ACSPRI Conferences, RC33 Eighth International Conference on Social Science Methodology

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In what ways can a researcher respond when faced with empathy? Reflections from interviews with migrants to Australia

Harriet Westcott, Laura Vazquez Maggio

Building: Law Building
Room: Breakout 10 - Law Building, Room 105
Date: 2012-07-10 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM
Last modified: 2012-04-16


While it is legitimate to claim that researcher’s role in qualitative research is not a novel research area, this paper adds a new dimension by investigating the experience of empathy when a migrant researcher interviews another migrant. This paper draws on findings from semi-structured interviews by two researchers that were working on projects whose aims were to investigate the experiences of professional migrants to Australia. Empathy is an emotion that can be experienced at both the cognitive and affective levels, and which can reflect feelings of sharing, and identification (Kerem et al, 2001). During interviewing the researchers experienced empathy when participants drew attention to several issues that were part of their migration experience. In this paper we have focused on three of these: the challenge of language expression in the context of English as an additional language; and feelings of loneliness by migrants who missed aspects of home, including friends or family, or who found it hard to make friends following migration.

When researcher empathy was present, it raised challenges at two stages of the research process, firstly during the interview, and secondly during analysis and write-up. At the interview, the researchers were faced with some participants who manifested feelings of upset or loneliness. The capacity to build rapport is in part built on the capability of the researcher to convey empathy and understanding without judgment (Patton, 1990). Yet, faced with these raw emotions, the researchers had concerns about how to respond to the participants, and how to manage their own feelings. During the writing up of findings, the researchers were further challenged when empathetic emotions arose which raised concerns about compromising neutrality in the presentation of their work. Concurrently, both the researchers became aware of the impacts of their own biographies as migrants, which was relational to the research process and hence instrumental to their empathy. This paper concludes that the degree of empathy felt by the researcher depends on the situational context and background of the researcher in relation to their participants, for instance, sharing language and national identity. The extent to which the experiences of the participants touched on the researchers’ own experiences of migration was an important factor in generating empathy in the interactive encounter of the interview.

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