Author: yasmingunaratnam

A reflection on vulnerable methods of research

My article, ‘Vulnerable writing as a feminist methodological practice’ in the forthcoming Feminist Review themed issue on methods, is drawn from my PhD project. The project was concerned with locating vulnerability as a political and ethical concept as well as thinking about what vulnerability might mean as a methodological practice. How is vulnerability to be researched, especially in telling the stories of others within the context of trans-national studies, and when these stories involve suffering?

My research approaches vulnerability as localised and specific. Rather than being a universal ontological condition, I suggest that vulnerability must be understood through the relations, capacities, and networks in which bodies endure and persist. While all forms of research involve vulnerability, I wanted to expand on discussions of feminist reflexive processes by thinking through the temporalities of being affected in research, and the necessity of reflexive accountability as a core component of vulnerable writing. Anthropologist Ruth Behar (1996) draws attention to how the aim of storytelling might not be to present history but to grapple with the impossibility of telling certain stories (p.176).

In my article I drew upon the difficulties and challenges I experienced during my research in trying to develop partial or incomplete narratives about two asylum seekers who had set their bodies on fire (commonly referred to as self-immolation): Mariam al-Khawli, who escaped the violence of the civil war in Syria by seeking refuge in Lebanon with her family; and Leorsin Seemanpillai, a young Sri Lankan Tamil who had sought asylum in Australia. It was through the struggles of representing another person’s suffering that I began to pay attention to the details of how both Khawli and Seemanpillai made lives in countries that were not their own, and cared for others, in both ordinary and extraordinary ways. The stories and their telling came to illuminate how vulnerability might be situated within particular bodies through the complexities and ambivalences in the ways individuals live and endure, and that this might change, both over time and in response to particular environments and spaces.

I continue to grapple with how to tell stories of self-immolation, and my role in this process. How to make sense of and story another person’s actions? How to write about their intentions? These questions think about the ways in which my research and methods might also result in forms of violence, both symbolic and epistemic. While I used publicly available media articles, I am aware that I tell these stories without the permission or consent of Khawli and Semanpillai, their families, or those close to them.

The advice I was given by one of my supervisors – don’t be an invulnerable researcher researching vulnerability – has stayed with me. In the article I have tried to describe the process of what it might mean to write vulnerably. There is inadequacy to all methodological approaches to documenting another person’s life: the inability to do justice to the lives of others. But there is another methodological side to this kind of research that I experienced: the affective and emotional wounding that comes with immersing yourself in the suffering and deaths of people who are structurally in a far more vulnerable position than you.

I first began thinking of myself as a kind of analyst, analysing media reports and attempting to piece together a chronological account of Khawli and Seemanpillai’s lives. As I was both challenged over this and struggled with what this work actually entailed, my role shifted to one of being an unchosen, and unreliable narrator, a term I used to try and make visible my lack of authority or permission and the multiplicity of accounts that are never exhausted in our research. While this is the language I have used in the article, in having more time to reflect on the project I am now less certain. Narration suggests there is a story or a tale to be told, and this brings forth its own ethical problems. In referring to the life and death of another person as a story there is danger that the story can become a commodity that can be used in the service of research. The language that I used to describe and account for my role was signaling to others the work I was doing with the online archive of media articles, and a relation that I might have had, however distant, to Khawli and Seemanpillai. And I am still not sure of this. Was I telling a story? Am I narrating a partial account of their lives?

For me, the notion of an account connects to the demand to account. Kamala Visweswaran (1994) writes of her experience in asking a woman to be a subject of her research, and the woman’s refusal. In my article, I suggest that being engaged in the reluctance of subjects and materials to “give up” tales and confessions can involve being obstructed and emotionally punctured by these silences, gaps, and refusals to become part of an archive (p.60). Through the woman’s refusal to become a particular subject Visweswaran begins to position her own role as a researcher as involving how she understands and negotiates the “construction of a silence, how I seek to be accountable to it” (p.60). Neither Khawli nor Seemanpillai, who both died from their burns, had the opportunity to refuse to be a subject in my research.

Rather than attempting to account for gaps and absences, and therefore to develop an account, Visweswaran’s reflexive engagement shifts the response and responsibility to researchers in becoming accountable to those erasures, pauses, and fissures in narratives. It includes being accountable to what such narratives require from others, and what forms of epistemic and symbolic violence are enacted in figuring an individual through a fixed form of subjectivity where intention can be known and documented, and actions made intelligible. I am continuing to think about what it means to be accountable to silence, which might occur through remaining with an absence of understanding, or equally with a muting that comes with a lack of permission or consent. I think that the ways it is tempting to fill this silence through different modes of methodological endeavouring to make sense of this absence in knowledge, to try to reduce forms of ethical violence, or to justify actions taken, is part of what needs to be encountered, and accounted for, in vulnerable research.

Since writing this article I have thought more about the outline of a vulnerable methodology that I proposed through developing a workshop for postgraduate students on vulnerable writing. In the doing and making of this workshop I wanted to consider if what I had written could be described in a way that could provide the outline for a particular ethical and political sensibility when conducting research. I was curious to see whether there were elements or practices of thinking and doing that could be replicated outside of my project, and whether the students would see value in thinking with the uncertainties and fragilities of the research process. Again it required exposure on my part to allow the uncovering of the scaffold and structures of a research process, where I was also positioned, through my performative role as a lecturer, as someone who had things figured out. It required me to be in the room, with my hesitations and uncertainties, and to expose these in order to enable the students to see how often I messed up, and what can happen when we give ourselves permission to say “I don’t know”.

One question that I received during the workshop was, “Why is Mariam al-Khawli’s voice not more present in the article?” It is a question of representation that calls me to account, and raises the concern again of whether the utility of Khawli’s story as a means through which to publish an article, to develop the outline of a vulnerable methodology, continues to inflict the very damage that we hope vulnerable methods might reduce. For this I don’t have an easy answer. I am aware that the article will form part of an evolving archive that now persists indefinitely through technology, and represents, without consent or permission, the life and death of Khawli. What remains clear is that the continued insistence to account for the forms of violation inflicted within the research process remains concomitant with the insufficiency of ever being able to meet the ethical demands of representation and responsibility within modes of story telling.



Behar, R., 1996. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart. Boston: Beacon Press.

Visweswaran, K., 1994. Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tiffany Page is currently an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London and a Visiting Research Fellow in the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths (2016-2017). Her research interests include investigating conceptions of vulnerability, endurance and exhaustion. Tiffany is co-founder of The 1752 Group, a research and lobby consultancy working to end staff-to-student sexual misconduct in higher education.