‘Vulnerable Participants or Vulnerable Researchers?’ – Reflections from our Arizona Postgraduate Symposium

By Melissa Chaplin and Judith Reynolds

As part of the Project Symposium held at the University of Arizona in Tucson from 14 to 18 March 2016, the PhD students within the Researching Multilingually at Borders project had the fantastic opportunity to deliver a postgraduate workshop involving a small group of graduate students from the University of Arizona. The event was an intimate half day workshop exploring the theme of vulnerability in postgraduate research.

Tucson Campus

University of Arizona, Tucson Campus









Approaching vulnerability as a theme

We selected the theme of vulnerability in research both because it features as one of the themes of the wider AHRC ‘Researching Multilingually at Borders’ project, and because we felt that it is particularly relevant to the symposium participants, graduate and doctoral students who are just starting out on their research and academic careers. Many of the workshop attendees are also carrying out research involving participants such as refugees, migrants and children who might traditionally be viewed as vulnerable. Our intention was to encourage attendees to reflect on vulnerability in research from these two different standpoints, that of participants and that of the researcher.

In the lead up to the Symposium, we worked together with the Glasgow-based PhD students Maria Grazia Imperiale and Gameli Tordzro to create a short film of reflections about vulnerability in our own research. You can see our film here:

‘Vunerable’ from Gameli Tordzro on Vimeo.

We screened the film at the beginning of the event in Arizona, hoping through this to open up a space for discussion about issues of vulnerability amongst the workshop attendees. We also hoped that by introducing a creative and non-traditional medium for exploration of this theme, we could create an atmosphere of trust and openness.

Creating this atmosphere was central to the activities that were planned for the afternoon. Given the potentially sensitive nature of the theme, we decided on a workshop format incorporating creative elements. Activities and exercises were designed to foster reflections about vulnerability in the research process. The incorporation of creativity into the symposium was also important because of the main project’s focus on examining the use of the creative arts in research.

What is vulnerability?

After the short film screening, and a session of self-introductions, we asked our participants to answer the question: ‘what does vulnerability mean to you?’. The resulting word cloud was fascinating, as it incorporated a wide range of conceptualisations of vulnerability, including both negative and positive perceptions of it. Even at this early stage there were emergent themes including agency, responsibility and honesty. The roles of language, and voice, in vulnerability came out very clearly in the discussions we had about the results. A partial excerpt of the word cloud is presented below.

What does vulnerability mean?

Research participants as vulnerable

We then entered a session focused on views of participants as vulnerable. Each of the attendees drew a picture of their idea of a vulnerable participant, and then drawings were shared and discussed in a feedback session. Again, a wide range of different views emerged, with themes of helplessness, the situatedness of vulnerability, control, uncertainty, and the expectations of society, the academy, and researchers themselves emerging. Here are a few of the drawings, together with the artist’s comments about them.

Research Participant 1

Artist comment: The drawing shows a few different ways in which I consider that people may be vulnerable. The tears of the lady represent emotional trauma that she is suffering. The man is trying to express his anger and opinion about something but is being silenced (the red cross over his speech), so is unable to make himself heard. The child is alone and ostracized, with his or her cries for help also being ignored. The security bars represent lack of freedom (in whatever form that may manifest), whereas the eyes watching from above represent control and scrutiny by external forces – whether that be by the researcher or by some other party.

Research Participant 2

Artist comment: I wanted to represent how one person can be vulnerable in many ways at the same time. The person in the center is content but has no idea he/she is vulnerable. The person on the right represents the the suffering in vulnerability which is usually led by uncertainty. Finally, the person on the left is passionate and does not feel vulnerable, but is positioned as so, therefore, limiting his/her power.

Research Participant 3

Artist comment: I chose a female participant to reflect on a vulnerability. I feel that each participant has at least two, some even more, versions of her story. The dark part of the drawing is the story that she tells, visible to all. But the other side, the lighter side of the drawing is the part she might want to hide or is unable to disclose to anyone, not even to herself. Her red lips are in contrast to the black and white part of her being to represent her passion of wanting to share and to express, but is unable to free the words from her lips. Her gaze is blank but pointed to the ground as if she is looking for a path– an exit or an entry. 

Researcher vulnerability

Our next session was intended to allow attendees to reflect on their own vulnerability as researchers. We asked each person to identify, and bring a copy of, a short quotation or poem which speaks to their own experience of vulnerability in research, or which has inspired them in a moment of vulnerability. All quotations were placed in a hat, each participant picked out a quotation at random from the hat and read it out for the others, adding their own personal reaction to it afterwards. Then the person who had contributed the quote was asked to identify themselves and speak about why they had chosen it.

Quotes were submitted, in several languages, from such diverse sources as Theodore Roosevelt, Carlos Castaneda, and Tina Fey. This activity was intended to allow participants to share something about their own feelings of vulnerability in research. It was also intended to highlight differences (and occasional similarities) between the way in which individuals interpreted the same text, in a consideration of the situatedness of the activity of interpreting a text. Sometimes with the help of some skilful co-translation, this did come out of the activity, and participants also enjoyed the sharing of quotations which meant something to them personally.

Co-creation and vulnerability

Our final activity was entitled “The Story Circle”. In this session, all participants contributed to creating a story together. With everyone sitting in a circle, one participant started off the story with an opening sentence. The storyteller’s voice passed around the circle, with each participant in turn adding something new to the story, until it reached a natural end. No additional guidance about the content or form of the story was given before starting to create the story.

Our story began with the line “Once upon a time, there was a bird who could not sing.” It continued in a fable-esque manner, following the bird’s journey to use dance as an alternative mode of communication, this being picked up upon and popularised by younger birds as a means of expression, and then becoming the subject of study and academic critique in the bird academy. The story featured heavy overtones of satire and parody, and was an affectionate self-mockery of our position as emerging communication researchers. Our discussion afterwards focused on the loss of control and authorship over the story that we as individuals felt, a feeling that is familiar to many students engaged in qualitative research.

A valuable opportunity for reflection

In a concluding round-up, attendees discussed their experience of the afternoon and key points emerging in small groups. There were perhaps two key points that attendees took from the event. The first was that it was helpful for everyone to have been able to reflect on the vulnerability of the novice researcher, and to acknowledge that although vulnerability is an intensely personal matter, it is also something that is shared as an experience by ourselves and our peers. The second was that through taking part in the creative activities of the afternoon, participants experienced a sense of vulnerability themselves which brought home to them how their own students and research participants may feel when asked to undertake similar activities in class or in research. Many of the participants found this reminder, through direct experience, of the vulnerability of the position of their students or research subjects useful.

We are grateful to all of our workshop attendees for their wonderful contributions, without which the day would have been impossible. We and the other attendees feel that the symposium uncovered a real need for a greater focus by the academy on the issue of researcher vulnerability in particular. Indeed, the activities of the afternoon could form the foundation of a future training session centred on researcher wellbeing and/or pastoral care of junior researchers, something that we all felt would be of benefit to postgraduate students.

Sunset in Tucson

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