Turning hurt into impact (?)

By Joern Fischer

“I can’t afford to buy pencils for my daughter, who needs them for school.” – This was the response by a woman in our study area in the SW of Ethiopia when asked about her biggest challenges. The SW is one of the most food-secure parts of Ethiopia, and yet, by international standards, many people in this part of the country live in severe poverty, and are afraid of food insecurity in most years.

For me, engaging with issues of poverty first-hand stirs up a potent mix of strong emotions, including empathy, hurt, anger, impotence, and a sense of shame. It hurts to see people who deserve a good life have fundamentally worse access to things that I take for granted – material safety, schools, doctors. It makes me angry that the world is full of poverty, and yet, in the rich nations we still fiddle around the edges, and by and large, are happy to exploit the poverty of others to make our lives yet more comfortable. I feel a sense of impotence by not knowing what to do about it, and a sense of shame that I will be publishing research on these issues, yet I cannot help very well in tangible terms.

How can a researcher navigate such feelings? This question is work-in-progress for me, in the sense that I’m far better at offering a theory for this than living it in practice. My current understanding is that all of these feelings are worth experiencing. But being caught in them achieves nothing, and so they should be noted, but then left to settle. Caught up in strong emotions, we don’t function well as researchers, and both our science and potential to have real-world impact will suffer.

Ultimately, then, when the strong feelings have settled, they can turn into motivation: Motivation to question one’s research, frame problems in ways that are relevant to the “subjects” being studied, and motivation to generate impact. Impact, in this context, is likely to be diffuse. As researchers, we generate an understanding of complex challenges – we can’t single-handedly implement solutions, especially not in messy situations that don’t lend themselves to ideal-typical transdisciplinary research. Yet, even when it’s difficult, we can think about how to best engage a variety of different stakeholders so that we can be of use not only to the international scientific community but also to the stakeholders in the system under investigation.

I wrote about poverty in the above, but the same is true for other normative research endeavours. If I care about conservation, it hurts to see landscapes cleared of forest. If I care about climate change, it hurts to see policy failures. I argue that engaging with these feelings, and reflecting on them, is important to channel our energy wisely – to prioritise where to work, what to work on, and how to work on it.

PS: Why did I write this post? Because I figured I’m probably not the only person struggling with these issues; and because it’s the kind of thing that is not being talked about in (most) scientific papers. Yet, the context of science is just as important in shaping our science as the intellectual questions we are so much more used to debating. 


5 thoughts on “Turning hurt into impact (?)

  1. Thanks Joern

    I think all researchers might benefit by reflecting on the emotional dimension of their field of science (as you have done).

    A few years ago, Richard Hobbs at the University of Western Australia reflected on the nature of the increasingly bitter debate over the values underpinning conservation science (eg, economic vs intrinsic values). He suggested that some of the bitterness may relate to the fact that conservation science might be suffering from unacknowledged grief.

    He said: “Why are there such visceral responses to literature that suggests we need to start thinking differently about topics such as invasive species and restoration goals? One potential explanation occurred to me as I reflected on the nature of loss.

    “It could be argued that most ecologists and conservation biologists live mostly in a world characterized by loss, and hence are either wittingly or unwittingly in a constant state of grief. This has been discussed only rarely in the literature, and scientists and practitioners rarely talk about the emotional aspects of what they do.”

    He then discussed how the stages of grief we experience when a loved one dies might help us understand our responses. You can read his paper or Decision Point editorial here:
    Hobbs RJ (2013). Grieving for the Past and Hoping for the Future: Balancing Polarizing Perspectives in Conservation and Restoration. Restoration Ecology 21: 145–148.



    • Thanks David! And nice to see you “back” on our blog. I know our quality of reflection waxes and wanes, and I take your engagement as a good sign 🙂
      This is really interesting, and I had not seen this before. Thank you for sharing the information!

  2. Hi Joern. Thanks for writing this. I’m an ecologist trying to work on development projects, so understand the pain associated with massive social inequality and poverty, as well as environmental degradation and political failure. It is so important to acknowledge the feelings – guilt, powerlessness, frustration, depression – that come with these callings, and network with others to figure out how best we can act to address the root causes, rather than band-aiding the symptoms.


    • Thanks Toni! Sounds like we’re in perfect agreement on this one (and I agree we need idealists, by the way …) 🙂 — Joern

  3. Pingback: Disaggregated contributions of ecosystem services to human well-being: a case study from Eastern Europe | Ideas for Sustainability

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