly under threat and fear even though he was not in the house. When he was, I had to be very careful not to make him angry or neglect his habits or not looking at him when he was talking" (Int. 39).

Issues of "Doing Feminist Research"

In this study, my aim was to bring Greek women's experiences into the realm of public discourse as well as to produce valid knowledge for women's worlds and lives which can be used both by women themselves and the policy makers and thus contribute to women's liberation. To best serve the above aim my study needed to be contextualised under the feminist framework of research.

Feminist approach was the broad approach to research that I drew on in my research design. By drawing upon this approach I did not mean that I would use a particular methodology or method because as the literature on feminist research reveals there is not a single term "feminist methodology" as such. On the contrary, there is great evidence of the huge variety of methods used by feminist researchers following the canon that there is more than one "correct" way of researching questions (Reinharz, 1992:13- 17; Stanley, 1990; Harding, 1987).

Feminist research has been based on the significance of gender in society and has identified male bias in the social sciences which has produced distorted views of the world (Rose, 1982:360; Harding, 1991). Feminist research then is not about a particular methodology (theoretical framework) or method (technique) but is a critical perspective which aims to produce knowledge which will change the oppression of women and correct the invisibility of their experiences in ways relevant to ending women's unequal position in society. Also, feminist research supports the value of being open about and using one's own subjectivity in order to produce more valid data. It accepts that all research is political, in contrast to researchers such as Hammersley who dismisses feminism and feminist findings on the grounds of being "prone to dogmatism" (by the virtue of being political), rather than "scientific, rational and valid" (Ramazanoglou, 1992:207). For feminism, for example, domestic violence can be studied from different methodological standpoints but cannot be studied a-politically, since domestic behaviours give a particular view of social relations.

Feminist thought and practice is both empowering women and problematising what we mean by knowledge, reason, objectivity and validity. Its methodologies have been developed in the context of power struggles not only over personal relationships, but also over ways of knowing and the criteria for validating the knowledge that scholars produce (Ramazanoglou, 1992:209). For feminism, "knowing is a political process, so knowledge is intrinsically political" (Ramazanoglou, 1992:210), and as such it should be a challenge to the maintenance of the status quo. Feminist theorizing and methodology seeks to bring together subjective and objective ways of knowing the world. It begins and constantly returns to the subjective shared experience of oppression (putting emphasis on the personal account of one individual woman's oppression) out of which (sharing) came the feminist theory and methodology in its whole (Rose, 1982: 368). In general, feminist methodologies, always politically committed towards the empowerment of women, are new ways of knowing and of seeking 'truths'. They have been remarkably "open, creative and productive in transforming and extending our understanding of social life" (Ramazanoglou, 1992:211), and have greatly influenced our ways of 'seeing', 'being' and 'knowing' (Harding, 1987).

Furthermore, feminist research has developed a theoretical perspective based on the oppression and exploitation of women in society and locates men's violence as part of men's structural power within patriarchy (Dobash and Dobash 1979; Hanmer and Maynard 1987; Hague and Malos, 1993; Kelly 1988). It is this perspective that I have adopted in my work.'More specifically, I see the dominant, patriarchal ideologies demanding that women be good mothers and patient wives. The legal system 'naturalises' violence against women in the home by allowing perpetrators to act without fear of punishment by the state and the so-called 'helping institutions' claim to help battered women to meet their rights only they do help themselves to meet their own. These are structural systems devoted to maintaining male control over women.' For violence against women in the home was and, unfortunately, it still is premised on beliefs regarding the 'rightness' of male power and the 'entitlement' of men to exercise control over women's behaviours, decisions and actions.

Research Design

Research design is concerned with turning research questions into specific projects (Robson, 1993:38). This is of crucial importance for any inquiry. This study was concerned with interviewing battered Greek women and learning about their experiences of their partners' violence and their perceptions of the help and support they received from various formal and informal sources. Also, I wanted to explore whether women sought help after a specific violent assault and whether they were satisfied with the help and support they received. To allow women to talk about their particular situations in their own words highlighting the factors which they believed to be most important, was my primary aim. I was aware that I would be exploring a very 'sensitive topic' such as battering, that would demand all my attention, sensitivity and good preparation in order to protect women from possible harm and which inevitably might bring about a degree of emotionality. At that time, I did not think about the degree of emotionality this research would bring upon me too! I decided that I needed a methodology which would be in itself supportive and sensitive and yet would also address the research questions. Reflecting upon the above concerns and interests, it was clear that the qualitative nature of the research was the best to be employed, together with the feminist and "context- specific" approaches as they would both best do justice to the women's accounts (Reinharz, 1992; Stanley and Wise, 1990; Dobash and Dobash, 1983).

