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Challenges of Doing Research in a Pandemic: Reframing, Adapting and Introducing qualitative methods

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.

Initial impacts

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. 

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Political Ethnography in Times of Mass Politicisation

By A. L. Heselgrave 

Political Ethnography faces a unique conceptual challenge in the era of Covid-19, a time in which all social interactions are now subject to political scrutiny. As governments and state actors across the world implement ever more invasive methods of social control and state intervention, practitioners of Political Ethnography need to give careful re-examination to some commonly used methodological approaches and their applicability to post-Covid research. The purpose of this post is to suggest some methods that may be of particular use in the field and that require further consideration.

Methods of study that are capable of unearthing new social phenomena are necessary in order to deal with the new social reality of the Covid-19 era. If methods of face-to-face interaction, social immersion etc. are no longer practicable, then how are we to create thick descriptive accounts of social phenomena? Ethnography is in unchartered waters when it comes to approaching data; Political Ethnography is in double jeopardy as it suffers not only from restricted research methods, but also from a social order that has mystified many of the fundamental methodological and theoretical distinctions (between the political, the social and the biological) that it has historically relied on. If we’re to gain insight into the new socio-politics of the Covid/post-Covid era, then we must first investigate two fundamental research questions: Which methodological tools from pre-Covid Political Ethnography are still applicable, and how are they to be used to uncover new political phenomena, peculiar to the post-Covid era?

A method of study that casts a broad net over large areas and diverse groups of respondents might be a way to start answering these questions. By creating networks of informants and participants from disparate social circumstances, this method will provide a wealth of qualitative data for both immediate study and posterity. Drawing on the tradition of projects and organisations such as Mass Observation, this form of diffuse ethnography, while it lacks analytical precision, may be a fecund way of identifying nascent political phenomena and subjecting them to scientific analysis. While approaches with specific sites, subjects and theoretical targets are helpful, this method of study can help to identify socio-political phenomena in their new and formative stages without overlooking related phenomena that may be missed by more targeted theoretical and methodological approaches. Drawing information from an array of individuals and communities, as well as diverse forms of data (field notes, letters, interviews, photographs etc.), provides starting points from which to develop hypotheses. Inevitably, this kind of approach will be unable to provide the level of detail and nuance that the practice of Ethnography traditionally has. It is, instead, a means of identifying potential new sites of inquiry. This method ultimately responds to mass politicisation by way of mixing methods en masse in order to ‘catch’ unanticipated emergent political realities.

Another avenue for social research is to put greater focus on autoethnography, turning the ethnographic gaze inward onto our own interactions. This method has the advantage of avoiding many of the problems attached to ethnographic research when it comes to social distancing. More importantly, studying what our bodily dynamics and social (non)interactions reveal about the political organisation of our lives may lead to a better comprehension of the minutiae of politics which inform socio-political structures and subjectivities. Better still would be the production of a considerable body of autoethnographic work through which it is possible to triangulate theoretical observations.

Much has already been said on the subject of technology and its role in the Covid crises, however, as a socio-political tool, the impact of technology, particularly communication technology, will need to be addressed in virtually all studies of socio-politics. Methods which draw on cyberethnography and STS will be crucial in determining how increased usage of video calls, messaging apps and biometric data influence political organisation and consciousness. How cyberspace shapes the politics of our bodies and interactions is going to change the nature of ethnographic data for the foreseeable future.

All of these methods are inherently exploratory in their approach; they intend not to create answers per se, but to survey the social landscape in search of new developments. For this reason practitioners of these kinds of observations must be mindful of their position in the division of academic labour that crises necessitate. The purpose of these approaches is not to produce “ground-breaking” research in the clichéd sense of vast, world-changing discoveries. Instead, the kind of exploratory Political Ethnography that mass politicisation calls for is one that creates fertile ground for the development of new theoretical and methodological understandings of the problems at hand. It is, essentially, a way of generating leads into new matrices of socio-politics.

L. Heselgrave is a Student of Political Sociology (MSc) at the London School of Economics.

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COVID 19 and ‘Big Qual’ Research

By Lynn Jamieson, University of Edinburgh

It seems appropriate to review the possibilities of secondary analysis of data that has already been gathered by face-to-face techniques, as the current pandemic closes down many such forms of research. The substitution of virtual means of data collection for face-to-face means, such as interviewing using internet telephony, is not the only possible response to barriers against tried and tested methods; researchers at or able to return to the design stage might consider the creative possibilities of drawing together existing archived qualitative data for new research. 

Secondary analysis of qualitative data remains a relatively under used research strategy, despite the accumulation of anonymised, quality-assured and well-documented data that has been carefully curated in official archives having been generated by peer-reviewed, funded and published studies. Researchers seem less able to see secondary analysis as ground breaking and, in the case of qualitative research, heightened sensitivity to the creative connection between researcher and researched builds concerns about ethics and intellectual property.  However, in our published work (Davidson, Edwards, Jamieson and Weller, 2019) we counter these claims and point to the ground breaking opportunities of merging data from several studies in a new data assemblage using a set of steps that iteratively combine breadth and depth.  The way of proceeding that we advocate, helps the analyst to ask new questions, to make theoretical use of comparison and, in the process, extend the generalisability of qualitative research. 

Our method is the outcome of a project under the umbrella of the National Centre for Research Methods http://bigqlr.ncrm.ac.uk/. We set out to develop materials that would assist other researchers to remain true to the principles of qualitative research while working with what could be called ‘big qualitative data’ or ‘big qual’ for short – a data assemblage that is much larger than the typical volume of a single project and too large to readily tackle solely by conventional qualitative analysis techniques. We have called our method of ‘big qual’ secondary analysis the ‘breadth-and-depth method’. 

The four steps in the method are described using an analogy with different stages in an imagined archaeological project. At each step, it may be necessary to return to the starting point or a previous step.

  1. The researcher’s research questions shape the direction of an enquiry-led overview of archived qualitative research using meta data about the archived data sets. This is equivalent to an archaeologist using photographs taken in an aerial survey to select ground for further scrutiny.
  2. Computer-aided scrutiny using text searching means that are so-called ‘data mining;’ albeit that the techniques used are more like surface mapping of the breadth of the selected data collections. This is like the archaeologists’ ground-based geophysical survey on the surface of an area to assess what merits closer investigation by digging.
  3. Analysis of multiple small samples of likely data, equivalent to digging shallow ‘test pits’ to find an area worthy of deeper excavation.
  4. In-depth analysis of the selected sample, using techniques and processes drawn from the repertoire familiar to qualitative researchers. This is the equivalent to archaeological deep excavation.

Our own demonstration project worked with the Timescapes archive https://timescapes-archive.leeds.ac.uk/  Because we were interested in possible convergence by gender in the language and practice of care and intimacy over time, we re-assembled data from across four projects into age cohorts of men and women. This new data set is now available for research and teaching purposes