By Mary Brenda Herbert
‘Where are you?’ He quizzically looked at me, eyes darting from one corner of my screen to another. He wasn’t looking at me, but behind me.
‘I’m at home,’ I say.
‘Oh, I thought you were in a bookshop when you should be at home. There are so many books behind you,’ he said, nodding. And so began my weekly video call with Sam*.
As ethnographers, we are used to meeting with our interlocutors in-person on their territory or on neutral ground, but rarely, if never, in our own homes! However, the COVID-19 restrictions changed all that. Through video conferencing tools like Whatsapp, I now seeing into children’s homes and they are seeing into mine. This was not exactly how I had imagined my fieldwork to be.
I had only begun my fieldwork a couple of months prior to this change. After several months of applying for ethical approval from the local authority, I finally started meeting families for my PhD research study. My study focuses on children and their mothers who have experienced domestic abuse and social care interventions. We were all ready to go when I realized that my plans were about to change dramatically. Lockdown had just been announced which, meant an end to the home visits I envisioned. What was I to do?
Panic was my first response, but then something else dawned on me. In essence, the purpose of my project had not changed; I could still research children’s lives, it just happens that their everyday lives now included dealing with a pandemic. There was also the ethical question of the families wanting to continue the research. I did not want to let them down but how could I continue safely? I realized my methods that needed to change, not my aim. In a frenzied scramble I put together an art pack made up of paper, glue tick pens, pencils, modelling clay, pipe cleaners, lolly sticks, and a small toy digital camera, along with a quickly made up booklet containing instructions (please see fig. 1). My aim was to give children the resources to creatively capture the new normal of their everyday lives. Just before lockdown I delivered the art packs to my interlocutors’ doorsteps, and I was careful to abide by the social distancing rules when speaking with the families from outside their homes. Following the pack deliveries, the families and I agreed for me to call them once a week to see how they were getting on. Together we worked out a way of documenting their everyday lives.
While this is not the way I had initially envisaged my research going (whose research goes to plan anyway?), I have had experiences and reflections that would not have been possible if not for COVID-19. An important realization for me is how research is mediated through different materials. Two prime examples are the internet and the weather. The internet is a rather insolent and unreliable research assistant; sometimes it turns up for work and other times not so much. Sometimes it surprises me and stays for the duration of the task to be completed, but it mostly ducks in and out. My research partner is my internet, and I have become especially reliant on it during this time of COVID-19. Its (un)reliability has highlighted the infrastructures that work to keep our world connected (Chiou and Tucker, 2020). As the Covid19 restrictions were lifted, but social distancing advisories remained, the weather has become a major influencing factor in determining my work methods. On one occasion, I arrived in the pouring rain at a home and had to alter my plans on short notice. Our initial plans to go for a walk were out of the question, so I instead arranged a picnic blanket in the corridor of a block of flats to do some artwork with children. (please see fig. 2).
My dependency on the internet and the weather has made me acutely aware of how my encounters are mediated by materials, structures, and chance. However, these example of changes, adaption, and interdependency are not unusual for ethnography. Often these dependencies on other people and things outside of the communities we are researching are seldom written about or are sidelined, yet they play a vital role in how we conduct our research (Rosaldo, 2014, p. 111). The pandemic has quickly debunked any illusion that I previously held that I, the researcher, am totally in control of the design and unfolding of my research project (Pandian, 2019).
So, what of the art packs? Some children have taken photos, some have drawn and made things, others have lost all the pens and pencils, whilst others have ignored it all together. The children have used what they have felt comfortable with, and that in itself is ‘data’. I have experimented with other techniques: I have tried diary/journal– that was not received well (too much like schoolwork). My trial with a digital photo diary (Plowman and Stevenson, 2012) resulted in mothers taking photos of their children rather than children taking photos of themselves, which was not what I had intended. Together we are trying to find a way to explore the everydayness of life through playing with methods.
This means there is a lot of negotiation, innovation, frustration, and patience on both sides. From the families who have to put up with me going from room to room to try and find a spot in my home that has some Wi-Fi connection so we can continue our video call, to the children who have taught me how to play hide and seek over the phone, to socially distanced walks with children in their local areas, to meeting across doorways to exchange info and materials – we’ve navigated these terrains in order to tell the story, the story of what everyday life is like. We do this in “an effort to unsettle and remake” what is known (Pandian, 2019, p. 5).
The irony of researching with children about their everyday whilst my own children are glued to their screens is not lost on me. In so many ways, the mothers that form part of my research are struggling with the same things I am – how to keep children occupied, getting shopping, keeping well, staying safe, and doing our best to get through the pandemic. At the same time, the pandemic has also highlighted ongoing issues of inequality and power relations in society. Whilst I have similar concerns and challenges as the mothers in my research. For example, my children’s use of the iPad as a childcare resource is not being critiqued by social services; I can do an internet shop and use the car to avoid public transport; I have money and a supportive partner to help me. I am cushioned by my relations, network, and access to resources. The pandemic has brought the growing inequalities within society and the institutionalized racism to the surface. We are all experiencing the pandemic, but the effects of it are not the same.
So, when Sam asks me about the books on my shelf and how many rooms are in my home, I am acutely aware of the difference in our status in society, and this is a good thing to examine. Whilst the pandemic is an enormous once (we hope) in a lifetime experience, the fundamental essence of research is still the same – the creation of knowledge, and for me, the importance of exploring the everyday lives of children.
*Not this individuals real name.
Chiou, L. and Tucker, C. (2020) Social Distancing, Internet Access and Inequality. w26982. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, p. w26982. doi: 10.3386/w26982.
Pandian, A. (2019) A possible anthropology: methods for uneasy times. Durham: Duke University Press.
Plowman, L. and Stevenson, O. (2012) ‘Using mobile phone diaries to explore children’s everyday lives’, Childhood, 19(4), pp. 539–553. doi: 10.1177/0907568212440014.
Rosaldo, R. (2014) The day of Shelly’s death: the poetry and ethnography of Grief. Durham: Duke University Press.