“That Makes Me Feel a Bit Better:” the Ethical Limits and Opportunities of the Biographical Interview As a Therapeutic Encounter
Maxine Birch and Tina Miller define a ‘therapeutic encounter’ as ‘a process by which an individual reflects on, and comes to understand previous experiences in different—sometimes more positive—ways that promote a changed sense of self,’ noting that qualitative interviews often involve processes similar to those employed by professionals in therapeutic work (2000, p. 190). In this paper I analyse examples of moments like these from my interviews, reflecting on the fact that biographical research often features sensitive and intimate disclosures. Opportunities to disclose an experience like abortion to ‘someone who understands’ can be scarce, and take on great importance. At the same time, social researchers are rarely also trained therapists, meaning these types of interactions with participants require careful boundaries.
I argue that the ethical responsibility in biographical research is to acknowledge how far one can offer a therapeutic encounter, and to take seriously the weight and importance of the intimate, emotional moments that occur during sensitive interviewing rather than to avoid therapeutic moments entirely. There were many moments, in discussing their abortions as well as other aspects of their life stories, when my participants talked through something difficult with me, or told me their interview had helped them see something in a new way. These moments are valuable to both researcher and interviewee, and, if guided with an appropriate ethical sensibility, can result in positive experiences for both parties.
Birch, M., Miller, T., 2000. Inviting intimacy: The interview as therapeutic opportunity. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 3, 189–202