Things to Think About When Researching a Taboo Topic

Your PhD research is unique, that’s the whole point of PhD research. Your job as a PhD researcher is to contribute new information to your field. However, your research may be a bit more unique than average if you decide to research a taboo topic.

Taboo topics can elicit strong emotions both from yourself and others, which can put an added mental and emotional strain on your research. A PhD can be a rough, but rewarding journey, but researching a taboo topic can add an additional layer of challenge to doing a PhD (for more on the PhD journey see this post). This post will address some of the challenges and general things to be aware of if you decide to research a taboo topic for your PhD.

This post is not meant in anyway to discourage potential researchers from doing the very important and necessary work needed on taboo topics. Rather it is meant to prepare and help you handle some of the unique challenges that come with researching and likely publishing on taboo topics, such as the emotional response of yourself and others, public pressure, and the measure of societal influence that you may gain from your research. Taboo topics need researchers, but you should be prepared for what you are undertaking. (For more on common PhD problems check out this post.)

This post was written by a recent PhD graduate (it is anonymous to keep the discussion frank) on behalf of Dave Maslach. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world. For more on this topic and to see what Dave has to say about researching taboo topics:

What is a taboo topic?

A taboo topic is one that elicits an emotional or polarizing response from people. Taboo topics are topics that people can sometimes get very heated up about discussing and just bringing up the topic can set off an emotional response in people. Taboo topics can often be uncomfortable for people to talk about, and because of this do not get a lot of exposure or discussion in general society. Researchers in the Social Sciences and Humanities are much more likely to encounter these types of topics as their research deals more directly with societal topics. Some examples of taboo topics include gun control, immigration, politics, religion, and gender and sexuality, among many many others. There are some research areas of the hard sciences that are taboo (think stem cell research or certain medical procedures), but taboo topics are much more commonly found in Social Science and Humanities research.

Taboo topics are often topics that people are uncomfortable speaking about, or that cause very charged emotional response. I have seen this personally as one of my research focuses is medieval gender and sexuality. Just the mere mention of the topic sometimes had people shying away from the conversation, as even the sex lives of people 700 years dead made them uncomfortable since they were generally uncomfortable speaking about sex and sexuality. I have also gotten very emotional responses from people who don’t think that sexuality and gender have any bearing on history and that I should “just stick to the facts.” When discussing your research on a taboo topic you can get a wider gambit of response ranging from people very interested in your work to people angry that you are working on that topic at all, hence the taboo part.

Things to consider when researching taboo topics

Again, this list is in no way meant to discourage you from pursuing your chosen taboo topic. It is just meant to help you prepare for your own response to your research and the response of others.

Your taboo research is very important

If something is taboo, by definition we don’t talk about it much, and therefore often don’t understand it very well on a wider societal level. Because of those feelings of taboo and discomfort, few people go into research on taboo topics. This sense of secrecy or prohibition on the topic makes your research all the more important. All research is of course important, but research on a taboo topic takes a different sort of role in society. Your research has the potential to very directly impact society. For instance, feminist researchers in the 1960s and 1970s shaped the Women’s Rights Movement and its direction. Feminist researchers at universities set the directions of the movement, by identifying problems of gender inequality and solutions and therefore had a very real impact on the message and effectiveness of the Women’s Rights Movement (other people outside of academia were of course important too, but the contribution of Feminist researchers was hugely influential).

This larger societal impact factor is something that you should be aware of as a taboo topic researcher. All researchers of course want their research to reach a wide audience and have an impact, but researchers on taboo topics have a unique opportunity to bring understanding of a topic to a wide audience and even reshape the discourse around it.

A Caveat

That being said, it is important to remember to take care with what your research says. This is not to say that you should hide unpleasant results or to falsify data to make a bigger impact, but rather to be aware that what you find can have very real societal impact, for both good and ill. Do be careful with how you approach your results when you are disseminating them and presenting them. Be sure to present your findings clearly and say what you want to say about your topic. There will always be a chance that people will twist your words to suite their own needs, but you can limit that with extra precaution in your presentations and publications.  

Identity as a researcher

Think back to when you were a college student. Did you have a professor that everyone considered the “cool” professor because their research and the classes they taught were edgy, unusual, and a bit taboo? As an undergraduate, I had a Gender Studies professor whose classes on sexuality were in high demand because they were frank and open discussions about sex and sexuality in our society. As this was over 10 years ago, this was unusual in a wider societal context. Most students considered this professor super cool and little mysterious as she was so open and honest about sex and sexuality. Her classes were a safe space to explore all these questions that we weren’t really free to in normal society. Among the students at the university she was known as the “sex professor,” her taboo research was appended to her identity as a person and professional.

