Calls, covid-19, Notebook

Teaching online research methods online with asynchronous international distance learning students during Covid-19

By Elizabeth Hidson and Vikki Wynn

Challenges in asynchronous international distance learning pre-Covid

Working on an international distance learning teacher training programme brings multiple challenges, the biggest of which had previously been the asynchronous pattern of teaching and learning for the academic elements. Teaching is based on a systematic instructional design approach adopted by our university and broken down into weekly thematic units to support acquisition, discussion, investigation, collaboration, practice and production to meet learning outcomes. Recorded micro-lectures, learning activities and discussion boards are accessed asynchronously, with face-to-face online group sessions for further consolidation. The assessed teaching practice element of the programme had always been carried out in the host international schools, facilitated by school-based mentors and in-country professional practice tutors.

Developing research-informed practitioners

The importance of developing research capacity in trainee teachers stems from the expectation that they will become research-informed practitioners who can use evidence to inform decision-making (Siddiqui and Wardle, 2020). Being consumers of research is not enough, however: teachers need to also develop the tools to carry out their own research in school settings. The first MA-level module that our trainees encounter requires a case study approach to explore specific interventions that their schools implement to address targeted pupils’ learning needs. Typically, our trainee teachers undertake observations, conduct interviews and collect a range of data in their settings to understand how and why this additional support is provided and discuss it in relation to ‘what works’ in education, using initial sources such as the Education Endowment Foundation and the What Works Clearinghouse portals.

Establishing the heritage of research methods and methodology

Good teaching is good teaching, and it follows therefore that good research practice is still good research practice, irrespective of a global pandemic. Early rapid evidence assessments concluded that teaching quality was more important for remote teaching and learning than how it was delivered (Education Endowment Foundation, 2020), which had also been our starting point when considering our own research methods pedagogy. The initial teaching of research methods starts on our programme with key concepts and expectations: conceptualisation, literature, developing research questions, justification of research methods, consideration of ethics, all designed to ensure that the student teacher can apply theory to practice. We start with a formative proposal assignment to ensure early engagement with methodology and methods.

Our face-to-face online group sessions, themed as weekly ‘coffee shop’ meetings, provide a collaborative forum for knowledge exchange and trouble-shooting. Trainee teachers join to listen, to share ideas, to pose questions and problems and the module leaders respond with a dialogic teaching approach, helping to contextualise research methods in school settings and develop knowledge and understanding in a supportive online space.

Elizabeth Hidson promoting the weekly ‘coffee shop’ meeting

The ‘hybrid’ assignment and hybrid research methods

As teaching practice became hybrid for trainee teachers, so did research and assessment. Schooling around the world moved in and out of face-to-face, hybrid and fully online modes over the course of 2019, with the realities of the pandemic hitting earliest in the far east, where half of our students are based. As physical access to schools and participants fluctuated with local restrictions and impacted on students’ research plans, our alternative assignment pathways opened out to include hybrid and hypothetical assignments designed to act as a safety net for completion.

A key feature of the hybrid assignment was the shift to online and alternative research methods, building on the core research methods pedagogy we had established. Where face-to-face interviews were not an option, we promoted video calling and desktop-sharing (Hidson, 2020), but maintaining the spirit of semi-structured or artefact-based interviewing. Where classroom observations were no longer possible, we promoted fieldnotes captured from hybrid or online teaching sessions, urging a re-think of ethics and collection of additional secondary data in various forms to attempt triangulation.

The outcomes in terms of the final case studies produced have been pleasing: creative and thoughtful academic discussions that responded to the unique challenges of each setting. We regularly quoted Hamilton and Corbett-Whittier (2013) to our trainees, where they advised thinking of a case study as a living thing and ensuring that it made “as much sense to the reader as it did to the researcher” (p.179). The act of thinking in detail about the research methods seemed to have been beneficial to the understanding of research methods and real-world research.

Developing resilient research capability as a factor of resilient teaching

Although our programme continues to respond to the global challenges of Covid-19, we are keen to retain what has worked into the future. The ability for trainee teachers to embrace the need for resilience in teaching as well as in research is a benefit. Their capacity to see research as a live and responsive part of their practice has always been our intention; we believe that the response to research during Covid will itself be a case study for future cohorts.

