Lifting the veil on vulnerability

The impact of the ethnographic experience

Carys Banks

03 Jun 2015

Until recently, when asked about my doctoral study I gave a general description of my research area: autonomy and social care support for adults with learning disabilities in England. But after beginning fieldwork, I quickly realised that such broad strokes were far too abstract, failing to sufficiently encapsulate all that I was experiencing in and learning from the field. As both a researcher and a human being, the impact of delving deeply into ethnographic inquiry – becoming involved and entwined in people’s lives – was both palpable and hard to articulate.

Fieldwork thrust me into the intimacy and domesticity of people’s lives: their homes. At one site, a residential care home where seven people lived, I quickly became part of the ‘hustle and bustle’ of daily life, helping people get dressed and make breakfast, and being privy to conversations between support workers on topics relating to service users, staff, and the organisation. Elsewhere, I began developing closer relations with people with learning disabilities, spending time with them on a one-to-one basis, and accompanying them to social activities or employment training placements.  

As The Ethnographer, I was continually and simultaneously undertaking the dual role of ‘doing’ as people did, as well as anthropologically observing and interpreting this ‘doing’. The effect of this upon me was largely physically felt, manifesting in extreme tiredness and being drained emotionally. Due to their intensity, days that were spent alone with participants were particularly difficult, and I would find myself craving anonymity – both in public and, to an extent, in my private relationships. It was almost as if after each day I had no more to give; I was empty, drained, and longing for restful solitude.  

My early descriptions of my research failed to convey the visceral and poignant contact that occurs in embodied exploration into others’ lives. Currently, the only way I can describe my experience of this is in terms of being faced head-on with people’s vulnerability. Policy typically interprets ‘vulnerability’ as being in danger, and so as a negative state – but the vulnerability I experienced from participants was not this. Rather, the ways in which they were vulnerable helped me understand it as something that is part of all human experience, something that when encountered and shared is revealing of our true selves. Yet, most of the time we attempt to conceal this from others.

As I came to know individuals on a personal level, I increasingly felt that a ‘veil’ was lifted that laid bare their vulnerabilities, and I was exposed to situations that were deeply affecting. I spent time, for example, with two young men who lived in the same supported-living house. At times they would attempt to invite physical contact with me – usually trying to hold hands or engage in an embrace. When this happened I felt a sense of concern as to how to respond, aware that protocol within the social care sector is generally to not engage with these attempts. I was torn between not wanting to openly flaunt codes of conduct, whilst at the same time feeling a desperate need to appease the loneliness felt by those seeking comfort.

Immersing ourselves in people’s lives allows us into those more intimate aspects of everyday encounters that are ordinarily hidden from view. Observing and experiencing this ‘lifting of the veil’ is why anthropologists choose to work ethnographically. Yet, actually doing this is very much out-of-the-ordinary. Nowhere else in our lives, not even with friends and family, do we so intensely and purposefully explore other people’s lives.

In hindsight, I see now that these experiences were partly so affecting for me because they evoked a sense of my own vulnerability. Yet, although I now find this helpful to acknowledge, I am consequently left in a dilemma as to how much of this I reveal in my writing. How much of myself should I lay bare without turning my work into a vehicle for my own psychological catharsis? How much do I describe how my doctoral journey has been one not only of intellectual exploration, but also of shared vulnerability, which has compelled me to further explore my own personhood? And how then do I reconcile academic enquiry with my subjectivity, in terms of the personal ‘baggage’ I bring to the field? I am certainly not alone in contemplating these questions. 

For early-career researchers, the need to consider our personal responses to experience in the field is widely acknowledged to be an important part of academic training. And while subjectivity is often discussed in dissertation methodology chapters, too often we seem to just compartmentalise emotions under the heading of ‘subjectivity’. In doing so, the researcher’s emotional state becomes something to be appropriately ‘managed’. We are given little space within our professional lives to come to terms with the often emotionally fraught processes of ethnographic inquiry.

Speaking to the difficulties of researchers ‘dealing with’ their subjective responses through their work, Watts (2008) acknowledges that her research interests (people who have cancer and how they cope with this) are partly related to her own personal losses. In reading her refreshingly honest articulations, I feel great empathy: as I explore my own reasons for following my particular research path, I have begun to see that much of my determination to understand how society might accept people with learning disabilities, who are among the most vulnerable and excluded, is indeed tied up in my own personal struggle for acceptance. Yet, in acknowledging this, I ask the same question as Watts: to what extent does and/or should my personal biography influence how I interpret the experiences of my participants?

There is an important caveat here: turning one’s work into an autobiography does not do justice to the narratives of the actual participants. Still, I feel that engaging with my subjectivity in a meaningful way is a vital stage in the process of rigorous interpretation. If we cannot avoid the highly personal emotions that can be stirred up through embodied interaction in others’ lives, then it is crucial that we are able to understand and come to terms with the ways that we may be deeply affected by our work.

In articulating our research, how much of ourselves do we lay bare, especially when the very reason we are compelled to pursue a line of enquiry is partly driven by a desire to resolve an internal conflict? The extent to which I feel comfortable discussing my subjectivities is still something with which I grapple. Yet, even as I write this, I feel a greater sense of courage to lift my own veil.  

About the author

Carys Banks is a final year doctoral student based at the University of Bath, UK. Her doctoral research has constituted an ethnographic study of social care support provided to adults with learning disabilities living in England. She has specifically been looking at how government policy on learning disability, which is founded on liberal notions of the centrality of individual freedom, is combined with safeguards to protect people who are described as vulnerable. Her doctoral research has sought to understand the nature of the tensions that exist between the need to empower this group of people with freedom while at the same time protect them from harm. 


Watts, J.H., 2008. ‘Emotion, Empathy and Exit: Reflections on Doing Ethnographic Qualitative Research on Sensitive Topics’. Medical Sociology Online 3, no. 2: 3–14.