Cultivating Resiliencies for All: The Necessity of Trauma Responsive Research Practices

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This paper is an exploration of trauma, how and why it can surface during ethnographic and qualitative research, and the importance of anticipating its potential presence. We present a model to help plan for and mitigate the risks of trauma and demonstrate how it fits into broader methodological discussions of conducting safer and more ethical, responsible, and humane research. We close by discussing one pathway for a journey from being sensitive and aware of trauma to actively responding to it at both the individual and organizational levels across your work. Keywords: Trauma informed care, trauma responsive research and design, design research, ethics, qualitative methods

Article citation: 2022 EPIC Proceedings pp 9–34, ISSN 1559-8918,



To say that the past few years have been full of trauma feels like a bit of an understatement. As we write this paper, the world is two-and-a-half years into the global COVID-19 pandemic and learning to adjust to the next in an ongoing series of “new normals.” COVID took the lives of at least six and a half million people across the world, caused a reverberation of destabilization to the families of those deeply impacted, and disrupted the function of everyday life in ways we are still coming to terms with and hoping to someday fully understand. There are also the ongoing impacts of political and civil unrest, ongoing wars, and climate injustices throughout many parts of the world. We’ve also watched and experienced the rise of extremist violence across the globe and closer to our home in the United States, we are experiencing a significant rise in political, police, and racialized violence.

While these endemics ruptured any illusion of stability in our lives, it’s important to recognize that trauma was always already with us. The reality is that for many—especially those who are not White or male or straight or cis-gendered or have privileged socioeconomic status or are healthy or who speak English as a first language or are any countless number of other “othering” things—simply living in the world brings them into situations that create, reinforce, and maintain trauma. And that’s before we get to those impacted by traumas caused by events beyond our control: a life-changing accident, a violent attack, or a loved one falling ill. In the United States alone, an estimated 60% of men and 50% of women will experience at least one trauma in their lives, with at least 6% of the population experiencing a clinical diagnosis of some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (National Center for PTSD 2022). European estimates fall into similar ranges (Trautmann and Wittchen 2018).

Yet, for all this trauma surrounding us, it’s only within the last few decades that we—as professional researchers, designers, and academics—began to seriously consider it as a topic of study. Even then, the conversation often focuses on trauma as an analytical category or, more methodologically, how we protect the people we study from trauma. While this is indeed important, focusing on the trauma of our research subjects ignores the fact that we, as researchers, are also active participants in the research and design process, equally needing and deserving consideration, care, and protection.

This paper is an exploration of trauma and why, regardless of the topic you are investigating, it is important to anticipate and plan for its potential presence in our participants, our colleagues, and ourselves. In what follows, we explore one model for understanding trauma and discuss why research encounters can create a space primed for its slow or sudden emergence. From there, we present a model to help plan for and mitigate the risks of trauma and demonstrate how that model fits into broader methodological discussions of conducting safer and more ethical, responsible, and humane research. Finally, we will close by discussing one pathway for individuals and organizations alike to journey from being sensitive and aware of trauma to actively responding to it. We conclude with a discussion of why now is the time to start this work and point to the next steps we can take as a community of practice.

As you read this paper, we urge you to pay attention to how your body reacts (physiologically) and feels (emotionally). Part of addressing trauma is becoming aware of how it surfaces as an integrated, embodied experience. For some, reading about trauma can cause moments of activation, such as discomfort, tension, or even physiological or emotional dysregulation. We encourage you to be aware and curious about any sensations you experience. If you find yourself having a strong reaction, we encourage you to take a break from reading and recenter yourself (for example, through a sensory exercise like focusing on items in a room of a certain color or reconnecting with the parasympathetic nervous system through deep breathing or movement). Cultivating an awareness of somatic responses, both in others and in ourselves, is a critical step toward cultivating a trauma responsive approach.


For a working definition of trauma, we turn to the words of Resmaa Menakem, an author, social worker, trauma specialist, and somatic abolitionist:

Trauma is a response to anything that’s overwhelming, that happens too much, too fast, too soon, or too long—[it is] coupled with a lack of protection or support. It lives in the body, stored as sensation: pain, or tension—or lack of sensation, like numbness (Menakem 2020).

In this biomedical and somatic model, when an overwhelming experience (or experiences) is unable to be metabolized, it becomes lodged within the body as trauma. That trauma can manifest itself in a wide variety of ways, including flashbacks, hypersensitivity to stimuli and emotions, poor emotional regulation, and other psychological and somatic responses. Long-term exposure to trauma literally changes the body, altering one’s ability to process cognitive information, manage emotions, and navigate stressful situations (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. 2022). It is also correlated with adverse health outcomes and raised risk for substance use and self-harm (Merrick et al. 2017). Trauma, whether at an individual or community level, is an integrated experience. There is no mind/body divide possible. Trauma is always something that is at once physiological, psychological, and emotional.