Preoccupation with method has been an important topic within feminist social science. Sandra Harding (1987) suggests that the preoccupation with method has switched attention from the more interesting aspects of the research processes, particularly from the differences between 'method', 'methodology' and 'epistemology'. When methodology and methods are discussed, they are discussed in relation to epistemology as this refers to the study of the grounds and validity of scientific and other knowledge. In a more analytic definition given by Stanley and Wise (1990:26), epistemology is "a theory of knowledge which addresses central questions such as who can be a 'knower', what can be known, what constitutes and validates knowledge, and what the relationship is or should be between knowing and being (that is, between epistemology and ontology)".

The in-depth interview is one of the most powerful methods in the qualitative armoury, and has been the major research method used by feminist researchers to encourage and enable women to tell their own life stories, and disclose rich details and information about previously 'hidden truths'. I was confident that my interviewees would be more willing to discuss their experience in an informal interview rather than a stiff, hard and one-way interaction that a social survey questionnaire would bring about. "By listening to women speak, understanding women's membership in particular social systems, and establishing the distribution of phenomena accessible only through sensitive interviewing, feminist interview researchers have uncovered previously neglected or misunderstood worlds of experience" (Reinharz, 1992:44).

Further, the in-depth interview takes us into the mental world of the individual to see the way in which she sees and experiences the world (McCracken, 1991:9). As other feminist researchers have shown, in-depth interviews offer the potential to explore experience and the meanings such experiences have for the respondents. Also, they provide very good contexts for women to express their differences as well as their similarities, and they also include opportunities for clarification and discussion and an opportunity to explore women's views of reality. The researcher has the further opportunity to probe deeply, to uncover new clues, to open up new dimensions of a problem and to secure valid, accurate, inclusive accounts that are based on personal experience (Burgess, 1984; Oakley, 1981; Finch, 1984; De Vault, 1990; Kelly, 1988). In general, the in-depth interview mainly facilitates a conversation in which the researcher encourages the interviewee to relate, in their own terms, experiences and attitudes that are relevant to the research question. Establishing trust and rapport with the researched was also considered necessary in my research (Oakley, 1981; Finch, 1984; Reinharz, 1992) so the interview as the method of data collection was chosen to best serve the research aims and perspectives.

Gaining Access: The 'Gatekeepers' and the Respondents.

There is only one Refuge for abused women in the whole of Greece and this is located in Athens. Through personal telephone communications, I managed to gain informal access to the Refuge granted by the Refuge Social Worker and the Director of the Reception Office. This was not particularly easy since they thought that it would be a journalistic sort of research and not a scientific one! Obviously, my status as a student, although a postgraduate one, did not convince them of my research abilities and trustworthiness. Their attitude made me feel particularly anxious and I decided I had to make my approach as a researcher clearer. I needed to repeatedly mention that I would keep strict professional confidentiality both while gathering my data and in the later stage of disseminating it. Here I believe that the fact that all the introductions, explanations, inquiries and general arrangements were initially made over the phone, made the 'gatekeepers' more concerned and worried and less willing to grant me access to interview the women. Nevertheless, they were very polite and when they first met me in person and I explained the research aims and purposes in a more detailed way, they allowed me access. I then constructed and posted the collaboration letter to the Social Services Department asking for their formal written agreement for access to the Refuge and to interviewing women. I was formally granted access only after I arrived in Greece and met the social services and the refuge staff in person. Meanwhile, a letter formally confirming access and co-operation was sent to my department at the University of Manchester soon after I left for Greece to undertake the research.