This persona or identity with your taboo research is something that you should be aware of when researching a taboo topic. People will identify you with your topic because it is unusual. You should be prepared for it to be part of your life and your image, both personally and professionally. If you publish on your taboo topic other academics will associate you with that topic, even after your have moved on to other research projects. Your other research, while important, will not be as instantly memorable as your taboo research. People find taboo topics fascinating and so they will associate your own personal and professional identity with your topic because it is unusual and easy to remember.

Emotional response

As a taboo topic researcher, you will get an emotional response from other people when you talk about your research, but you should also be aware that you will have to deal with your own emotional response to your research particularly if you deal with a more troublesome or wearing topic such as child abuse or sex crimes. This is an added burden that you will face as a researcher that someone researching a more mainstream topic such as plate tectonics or ocean currents will not have to face. You will have to develop some strategies for dealing with the emotional fallout of your research.

In terms of discussing your research with other people, this will be more about learning to approach the topic in a diplomatic and careful way. I have learned over the years that straight up launching into my research on how medieval gender relations were power relations tends to make people angry (they don’t like to think of gender like that). By being a bit more indirect and gauging their level of interest and ability to have an open and frank discussion on gender and power I can lessen the emotional burden on myself and that other person. Something you will find after a while particularly if you have a really hot button topic is that it is just wearing to try to have an open conversation with someone that doesn’t want to hear your side, and so talking around it is just easier, but gradually easing into a conversation with someone who is open can be very enlightening.

In terms of your own emotional health, it is important to remember that while your research is very important and potentially society changing you should not let it beat you down mentally or emotionally. You will need to take breaks from it and develop some emotional care routines. The best one I can suggest here is talking to a professional like a therapist to help you deal with some of the issues that will come with this type of research. Be aware that while you may be very passionate about your research topic, it can have detrimental effects on your mental health, and you should take care of yourself. Being prepared to take emotional care of yourself will save you from becoming overwhelmed and also improve your research.

Outside Pressure

Because your research is unique, interesting, and taboo you may find that you receive outside pressure to shape your research in a certain way. You may find that a special interest group, a politician, or a society takes notice of your research and puts pressure on you to have your research in some way fit their agenda. How you want to handle this is up to you. If their needs and your research go hand in hand, have at it, but if they want you to prove something contrary to your results don’t be afraid to take a stance. This is after all your research and your results, not theirs.

In association with this, your taboo research may afford you the opportunity to provide some leadership in a movement or society set on promoting a better understanding and acceptance of your topic. Your research and publications have the very real ability here to shape societal discourse and awareness of your topic. Don’t be afraid to take a stance. You have a real opportunity to make a positive impact on society with your taboo research, so don’t be afraid to take that stance. (As a side note, you can take a stance to simple be an unbiased researcher and not let others pressure or influence your research, that is also an acceptable stance).

People are going to ask you questions (a lot of questions!)

Taboo topics are by nature not often discussed openly, but people are deeply fascinated by them (although sometimes they don’t want to admit it). Anytime I go to a large international conference, the sessions that are best attended are sessions on taboo topics like sex, crime, and grisly legends. People don’t often get to discuss or hear about these topics, so they flock to these sessions hoping to have their curiosity slaked and maybe ask a burning question they have always wanted an expert to answer.

It is the same out in the rest of the world. People might be interested in medieval sex lives and sexuality or more than likely simply curious, but they don’t know where to find the answers or even begin to know how to talk about it. So when you come along and start openly talking about a taboo topic, many people will take it as a great opening to ask questions about the topic, engage you in discussion if they know something about it, or even argue with you about your stance on the topic. This is something you should be aware of and be prepared for, you are going to be asked a lot of questions, and people are going to have a lot of opinions on what you research (I have even had people suggest that I shouldn’t research my topic because of the taboo!). The questions will also run from simple curiosity to outright hostility again because of the emotional response elicited by taboo topics.

Talking about your topic with other people can be a lot of fun, but it can also be wearing (See this post on conferences). This is again one of those places where you should put your best mental and emotional health practices into effect and tell people you are not up for a discussion at that time if your topic is currently an emotional burden.

Overall, the thing to be most aware of when researching a taboo topic is the emotional aspect of it. Your research can be personally emotionally wearing in just its subject matter, but taboo topics will also bring a lot of interest from other people. The questions, pressure, and sometimes hostility of others can be draining, so be prepared for this added strain during your PhD and develop some ways to handle it to preserve your own mental and emotional health.     

Recent Posts