References

Education Endowment Foundation (2020). Remote Learning, Rapid Evidence Assessment. London: Education Endowment Foundation.

Hamilton, L., and Corbett-Whittier, C. (2013). Using Case Study in Education Research. London: Sage.

Hidson, E (2020) Internet Video Calling and Desktop Sharing (VCDS)as an Emerging Research Method for Exploring Pedagogical Reasoning in Lesson Planning. Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy, 5 (1). pp. 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1163/23644583-00501001.

Siddiqui, N. and Wardle, L (2020). Can users judge what is ‘promising’ evidence in education? Research Intelligence 144 (Autumn 2020). London: BERA.

Calls, covid-19, Notebook

Qualitative health research beyond and alongside COVID-19

By Sue Chowdhry, Emily Ross and Julia Swallow

As qualitative researchers in academia, like many others our practice has been transformed in light of the global Coronavirus pandemic. The ‘lockdowns’ enforced across the world have introduced greater awareness of our proximity to others in everyday life, and of the need to maintain a prescribed distance between bodies. This has implications for our work as researchers in the field of health and illness, whose tools include face-to-face methods such as focus groups, interviews and ethnography.

In this blog post, we reflect on the meaning and implications of doing qualitative health research beyond and alongside COVID-19. Drawing on examples from our individual research projects, we first focus on who and what might be excluded or silenced through the changes to our research environments and practices prompted by the pandemic. We then reflect on several implications of the ruptures caused by the pandemic for qualitative research in health more widely.

Exclusions and silences

Research interactions

As researchers in medical sociology and science and technology studies, we had been undertaking separate projects at the time of the pandemic. Sue’s research concerned pregnant women with experience of pre-term birth, and Emily and Julia’s considered patient and practitioner engagement with novel cancer treatments (genomic techniques and immunotherapies respectively). All three of our projects thus involved individuals classified as especially ‘vulnerable’ to COVID-19 by the UK Government (see Ganguli-Mitra’s opinion piece for a wider discussion of the classification of ‘vulnerability’ as related to COVID-19). As a result, in addition to the restrictions imposed by Institutional and NHS bodies on research practice, we were particularly mindful of the potential consequences of face-to-face methods for our participants.

The prospect of continuing our research in the absence of physical proximity to our participants was daunting. Viewing interactions between researcher and participant as sites for the active co-creation of qualitative data, we were concerned that the inability to conduct research encounters in person, and loss of the intersubjective encounter, could be detrimental to our practice. As Alondra Nelson’s blog post on this issue points out, valuable research insights can be gained from being close enough to observe gestures such as “toes tapping and nervous hands”. Sue interpreted her physical presence as key to the success of focus groups she had conducted prior to COVID-19 restrictions. For example, her occupation of the physical space was performed so as to signal to participants that they controlled the discussion. Equally, participants orientated their bodies to each other in ways that indicated interest and support, through spontaneous shared laughter, eye contact and sometimes fleeting touches of hands at emotional junctures.

We have also been reflecting on the implications of a move away from face-to-face methods for relations of power within qualitative research practice. Our research projects have often focused on life-events that can be distressing and emotional for participants, and throughout we have all maintained a commitment to democratising the research process. We have endeavoured to forge reciprocal relationships with participants, and adopted forms of practice that more equitably distribute control whilst qualitative interviewing. Reflection on the issue of power in research is significant for those turning to online methods in light of the pandemic, particularly where online material pre-exists the research encounter. Here the intimacy of face-to-face methods, which feminist scholars have claimed better allow for the involvement of participants in the production of knowledge (Ramazanoğlu and Holland, 2002), is absent. Having used pre-existing online material in previous projects, Emily felt that the creativeness of qualitative research practice as a shared project between researcher and participant was not as achievable in online research, nor was the closeness that comes from being a key participant in the creation of qualitative data. As such, those adopting online methods in light of the pandemic may try to re-craft participant involvement and reciprocity in other ways. This may be through initiating contact with authors of online material, sharing information about the research with them, and if appropriate seeking consent from authors to use online posts in research.