Apart from gaining access to the 'gatekeepers' I was particularly concerned with gaining acceptance to the battered women. How to approach the women? What to say? How would they react? How reliable their answers will be? These were just some of the questions which characterised that stage of thinking around gaining access and contacting the women and about which I give a detailed account in the next section. Still, I will now briefly reflect upon some valuable information deriving from the literature dealing with the interviewer/respondent anxiety while negotiating access. Various researchers have described their anxiety in similar circumstances. Having conducted qualitative interviews with sixteen couples, Marie Corbin (1972) provide a sensitive and detailed account of her tension anxiety in accessing and contacting people in their homes in order to find out about the men's lives as managers and the women's as managers' wives. As she points out "anybody who has ever stood on the doorstep of an unknown house, mustering a smile and a greeting for its unknown occupants, will appreciate at least some of the feelings of an interviewer arriving at such a house to talk to her respondents" (in Pahl, 1972:286). At the same level, McKeganey (1996:6)describes the researchers' anxiety around gaining access to and, most importantly, trust of the women prostitutes they wanted to interview and observe. Further to that, their research has raised the issue of researcher's physical danger when going into other people's living areas (in their case "the red-light area") where the unpredictability of the area created a sense of tension and anxiety about the possibility of violence directed towards them. In this context, the researchers have added interviewing to the list of risky jobs. Finally, Patrick (1973:97)also describes one of the most anxiety-creating situations while researching a teenage gang from the position of "being" a member of the gang himself. Obtaining access to the gang, as well as establishing relationships of trust and rapport with the members was one of the most anxious, nervous and tensed stages he had gone through. Access and trust had to be gained gradually and be proved constantly: "I did not realize at the time, but the fact that I had shared the experience of being picked up by the police with the inner core of the Young Team proved to be a turning-point in that I gained some minimal measure of acceptance" (Patrick, 1973:58). The important point that the researcher raises in this context is that access and admission to interview or observe an individual, group, area or service can be gained rather easily. Acceptance, however, involves a range of different things and attitudes.

The Researcher - Respondent Relationship

One of the key issues in which feminist researchers have contributed greatly is the relationship between the researcher and the women involved in the study, and the ethics of that relationship (for example Oakley, 1981; Stanley and Wise, 1990). I was theoretically aware of the complexity of the relationship between the researcher and the participant when using qualitative research. The feminist approach to the study is reflected in the researcher's acceptance of the existence of these varying power dynamics in the relationship and of her constant conscious attempts to keep it an equal, non-hierarchical and non- exploitative one, since for example a hierarchical relationship might prohibit or discourage full discussion. Further, feminist approaches claim that research participants should be considered as the owners of their information and as competent social actors who "have the power and knowledge which the researchers need" (Stanley and Wise, 1993:20). In relation to this, every time I was introduced to the woman by the social worker of the agency, I described the focus of the study and the topics to be discussed in the interviews. I also provided each one of them with the following information: the purpose of the study, which was to learn about the social support received while in the violent relationship and to date; that their participation in the study is totally voluntary and may be discontinued at any time; that no identifying information will be requested or recorded; that a copy of the report including the results of the study will be available to each respondent; and that the research results might be disseminated in the form of reports, publications or announcements. Almost all of the above and particularly the last point was very consciously used from my part in order to ensure that the participants knew both the research purpose and how I intended to use the research data. These tactics would create a more equal relationship between the researcher and the researched in terms of verifying the fact that there were many ways in which the interviewee could be powerful too (Burgess-Limerick, 1993:359).

Research ethics, including ideas about informed consent and the protection of the privacy and confidentiality of participants, must be agreed between the researcher and the researched before starting any kind of research (Barnes, 1979). This concept raises important issues such as the question of power, empowerment, rapport and trust. According to Hammersley and Atkinson (1995), there are no single or simple determinations of ethics and these must always be considered anew in each situation. Various researchers have argued that asking questions about people's private experiences and lives in general through interviewing, is an act of power and control per se (Reinharz, 1992; Davies, 1992). Although the researcher might be able to create a non-hierarchical or exploitative relationship with her interviewee during interviewing, it has been acknowledged that it is still the researcher who has the power to use the data by analysing and disseminating it (Stanley and Wise, 1993). I felt that this would be so in my case too. Still, having informed the participants about the ways in which I was going to write about their experiences, I believed that I had contributed to a more equal relationship with them.

