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Navigating the effect of research on researchers

Madeline Toubiana
Telfer professor Madeline Toubiana

In 2013, when Canadian laws around sex work were set to change, professor Madeline Toubiana started a seven-year study on sex workers with her colleague Trish Ruebottom, Associate Professor of HR and Management at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University. Over the course of this study, they discovered innovative entrepreneurship within the sex industry, and learned about the social change being led by stigmatized and marginalized members of the industry.

Through this research project, Professor Toubiana also learned quite a few things about herself. In a HuffPost Personal piece, she shared how her research on the sex industry altered her perception of objectification in her own life. This made me, a research communicator, wonder about how research affects researchers, on a personal level. So, I asked Professor Toubiana if she would talk to me about her experience. Here’s a recap of our conversation.

Mireille Brownhill, Knowledge mobilization and communication advisor at the Telfer School of Management: Professor Toubiana, thanks for taking the time to chat with me! In September 2023 you wrote an opinion piece for the Huffington Post on how your research on the sex industry affected your perception of objectification. This is something we rarely talk about, how research affects the researcher on a personal level, how it informs your future research.

Professor Madeline Toubiana: I think you raise a really interesting question. It’s not something we’re taught, right? We don’t learn about how, as a researcher, you’re going to be impacted by your own research. There’s this notion of “me-search”, where you do research on things that are personally relevant, but I’ve found the reverse is true, where you might do research that isn’t particularly relevant to you personally, but over time it comes to shape the way you see your own life.

Mireille: Is there another research topic you’ve explored that has shifted your perception or affected you personally?

Madeline: One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is shame. I’ve done some work around perimenopause in the workplace, where women are measuring themselves against the “ideal worker”. And they don’t measure up, because the ideal worker is not a real thing, and this seems to trigger shame.

Person with long hair hiding their face with their hand

I also saw shame in a number of other samples, in my work on sex work, on emotions, with immigrants, and in many other interviews. When I say shame, it’s a feeling of not being good enough. And I feel that in my own life, as a woman, as a mother, as an academic. It’s a struggle, right?

I know we can resist it cognitively; I’ve studied this. I know that I’m doing the best I can, I can resist this shame. Yet people still feel it; I was seeing that in the research, and I was feeling it in my own body. And so the way that I'm coping with the shame in my life is being informed by the work I'm doing on it and what I'm seeing other people do. My work is enhancing who I am. That's not something I ever expected, nor do I know how to make sense of it. And we don’t talk about that in the research or when we are training doctoral students.

Mireille: Would you say then that your work is having a positive impact on your life? It sounds mostly positive, as though it leads to growth.

Madeline: Yes, I think so. I mean, it puts me on the trajectory of growth, whether I succeed or not is a different story, but it makes me aware of challenges, the rough spots. Another example is a project I’ve recently started on degrowth with past PhD student Niki Khorasani and Angelique Slade Shantz. In this we are looking at people who have shifted from professional careers to homesteading or farming work, which used to be considered in the literature a “downward occupational transition”. Some of the people who are doing it are calling it “trying to get out of the rat race”. In following these movements and these people, who are criticizing the pace of our lives and how it’s impacting us as humans, you really start to wonder about your own life, about yourself. It doesn’t mean the personal transformation is going to happen fast; I think I’m years away from that having a transformative effect the way that my work on stigma and shame has. This is slow change.

Person sitting in a hamac overlooking a body of water

The other thing I’d say is that my program of research is really about what stalls and fosters social change. I'm trying to study what leads to thriving for humans and organisations in society. So when you're studying what can get us thriving and away from surviving, I'm hoping the lesson that I walk away with would help me thrive. That wasn’t what I set out to do, I wasn't trying to help myself personally, but it's happening along the way.

Mireille: You talk about change, both for yourself and for the subjects of your research. Do you think that the choices you’re making with respect to your research topics come from a desire for change?

Madeline: I think so, yes. What I think you’re saying is I’m trying to study what I hope to see in the world, and I think that is the case, yes. That’s one of the reasons I came back to academia. I was working in sales in the hospitality industry, and I was getting rewarded the more sales I made, no matter what ethical or un-ethical decisions I made along the way. I thought to myself: “What have I bought into? What did I sign up for when I took on this business degree?” I was like where is the care, where is the social, the ethics? How are we supposed to do good in the world? The tension that I saw at the interface of business was interesting to me, and it drove me back to school and since I've been interested in how we create social change.