Research landscapes and spaces

The concerns discussed above are further situated within the landscapes and spaces in which qualitative research takes place. In the example of focus groups, the ‘affective atmospheres’ (Anderson, 2009) shaping the research encounter provided the backdrop for Sue and her participants’ responses to the research and each other. Sue offered refreshments to her focus group participants, and vividly recalls the smells, tastes and sounds of this shared experience. The atmosphere was carefully fashioned for respondents to feel valued and at ease, and to allow for the exchange of intimate reflections on experience.

The arrangements of care provision, and situated contexts in which care is given and received, shape patient, clinician and researcher accounts of disease and treatment. In the time of COVID-19, the research spaces with which we as health researchers had been familiar are being re-shaped, with this particularly visible in cancer care. Before the pandemic, the settings for Julia’s ethnographic research were already stratified and fragmented, with consequences for the practice of healthcare and patients’ biosocial experiences of cancer. Novel immunotherapies could not be accessed by all, raising questions around the inclusions, exclusions and silences provoked by these therapies – who has access and who benefits? COVID-19 is potentially (re)producing or exacerbating existing inequities. As researchers, who we are able to observe and engage in our projects is a key concern, as we ask what and whose realities, experiences and practices might be privileged over others in the context of contemporary cancer care, and in relation to the healthcare worlds (re)shaped by COVID-19.

Responding and intervening

Although the current situation has prompted us to halt or reformulate our ongoing research, in our experience the need to reflect on and adapt our methodologies has also provided opportunities. Importantly, recognising and responding to the methodological restrictions prompted by the pandemic has encouraged us to think about the inclusions, exclusions and silences that already exist in healthcare worlds, which have been exacerbated or magnified by COVID-19. Attention to these issues through an alternative lens has prompted us to question how we can use method to respond and intervene. Method as practice is a means of understandingrather than organising for complexity and uncertainty, and a way to respond to the disruptions, inclusions/exclusions and silences which are rendered visible and exacerbated by COVID-19. Method produces particular realities and as such, drawing on feminist STS scholars, we have the opportunity to intervene, and to do what Alondra Nelson describes as ‘creating knowledge pathways to a better world’. If methods shape how and what we know and are always political (Annemarie Mol (1999) would describe this as ‘ontological politics’) – what kinds of social realities do we want to create or bring into being?

Online methods afford possibilities for responding to the contemporary challenges we face as researchers. Qualitative analysis of pre-existing blog posts, solicited online diaries and other methods helpfully detailed by Deborah Lupton and colleagues allows us to continue research projects disrupted by the pandemic. Further, online spaces present opportunities to intervene; to engage with those typically excluded from qualitative research due to geographical location or accessibility – with this even more pronounced in a time of ‘shielding’ those deemed most vulnerable. Online approaches can capture forms of networking and support-seeking around experiences of ill health which have been obscured by the pandemic, but which continue to be shaped by inequalities in access and survival.

As another approach, the benefit of doing ethnography, however limited this might be and whatever this might look like in the future, is that it is about opening space for complexity and uncertainty. It allows us to acknowledge and respond to the messiness of practice as an attempt to understand, rather than organise, the uneven and unpredictable ways in which knowledge is produced in research (Law, 2004). It is about taking the world as it is,whilst also keeping in mind the importance of doing what Donna Haraway would describe as critical, political, partial and situated work which is always on-going.

Reflecting

In an academic environment which emphasises activity and impact, COVID-19 has forced upon us ‘space to breathe’ (Will, 2020). The restrictions imposed by our governments and institutions have demanded an additional layer of reflexivity as we contemplate our research projects in light of the pandemic. In some cases, this has entailed the adaptation of research questions, as well as consideration of how alternative methods align with our wider research paradigms. With restrictions in our ability to engage in face-to-face research methods, we lose key aspects of the relational qualitative research encounter, and are pulled away from the research atmospheres, landscapes and spaces with which we are familiar. However, the loss of face-to-face methods has provided us with an unexpected opportunity to explore new approaches, encouraged tough reflection on our research questions and methodologies, and prompted deeper contemplation of the worth of our research itself.

