By Areej Jamal (UCL Social Research Institute)
I was getting my PhD upgrade and preparing for my fieldwork soon after, when the Covid-19 outbreak struck. Due to the border closures, I was stuck in the country where I was undertaking my PhD and my fieldwork was due to start overseas which is also my home. I could not travel back home for months.
Not sure of when the borders would open again and anxious about starting my fieldwork, I had to adapt to the new circumstances and utilise my research time more efficiently. Since my research employs a mixed methods design using online surveys and qualitative interviews, I did not have to pivot much of the original design. However, I also had an observatory aspect in my proposed design. Being an insider to the community I am researching, I was looking forward to attending some social meetings to observe and gather the less apparent insights during my fieldwork time. But since the social distancing protocols of Covid-19 seemed long term, I had to reconsider the observation element. In this blog, I will reflect on how I took the changing circumstances in my stride and tried to gather insights from unplanned data collection sites.
Reframing the methods design
My research investigates lived experiences of long-term migrants and how they make sense of their identity and belonging in a country where they have no pathways to citizenship. Due to the Covid-19 crisis I had to reframe a few ways of collecting data ensuring to keep the essence and relevance of my research questions. Though I could carry out the online surveys as originally planned, I had to switch the in-depth interviews to online interviews. The ethical and methodological amendments arising out of online interviews were submitted to the ethics committee for review.
Being stranded abroad in lockdown, I started exploring and observing the online content as sites for data collection. The unobtrusive observation of online content became a very significant part of my revised research design. The two main online sources where I found salient insights were the online videos (vlogs) on YouTube where some migrants had been documenting almost every aspect of their lives and the other was online support groups where mostly distressed migrants were interacting. The latter was a chance discovery as I, myself was a part of these groups seeking guidance and information to return home.
Unobtrusive observation implies that a researcher observes and collects data from online sources such as websites; social media sites or discussion forums without necessarily interacting with the participants. I was passively observing the interactions taking place on these online platforms.
Making sense of the data and meanings emerging from the observation sites
Robinson (2016) and Seale et.al (2010) posit that unsolicited narratives provide richness of new knowledge that is often lacking in solicited accounts. Since the researched community is unaware of the ongoing observation, they tend to offer genuine and certain interpretations of life under specific circumstances. And so, the narrator controls the content without the researcher’s interference.
The migrant stories I had been observing from the selective YouTube accounts and the online support groups that I had joined on WhatsApp particularly offered me very significant source of information and insights. The self-reflections and opinions the observed groups expressed about their temporal migrant status and the impact it has had on some of their life decisions and which was further exacerbated by the pandemic gave me context and ideas relevant for my research questions. The narrator driven stories uncovered aspects of life, which probably would not have occurred in any of my other methods. Seale et.al (2010) suggests that since the online interactions occur in real time, they offer some sort of immediacy which is often lacking in methods where participants mostly reflect and reconstruct past occurrences.
The new knowledge emerging out of these online sources helped me draft some of the initial themes and areas to further investigate through the other methods.
Methodological and Ethical considerations
There are various ethical debates surrounding the unobtrusive research in existing literature and ways of examining personal narratives produced by individuals through online medium. Some researchers (Eysenbach and Wyatt,2002, Seale et.al, 2010) argue that since most of the online content is publicly available aimed at general audience, the need for informed consent is ambiguous. However, in case of online support groups as Barker (2008) and O’Brien and Clark (2011) discuss the limitations of private content due to smaller number of groups members. The support groups I had been a member of, had admins and certain privacy protocols that all group members had to abide by.
The positionality of the researcher is a very important aspect throughout the research process. Salmons (2012) E-interviews Research Framework offers useful tips reflecting on some crucial questions of self-reflexivity when undertaking unobtrusive observations of the online content.
Matters of confidentiality and seeking consent for data generated from online resources needs much deliberation and largely depends on the objectives of the researcher and the ways they aim to present and report the findings. Although I am still exploring ways of representing information from these valuable sites of information, I find the idea of fabrication approach by Annette Markham (2012) quite useful, which implies ‘involving creative, bricolage-style transfiguration of original data into composite accounts or representational interactions’ (2012, p334) without divulging any specific details of the researched community.
Sometimes the most obvious data sites would not be as apparent unless faced with unexpected circumstances restraining our methodological choices. Agility is an intrinsic characteristic of most social research. At present, data collection is in constant flux responding to the unprecedented crisis. And now more than ever, the relentless pandemic situation offers a critical window for researchers to make every effort to explore creative and novel approaches of data collection and innovative ways to tap the potential of the existing methods.