Mireille: I find interesting the concept of “me-search”, in that you gravitate towards topics that are relevant to you based on your experience, based on your actual current knowledge. I think I've yet to meet a researcher who is doing research in a field they know nothing about. Are there results that have come from your research that you have chosen to directly apply to your life?

Madeline: I’m not sure. I mean, for me, I don't study very traditional contexts. I've studied a lot of marginalized, stigmatized populations, so the direct link to my own life isn’t right always obvious. It's not immediately relevant, like, oh OK, this is what I should use in a hiring protocol because I studied hiring. The insights in these cases were not because the research was about me at all, it is that I learned something about myself from people who were facing very different situations. Now this is not always the case. My study on perimenopause for women at work is obviously relevant to me as a woman. So I think my point is you may find a connection to yourself regardless of whether or not you conduct “me-search”.

Mireille: Right, because the kind of research you do doesn’t necessarily create a solution, it doesn’t build a tool.

Seeing how the research you’ve already done or the research you’re currently doing is affecting you, does it give you ideas for future projects based on how they might affect you?

"I started out with one big broad question: why is business having such a hard time doing good? And the journey is, in each iteration, getting an answer to a question to then say oh, I need to know more about this now."

Madeline: Well, I don’t know. I think that my experiences shape the research I do, and my experiences are shaped by the research that I do, right? It's iterative. How do I decide what the next project is? That decision is affected by both of those things because I learn as I'm going along and each project builds a little bit of my understanding about this idea of thriving, right, thriving individuals, organization, society. How do we create social change to get closer to that?

One example of that is I did a lot of work on emotions and on stigma. Those two things led me to the intersection of shame, and how shame limits thriving across different aspects of our lives. I have an article coming on shame at the organizational level, and another under review about transforming shame. Now this research on shame has made me more aware of embodiment. So that, and the research I’m currently doing on menopause, has brought my attention to the fact that we ignore bodies, our physical bodies, at work and in our theories. And now I am digging deeper and studying that. So it's not just me, it's the iteration, the research evolving, learning what’s missing from our understanding and pushing on to the next stage. The next projects that I'm going to be doing are on this embodiment, our bodies, and on this aspect of slow lives, degrowth, people removing themselves from traditional organizations and careers so they can thrive.

I never started out with any of these. I started out with one big broad question: why is business having such a hard time doing good? And the journey is, in each iteration, getting an answer to a question to then say oh, I need to know more about this now. The connection to me is that as I'm going along there, I'm learning more about myself as a person, as a human, about my own thriving.

Mireille: Do you think this is common for researchers? Have you witnessed it in your colleagues, for example, that they are receptive to incorporating these learnings into their personal lives?

Madeline: I think a lot of people are, yes. Not everybody is researching things they can draw on in a lived-experience kind of way, but most academics I know adopt some of what they’re doing or learning into their own lives.

I read this book on emotions by Lisa Feldman Barrett and as she's explaining her theory of emotions – it's based on decades and decades of research in neuroscience and the neuroscience of emotions – she kept talking about how she brought back her new, evolved understanding of emotions into her interactions in child rearing.

Hopefully, the knowledge we create ends up being knowledge that shapes how we interact in the world, but we never really pay attention to that or explicitly discuss it. Talking about it makes you vulnerable, you have to talk about yourself, start showing yourself as a person and less like an ideal worker.

Mireille: Do you feel the need to separate yourself as a person from the work that you’re doing? Is that something that you were taught to do?

Madeline: Not taught explicitly, but I remember my supervisor telling me that she was told not to have a picture of her child in her office. The message being that her full self was not welcome in her own office. Especially as women, in a field that is largely gendered. And the more I’ve done research on the “ideal worker”, the more I realize there are also many men who feel they don’t measure up, so they hide some aspects of themselves as well. So we all leave some parts of ourselves behind.Black woman under pressure at work

One thing that does get taught in academe and can become quite toxic is a devotion to work culture. Now, on the one hand, it can make for invested academics, many of us who love this work, but the expectation that you must work constantly, be available at the drop of a hat, answer emails morning, day, night, and never stop working is burning out lots of people. So these are parts of the ideal worker narrative that pervade the profession.

Mireille: Which doesn’t allow space for you as a person, as your full self.

Madeline: Yes, exactly.