The authors of this post are supported by the Wellcome Trust (grants 104831/Z/14/Z and 218145/Z/19/Z) and NIHR (grant 17/22/02).

Anderson, B. (2009) Affective atmospheres. Emotion, Space and Society. 2, pp.77-81. doi:10.1016/j.emospa.2009.08.005

Haraway, D. (1988) Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3, pp. 575-599.

Law, J. (2004) After Method: Mess in social science research. London: Routledge.

Mol, A. (1999), Ontological politics. A word and some questions. The Sociological Review, 47: 74-89. doi:10.1111/j.1467-954X.1999.tb03483.x

Ramazanoğlu, C and Holland, J (2002) Feminist methodology: challenges and choices. London: Sage.

Will, C.M. (2020), ‘And breathe…’? The sociology of health and illness in COVID ‐19 time. Sociology of Health & Illness, 42: 967-971. doi:10.1111/1467-9566.13110

covid-19, featured, Notebook

Critical reflections on the ‘new normal’: Synchronous teaching of CAQDAS-packages online during COVID-19

By Christina Silver, Sarah L. Bulloch, & Michelle Salmona

Our contribution discusses synchronous online teaching of digital tools for qualitative and mixed-methods analysis, known as Computer Assisted Qualitative Data AnalysiS (CAQDAS) packages, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers must take responsibility for, and be sensitive to, the current additional challenges and pressures upon learners and attend to them effectively. Learners are never homogenous but, in these contexts, their heterogeneity and personal situations bring our responsibilities as teachers into sharper focus.

Challenges of teaching CAQDAS-packages

Teaching CAQDAS-packages is challenging as research methods and technology are taught together, and researchers often need support overcoming hurdles associated with integrating technology into research practice. Although it can support critical reflection on methods-driven research, novice researchers have trouble connecting method and software (Salmona & Kaczynski, 2016; Schmieder, 2020).

Traditionally CAQDAS is taught in-person but even before COVID-19, there was a gradual move to online courses, which can be cost-effective and reach wider groups. However, teaching CAQDAS online has its own challenges, including possible technical problems, catering to different learning styles, and interactional issues (Kalpokaite & Radivojevic, 2020). Learning CAQDAS-packages online also heightens challenges in overcoming barriers to successful technological adoption due to the lack of support normally present in-person (Salmona & Kaczynski, 2016). Teaching CAQDAS-packages online during COVID-19 poses additional challenges related to learner availability, real-life bleeding into the classroom, and resultant interactional issues. 

Learner availability in the COVID-context 

Pre-COVID-19, both in-person and online, certain assumptions were often made concerning the ‘availability’ of learners: 

  • They would be present for the duration, unless specific exceptions were brokered; e.g. warning they may have to take a call or leave early.
  • Only registered learners would be present – not family-members, carers, or dependents as well. 
  • Learners would be in a state of mental and physical health suited to learning.

Teachers could generally assume to be engaging not with whole individuals, but with focused

“learners”: the mentally present and mentally well, physically present and physically well, the not-distracted, the captive from start to finish, solo individuals.

Real-life bleeding into the classroom

During COVID-19 these assumptions no longer hold true. We cannot expect learners to focus for the whole allotted time because they cannot necessarily physically or emotionally remove themselves from their home-life contexts. New distractions and stresses include: interruptions from household members, capacity to concentrate for lengthy periods of screen-time, and mental-health issues associated with being more isolated. However, because in-person interactions have largely vanished, learners are keen to participate in online sessions, despite the distractions and stresses. Online sessions also provide learning opportunities for those previously unable to access in-person events. 

As we teach and learn from our homes, real-lives bleed into the classroom. Sharing our images via video-stream allows others into our lives, which is potentially risky. We’ve found more learners choose not to share their video-stream than do, especially in larger groups and when they don’t know each other. 