Ethnographic and qualitative social science explorations of trauma often fall into a few general and interrelated categories. More applied approaches, especially those involving public health research, look at trauma from an epidemiological point of view (Singer 1996). Others focus on the concept of trauma as a cultural category, examining the social processes through which trauma, and in particular Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, was identified and pathologized. In this approach, the trauma becomes a lens for explorations of topics like humanitarian responses to disaster and violence and how they often lead to conflicts between local and western understandings of mental and emotional health (Breslau 2004; Hinton and Good 2015; Lester 2013).

Another common approach to exploring trauma is to see it as a sort of “engine” that (knowingly or unknowingly) powers cultural production and resistance. For example, in Aihwa Ong’s “The production of possession: Spirits and the multinational corporation in Malaysia,” the complex trauma of Malaysian women working under oppressive societal and factory conditions manifests itself in the form of spirit possessions1 (Ong 1988). Other examples of this lens include Kim Fortun’s exploration of how the rupture and trauma of two different catastrophic industrial disasters led to various forms of local organizing and resistance against Union Carbide in Advocacy after Bhopal (Fortun 2001).

While there is still much work to be done in these areas of inquiry, we choose to move in a different direction. This paper takes a much more intimate and methodological look at the production of trauma and how it can, does, and will continue to arise in the work of ethnography and qualitative research. As noted at the start, a key aspect of this is exploring the presence and impact of trauma in not just our research participants (as the above categories tend to do) but also in ourselves.2 In this way, we are confronting a reality identified by Beatriz Reyes-Foster and Rebecca Lester in their anthro{dendum} essay “Trauma and Resilience in Ethnographic Fieldwork,”

Ethnographic fieldwork can be, and frequently is, emotionally difficult for fieldworkers, who may experience either direct or vicarious/secondary trauma while in the field. Even under the best of circumstances, navigating a new field setting with little if any training on how to emotionally manage the many challenges inherent in fieldwork can be significantly destabilizing, and the effects of such experiences can be long-lasting. And yet, a culture of silence about the emotional toll of fieldwork and the importance of mental health has remained prevalent throughout our field (Reyes-Foster and Lester 2019).

Despite trauma’s presence in the places we research and, if we are honest, in the places we live, learn3, and work, how we deal with it remains under-discussed (at least in public conversations). Nadya Pohran’s EPIC2022 PechaKucha “Resisting Resilience: An Anthropologist’s Paradox” puts this into stark relief. In it she recounts how her university was not equipped to help her process the field experience of watching someone die by suicide. Instead, her advisors praised her for “finishing her work on time and not disrupting her study plan.” She also reflects on how other emotionally exhausting and potentially traumatizing aspects of her work are not discussed in professional spaces (Pohran 2022).

Beyond the stigma and discomfort traditionally associated to discussing mental health and mental illness, there are also discipline-specific reasons for the lack of engagement. For example, Reyes-Foster and Lester note in their essay that many ethnographically focused social sciences have not historically prioritized methodological training.

Fieldwork [is] treated as a sink-or-swim proposition. Good ethnographers would succeed, and bad ones would fail. And while we were pushed to pursue anthropology “with stakes”—that is, an anthropologist that studied problems that mattered in some way, to someone—nobody talked about what it might mean to do this (ibid).

This lack of focus on preparing social science students to do fieldwork, especially with so-called “vulnerable populations,” has also been noted in other qualitative research fields as well (Winfield 2021; Močnik 2020). Looking even more broadly at the other places where people learn the practice of research—from design and business schools to UX boot camps to “learning on the job”— there is no standardized approach to teaching trauma, not to mention ethical practice in general. In fact, there is little-to-no guarantee that those topics are covered at all.

We believe that it is impossible to responsibly conduct meaningful research without acknowledging and understanding the topic of trauma. And to truly begin that discussion, we start by recognizing one model for how trauma is embodied/re-embodied and experienced/re-experienced.


David Trickey, a mental health clinician in the United Kingdom, describes trauma as “a rupture in ‘meaning making’” (Prideaux 2021). The ways you see yourself, the ways you see the world, and the ways you see other people are shocked and overturned. However, simply being overwhelmed by an event, or events, does not necessarily mean someone will be traumatized. For that acute stress to cascade into trauma, there is typically also a lack of protection or support, which otherwise would have allowed the individual or community to process the experience. Trauma (and traumatization) is often cultural and contextual. People can experience similar events and experience different outcomes based on their personal, familial, and cultural contexts. One person might be able to process the event in a way that does not lead to embodying it as trauma, while another may have a serious stress response, and another is significantly traumatized.