Further, in the woman-to-woman interview situation, as was the case of my study and which is typical of feminist research, creating an equal power relationship is seen as important because interpersonal power relations are a fundamental feature of gender and the structural relations of system and subordination which gender inscribes. As women are regarded as relatively powerless and oppressed, then clearly it is important in feminist research to allow women to define their own experiences from their points of view (Holland and Ramazanoglou, 1994). The use of a large number of open-ended questions in my interview schedule was particularly helpful for that.

In addition to ethics, the concept of 'trust' must be considered. A feminist researcher should begin a research project intending to believe the participants and should only question a woman if she begins not to believe her (Reinharz, 1992:29). Research participants may be suspicious about the researcher's academic interest in their lives and how this may be used in an academic 'world' which is probably indifferent to their everyday life (Behar, 1992). Consequently, as a researcher one has to be trusted if s/he is going to gain information about other women's lives. In relation to this, it was my view that, since the first alert, information and familiarisation of women with the research would be made through the workers of each of the four agencies, that hopefully would make the women feel reassured about the researcher's trustworthiness and intention not to exploit them.

Some feminist researchers have also defined themselves as 'listeners' during the interview process and this was how I saw myself (Armitage, 1983:5). Within the interpretation of an account, a researcher needs to take into consideration not only what the participants said but also how they constructed their accounts (Rosenwald and Ochberg, 1992). 'Listening' is an important way to explore people's lives (Anderson and Jack, 1991). While listening, an interviewer must concentrate on what interviewees' presence of feelings are, how they describe facts and events and what they are likely to mean by the language they use. The presence of the researcher's self is also central to the conduct of social research, and their emotional involvement in the research process is unavoidable and feminist scholars agree that it should be acknowledged (Kelly et al, 1994; Stanley and Wise, 1993). Further, a researcher has also an obligation to invite participants to talk through asking them questions, and s/he should be prepared to share her/his thoughts and interests with the researched when being asked by the latter, as long as s/he does not forget that the questions should be based on the participants' experiences and not on the researchers' (Chase, 1995). In relation to that, it appeared that I only used 'self-disclosure' very judiciously since my view was that although it could sometimes enhance an interview, it could also be inhibitive. Primarily, I wanted to listen to a woman's experience but I was also to disclose information about my own life, if I felt an 'invitation signal' to do so. The women were so overwhelmed talking about their experiences that the majority of them did not ask anything about my private life.

In general, I had found it difficult to achieve a completely symmetrical power relation with the women during the interviews, but it was more of a constant shift of power balance and dynamics in general between the myself and the interviewees. A more "involved" position on my part was abandoned and a self-evaluation as well as a 'descriptively reflexive' stance was adapted[2] (Stanley, 1990). The latter concept of reflexivity is presented as very crucial within the qualitative research approaches. Steir (1991:2) refers to it as something 'bending back on itself'. In this sense, a researcher must concern herself where she positions 'I' as a person in research and to reflect analytically on this in research accounts. I very much experienced myself as such (i.e. a person in the research) since I saw myself functioning both as an interviewer (outsider/stranger) and a confidant (insider) listening to the women's private stories.

The "continuum of involvement" on the part of the researcher during the interview process, has also been defined as ranging from "nil involvement" through "stranger" and "acquaintance" roles, to "active friendship" (Plummer, 1983). Being aware of that, I was prepared to develop a degree of involvement with the respondents which would approximate most closely to Plummer's "acquaintance" level and where the researcher "...wants to obtain a casual working relationship" with the participants (Plummer, 1983:139). I knew that after leaving the fieldwork I would probably never see those women again so I thought that it would not be fair for them to invest in a friendship which would not last. Still, being 'in the field' and listening to the private information confessed by women that I had only just met was contradictory to the concept of "acquaintance" that Plummer points out. I experienced those women's private worlds, listened to their experiences of violence in detail, and during the interviews I felt close to them than to anyone else. Nevertheless, I knew that I was probably not going to see them again! The degree and nature of anxiety was further increased.

Conducting the Interviews

The position I adopted in relation to the issue of where I should conduct the interviews was guided by two main considerations. Firstly, the concern that the interviews should be held in an atmosphere in which the women would feel comfortable enough to talk freely and openly (Bogdan and Taylor, 1975; Mies, 1993). The second consideration was related to the idea that each of the respondents should be free to nominate the interview location of their own choice so that any stress or anxiety might be minimised for them.