What we miss by not ‘seeing’

Those used to teaching in-person can find this tricky, as the non-verbal cues used to judge learners’ progress are absent. CAQDAS teachers can no longer ‘walk-the-room’ observing learners’ computer-screens to identify those needing additional support. Screen-sharing can be a solution; but is more time-consuming and ethically difficult when working with confidential data, and impossible if using two devices (one to access the meeting, the other to operate the CAQDAS-package). We miss a lot by not seeing in these ways.  

One risk is that those who can actively participate inadvertently soak-up attention at the cost of those who cannot. It’s our responsibility as teachers to be aware of this and design creative solutions to enable every learner to participate as much as they are willing and able, whilst still benefiting from the session.

Adjusting tactics for the ‘new normal’

We’re therefore continually adjusting how we teach CAQDAS-packages online during COVID-19. Current uncertainties land responsibilities on us as teachers, not on our course participants: we must find out what they need, reflect on our practice, and refine our pedagogies. 

Moving from in-person to online always requires a redesign (Silver & Bulloch, 2020), but during COVID-19 we are also:

  • Educating ourselves about accessibility to ensure we sensitively and effectively open our events to every type of learner
  • Engaging learners more before sessions to understand personal/research needs and provide pre-course familiarisation materials
  • Reducing class-sizes. It’s often assumed class-sizes can be larger online, but we find the opposite, especially during COVID-19. Although we’ve recently experienced pressure to increase group size, we’re resistant because of the increased need to balance the requirements of every learner, and provide individual support 
  • By co-teaching we provide additional support in synchronous online events during COVID-19. Learners can be split according to their needs and two groups supported simultaneously
  • Providing more post-course resources to support learners’ continued use of CAQDAS-packages and hosting platforms for them to communicate with one another afterwards (e.g. VLE platforms)
  • Diversifying teaching tactics to provide as many opportunities as possible for learners to engage and participate. Awareness of different ways people learn has always been central to our pedagogies (Silver & Woolf 2015), but our sensitivities and reflections have increased. We’ve found mixing up tactics (see image) in shorter sessions more effective.

Where do we go from here?

Teachers continually critique and reflect on practice, but COVID-19 requires a re-evaluation of learners’ differences and reflection about their more challenging situations. We are all learning and must continue to do so.

COVID-19 brings ethical issues even more to the forefront, including the appropriateness of requiring or encouraging learners to share their image via video. We must think about disabilities, access to technology, and socio-economic issues in a context where learning is only available online. Positives have also emerged, as sessions can be followed from a range of devices and locations.

COVID-19 forces us to explicitly consider the well-being of learners. Despite coming at this difficult time, we welcome this focus. All our situations have changed, so we need to think about the issues differently. What are the additional ethical issues we must now address? How do we keep this conversation going?

About the authors

Together we have 50+ years experience teaching CAQDAS-packages and 30+ years experience teaching online. Dr Michelle Salmona is President of the Institute for Mixed Methods Research and an international consultant in: program evaluation; research design; and mixed-methods and qualitative data analysis using data applications. Michelle is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra, Australia specializing in qualitative and mixed methods research. Dr Sarah L Bulloch is a social researcher passionate about methods, with expertise in qualitative and quantitative analysis, as well as mixing the two. She has worked in academic, government, voluntary and private sectors. Sarah teaches introductory and advanced workshops in several CAQDAS packages as a Teaching Fellow for the CAQDAS Networking Project at the University of Surrey, as well as teaching quantitative analysis using SPSS. Dr Christina Silver is Director of Qualitative Data Analysis Services, providing training and consultancy for qualitative and mixed-methods analysis. She also manages the CAQDAS Networking Project (CNP), leading its capacity-building activities. She has trained thousands of researchers in the powerful use of CAQDAS-packages, including NVivo, and developed the Five-Level QDA® method with Nick Woolf.  

