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Feet of clay: confronting emotional challenges in ethnographic experience

Tara Warden (School of Applied Social Science, University of Stirling, Stirling, UK)

Journal of Organizational Ethnography

ISSN: 2046-6749

Article publication date: 23 August 2013




Ethnographers, as tools of data collection, are uniquely positioned in a paradoxical relationship between intense immersion and objective distance from research and participants. This relationship can be particularly intense when researching hidden or marginalized communities in violent contexts. Yet, the emotional consequences of research on the researcher are rarely discussed and little literature exists. When emotions in research are revealed, researchers can be confronted with stigma surrounding issues of subjectivity, “going native” and implications of failed research. This paper seeks to address these issues.


Drawing on research from Lee, Hume, and Nordstrom and Robben, this article presents a reflexive analysis of the author's ethnographic PhD experience. It examines the transformation undertaken to adapt and cope with in‐depth research with vulnerable groups in dangerous environments. It also explores the post‐fieldwork transition and consequences of post‐traumatic stress syndrome which were viewed as the author's feet of clay, or possible weakness which could derail or even invalidate the research.


This article delineates the risks of emotional trauma in ethnographic research, and outlines the symptoms of post‐traumatic stress syndrome and secondary trauma in order to facilitate their identification in future researchers.

Practical implications

The practical implications of this paper are to raise awareness about the emotional consequences of research and revealing how essential it is that awareness be included in the training of future researchers.


The paper aims to raise awareness about the acute emotional consequences of conducting research with marginalized populations in violent contexts. It specifically looks at the insider/outsider position, highlighting those isolating affects which can lead to post‐traumatic stress syndrome. It aims to reveal the attitudes within academia which tend to hide emotional struggles in research.



Warden, T. (2013), "Feet of clay: confronting emotional challenges in ethnographic experience", Journal of Organizational Ethnography, Vol. 2 No. 2, pp. 150-172.



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Copyright © 2013, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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