Dimensions of researcher vulnerability in qualitative health research and recommendations for future practice

AC Sterie, S Potthoff, A Erdmann, IS Burner-Fritsch, DO Aluh, ML Schneiders

Research output: Contribution to journalA1: Web of Science-articlepeer-review


Vulnerability has typically been addressed in the context of research ethics from the point of view of participants, with a focus on how to prevent the potential or exacerbation of existing harm caused by the power and role asymmetries between researchers and participants. However, more recent approaches to research ethics question whether researchers are, by definition, located in a privileged position during the research process and safe from any kind of vulnerability. In line with this, we reflect on the dimensions of researcher vulnerability specific to studies using a qualitative methodology in health research. Our argument is that participants and researchers should be on the receiving end of efforts to implement ethical procedures and protection from harm. Based on the autoethnographic analysis of our experiences as qualitative health researchers, this paper aims to identify dimensions of researcher vulnerability, and draw out relevant recommendations for practice. The reflections upon which this paper is based emerged during a spring school focusing on research ethics in qualitative health research, during which we discussed situations from our own research experience which left us feeling vulnerable. We identify four dimensions related to the experience of vulnerability (reciprocity; emotional labor; application of ethical standards; reversed power asymmetries) and five crosscutting aspects relating to these dimensions (researching sensitive topics; researching in contexts of vulnerability, poverty and structural violence; being a novice; lacking adequate support; insufficient time and space for ethical reflexivity). Our recommendations address particular challenges for these dimensions, and center on the role of reflexivity, as one of the cornerstones for enabling ethical qualitative research practice, requiring us to acknowledge and address our own vulnerability and positionality. Autoethnographic exercises are particularly useful for zooming in on ethically important moments in research related to researcher vulnerability and fruitful for identifying resources to respond to such challenges in the future.
Original languageEnglish
Article number16094069231183600
JournalInternational Journal of Qualitative Methods
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • Autoethnography
  • Ethics
  • Healthcare research
  • Qualitative research
  • Reflexivity
  • Vulnerability


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