ACSPRI Conferences, ACSPRI Social Science Methodology Conference 2010

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Remoralizing suicide research: Ethical and methodological considerations

Scott James Fitzpatrick

Building: Holme Building
Room: Sutherland Room
Date: 2010-12-01 01:30 PM – 03:00 PM
Last modified: 2010-11-17


According to Arthur Frank, one of the leading proponents of the illness narrative in the sociology of health, “social science is a moral discourse, presenting claims about the nature of suffering and the proper response to suffering.”[1] Following Frank’s groundbreaking book The Wounded Storyteller, it has been argued that the rise in the popularity of narrative studies within social science and health fields is indicative of a broader ‘ethical turn’, and a move by some scholars away from more abstract, objectivist ways of knowing toward a more inclusive, empathic and emancipatory social science.[2] These challenges to orthodox social science raise important methodological concerns for researchers. This is perhaps nowhere more applicable than in the study of suicidal behaviour, where research focuses almost exclusively on the identification of risk or causal factors rather than on the meanings and experiences of being suicidal[3], thus diminishing the significance of individual suffering across both research and prevention endeavours.


However, qualitative researchers engaging with persons who have been suicidal are often confronted by the suffering and vulnerability of their research participants. This presentation – the result of an ongoing empirical study of attempted suicide – will explore the ethical and methodological concerns of doing sensitive research and the problems faced in negotiating this sometimes thorny terrain. Through the use of illustrative examples taken from my research project and drawing on current debates in narrative research, I discuss the tension between adopting a personal moral stance in order to communicate the experiences of my research participants, and the demands for methodological and analytical rigour in sociological research. Narrative approaches, I argue, are well situated to explore the intersection between the individual and society where many of these debates are located, and to provide empathic yet critical accounts of suicidal behaviour that acknowledge the implicit ethical link between research and care.





















[1] Frank, A. W. (1992). The pedagogy of suffering: moral dimensions of psychological therapy and research with the ill. Theory & Psychology, 2(4), 467-485.


[2] Thomas, C. (2010). Negotiating the contested terrain of narrative methods in illness contexts. Sociology of Health & Illness, 32(4), 647-660.


[3] Boldt, M. (1988). The meaning of suicide: Implications for research. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 9(2), 93-108.