Vulnerable Research

Guest post by Taylor Paige Winfield, PhD Candidate, Princeton University

Vulnerable Research

What can chaplains and sociologists learn from each other?

What can researchers learn from chaplains about working with highly vulnerable people? What can chaplains learn from researchers about conducting studies to improve the profession and client outcomes? In my new article, “Vulnerable Research: Competencies for Trauma and Justice-Informed Ethnography” (2021), I weave together my experiences as a sociologist studying new soldiers in the United States army with lessons I learned from Clinical Pastoral Education. I present six competencies and a training model for researchers interested in working with vulnerable populations.

To begin, I unpack the term “vulnerable.” What do sociologists and chaplains mean when they talk about “vulnerable populations”? Although there is no consensus among scholars on an exact definition of vulnerability, I build on definitions that understand vulnerability as diminished autonomy, a lack of power, limited agency or capacity to function due to physiological, psychological, spiritual, and/or structural factors (Liamputtong 2007). I detail each of these factors and show how vulnerabilities in different spheres often overlap and intersect.

Then I share six competencies for justice and trauma-informed research with highly vulnerable populations, including: (a) self-awareness; (b) participant-centered approach; (c) recognition of social location; (d) attention to trauma; (e) knowledge of professional limits; and (f) effective boundaries and self-care.


Self-awareness asks investigators to explore their own assumptions, biases, and thoughts about qualitative research, their field site, and the research population. Self-awareness helps investigators discover hidden dynamics that are shaping the research endeavor and attend to transference and countertransference that develop between them and participants.

Participant-Centered Approach

A participant-centered approach is modeled from Carl Roger’s client-centered therapy (Rogers 1965). In client-centered therapy, therapists offer clients unconditional positive regard and allow clients to direct conversations, trusting that they have the knowledge and skills to find solutions to their own problems. In participant-centered research, the investigator trusts that the participants have the ability and skills to tell their own stories.

Recognition of Social Location

Recognition of social location is critical because research, like chaplaincy, contains deeply embedded power dynamics. Investigators typically hold the power and authority in the research relationship and it is important for them to attend to how their social identities and positionality shape interactions. Research that is justice-informed works to ensure that interactions between investigators and participants are not replicating exploitative patterns that exist in larger society.

Attention to Trauma

Attention to trauma is integral in work with disempowered populations because participants may currently be experiencing trauma or have past trauma. Research is trauma-informed when it attends to how questions about current and past situations may trigger a traumatic memory or retraumatize a participant. Investigators follow the lead of participants during difficult conversations and pay attention verbal and non-verbal cues that may signal distress.

Knowledge of Professional Limits

When working with individuals that may be experiencing trauma and other vulnerabilities, it is crucial that an investigator has knowledge of  their professional limits. They must have the skills to recognize when a situation exceeds their role or abilities and have a plan for appropriate referrals.

Boundaries and Self-Care

Similar to chaplaincy, research with vulnerable populations can be extremely demanding on investigators physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Investigators often become the keepers of sensitive and often traumatic stories and may witness distressing events. They may also put their own physical health in jeopardy. As such, boundaries and self-care are essential in this work. Professional boundaries help maintain a healthy relationship between researchers and participants and reduce the risks of vicarious trauma. Intentional self-care routines help investigators stay physically, emotionally, and spiritually nourished and rejuvenated.

The article further details these six competencies and provides examples from my own research experiences, sociology, and psychology. Then I outline an Action-reflection style learning course to teach and assess these competencies that is based on Clinical Pastoral Education. The recommended course includes didactics, case studies, and interpersonal relations.

In conclusion, working with individuals who are highly vulnerable—physically, psychologically, spiritually, and/or structurally—presents risks and challenges for researchers and chaplains. The competencies and training model I share in “Vulnerable Research” build on the wisdom of chaplaincy training to help investigators pay close attention to how their personal histories, embodied states, and power dynamics shape research encounters. They also offer skills for healthy boundary keeping, risk assessment, and steps to mitigate harm for both the research participant and the investigator. Finally, they suggest how chaplains can apply their own spiritual care training in research endeavors. Research for and by chaplains is essential in order to carry the profession forward and ensure the best outcomes for clients.


Liamputtong, Pranee. 2007. Researching the Vulnerable. London, England: SAGE Publications, Ltd.

Rogers, Carl R. 1965. Client-Centered Therapy : Its Current Practice, Implications, and Theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Winfield, Taylor Paige. 2021. “Vulnerable Research: Competencies for Trauma and Justice-Informed Ethnography.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 08912416211017254. doi: 10.1177/08912416211017254.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to Wendy Cadge and the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab team for introducing me to the world of spiritual care. I am indebted to Rabbi Dr. Geoffrey Haber, Rev. Karen Fox, and my Clinical Pastoral Education classmates for teaching me about spiritually-integrated psychotherapy and helping me develop as a researcher and spiritual care provider. A special thank you to my research participants, doctoral advisors, and colleagues for their insights during the research period upon which the article is based.

About the author: Taylor Paige Winfield is PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at Princeton University. Her research focuses on the intersection of culture, institutions, cumulative inequalities, and innovations in justice and trauma-informed research methodologies. Her work has been published in the Journal of Healthcare Chaplaincy, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and more. Outside of academia, Taylor is a spiritual care provider with experience in correctional, healthcare, and online settings and is part of the Chaplaincy Innovation Lab’s Educating Effective Chaplains project. She is the founder of RUACH: Emotional and Spiritual Support which has provided free care for over 500 people during the COVID-19 pandemic.