In biomedical framings4 of trauma, it is often categorized by the type of initiating external stress experience that leads to the traumatization. Here are examples of some categories of trauma:

  • Acute Trauma primarily stems from a single distressing event extreme enough to threaten a person’s emotional or physical security. Examples include (but are not limited to) house fires, car accidents, physical assaults, etc.
  • Chronic Trauma occurs when someone is exposed to multiple, long-term, and/or prolonged distressing events over an extended period. Examples include long-term serious illness, bullying, and experiencing significant ongoing food or housing insecurity.
  • Vicarious trauma and secondary traumatic stress are two interrelated conditions stemming from indirect exposure to traumatic events. Vicarious trauma develops over time through continual exposure to the traumatic experiences of others. This can result in experiencing secondary traumatic stress symptoms of PTSD due to secondary exposure to a traumatic event. Secondary traumatic stress examples include front-line workers who work with people who are traumatized and researchers interviewing individuals on sensitive topics like domestic violence.
  • Collective trauma occurs when direct exposure to a traumatic event(s) impacts a group of people, community, or society. Examples include slavery, a pandemic, and living in a community experiencing ongoing violence.
  • Intergenerational trauma happens when the traumas experienced by one generation are passed on to the next. Examples include the impacts of addiction across multiple generations of a family and the ongoing impact of historical and present-day racism on members of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.
  • Complex trauma is a result of exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events and/or experiences. Complex trauma can, and often does, combine any of the above forms of trauma. Examples include domestic violence, childhood neglect, and/or sexual abuse.

All these various forms of trauma can be created by both large and small events. It’s easy to focus on the “big T” traumas—ones caused by experiencing dramatic events like natural disasters, war, or grave illnesses—but smaller, more personal events can still be traumatic for individuals or communities. For example, repeated exposure to microaggressions or other forms of psychological or emotional attacks, when combined with other factors, can easily become embodied as trauma that has just as much of a profound impact on an individual’s ability to function. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for people to suppress or deny the existence of trauma in themselves or others because it isn’t linked to some significant big T event or because “others had/have it worse.” Sadly, this sort of denial, self-shaming, and invalidation of “little t” traumas is often tied to those traumas becoming more deeply entrenched. It also can prevent people from recognizing the seriousness of the traumas they carry and seeking help.

For those with trauma, the past is always close to the present. As anthropologist Rebecca Lester writes:

The specific event or series of events deemed traumatic are hardly ‘over’ once the events themselves cease. They are re-experienced again and again and again…. The psychological and physiological responses to the events are reactivated with each replay…. In this way, the traumatic events are not simply something in the past that the person is trying to ‘get over’ but become part of one’s daily experience in the here and now. It affects how people relate to others, interpret new experiences, and imagine horizons for their future (Lester 2013, 757-8).

This process of re-experiencing trauma, typically activated by new stresses or interactions which lead to thinking about the previous experience, is called retraumatization. An individual’s expression of trauma and retraumatization can manifest in many ways, including shortness of breath, accelerated heart rate, shaking, sweating, and/or tunnel vision. Trauma and retraumatization are often experienced as a somatic fight, flight, freeze, fawn, or flop reaction (Woodward 2020). Some people may withdraw into themselves, some will become agitated, and still, others may present as people-pleasing even when it might be to their detriment. Many will have difficulties processing information during this period. Retraumatization also leads to the trauma becoming further entrenched if the necessary supports for processing are lacking at that moment. It can also lead to acute health challenges. For example, people experiencing retraumatization are at higher risk for increased substance use to mitigate the feelings and, in some cases, self-harm (SAMHSA 2013).

To understand how trauma can emerge within a research engagement and lead to retraumatization, immediately following this article is an account of an interview “gone wrong.” In it, one of the authors experiences feelings of helplessness related to hearing his participant share all the difficult life challenges they were facing due to living with a criminal record. Vicariously experiencing his participant’s trauma and potential retraumatization activated the researcher’s own trauma tied to a psychological and emotional breakdown that happened several years prior during grad school. At that moment, all those feelings of failure and alienation—and the imposter syndrome and shame they created within him—came flooding back as a panic attack. To frame what happened in clinical terms: secondary traumatic stress created by the interviewee’s account led to an activation of the researcher’s complex trauma.5

We have talked with many others who have had similar experiences while conducting research. The research encounter has the potential to create a trauma response in both the people being interviewed or observed and the people conducting the research. The next step of this paper is a consideration of why that is the case. What are the aspects of interviewing and other ethnographically derived methods that create the potential conditions for trauma to emerge in everyone involved in the process, and why does that happen?

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