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On Trauma and Safety: Toward Trauma-Informed Research Methods

Michelle Day


Discussing ways trauma manifests in this collection's chapters, Day argues for the field to pay more sustained attention to trauma and to inform this attention with clinical scholarship on trauma and trauma-informed care.


In her chapter in this collection, Mary P. Sheridan highlights our field's current attention to the consequentiality of our work—that is, how our work comes to matter, and with what consequences—so that we can "take responsibility for making knowledge that helps people understand themselves and their worlds." This trend is apparent in the myriad recent projects that address social justice issues and/or represent the stories of oppressed or marginalized groups (Inoue; Vieira; Cushman; Goldblatt; Kynard; Banks; Haas; Devereaux-Ramirez) and in several of the collection's chapters, particularly the texts by Laurie Gries, Steve Parks, and Octavio Pimentel. All three authors claim, in one way or another, that composition and rhetoric can and should promote more just futures through structural interventions that use our knowledge of writing and rhetoric to combat oppressive systems, particularly those that reinforce racial and cultural hierarchies/violence. Such work intersects in significant ways with trauma, because trauma has historically been linked to various forms of systemic oppression. However, I worry that as we pursue scholarship that intervenes in unjust systems, we often do not acknowledge trauma explicitly or in complex, thorough ways.

In this essay, I identify how trauma appears in the collection's chapters—focusing on Gries, Parks, and Pimentel—to raise questions about why/how we must pay more explicit attention to trauma while conducting/reading/writing research. In raising these questions about safety and ethics I argue not only that trauma should be in the purview of projects that design better futures but also suggest potential directions for how, including ways that social work literature can help create reflexive and situated research ethics that address rather than ignore or oversimplify trauma. Through this work, I hope to respond to feminist scholar Angela Carter's call to push against rhetoric that positions trauma, traumatized individuals, and traumatic responses as rare and "unfit" for educational spaces and to Victor J. Vitanza's provocative argument that the traumas that particularly affect marginalized groups (such as sexual abuse, abduction, harassment, and torture) are "profoundly linked to habituated ways of thinking, reading, and writing in Western culture . . . which teach people how to treat one another” (qtd. in Skinnell par. 1). Making knowledge in ways that infuse questions of trauma and survivors' perspectives into scholarship could complement current work that addresses various systemic inequalities and encourage futures that are more inclusive of trauma survivors' experiences, even and especially within scholarly research that may be traumatizing itself.


To begin, definitions of trauma abound, and those most cited in rhetoric and composition usually come from trauma studies scholars like Cathy Caruth or Shoshana Felman who define trauma in terms of devastation, calling it an extreme—though common—experience of terror/helplessness that overwhelms and disrupts ordinary means of sense-making, representation, and memory. Historically, our field has taken up such trauma studies perspectives to discuss the ethics of representation (Hesford; Brinks; Kaufman) as well as to consider how trauma impacts writing classrooms (especially shared national traumas like 9/11) and how/to what benefit instructors might structure classroom discussions and assignments to (1) allow traumatized students to process/express their experiences and (2) foster students' critical understandings of public conversations about traumatic events (Ames; Borrowman; Berman; Bracher; Bishop; Read). More recently, scholars in community engagement and in cultural rhetorics have discussed trauma as a central experience impacting the lives, identities, and rhetorical practices of people they partner with (Baumgartner and Discher; Pignetti) or research (Powell; Cole; Baird; Connor). Despite this good work, scholars have not sustained discussions regarding ethical practices for working with trauma survivors during research (e.g. interrogating notions of safety and how re-traumatization might impact the research process). Consequently, I build on the field's work in trauma to address this gap by showing how clinical (and) social work perspectives can deepen our understandings of trauma and how to work with survivors.

Though trauma studies' definitions are most commonly used in our field, in my own work as an engaged scholar, teacher, administrator, and volunteer at a local domestic violence shelter, I rely on what seem to me to be more concrete/specific definitions of trauma from a clinical source, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:

an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being. (xix)

Using this definition, even a quick glance at the collection's chapters shows trauma as a central (if sometimes unstated) factor. Parks helps record trauma testimonies about torture and other wartime violence through Syrians for Truth and Justice, a project that in part seeks communal healing from this trauma. Gries describes the journey of researching swastikas—a symbol associated with massive historical trauma and continuing (traumatic) experiences of racism—as "emotionally charged and deeply affective" and issues multiple trigger warnings. Pimentel remarks on the need to create "sanctuary spaces" for students of color as we bring racism to the forefront in classroom discussions, implying a responsibility to protect students from further traumatization through racism. Though less central to her argument, Melanie Yergeau discusses expressions of neurodivergence—among them intrusion, triggers, and flashbacks—that are also common affects associated with trauma (a link increasingly made by disability studies scholars such as Carter), and she even mentions how neurodivergence can become racialized and policed, an experience which can be traumatic—physically or emotionally threatening with lasting adverse effects on well-being. This is just a partial list of how we might say the collection's chapters are, at least in part, about (or around) trauma.


