Aging and death are natural (and inevitable) parts of the human experience. These are as much emotional and even spiritual matters are they are physical and mental. As a result, they are deeply relational—affecting the whole person and their quality of life as well as the lives of their family, caregivers, and friends. How are we addressing the emotionality and spirituality of aging across the lifespan? What questions should we be asking and what conversations should we be having? Where and how can we listen better?

Young hand holding old hand
“People are reluctant to talk about old age and death because they are afraid of emotion, and they willingly avoid the things they feel the most emotional about, though these are the very things they most need to talk about.”  – Paul Tournier (in ‘Learn to Grow Old’)

Thoughts on a discursive constructionist approach (rhetoric all the way down)

“A systematic, data-centered approach, DC [discursive constructionism] refuses to remove the researcher from the analysis. Though the DC approach advocated here supports basing analytical claims on what can be warranted and substantiated in the data, it diverges from canonical CA [conversation analysis] by explicitly making use of extra-discursive insights, including participants’ and the researcher’s own cultural knowledge and interactional histories. This offers an eminently critical perspective and radical challenge to assumptions about social and emotional life and its significance. As a result, it counturtlesters dominant narrative-centered and thematic approaches in L2 interview-based studies by shifting the usual focus from content to construction and action. It embraces creativity and variability of self-representation, and it makes visible speakers’ agentive work and their various interactional competences. (Prior, 2016, p. 17).

Because the researcher is not exempt from this analytical scrutiny, DC is an equalizing approach par excellence. Potter’s (1996) own book is a model of reflexive practice at work. Speaking of ‘an element of self-destruction’, Potter (1996: 9) notes, ‘At the end of the book the ideal reader should be able to turn their gaze back on the book itself and decompose the techniques and tropes that it draws on so freely.’ Thus the processes and rhetoric undergirding our analyses and their representations also become objects for deconstruction (or even ‘destruction’, following Potter). To turn a phrase from the well-known ‘turtle’s back’ myth about the earth’s cosmological origins, we might say that a DC approach reveals the ways in which talk-in-interaction as well as the processes and practices of research are supported by rhetoric ‘all the way down’ (Prior, 2016, p. 51).

On Trauma

“Trauma is a word used widely these days in the media and elsewhere. The word originally was a medical term meaning a serious wound or injury. A serious wound such as a bad head injury pierces the outer ‘membrane’ that protects the physiological system beneath. An emotional trauma is of a similar order” (Music, 2001, p. 54).


“Traumatic events, especially if they remain unacknowledged, continue to disempower victims, and intensify the feelings of shame and humiliation that are part of the legacy of trauma and its internalization. This “internal” dimension of trauma is an important one: while the source of trauma may be external, the recurrent effects of trauma, and the impairment of the memory function—the “unfinished business” of trauma—are primarily reflections of an inner breakdown of the self and of an inner emotional conflict. The intrusive memories and the re-experiencing of trauma are the most distressing features of the aftermath of trauma. Victims and perpetrators of trauma feel helpless and at the mercy of the intrusive and fragmentary memories of trauma, unable to control these memories and completely victimize by them. Thus, healing of trauma, that is, the restoration of the self and the reclaiming of one’s sense of control of memory, of the capacity to reflect, understand, and to perceive things as they are or were, requires transformation of traumatic memory into narrative memory” (van der Merwe & Gobodo-Madikizela, 2008, vii).


“The important thing in overcoming trauma is not to have a coherent story to start with, but to create a coherent story over the course of writing or talking, a story that weaves together all the threads of one’s personal experience” (Planalp, 1999, p. 113).


New 2017 publication: “Managing Researcher Dilemmas in Narrative Interview Data and Analysis”

In Jim McKinley and Heath Rose (Eds.). Doing Research in Applied Linguistics: Realities, Dilemmas, and Solutions. Routledge Press.

My chapter intro:

Narrative interviewing (Riessman, 2007), the elicitation of accounts of per­sonal experience, has become a favoured investigative method in applied linguistics and neighbouring disciplines. It has enhanced our understandings of the dynamic trajectories of language learning and use, and it has inspired alternative ways of conceptualizing and critiquing both narrative and iden­tity (e.g., Bamberg, De Fina, & Schiffrin, 2007; Barkhuizen, 2013; De Fina & Georgakopoulou, 2012; Pavlenko, 2007; also Okada, this volume). The introspective attitude of autobiographical inquiry has also encouraged close scrutiny of the “black box” (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009) of social research and the various problems as well as practices surrounding knowledge pro­duction. The present chapter contributes to these goals of researcher reflex­ivity and methodological transparency. Reflecting on a sample narrative interview study, I trace some of the dilemmas I encountered in the stages of data analysis and discuss steps I took toward resolution. I conclude by considering implications for other qualitative researchers.

DRIALAbout the Volume

Doing Research in Applied Linguistics: Realities, dilemmas, and solutions (publisher’s weblink) provides insight and guidance for those undertaking research, and shows the reader how to deal with the challenges of this research involving real people in real settings. Featuring over twenty chapters by experienced and up-and-coming researchers from around the world, this book:

  • outlines the steps involved in solving the problem and completing a successful, and publishable, project;
  • provides case studies of obstacles faced at each stage of research, from preliminary planning to report writing;
  • addresses issues of validity and reliability during data collection and analysis;
  • discusses ethical issues in research dealing with vulnerable groups including children, refugees, and students;
  • includes examples from longitudinal studies, and both qualitative and quantitative research.

Doing Research in Applied Linguistics is essential reading for students studying research methods, or for those embarking on their first research project in applied linguistics or language education.

Panel on “Trauma During Fieldwork” at the 2017 TESOL Convention in Seattle

This intersects with my own research interests. More research is certainly needed in this area. Kudos to these scholars!

Friday, March 24 (9:30 am–11:15 am)

When Tragedy Strikes: Preparing Researchers for Unexpected Trauma During Fieldwork

Content Area: Research/Research Methodology

TESOL research methods courses often fail to prepare graduate students and supervisors for the unexpected in qualitative fieldwork. Panelists from around the world share their experiences facing fieldwork trauma and offer insights into how their tragic experiences can help graduate students, faculty, and supervisors become more informed researchers in TESOL.

Robert KohlsSan Francisco State University, USA

Peter De CostaMichigan State University, USA

Christine Pearson CasanaveTemple University Japan, USA

Mario López GoparUniversidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca, Mexico

Sreemali Herath, Open University of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka

Marlon Valencia, University of Toronto, Canada