All women who were asked to take part in the study agreed to do so after a brief explanation from the researcher about the purpose of the research, following the initial introduction and information given to them by the workers of each agency. In fact, many were anxious to take part in anything that would help other women experiencing violence. Given the sensitive nature of the research topic, the fact that I was a woman was acknowledged by all participants as very advantageous. Also, it was very important that I shared the same culture and first language with the women interviewed because I could probe and follow the meaning of the nature of specific cultural contexts. In this sense, I greatly related to Warren's (1988) concept of the researcher being "culturally contextualised" as well as to McCracken's view that the research benefits more when the researcher shares such similarities with her participants (McCracken,1991: 11).

Before any interview I made sure that each woman knew exactly what the research was about, that it was completely confidential and that she could withdraw from the interview at any time. All these rights were mentioned very clearly on "The Consent Form". Due to the sensitivity of the specific topic under study I considered the protection of women as paramount during the duration of the project. Accordingly, I was very committed to the fair and ethical treatment of women who participated in the research (Sarantakos, 1993:21-26). Their participation was strictly voluntary. No names, addresses or other identifying information was requested or recorded. I also asked the women to assign fictitious names for themselves if they preferred to ensure confidentiality and further protect the anonymity of themselves. This was another way that I thought would make women feel less threatened by my questions. None of the women changed their name.

As far as I was concerned, I had done all I could to establish an equal and trustful relationship with women, to protect them from any harm and to reduce possible anxieties caused by the telling of their stories. I had not anticipated at that time that another person who might also need "emotional protection and support" during the fieldwork would be me... The interview time proved not unproblematic. After the questions targeting on demographic information had been completed, I asked women about their experiences of violence. It was not until then that I realised how little prepared I was in terms of dealing more holistically with the sensitivity of the situation, that is, considering my own feelings and reactions too. I had regretted the fact that I had not anticipated any of this prior to arriving 'in the field'. I felt that had I taken some sort of training before I would be able to deal with all those feelings of uneasiness, insecurity and vulnerability that I was experiencing during the interviews, particularly during the initial ones. It was not that women were asking me questions about my private life (for these, I had prepared my responses) but that they would leave pauses for my possible comments and intervention. I found myself been exposed to a stressful situation with a dual nature: this duality came from listening to women's traumatised stories on the one hand, and struggling to decide as to the degree and the way to respond, on the other. Questions such as "should I respond in any particular way or not?"; "should I explore further the particular description?"; "should I better keep silent and simply be a sympathetic listener?" increased my feelings of uneasiness and anxiety. These questions looked less problematic as the number of the completed interviews was increased. Still, I had to find a way to deal with all that anxiety caused during as well as after the interviews. At those moments I was thinking how much I would have been benefited should topics of interviewer anxiety had a place on courses on research methods to better equip the researcher prior going to the field to conduct such a type of research!

The Impact on the Researcher

A number of researchers have recognised the difficulties of handling distressing disclosures (Kelly, 1988; Reinharz, 1992). Listening to and/or 'identifying' with the experiences of traumatised women is associated for the feminist interviewer with a transferral of pain and stress (Reinharz, 1992:34; Hoff, 1990). "The ethic of commitment exposes feminist interviewers to stress, particularly in studies of traumatised women" (Reinharz, 1992:34). I had found that to be true not only during the interviews (as mentioned above) but also after them. For me, the discovery of the amount of pain in women's lives reverberated for some time, particularly when I conducted the very first interviews. During and after each interview I usually felt overwhelmed and became anxious and depressed.

The method I used to record data was to keep written notes, instead of the more commonly used method of tape- recording. Sharing the same feelings as Corbin (1972:296), this decision was reinforced by my own self-consciousness when using a tape-recorder. It was also confirmed with a number of women who said that, given the nature of the topics to be discussed, it would have put them off in one way or another. The method of keeping notes was employed in such a way that it eventually proved to be of great help in dealing with the vulnerabilities, stress and anxieties caused by the interviews, mentioned above. After each interview, I always took two or more hours to 'transcribe' the open-ended questions of the research schedule so as not to loose contact with as verbatim a record of the woman's accounts as possible. In other words, I functioned as a tape recorder myself and the only way I could record accurately was, straight after finishing the interview with the woman, to isolate myself somewhere quiet and with no interruptions (this place was always the university library since the family I was staying with during the fieldwork was a busy and noisy place) and write down all the answers to open questions from the beginning. Of course, the notes taking during the interviews proved to be helpful and informatory. I named the notebook where I kept my records 'Sharing the Pain' which was constantly with me and, to my knowledge, was never seen by anyone else. The notes were interchangeably written in both English and Greek.