However, even though these essays are partially about trauma, they—and our field—might usefully become more trauma-informed, which I argue is an ethical necessity. "Trauma-informed" refers to frameworks from social work designed to promote ethical and empowering interactions with trauma survivors, the implementation of which has become a requirement in many social service settings. As Carello and Butler define it:

To be trauma-informed, in any context, is to understand how violence, victimization, and other traumatic experiences may have figured in the lives of the individuals involved and to apply that understanding to the provision of services and the design of systems so that they accommodate the needs and vulnerabilities of trauma survivors (Butler, Critelli, & Rinfrette, 2011; Harris & Fallot, 2001). (156)

Though research functions differently than a "provision of services," the collection theme suggests that research is involved in "the design of systems", and scholars are not exempt from statistics showing that we're likely interacting with trauma survivors during research. Traumatic experiences are so common—whether they manifest explicitly or not—that some argue for universal precautions (qtd. in Sharp and Ligenza). Practitioners in diverse contexts have elaborated "trauma-informed" frameworks into research-based, situated principles and practices most likely to be experienced as empowering and healing, regardless of whether the people they work with claim a traumatic past (Carello and Butler; Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration; Eliot et al).


The collection's own essays overlap and enact trauma-informed best practices even if they don't invoke that frame overtly. For instance, Gries, Pimentel, and Yergeau in particular discuss the emotional and/or potentially physical effects of their work on various groups affected by their research (and on themselves). Several of the essays issue trigger/content warnings to prepare their readers for material they may find emotionally harmful (Gries; Yergeau; Pimentel; Parks). Furthermore, these authors seek intervention in oppressive systems that are often both the sources of trauma and mechanisms that prevent survivors' from healing and/or justice. When the authors work to shape policy, build "truth" through testimony (Parks), re-shape classroom practices (Pimentel), or provide hope (Gries), empowerment (Pimentel), and/or connection (Parks), they align with a trauma-informed stance that sees attention to systems as a crucial component for empowering relationships.

Also consistent with trauma-informed frameworks are how Gries, Parks, Pimentel, and Yergeau, to varying degrees, acknowledge racial/cultural difference and racism as impacting their research, whether that's as the focus of the project (Gries and Pimentel) or as a relevant contextual factor (Parks and, briefly, Yergeau). The connections between race and trauma are widely documented by cultural rhetorics scholars and in social work literature, which presents racism both as its own form of trauma (causing chronic stress and threatening a sense of self and security) and as leading to other forms of trauma (especially displacement, sexual assault, abuse or other physical violence, and so on). Indeed, scholarship has determined that people whose identities put them at intersections of multiple systemic oppressions are more likely to experience trauma and chronic stress that can be traumatic over time (Eliot et al; Eyerman, Dass-Brailsford; SAMHSA). Therefore, attention to experiences of oppression by specific racial/cultural groups represents a way these essays are trauma-informed, as are indications that the authors acknowledge how the research may be uniquely traumatic or otherwise distressing (especially in Gries's and Pimentel's essays) to these groups.


These overlaps and the pervasiveness of trauma as a contextual factor in our work provide an occasion for the field to rethink our practice from trauma-informed frameworks. I offer three examples here of how trauma-informed frameworks raise other questions about the chapters and how our field might better infuse attention to trauma in our work. First, beyond content warnings about emotional harm in published materials, how might we account for the myriad ways trauma might impact research informants, audiences, and scholars at all stages of the research process? As the SAMHSA definition indicates, trauma impacts an individual physically, socially, mentally, and spiritually, not just emotionally. So, for example, if we acknowledge potential emotional harm, we can also acknowledge people often do not have the social connections they need to process such harm. In response, perhaps particularly difficult research might include not just a warning but footnotes with tangible resources, such as Metro United Way's 2-1-1 service in Kentucky that connects people with a range of social services. Or we might think about how physical spaces in which we conduct research promote a sense of (un)safety for informants or others who help us conduct our research. We might also be aware of how our own sense of physical drain or sleeplessness might be a sign of compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma that can negatively affect our physical, emotional, and social health, impacting both the research and interpersonal interactions surrounding it. In response, we could make dealing with these personal impacts a more important topic in research ethics discussions (and some feminist and cultural rhetorics scholars have done this; see Malea Powell and Andrea Riley-Mukavetz for an example). All such concerns are discussed in trauma-informed scholarship. From this material, we can learn how to anticipate traumatic responses in more complex ways.

