Self Care: A Part of Ethical Research Practice

Photo of Jeanine Hourani

By Jeanine Hourani, Research Associate at Centre for Health Equity, Gender and Women’s Health Unit, University of Melbourne.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” – Audre Lorde

I have always been acutely aware of the importance of culturally safe and ethically sound practices when conducting research with and for refugees – it’s something that has been hammered into me throughout my Masters of Public Health. Something that was less central to my understanding of ethical research practice, was the importance of self-care; the notion that ethical research should protect both the research subjects and the researcher.

Ethical research practice requires comprehensive socio-political and cultural understanding of the challenges facing refugees. This means fieldwork is best led by those with experience of the culture, norms and challenges faced by refugees. While this doesn’t necessarily ensure culturally competent research practices, it provides an above-average baseline entry point. This is what drew me to refugee research; I believed that my lived experience provided me with a solid baseline understanding of the challenges and opportunities across all stages of research:

  1. Interviews. Being an Arab, a Muslim, and having come to Australia as a refugee meant that I felt well-positioned to interview participants with an inherent sense of cultural sensitivity. This was further strengthened by the fact that I was interviewing participants in their first language – Arabic.
  2. Write-up. Being subject to negative media portrayals of Arab women and women in Islam, I am painfully aware of the many meritless stereotypes that ensue and felt comfortable challenging these when framing both the problems and the solutions during project write-up.
  3. Providing recommendations. Having worked on the service delivery side of the refugee sector and having a handle of the challenges that exist within my own community meant that I felt I could provide an ‘insider’s perspective’ of possible unintended consequences of recommendations.

I felt a sense of relief when I first started conducting interviews. In one of my first interviews, our interviewee revealed that it was arranged that she was engaged to be married at 12 years old. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t stop thinking about how someone else might have reacted to this information, someone whose own grandmother hadn’t had an arranged marriage at 16. I cringed at the thought of the insensitive ways this could have been perceived both during the interview, and in the analysis and write-up of findings. Despite this sense of relief, interviewing participants revealed a relative, and undeniable, privilege that I hold.

I am a researcher – regardless of my lived experience. While that does not dampen the value of my lived experience, it brings with it power and privilege. This not only manifests during interviews, but even during interpretation of the data, something I realised while transcribing and translating the transcripts. Through my practice of research, the subjects had trusted me with their stories. In doing so, they were trusting me to become the conduit of their voices and gate-keeper of the information that they shared.My role as a researcher aside, I am a university-educated Australian citizen who is fluent in the English language. I have never experienced sexual or gender-based violence, nor am I currently in a position of financial instability. This further exacerbated my relative privilege. I quickly learned that while I may not hold ethnic privilege over the research subjects, I certainly hold immense social privilege.

Realising this social privilege meant that I often left interviews with a heavy sense of guilt – commonly known as ‘survivor guilt’. It was at this point that I realised the importance of self-care. For me, there are three things that have really helped:

  1. Debrief sessions with other team members. I remember reading about debrief sessions in the ethics application and thinking to myself ‘oh, that’s cute’. Having felt significantly lighter after debriefing with a team member on car rides home from interviews, I now realise that debriefing is not a nice to have but a must-have.
  2. Spacing out the interviews. At one stage, we did 6 interviews in the space of 3 days. By the end of those 3 days, I was completely drained of all my energy. From then on, I have made sure that I space out interviews. The same applies for transcribing and translating – I’ve learnt to space them out and take regular breaks. 
  3. The importance of saying no. After a day of 3 consecutive interviews, I had pre-arranged dinner plans with a friend. I felt exhausted at even the thought of expending more energy through social interaction. Instead, I treated myself to multiple cups of tea, a long bath, and lots of trashy TV to replenish my energy levels. Most importantly, I told myself that it was ok to do so.

At first, all this self-care stuff seemed pretty self-indulgent, but then I asked myself: what good am I to the refugee movement if I burn out before I’ve even really begun?