Calls, covid-19, featured, Notebook

Exploring unplanned data sites for observational research during the pandemic lockdown

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.

Conclusions

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.

Announcements, Calls, featured

Call for Contributions: Adapting Conventional Research Methods for the New Normal

In search of Novel Adaptations in Social Science Research Methods for the World of COVID

With a second wave of the global COVID-19 pandemic now sweeping across the West, it is becoming clear that returning to ‘normal‘ maybe a long way off yet. Though, the need for social research is now more pressing than ever. The International Journal of Social Research Methodology is inviting researchers, academics, and doctoral students to share blog contributions reflecting their experiences in adapting existing research methods to meet the needs of our new research paradigm. The goal is to help the social science research community find inspiration and learn from one other as we continue to adapt our methods to meet contemporary needs. Contributions reflecting all aspects of social science research, including research ethics as well as quantitative and qualitative methods, are welcome. Preference will be given to submissions that demonstrate novel adaptation, creativity, and/or innovation.

Your contributions should be emailed to tsrm-editor@tandf.co.uk in MS Word format. Accompanying images may be included. Contributions should not exceed 1,000 words.

Deadline for submissions is 30 November 2020.

Calls, covid-19, Notebook

Researching loneliness in a pandemic: touch and touch-technologies along with its methodological challenges

By Lili Golmohammadi

In this post, I discuss the challenges of moving research workshop methods online, and reflect on the losses and gains of this shift.

In early March 2020, I began fieldwork preparations for a series of research workshops bringing design-based methods to social science. This interdisciplinary methodology involved a three-part creative workshop series designed to support participants to explore the complex areas of loneliness, touch and digital touch. The workshops used a range of methods including mapping, and rapid prototyping (designing in 3D with accessible materials such as tape, paper, card, and recycled packaging). In-between the workshops, participants would be invited to engage with cultural probes. This is an informal method of information-gathering where participants are given packs of materials (such as disposable cameras, and pre-addressed and stamped postcards) and accompanying ‘evocative tasks’ to aid their explorations. The workshops are a part of my PhD research, which aims to expand understanding of the connections between loneliness, touch, and digital touch technologies.

Lockdown implications

I had facilitated a pilot workshop at the Wellcome Collection in November 2019. As lockdown began, I quickly realised it would no longer be safe to hold workshops in person, nor would it be ethical to hand over (or post) the cultural probe packs to participants. Clearly, my research design needed adapting! I found myself facing the (rather overwhelming) challenge of researching touch wholly online, at a distance, and without the shared tactile resources that I had begun to develop for the probes.

Adapting methods to a digital medium

I decided to create a ‘digital probes’ kit and set up a dedicated website. I researched work on digital probes and found a few examples, most of which focused on sending individual tasks to participants’ mobile phones. I decided to develop this approach for my study – I wanted to maintain the ethos of cultural probes as a ‘pack’ to give participants the option to select which tasks they wanted to respond to. The website also hosted activity resources for the workshops, including activity outlines and photos of the tactile resources I’d used in the Wellcome pilot workshop (mapping worksheets, mood boards featuring cuttings from everyday household materials and touch vocabulary printed onto sticky labels). Participants could return their completed probes via email or the study WhatsApp number.

Losses and gains

The tactile resources had worked really well in the pilot (which mapped connections between loneliness and touch) and in another affiliated study. They functioned as prompts through which participants could explore tactile experiences, memories and associations framed around loneliness. In the online workshops, participants still drew on the touch vocabulary, but not the materials of the tactile mood boards. Resources were no longer physical and tangible; they could not be spread out across tables and shared and were instead confined to the space of the screen. This constraint, however, opened up the tasks in other ways:

Cultural probes and rapid prototyping are design-based methods, which have been employed in recent social science research on touch and touch technologies to provide an accessible, tactile and bodily way for participants to engage with emergent ideas or technologies. Traditionally, the materials and resources used are provided by the researcher / facilitator, and participants select from these. Probe kits especially are often carefully curated and designed with high-quality materials and tasks. In moving online, I was providing the tasks but not the materials to carry them out, and participants were required to use their own resources.

A gain of this was that participants integrated materials or objects with specific personal histories. In the online workshops, participants sometimes got up to demonstrate objects in their homes to illustrate their point. One participant introduced an old giant teddy bear bought to comfort her during the loneliness of her marriage breakdown, now a source of joy. Another left their screen to recover a hot water bottle in sheep form that brought back memories from 25 years ago. Being online also impacted the between-workshop probe tasks. Participants who selected the probe task to ‘make their maps tactile’, for example, produced highly personalised responses, taking cuttings from materials they’d held on to for months and even years, or placing objects from their homes on top of the maps. In addition, the online workshops enabled participants to more easily manage strong tactile boundaries. In the (pre-pandemic) pilot workshop, one participant refrained from touching the materials on the mood boards because she only felt comfortable touching materials she owned – a situation that being online removed.

