Understanding pain and loneliness through politics of compassion

By: Anna-Kaisa Kuusisto-Arponen

Doing research with unaccompanied refugee minors includes many moral and ethical aspects. Among these research constrains are the ethical board’s statement, research permits and the participants’ informed consent. Above all these official formulations of research ethics and good research conduct, the most important factor is the lived ethics of the research relationship. This means a particular ability and willingness to be exposed to other person’s presence, which provides an opportunity to build a research relationship.

Thus, the research relationship with unaccompanied minors is not just a case of starting and carrying the research process but attaining and respecting the experiential knowledge of the worlds that these children and young people carry in them. Consequently, the researcher’s non-judgemental and permissive openness to all kinds of narratives and experiences is in the core of knowledge production. While coping with the infinite loneliness that is connected to the existence of the unaccompanied minors, the researcher has to respond emphatically, and yet professionally, to the young people’s need to challenge the adult listener with painful and sometimes pretty brutal narratives of violence or other kind of abuse, for example. However, a very common mistake in research, as well as elsewhere in life, is to view these minors only as victims of their past experiences and ignore the wider capacities and skills that they have. Mervi Kaukko in the previous TRUST blog aptly states that, for example, the education system of these children and youths often fail to recognise their competencies. Moreover, as Kaukko argues ”success is built on safety and belonging, and maintained by good educational practices, genuinely interested teachers and caring friends”. This means that the role of caring and compassionate social relations between minors and trusted adults should also be actively created and embraced. How can this be achieved in research?

Unaccompanied minors are very sensitive to the genuineness of the adult’s presence, and quite often, particularly in the first stages of the research relationship, put the adult and the trust to test. For the researcher this means a continuously evolving emotive-cognitive process in which trust is being negotiated with regard to the diverse daily encounters within the political, cultural and social contexts the young person finds important.

How can the researcher then response to and operate in these emotionally challenging and thick moments of field work? I have argued that one of the key ways is to utilise the power of compassion as social emotion. Human compassion emerges for instance when witnessing another person’s physical or mental pain. The person who experiences compassion does not experience the same feelings as he or she observes or expects the person suffering the pain to feel, but relates to the other’s experience.

Compassion as a methodology directs the researcher to pay attention to emotionally thick everyday situations. Besides verbal expression, it expands the research to observe the body and the senses. In the field work that the TRUST project has conducted, these emotionally thick sites have included young people’s experiences of mental and geographical placelessness and outsideness. In addition, loneliness, the adversities of daily life and the worry about their family were visible in the young people’s being, manner and speaking. One can respond to a young person’s loneliness by being genuinely present; yet, at the same time, it is necessary to reflect more deeply on how the understanding gained through exposure changes the research relationship and the researcher him/herself.

Moreover, it has to be remembered that although it is the young themselves who pass on their experiences and decide what to tell the researcher, the understanding gained can still hurt them by bringing up painful past experiences and uncertainty. This pain can also be mirrored back to the researcher, albeit in a different way, as a helplessness to expose injustices and inability to change for example the dominant social structures the young person’s experiences have revealed. Despite these risks, I believe that conducting research can genuinely and openly be based on a politics of compassion.



Kuusisto-Arponen, Anna-Kaisa (2016). Myötätunnon politiikka ja tutkimusetiikka Suomeen yksin tulleiden maahanmuuttajanuorten arjen tutkimisessa. Sosiologia, 53: 4, 396-415.

Photo: Kristiina Korjonen-Kuusipuro
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