Navigating Trauma-Informed Research with Migrants on the Move

Hopes, Fears, and Illusions: Notes from the Field

By Dr. Kimberly Howe, Co-Principal Investigator, and Shenandoah Cornish, Project Manager


We intentionally designed the Hopes, Fears, and Illusions (HFI) research project with a trauma-informed approach that considers the psychological risks and well-being of the researcher as well as the research participant. This approach aims to improve the way researchers interact with vulnerable populations and sensitive research contexts. We felt that such an approach was ethically necessary given HFI’s focus on the journey of migrants, their reasons for leaving home, their experiences along the way, and their hopes for the future. On the migrant-side, we developed research tools and methodologies that encouraged a genuine exchange between participants and researchers while also trying to mitigate the possibility of re-traumatization. On the researcher-side, we thought carefully about the risks and well-being of the researchers, who would be spending six weeks living in demanding conditions, listening to difficult narratives, and witnessing the suffering of others.

HFI Colombia researchers Laura Velez Colorado and Andrew Fitzgerald, accompanied by co-Principal Investigator Dr. Kimberly Howe.

In this entry, we will share some insights from our approach, shedding light on the importance of such methodologies in navigating the challenging terrain of migrant experiences.

Understanding Trauma-Informed Research

Trauma-informed research extends beyond the conventional boundaries of inquiry, recognizing the intricate interplay between researchers and the researched. Drawing inspiration from feminist research principles, the approach encourages the researcher to be reflexive and aware of power dynamics. It relies on a set of skills whereby researchers understand the risk of (re)traumatization and are ready to mitigate such risks prior to data collection, during interviews, and in the aftermath. Trauma-informed research also recognizes the emotional toll that such work can take on researchers, underscoring that self-care is the responsibility not just of the researchers but also of the institutions with which they are working. The foundation of trauma-informed research lies in creating a safe, respectful, and empowering environment for all involved.

Integrating Trauma-Informed Methods into the HFI Project

In the context of HFI, we worked to implement trauma-informed practices as much as possible, while keeping in mind that doing so is a highly context-specific moving target.

A trauma-informed approach lays the groundwork for ethical and nuanced research long before researchers step into the field. It begins with thoughtful and empathetic formulation of research questions, tools, and approaches and compels us to question not only what we seek to discover, but why such an inquiry is necessary, and how such inquiries should be framed. This involves a conscious consideration of the potential impacts of questions on the well-being of participants. To this end, we prioritized open-ended queries, acknowledging the diversity of experiences and allowing individuals to share their narratives on their terms.

By contemplating the implications of our inquiries, we strove to foster an environment that respected the autonomy and agency of those who choose to share their stories. We held two training sessions for our researchers that discussed the following points:

  1. Interview Choices: This included physical considerations emphasizing participant comfort and attending to non-verbal cues; framing techniques prioritizing human connection, active listening, and validation of participant experiences; and providing choices and opportunities for participants to exercise agency.
  2. Ethical considerations: We had lengthy discussions on representation, questioning how interlocutors are portrayed in research and its potential impact on their lives;  positionality, reflecting on researcher biases, worldviews, and power dynamics in interactions; and the importance of transparent communication to establish trust.
  3. What It Means to be a Trauma-Informed Researcher: We explained what traumatic experiences are and their far-reaching impacts on individuals. We discussed how traumatic responses may be invisible to researchers, while underscoring the importance of recognizing distress when it arises. We also identified skills and interviewing techniques that could be utilized during interviews that might mitigate the risk of re-traumatization.
  4. Context-Aware Research: We explored options for tailoring HFI to each of the contexts where the project was located, acknowledging the specificity of each setting and adjusting methodologies accordingly; and we encouraged researchers to adapt to unexpected situations and regularly reflect on their approaches.

The HFI fieldwork also included multiple support strategies for researchers.

  1. Prior to leaving for the field, researchers received institutional supports that included security plans tailored for each field site and the development and incorporation of detailed self-care plans for researchers. They also participated in discussions about individual self-care strategies, including how to recognize warning signs early on and establish coping mechanisms. We emphasized the importance of setting boundaries, establishing field allies and empathy partners, and taking time each day to “recharge.” We encouraged researchers to think ahead of time about what tends to go by the wayside when they are overwhelmed (exercise, diet, sleep, etc.) and to set up plans to recognize such signs in advance and develop strategies to manage these eventualities.
  2. During the field work, we provided team support plans that included internal debriefs between each research pair, weekly team meetings, and bi-weekly cross-team sessions to ensure diverse perspectives and insights. In addition, we partnered with local organizations to host the researchers and provide additional support as needed, and the PIs (or a local faculty advisor) visited the researchers at each site during the first phase of the field work.

Lastly, as part of our trauma-informed research process, we created a series of feedback sessions in various modalities (group, individual, written form), for researchers to provide reflective feedback on their experiences at all stages of the project.  


Several key takeaways emerged from these feedback sessions. HFI researchers noted that the pre-research trainings exposed them to topics (mental health and self-care) that they had not considered previously as part of research or fieldwork, although they wished they had had additional trainings prior to data collection and a refresher during the beginning phase of their fieldwork. Researchers also noted the positive impacts of having had a partner in their research sites (as opposed to being solo), but would have benefited from more in-person team building sessions before beginning research. There was also an appreciation of the support sessions provided, although some felt it would have been helpful to have individual supportive check-ins in addition to group meetings.

Trauma-informed research is an evolving landscape, and we are still left with some ongoing questions as researchers in this space, including:

  1. What is the most ethically appropriate way to address the researcher’s access to valuable information (e.g. risks of travel, immigration policies, life in the US) that the research participant may not have? What are the power dynamics that this implies?
  2. How can researchers show appreciation for research participants in context-appropriate ways?
  3. What is the impact of this research on migrants as individuals? We had opportunities to prepare, discuss, and reflect with our own team, but where does that leave our interlocutors? How can we do better to ensure that research participants benefit more directly from the experience of working with us?

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