A second question concerns whether, when, and how to issue trigger/content warnings on scholarly processes and products. The conversation on trigger warnings in classroom spaces has become quite contentious, debating whether trigger warnings are necessary or impede learning and intellectual freedom. Thus far, instructors across disciplines have addressed the use of the trigger warnings in classroom contexts, but there has been much less (if any) discussion of such warnings during the research process. Yet this issue appears quickly in the collection's chapters. Before Gries's chapter even loads, a trigger warning appears. Warnings were added to Gries’s and other chapters after discussion at the University of Louisville's Watson Symposium because of the "deeply affective" nature of the work. Yergeau also includes a trigger warning for "obsessions, compulsions, & distressing thoughts," though writing about neurodivergence and not explicitly trauma (though Carter argues the two are linked). Parks and Pimentel—who also write about violence that contains racial, gender, cultural, and/or religious undertones—did not initially include trigger warnings in their essays, but warnings were added later because of the graphic/disturbing nature of some of their content.

Yet the contentiousness of the debate about trigger warnings in classroom settings suggests we need to prepare for extension of these conversations into research processes, particularly in light of the trauma-informed principle of safety and as our research on systemic oppression and racism increases. I am neither arguing that we should or shouldn't issue such warnings when discussing distressing topics as there are good reasons both for and against. However, as with many ethical research practices, I am arguing for intentionality in deciding by discussing these issues explicitly and drawing from scholarship in social work and other applied fields that have long addressed these questions. The (non)presence of trigger/content warnings in our scholarship has implications for what we determine is/should be "deeply affective" and potentially harmful as well as for whose perspectives we do and don't consider when representing research.

Further, if representing distressing content might harm audiences, we might also question whether these warnings are warranted while collecting research. That is, how might we acknowledge the risks/effects of re-traumatization with our informants during the data collection process and provide opportunities for informants to shape their participation accordingly (beyond the basics required by Institutional Review Boards)? I do not intend to argue that we can or should attempt to figure out everything about our research that may be experienced as triggering, because that's a highly personal and context-dependent phenomenon. However, asking the question is important, as is providing choices, options, and information to help viewers/participants shape their participation in our research in ways that encourage them to advocate their own emotional/physical safety.

Third, trauma-informed perspectives ask us to question our understanding of what it means to help, to empower, and to promote safety—three oft-cited goals in scholarship seeking to address unjust systems. That is, if we issue trigger warnings to help audiences stay emotionally "safe" (Gries and Yergeau), or if we hope to be able to protect/empower our students through informed pedagogies (Pimentel), or if we think our research might design a world that's safer, we might also question what version of helping, empowerment, or safety these choices support and under what conditions we can presume to know what people need to feel safe in our classrooms, while reading our essays, or while providing information for our research. Put differently, how can we know what is actually experienced as safe or empowering by the people we work with beyond guessing or relying on a few positive anecdotal experiences? For example, perhaps some students who have experienced racism might feel the classroom more of a sanctuary if discussion did not make them engage a topic which causes stress or on which their classmates or teachers might make uninformed or harmful statements. A trauma-informed perspective does not prescribe answers, but it does mean such questioning must be centrally-infused into research and practice. The power to make choices about what constitutes safety and empowerment must also include participants/audiences/students, not just researchers/teachers. Much social work literature has been devoted to strategies for doing that.


In sum, I am arguing that we need consider how our decisions to ignore, oversimplify, or center traumatic experience in our work invites particular relationships toward survivors and contributes to futures they will face because of (or in spite of) our scholarly work—how it constructs futures where trauma and survivors matter (only) in certain ways. Inside the field, we are beginning to look to, for example, scholars in cultural rhetorics who pay close attention to power and symbolic/literal violence, which means they also often end up discussing the traumatic experiences out of which unique rhetorical practices arise (cf. work on survivance by Malea Powell, Daniel Cole, and John D. Miles). To these perspectives, we can add the concrete practices advocated for by social work and other applied fields that have devoted much research to exploring practical, ethical ways to interact with trauma survivors in a variety of contexts. For example, we as a field might consider:

  • When is research traumatizing and when does it combat trauma, or at least consider the perspective/needs of survivors in how it is conducted, represented, and circulated?
  • How the desire to "empower" creates a dilemma or a tension between freedom and control (as discussed by clinicians Mary Vaughn and Glen Stamp)?
  • How practices advocated for in Trauma-Informed Care literature (such as SAMHSA's numerous publications on principles and practices) may apply to research?
  • The diverse ways survivors may experience and respond to trauma and how to ethically respond to such disclosures during the research process?
  • How we can ward against compassion fatigue, prepare for mandatory reporting policies, or decide when/how to issue trigger warnings, among other day-to-day concerns?

Such considerations help center the perspective of trauma survivors, particularly those whose cultural backgrounds have been systematically oppressed, and create more ethical research that enacts the better futures it seeks to design.

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