covid-19, Notebook

Adapting research with men during COVID-19: Experiences shifting to mobile phone-based methods

By Joe Strong, Samuel Nii Lante Lamptey, Richard Nii Kwartei Owoo, and Nii Kwartelai Quartey

It is impossible to understand masculinities without social research methods. Speaking and interacting with men is the fundamental cornerstone of the project Exploring the relationships between men, masculinities and post-coital pregnancy avoidance. Conducting these methods through ‘non-social’, distanced means, as a response to COVID-19, presents new challenges and opportunities and ethical considerations.

The original research sample frame was men aged 16 and over, who slept (proxy for ‘resident’) for at least some of their time in the study area. The research team were predominantly based / resident in the study area [a suburb of Accra], and all were living in Ghana prior to the declaration of a pandemic in 11 March 2020.

Response to COVID-19

The original research design necessitated close contact between respondents and the research team, using a household survey, focus group discussions and in-depth interviews. This proximity was quickly deemed unacceptable when compared to public health best practice (social distancing, limited movement, etc). Such methods endanger the respondents and the research team.

As it became evident that the pandemic was long-term, the team discussed potential mechanisms through which to continue the research in a safe and responsible manner. Mobile phone technology emerged as the only feasible way to ensure that social distancing and limited movement would be required for the research project to continue.

In the study area, mobile phone use is relatively high, reflecting broader trends in Ghana. However, these mobile phones were not all ‘smart’, i.e., it could not be assumed that respondents would have access to data or internet on their mobile devices. As such, continuing person-to-person survey interviews was the most feasible way, so as not to limit the sample to a) access to smart technology and b) ability / desire to navigate an online survey.

Thus, focus group discussions were removed entirely from the research design, as these could not be facilitated meaningfully through non-smart mobile phones. The survey questionnaires and in-depth interview schedule could remain the same, with additional questions on the impact of COVID-19. These had been tested prior to the pandemic in person to check for consistency, comprehension and relevance.

Practicalities

Obtaining equipment for the team in a timely and safe manner was essential – this included a mobile phone and three sim cards for each of the major telecommunication networks in the area. Fortunately, the team each had smart phone technology that allowed for communications to continue over WhatsApp.

Ethical amendments were submitted to account for consent being provided verbally, as written consent required inappropriate close contact. A huge outcome of the ethical amendment was the removal of anyone who could not consent for themselves. This has serious implications for the inclusivity of and representativeness of this research. The nature of the gatekeeping could not be observed or accounted for over the mobile phone. For example, it would not be clear if the parent of an adolescent – who required parental consent – would be in the room listening in. Critical voices, such as adolescents, people who need assistance with communication, e.g. sign language interpreters, are also not able to be incorporated into the survey.

The household listing conducted prior to the pandemic did not collect mobile phone information, as retrieving mobile numbers for each household member would be cumbersome and invasive. Thus, no sampling frame was available for the survey. To mitigate this, the study uses respondent driven sampling, whereby each survey respondent is asked to recruit three people from their personal network to be surveyed next and is compensated per successful recruit as well as for their own survey.

The experience of new methods

The use of mobile phones allows the respondents to decide when and where they want to be surveyed, providing them with greater autonomy than a household survey. In many ways, it empowers the respondent to have much more control over the survey. However, this also can make it harder, as the lack of physical presence makes distraction / missing a call much easier.

Moreover, the element of “out of sight, out of mind” hinders the efficiency with which respondents might recruit their friends, and the additional effort of conducting this recruitment through mobile phones might not help. We created regulations – no calling the same person twice in one day if they picked up, no more than three times in one week, end contact if asked – to try and mitigate overburdening respondents with reminders that might feel harassing.

We are finding that some respondents are reticent to be interviewed over the phone, preferring face-to-face interviews so that they might see the interviewer and build trust through sight. Despite the easing of lockdown in Ghana on 20 April 2020, the decision was made to maintain strict protocols of distancing between data collectors and respondents. This reflects the causes behind the ease of lockdown and that our research is non-essential, and we have a duty to avoid risking ourselves and the respondents. 

Responses to the lack of face-to-face cues were mixed. It makes it harder to use e.g. body language to gauge the respondent experience of the survey. On the other hand, it preserves a greater sense of anonymity for the respondent. It is necessary that data collectors “check-in” on respondents during an interview to ensure that the interview questions are not causing undue harm or stress, and that respondents be reminded that they are in control of the interviews. It is important that we acknowledge that the mobile phone becomes a part of the “context” of the research and it is essential to reflect on the impact of this.

Such experiences provide important opportunities for learning. Generally, we are finding that men are not afraid to talk to us over the phone. But we must acknowledge how many more men will be excluded through these methods and consider opportunities for their future inclusion. The greater control respondents have in arranging interviews to suit themselves is an important reminder of the need for patience and respect for respondents’ priorities and the (non-)essentialness of research.

At the time of writing (30 July 2020), 73 respondents have completed interviews, not including 22 seeds. For ongoing data visualisations and sneak peaks, visit the project website at: https://www.masculinitiesproject.org/

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