While for some participants, taking part from home created an additional layer of bricolage and customisation into the speculative technological outcomes, it was a loss for other participants who found this activity difficult as they did not have the resources they wanted or needed (e.g. tape). Moving online therefore exposed inequities and highlighted the role of the material for expression. In future, it will be possible to re-introduce some of the tangibility of cultural probes, offer materials, and combine them with more digitised formats.

Losses and gains in recruitment and access

Before the pandemic, I had faced the challenge of recruiting participants to a study whose methodology involved a significant time commitment. Lockdown reduced who and what we touched and required many people to stay at home; this increased many people’s interest in touch and loneliness and their motivation (and availability) to take part. Added to this, moving the workshops online enabled me to recruit beyond London and the UK. To date, I have run the workshop series with four groups, two with people aged over 70 and two with professionals aged 25-55 working from home. I plan to run two more series with people aged 18-24 in the Autumn.

Access to digital devices and platforms was however a challenge, particularly when recruiting participants over 70 to online workshops; while many had recently learnt to use platforms like Zoom, others felt unable to navigate them with confidence. The well-known inequities of an uneven digital landscape are an acknowledged loss in the move of research online.

Lili Golmohammadi is a doctoral researcher attached to In-Touch, a 5-year ERC funded project at UCL exploring how new digital touch technologies shape the way we communicate

Calls

Call for special issue proposals

The IJSRM editors welcomes outline proposals for Special Issues or Themed Sections, to be submitted to the Journal editors by May 1st 2020.  Outline proposals should be submitted via email to tsrm-editor@tandf.co.uk

PLEASE NOTE: Submission for special issues or themed sections is a two-stage process. The first is an informal inquiry, which, if tentatively approved, requires, in the section stage, a more developed proposal, including significant ‘buy-in’ from the authors involved in the project.

STAGE 1: INITIAL INQUIRY

Special Issues consist of a ‘state of the art’ review by the guest issue editors and 7 or 8 articles.

Themed Sections consist of a brief introduction by guest section editors and 4 or 5 articles.

Outline proposals of no more than one A4 page should provide:

  • Indication of whether the proposal is for a Special Issue or Themed Section
  • Title/topic of proposed Special Issue or Themed Section
  • Name/s, affiliation/s and contact details of guest editors
  • Brief rationale for the timeliness, importance and international interest of the methodological topic and methods to be addressed

Proposal topics should fit with the Journal’s remit.  See the statement of aims and scope: https://www.tandfonline.com/action/journalInformation?show=aimsScope&journalCode=tsrm20

Outline proposals will be assessed by the Journal Editors and Board members.

STAGE 2: FORMAL SUBMISSION AND APPROVAL

Once the initial proposal is tentatively approved, the guest editors are required to put together a more formal summary of their project, including:

  • Abstracts (at minimum) for each of the papers.
  • Author buy-in, showing in some way author agreements to complete the project.  (This can be emails from authors, etc.)
  • A delivery timeline, including key milestones for completing project and final delivery date.  (We recognize that timelines change due to different circumstances, but overall, our approach is similar to a book contract insomuch as the agreed delivery date is expected to be honoured.)

Brian Castellani, Rosalind Edwards, Malcolm Williams, Co-editors
International Journal of Social Research Methodology

 

Calls

Call for Reviewer College Members

The International Journal of Social Research Methodology set up its Reviewer College in 2014. The journal is committed to supporting social researchers and methodologists who have recently entered the profession and indeed values the new ideas and approaches they bring.  

The College has been seen as a positive career experience by its members and several College members have become full board members. Membership of the College is open to social scientists in the early years of their career. They may be currently PhD students, recently graduated PhD students or early career researchers/ academics. Members may work in academic institutions, the private, public or third sector. They may be resident in any country. IJSRM publishes articles that cover the entire breadth of quantitative and qualitative approaches. We are always interested in those with expertise in areas where there are skills shortages, and at present we particularly welcome members who have experience in the following areas: experimental methods and complex interventions, sampling, evaluation methods, data visualisation, indigenous methods, co-production and participatory methods.

College Members receive a discount voucher for Taylor and Francis products for each review they undertake.  They will be expected to review up to three papers per year.

If you would like to apply please send a CV and supporting email to Malcolm Williams WilliamsMD4@cardiff.ac.uk