Researching sensitive subjects

By Kathryn Bailey, September 2019

Sitting in John’s* back garden I find myself asking ‘Can you tell me a little bit about your brother?’

John’s younger brother had recently taken his own life on a train track near their family home. As the eldest brother, John had taken ownership of all arrangements as his parent hadn’t felt able to – with seemingly very little support along the way. We spent the next 3 hours discussing his guilt, family tensions and the sheer devastation in the aftermath of his brother’s death.

We do a lot of research on sensitive topics at Jigsaw, and so I know from experience that it can be somewhat unpredictable, upsetting and emotionally strenuous. Naturally very different to your typical FMCG project.

Needless to say, this is a hugely complex topic area – which I couldn’t possibly unpick in detail here, but here are a few thoughts on how to approach researching sensitive subjects …

From a practical perspective, be prepared to be flexible:

But also, from a more emotional, human point of view:

I also think it’s important to remember how tough this process can be for the researcher. Often, it seems that we put a lot of effort into ensuring the respondent feels comfortable and at ease, but we don’t think about the implications for us.

Naturally these types of projects are much more emotionally loaded and so it can be important to give ourselves more time to reflect on, and digest each session. Make time to talk to other colleagues working on the project or build extra time into the analysis session to allow for decompression. Your colleagues are most likely to understand how you’re feeling – and want to discuss it too…


Kat Bailey