Mireille: One of the principal expectations in academia is publishing the results of your studies in scientific journals, and secondary to that are other knowledge mobilization activities. Do you feel compelled to share the personal impact of these studies with your peers so that they can benefit from it as well?

Madeline: In the early days of my career, that wasn't even something that crossed my mind, that I had the luxury to even do that. The tenure clock is ticking, you need to produce the right research in the right places. And it's not valued, in traditional metrics, to share your knowledge beyond the ivory tower, so to speak. And even if I wanted to, I did not know how. Post tenure, I think, and after the sex work study, where I really felt those transformative effects, my co-author and I did develop ideas we wanted to share with a bigger audience. That’s when Trish and I did a Tedx talk, and we’re now trying to write a book. It's something that’s not just for my peers, but for the others who might be interested.

While I can take pride in my ability to produce an article and go through that process – and I have learned so much from doing so – they don't get read, digested, by many of the people they could have an impact on. A lot of things that could have an impact don't necessarily find their way into a finished article. We did a 7-year study and had to produce results in less than 60 pages. There’s no room for personal experiences there.

So yes, I am motivated to try and share that information more broadly, but it’s very difficult to do within the confines of our job. There are multiple expectations: your teaching, your service work, producing in top journals. And then your regular life on top of all of that. So I want to do that work, but the challenge is finding the time to do it.

" of the hardest things I've ever done is bring together really big ideas into something that can change theory. That’s knowledge creation, right? Which is important and valuable. It is a part of my job I love."

Mireille: As a knowledge mobilization advisor, I applaud the work that you’re doing: making research results available to a broader audience in a very accessible way, connecting it to their personal lives. I also understand that this type of output is not currently measured or valued in a way that makes it worthwhile.

There is definitely a movement pushing for those outputs to be counted and to be valued, but we aren’t there yet. So I hear you, it’s a challenge: your desire to do good because your goal is social change, and how difficult that is to do in academia and with the way you are currently evaluated in your career.

Madeline: Yes, and I’ll add this: I don't think I would have gotten my understanding, my insights, if I didn't get pushed to go through the rigorous process of publishing in academic journals. It really pushes you to refine and articulate your core insights. So I'm not of the mind that there's no value in that or that we shouldn't do it. It's very hard; one of the hardest things I've ever done is bring together really big ideas into something that can change theory. That’s knowledge creation, right? Which is important and valuable. It is a part of my job I love.

The juggling act is the hard part, and I think instead of doing away with one or the other, we need more time for flux. To have this work, this research, then have more time, space or support to do the translation work. I wouldn’t want to be translating knowledge that didn’t go through the rigorous evaluation process.

Mireille: Hopefully the conversations that are taking place now will lead to adapted evaluation measures, which would assign more value to the mobilization of the knowledge you’ve created, which in turn would hopefully allow for that flux.

Madeline: You know, all social change is pretty slow. And as I said, my next project is on slowing down. What do slower careers look like? It relates to what you’re saying about output, how it’s measured. What does it mean if we design our careers, our organizations differently, with different goals in mind? That aren’t “grow, grow, grow” or “go, go, go”, but are just enough?

That’s something I’m thinking about, I’m studying people and organizations that are doing that. And that’s making me look at my own life, which is very much “grow, grow, grow” and “go, go, go”. I’m not good at slowing down, finding my peace. So that’s a nascent reflection, personal growth that’s just starting. If we look back in five years maybe I'll be able to say that I went from go, go, go to a little bit slower.

Mireille: I’ll make a note to reach out in five years! Thank you, Madeline, for sharing this with me.

Madeline Toubiana is a Full Professor and the Desmarais Chair in Entrepreneurship at the Telfer School of Management. Her research program focuses broadly on what stalls and supports social change and innovation. More specifically, she examines the role of emotions, entrepreneurship, institutional processes, and stigmatization in influencing the dynamics of social change. She was awarded the Telfer Emerging Researcher Award in 2023.

Read her piece in the Harvard Business Review: When a Major Life Change Upends Your Sense of Self

About the Author

En tant que conseillère en mobilisation des connaissances et communications, Mireille transforme les concepts et les impacts de la recherche de l'École de gestion Telfer de manière à rejoindre un large éventail de publics et rehausser l'image et la réputation de l'école.<br/><br/>As Knowledge Mobilization and Communications Advisor, Mireille translates Telfer researchers interests and impacts in a clear and engaging manner in order to reach a range of audiences and enhance the School’s image and reputation.

Profile Photo of Mireille Brownhill