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Complexities of care: Navigating sensitive research with family and friends

by Anna Gopsill and Annabel Higgins


As genocide scholars, we are studying the complex dynamics of gender, violence, and genocide. This comes with very unique challenges, both in our professional lives and in how we communicate this with non-academics. Specifically, we have noticed that those of us who study mass violence and sexual violence can face confronting conversations with family and friends related to our research.

We have found we often face two main responses from non-academics to our studies. First, the classic “oh. That’s intense” - the conversation stopper, which can be awkward or uncomfortable in social settings. Second is the over-enthusiastic response, where someone asks increasingly intense questions about our work. While we are always excited to talk about our work, there are certain settings in which this is more difficult. For example, we do not want to delve into the particulars of sexual violence and sterilisation late in the evening at a wedding, or during a fun Sunday brunch.

When people ask what we are doing our PhDs in, we usually opt for the really broad answer of "international law" or “human rights”. Part of the reason for this is that saying "genocide and the erasure of the gender's specific victimhood in genocidal contexts such as rape and sexual violence" can be quite the brutal opener for conversations. But also, on a really basic level, you just don't know who you are talking to - one in five women and one in twenty men in the UK have experienced rape and sexual abuse. If you are having a chat with someone at a wedding and, without warning, state that you research this topic, there is a not-insignificant-chance that the person you're talking to has experienced (or knows someone who has experienced) this form of violence.

But on the other hand, if we don't talk about it, are we invisibilizing this violence further, contributing to the silence and stigma? Where do we draw the line between polite social conversations and social advocacy for a topic to which we have dedicated more than three years?

We also feel a certain responsibility for those around us, especially friends and family, who are not accustomed to this research or to discussing violence. In our personal relationships, there are certain complexities of care - personal care, care for family and friends, care for acquaintances and co-workers. As such, we require an ability to draw boundaries between our research and our personal interactions. In some ways, we have established different circles of care to protect ourselves, and also friends and family, from emotional stress.

A day of research may consist of reading through survivor testimony, people who have experienced or witnessed some of the worst of human nature. Being able to communicate the stress we take on through this research, to those around us who didn't necessarily ask to hear these experiences of victims and survivors of genocide, can be hard. You don't want to burden your nearest-and-dearest with these mental images, but also (as we know) talking helps and can relieve the stress of working with such difficult sources.

There is no one solution to finding how to talk to those close to us about our research, and it is an issue that we are constantly navigating. However, we have been lucky in finding a group of other genocide scholars, whose work overlaps with ours and who we can trust. We find that this form of solidarity allows for openness and discussion where the other people involved in the conversation just know what you are talking about and understand the complex negotiations involved in casual chat. In this group, it is also a space where we are not required to 'explain' our research or worry about the reaction others will have. When we say we have spent a tough day looking at survivor testimony, the reaction is never "why don't you research something else instead?!"

These spaces in academia are few-and-far between, unfortunately. The ability to share not just broad research woes, but also the challenges unique to your discipline if it deals with traumatic histories, is vital to preventing burnout and adverse mental health outcomes. As genocide scholars we are dedicated to researching and raising awareness of genocide and its great human toll, and we rely on these networks to allow us to do this work.

Anna Gopsill is a PhD candidate in Human Rights at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Anna’s research centres on the interpretations of gender, victimhood, and vulnerability after conflict, specifically on male victims of sexual violence at international criminal courts. You can follow her on twitter at @annagops.

Annabel Higgins is also a PhD candidate in Human Rights at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Annabel's research focuses on the erasure of women's activism in the history of genocide, and seeks to write back-in the work of women and women's groups to this male-dominated history. You can follow her on twitter at @AnniHiggins.

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