While I was looking for a way to somehow off-load some of this pain (and being aware of the impossibility of talking about any of the cases with anybody so as not to break confidentiality), I realised after a couple of interviews that my writing in the 'Sharing the Pain' notebook where I was analytically writing the traumatic bits of the women's stories, played a cathartic role in off-loading some of the stress and anxiety I was already feeling. Listening to women's traumatic stories made me feel anxious and depressed. My experience of keeping notes proved very helpful both for the research purposes and unexpectedly cathartic for myself. Doing research on the private sphere might reveal that in many cases research participants desire catharsis rather than sanctuary and in this way research becomes directly beneficial to them. In relation to that, the women revealed that they found the interviews therapeutic. Following this rationale, I believe that I did give something to the women in return; in exchange for the opportunity to undertake research it seemed that I offered them a 'payment', rewarding rather than materialistic in nature.

Still, I believe that other ways to help me to deal with this anxiety might have been to find another research student studying a similar sensitive area and talking to each other about some of the stories we had been told (obviously not revealing names). Unfortunately, in my case this could not happen because the fieldwork was taking place in another country. Further, participating in sessions providing professional counselling might also had helped provided that I would have anticipated their necessity in advance and all the appropriate arrangements would have been made.


Interviewing sensitive groups such as battered women might bring both the interviewees and the interviewer to a state of stress, anxiety and vulnerability. By talking about their painful experiences of violence the interviewees relived the violent events in their entirety, and by listening to their traumatic stories I felt inevitably overwhelmed.

In my research, anxiety was also present prior to interviewing since gaining access, meeting the interviewees and establishing trust and rapport were also problematic from my point of view. I was anxious to be perceived as a researcher and be treated with respect and trust from the 'gatekeepers'; anxious not to be perceived as a threat by my interviewees; anxious to establish a relationship of trust and rapport with them without been perceived as taking advantage of their vulnerable position during the interview; anxious as to my responses towards the deep and painful revelations made by women; and finally, anxious to find ways to deal with the effects the interviews had on me both as a woman and as a researcher.

From a feminist standpoint, my research aimed to record the statements that would represent the full reality of the experiences of the women interviewed. Having done that, to the best of my knowledge, I will hope that my research will have something to contribute towards women's empowerment and liberation and that by finding a shared voice we will be able to work together for the 'politicisation of the personal'.

This paper illustrated the ways in which anxiety can affect the researcher and consequently the research process. Some techniques that I had found helpful to deal with and overcome some of the anxieties were also presented. A well designed study informed by the ethics of doing research on sensitive topics is important, as is the researcher's awareness of the presence and influences of the anxieties to be experienced in various stages of the study. Despite these 'problems', the research process and interviewing abused women in particular, turned me into a more experienced researcher and brought together "my everyday knowledge as a woman, as feminist and as a social scientist" (Stanley and Wise, 1993:165).


1Psychologists in the USA have found parallels between the effects of domestic vioence on women and the impact of torture and imprisonment on hostages. See more on that in Graham,P., Rawling, E. And Rimini, W. (1988) "Survivors of Terror: Battered women, Hostages and the Stockholm Syndrom" in Yllo, K. And Bogard, M. (Eds) Feminist Perspectives on Wife Abuse, London: Sage.

2According to Stanley (1990), reflexivity can be distinguished between 'descriptive reflexivity' and 'analytic reflexivity'. Descriptive reflexivity is concerned with describing the 'findings' of the research, inclining the relationship and feelings of researcher and researched and also the relationship between them, while analytic reflexivity focuses on explicating the basis of knowledge-claims within details of the 'research process' of knowledge production. Stanley (1990) points out that most feminist uses of reflexivity are of the descriptive kind only and that, unlike ethnomethodology or phenomenology, feminist social science still has an under-developed idea about other more analytic forms of reflexivity.


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