Sensitive interviewing

Angela Melville, Law.

In the social science research literature, sensitive research is most often used to mean conducting interviews about emotionally difficult topics, although it can also refer to the study of deeply personal issues, research with vulnerable populations, or research that could have negative consequences for participants.

Interviewees experience

Sensitive interviewing raises issues about how interviewees experience being involved in research. Insights from survivors of rape (Campbell et al 2009), relatives of murder victims and women how have had abortions (Goodrum and Keys 2007) provide suggestions for researchers about how to conduct sensitive interviews, such as ensuring that information about the research is appropriate and the need for follow-up contact information.

Emotional impact

Sensitive interviews also raises issues concerning the emotional impact of conducting research on researchers, as well as transcribers, research assistants and supervisors.

These impacts highlight the “emotional work” (Hochschild 1983, Dickson-Swift et al 2009) that is involved in conducting interviews. Researchers have reported feeling uneasy about the level of disclosure they obtain, becoming desensitised to interviewees’ feelings, and feeling as is they should engage in a reciprocal relationship.

Suggestions for assisting researchers in dealing with the emotional impact of interviewing includes ensuring that there are opportunities to debrief, keeping a research journal or diary, and working in non-hierarchical research teams (Beale et al 2004).

Deeper issues

Beyond these rather technical aspects of doing research, sensitive interviews highlight deeper issues with interviewing. They reveal that interviews are often located within an unequal power relationship between interviewer and interviewee, the potential for interviews to be exploitative, and question whether it is really possible to obtain fully informed consent (Darra 2008).


Recent research conducted by members of the School of Law into the experiences of medical negligence claimants highlight many of the issues relating to sensitive interviewing. Medical negligence claimants have attempted to sue their healthcare provider, and some of our interviewees had suffered very traumatic experiences, such as the death of a child or a spouse allegedly due to negligence.

This research required an appropriate method for contacting claimants, ensuring that members of the research team had opportunities to debrief, and using an appropriate research method. Whereas previous research into medical negligence claiming had used questionnaires, this research used open-ended in-depth interviews which were felt to be more appropriate to the topic.

This research was commissioned by the Scottish Executive and has fed into the work of the No-Fault Compensation Review Group.

Research examples

Examples of other research on sensitive topics conducted within the School of Law:

  • Frank Stephen and Angela Melville have also conducted research into the experiences of people who have made a negligence claim against solicitors. This research was funded by the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission
  • Judith Aldridge has conducted research on gangs, recreational drug use and drug use.
  • Judith Aldridge is currently conducting research with Lisa Williams into mephedrone sales and purchasing, which involves interviewing sellers. Lisa Williams’ previous projects have involved interviewing heroin and crack cocaine users about their drug use and involvement in crime, and interviewing young people about drug use.
  • Jon Spencer and Jo Deakin have conducted interviews with: sex offenders about their convictions and employment prospects; problem drug users about their addictions, life histories and employment; women in prison about their social networks; convicted street robbers about their motivations and activities; and children about physical and sexual assault by strangers.
  • Toby Sneddon has also conducted interviews with drug users and offenders, which covered issues such as involvement in illegal activity, involvement in behaviour harmful to others, family problems, difficult childhoods, and mental health problems.
  • Claire Fox has recently completed a PhD which involved interviewing disabled women who had been in abusive relationships. He current research is investigating ‘one-stop-shops’ for women offenders.
  • A number of PhD other projects supervised within the School of Law also focus on sensitive topics, for instance, Tammy Krause is investigating the use of victim impact statements in US federal capital cases, Emily Smith is researching the experiences of young fathers in a Young Offenders Institute, and James Irving is conducting research with members of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Further reading

  • Beale, B., Cole. R., Hillege, S., McMaster, R., Nagy, S (2004) “Impact of in-depth interviewing on the interview: roller coaster ride” Nursing and Health Sciences, 6(2), 141-147.
  • Campbell, R., Adams, A. E., Wasco, S. M., Ahrens, C. E. and Sefl, T. (2009) “Training interviewers for research on sexual violence: a qualitative study of rape survivors’ recommendations for interview practice” Violence Against Women, 15, 595.
  • Darra, S. (2008) “Emotional work and the ethics of novice insider research” Journal of Research in Nursing, 13, 251-261.
  • Deakin, J and Spencer, J (2011) ‘Sensitive Survey Research: An Oxymoron?’ in Davies, P, Francis, P and Jupp, V, (eds) Doing Criminological Research, 2nd ed, London: Sage.
  • Dickson-Swift, V., James, E. L., Kippen, S., and Liamputtong, P. (2009) “Researching sensitive topics: qualitative research as emotion work” Qualitative Research, 9(1), 61-79.
  • Goodrum, S. and Keys, J. L. (2007) “Reflections on two studies of emotional sensitive topics: bereavement from murder and abortion” International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 10(4), 249-258.
  • Hochschild, A. (1983) The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Lee, R. M. (1993) ‘Doing Research on Sensitive Topics’, London: Sage. Chapter 5.

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