Photo/stories from the field: encountering emotions in the field

The role of emotion, feelings and affect has increasingly been discussed in qualitative research, especially in ethnography, for its methodological value in the recent literatures (for example see, Davies and Spencer, 2010). In our own research, getting access, maintaining relationships for an extended period of time, fixing appointments, doing research in different temporal and spatial environments, and curating exhibitions for children/families with diverse background in the same space and time – all involved a lot of emotional moments.


In the study we approached emotion as an analytical category in understanding the relationship between and childhood and public life.

In this blog post, I provide two examples that entail contrasting emotional moments in order to discuss how emotions mediate the research process and how emotionalised reflexivity informed the construction of knowledge (Procter, 2013).

We visited Rekha and her family just a week before we curated the public exhibition in Hyderabad – the concluding event in our research – to invite the family in person for the programme. Rekha’s mother, Vijaya, who always welcomes us with a smiling face looked sombre and subdued, an uncomfortable silence prevailed in the home. Having visited their family for about 2 years at various points of time, I could sense that something was amiss. After few minutes of our conversation, we inquired about Rekha’s father. At this point Vijaya burst into tears. Her husband had been admitted to hospital for treatment and was still there, she didn’t know which hospital and felt insecure in her understanding of what was happening to him. Her concern about the situation was palpable. All she could do was crying. She was thinking of the consequences of hospitalisation and its potential risk more from the perspective of children. There were various other relatives in the house who appeared to be supporting Vijaya and conveying information to her as they were in contact with the hospital. Vijaya looked devastated. Rekha and her elder brother were silently watching her mother crying. They didn’t react but they looked upset. It was shattering for us to hear what Vijaya has been going through.

I didn’t say anything initially but later asked who provides support to the family, knowing also of a recent bereavement in the family which would have added to her sadness. Madhavi, as a female researcher, was able to hugged Vijaya while crying and I told her to stay positive and not loose hope. It took some time for her to stop crying. We felt how difficult the situation must be for her and we also felt that we couldn’t do much to help her. Although, I did decide to offer some financial help and gave her some money to meet the hospital expenditure at least. I wasn’t entirely sure of the implications of research ethics in doing this but realised that for a moment my former social worker identity took over.

The next experience is completely different. After my first formal visit to Neha, another girl child in the study, I got a feeling that I really enjoyed the session. I got an impression that the session was to a great extent child-led. Neha seemed to be comfortable with us and she was randomly talking about many things of her everyday life without prompting her to speak, which was not the case for majority of children in Hyderabad at least in the beginning. Also, Neha demonstrated her probing nature by asking clarifications on the research methods and expressed her willingness to read and sign the consent form herself. She appeared to be a bold and assertive girl in my first visit. Also, she was fluent in English so the entire session was conducted in English and that gave me a sense of direction too as I was new to Telugu and still learning.

In the second visit, in contrast to my first visit, I had a feeling that the session went completely out of control. For most parts, Neha was not in a mood to listen and she regularly interrupted our conversation/activity with disruptive behaviours. Since the activities were carried out in the so called private/personal space of Neha’s home, there were lot of negotiations to structure our activities and that was complicated by the difficulty in sustaining her interest in task-based methods for more than five to ten minutes. As a result of it, our conversation lost direction quite often and we were obliged to make impromptu decisions as and when our conversation side-tracked. For me, the same qualities that appeared to be the strength for conducting research in the first visit proved to be a challenge in the second visit. That was not the only occasion where I felt challenging to work with Neha and there were many other occasions where my emotional threshold level was seriously tested, especially while handing over the camera and collecting photo/stories. I just felt like Neha was too playful, too interruptive, not paying enough attention to what I say, and all of these caused a lot of self-doubt about my ability, increased my anxiety, produced ethical quandary, triggered a lot of unease and disappointment and, as Horton (2008) describes, at times, it felt like a sense of failure at some level.

As ethnographers, we hang out in the field for an extended period of time so we are bound to connect to people emotionally, intellectually and viscerally in human interactions. Interestingly, some of the emotional experiences as explained here provided different moments of anxiety, awkwardness, and discomfort; yet, they proved to be a source of insight and revelation.

In the case of Rekha, the intensity of emotion in those fieldwork moments helped us to contextualise our understanding of Rekha’s everyday life – the precarity, the vulnerability and the ambiguity of being a poor child and growing up in the city. The lived and felt experiences of my emotions also offered enabling experiences in terms of reflexivity filled with a lot of reflection on changing positionality and the affective dimensions in research.

In contra, most of my field visits to Neha were characterised by a dialectic feeling of accomplishment and failure, anxiety and composure, familiarity and uncertainty, and so on. This emotional oscillation made me reflect on many things including methodological consonance or dissonance, individual competence, temperament and so on. I was equipped to expect such things through my formal research training and prior experience in conducting research with children in early years. Such precedence prepares us to anticipate such things, yet, the messiness and excess of everyday life exceeds our expectation and the affective elements subsumed my abstract understanding.

Holmes (2011) argues how emotionalised reflexivity could be useful in understanding the relationship between bodies, inter-subjective experiences, and negotiations in the complex social spaces of contemporary human life. Following Holmes, Procter (2013) demonstrates how our meaning making of the data is embedded and entangled in the emotional experiences and reflections of our fieldwork, which might otherwise be ‘hidden’ or ‘unseen’ in the research process.

Together, these emotional literatures suggest that emotional reflexivity brings the researcher closer to the understanding of culturally specified ‘feeling rules’ and the spatiality of emotion. Therefore, as Davies (2010) suggest there is a need to think of a methodological framework that recognises the epistemological value of emotion and affect in knowledge production.

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