By Bea Gardner
Like many qualitative researchers, I have been adapting my research in light of the specific obstacles posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. I was on the brink of data collection, interviewing and observing practitioners involved in child protection planning, when COVID-19 related restrictions were imposed. My participants included key workers such as Health Visitors, Teachers and Social Workers. All have played an essential role in the pandemic response, but not without significant adaptations to normal working practices, including how they identify, assess and support children in need of protection. After much deliberation, I chose to reframe my PhD research into a focused study of the implications of COVID-19 for those involved in safeguarding children (the term used in the UK for the process of protecting children from abuse or neglect). However, conducting qualitative research during a pandemic brings challenges. In this blog, I reflect on the process of responding to COVID-19, outlining critical considerations I have made at different stages of the pandemic so far.
I initially opted to postpone my research, hoping to complete my chosen methodology later in the year. I also considered ways I could conduct the research remotely, by doing online interviews and removing the observational element until social distancing measures were relaxed. However, as the UK entered lockdown, concerns for adapting my original design to comply with social distancing restrictions were rapidly overtaken by concerns regarding the continued relevance of my research. The pandemic was having profound impacts on my participants, completely transforming the UK safeguarding environment. I needed to respond to this new context, accepting that even if social distancing restrictions lifted, the basis for my research questions had evolved.
Reframing the research
I embarked on a process of re-examining my research framework so far, combing through existing work, seeking to retain what remained relevant and useful to understand the new context. Participants I had already recruited contacted me, eager to discuss the implications of social distancing for their practice. I was in an opportune position to quickly capture this shifting safeguarding landscape, with new questions and possibilities raised. However, given the time constraints of a PhD, it was untenable to restart entirely, leading me to question how far back to ‘unpick’ my existing research design? I also wanted to start gathering data quickly, while still in the early stages of the pandemic response.
After extensive reflection and discussion, I developed a plan to refocus my questions, incorporating the specific challenges and opportunities of the COVID-19 context. Having done this vital reframing work, I was then in a position to adapt my methods.
Adapting methods: Initial Interviews
I completed some online video interviews with those participants I had already recruited, allowing me to capture some of the initial pandemic impacts rapidly. I chose the remote interview method after considering a range of methodological factors, including technological accessibility. I found Janet Salmons’ E-Research framework particularly useful as a guide for the core considerations to make when conducting research online. Her recent webinar ‘when the field is online’ provides an excellent introduction to this.
While conducting the interviews, I was simultaneously investigating options for incorporating further remote design modes to replace my observational element. The initial online video interviews were going well, but they highlighted the limitations of an interview-only approach during a period of rapid change. The participants were going through a process, and I needed a methodology to facilitate capturing and analysing this.
Introducing methods: Audio diaries
Diaries were an obvious consideration to incorporate into the research design, given they inherently capture experience over time. I ruled out written diaries as I did not want the inclusion of a longitudinal element to be too burdensome. However, I considered that audio diaries could be quick and easy, as long as the participants were already familiar with the technology. There was also the possibility that when making audio recordings, participants could make these in semi-private workspaces, such as cars or staff rooms—places I had initially intended to go with participants during observation days.
I opted to introduce Repeat Question Audio Diaries, excellently explained by Helen Fitt, where participants record multiple answers to the same question each time. In my research, participants answer the question “how has the COVID-19 outbreak impacted my work this week?”. The aim is for these diaries to capture changing work practice in ‘real-time’, documenting the implications for safeguarding work at different moments in the pandemic response.
However, before introducing the audio diaries, I had to consider questions such as: How frequently should the diary entries be made? How long should entries be? How prescriptive should accompanying guidance be? How could these be sent and stored securely? At the time of writing, participants are recording either WhatsApp voice messages or leaving a standard voicemail message to a dedicated number. They are recording messages 5-10 minutes long every fortnight and are predominantly doing this from their cars or home office when they finish the workday. It is too early to draw further conclusions on the method, but the data so far is rich, insightful and reflective in the way I had hoped.
Conclusions so far
Adapting to shifting contexts is an enduring feature of qualitative research, even if this particular context is unprecedented in scale. Different projects will require different adjustments, but qualitative research is well-positioned to enable the reworking of methods, methodologies and theoretical frameworks to new situations. Social researchers can contribute valuable insights into the multiple impacts of the pandemic, but only if we can adapt our preferred methods to the new limitations.
Attention to temporality is inevitably emphasised when researching during a pandemic, requiring careful consideration of longitudinal methods. None of these adaptations will be straightforward. However, the potential for methodological advancement is apparent, as it is in many sectors right now, as we all adapt not only to limitations but also to the possibilities of a ‘new normal’.
Bea Gardener is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Southampton University.