References

  • Kalpokaite, N. & Radivojevic, I. (2020). Teaching qualitative data analysis software online: a comparison of face-to-face and e-learning ATLAS.ti courses, International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 43(3), pp. 296-310, DOI:10.1080/1743727X.2019.1687666.
  • Salmona, M. & Kaczynski, D. (2016). Don’t Blame the Software: Using Qualitative Data Analysis Software Successfully in Doctoral Research. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 17(3), Art 11, http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs1603117.
  • Schmieder, C. (2020). Qualitative data analysis software as a tool for teaching analytic practice: Towards a theoretical framework for integrating QDAS into methods pedagogy. Qualitative Research, 20(5), pp. 684-702. 
  • Silver, C. & Woolf, N (2015) “From guided instruction to facilitation of learning: The development of Five-level QDA as a CAQDAS pedagogy that explicates the practices of expert users” International Journal of Social Research Methodology, Vol. 18, Issue 5. Pp527-543
  • Silver, C. & Bulloch, S.L (2020) Teaching NVivo using the Five-Level QDA(R) Method: Adaptations for Synchronous Online Learning. Paper presented at the QSR International Virtual Conference, Qualitative Research in a Changing World. September 24th 2020
covid-19, featured

Our lockdown walks: Physically, but not socially, distanced walking as method

By Lauren White and Katherine Davies

A shop window displaying the sign ‘See you soon’

In the UK, the first coronavirus national lockdown meant that many of us were permitted one form of exercise a day – a walk, a run, a bike ride – a pocket of freedom and an opportunity for outdoor life. In the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield, this was the time that we usually plan for our annual sociological walk. Our walks seek to explore the role of everyday moments as a methodological route of inquiry, enabling us to be creative in academic discussions by taking them out of university rooms and thinking and learning with our feet (Ingold, 2004). In 2020, our discussions were now restricted to the virtual spheres of google and zoom, meaning our mobile methodologies required a rethink.

Determined to make the most of our mobile lives, we invited colleagues to share photographs and notes of their walks, runs and cycles throughout the lockdown. As a group we shared photographs of our families walking together, our dog walks, accounts of nature, sensory experiences of urban and rural places, and offered visual reflections of loss and future imaginaries. We joined together and discussed these online. Whilst this blog post is not about an active research project and its methodology per se, it offers a momentary reflection on walking during lockdown and the methodological possibilities we gathered from our ‘exercise’.

Through ‘taking a walk’ alone (Carpiano, 2009) but virtually discussing together, we found we were able to access many of the advantages associated with traditional go-along mobile methods. Through discussions with photographs, we were able to share the material experience of moving through place. For example, how we navigated obstacles, stepping to one side and keeping space as we experienced the world through our feet (Ingold, 2004).

Navigating obstacles as cars and bins take over the pavement

We were surprised by the ease with which we accessed socio-atmospherics (Mason, 2018), understanding one another’s sensory worlds and exploring together the uncanny feelings of the times. For example, we shared the unseasonable joy of a summer’s day and reflected on how this jarred with the knowledge that crisis was, quite literally, in the air.

A large tree with pink blossom


Though we were not together for our walks, we discussed their relational context and gained insights into personal lives and everyday mobilities. We learnt of our colleagues’ relationships with their communities, neighbours and their proximities to families and friends; from friendships formed between local dogs, to the rainbows displayed in neighbours’ windows. We were struck by the heightened role of doorstops, as we shared stories of the cakes and Easter eggs left on by the door in the absence of social contact. We shared our embeddedness and our emotional relationships with place. Talking about walking and lockdown walks was a proxy for personal discussions and a way into talk about our shared everyday sensitivities.

Hopscotch chalked on the pavement

Whilst these are brief reflections and not based on an active research project and carefully devised methodology, we propose that there are opportunities for capturing mobilities in everyday life, even in the absence of walking together. Echoing May and Lewis’ (2020) argument, we have demonstrated that it is not necessary to physically walk together to glean rich insights into embodied and sensory experiences of place. 

Walking and everyday journeys as a method is possible and offers promise for social research futures. Talking about mobilities and place virtually further opens up opportunities for those who cannot be co-present. Appreciating that walking and the ability to be outdoors is a privilege, not afforded to everyone (Rose, 2020), we invite researchers and practitioners to embrace the potential of virtual walking and go-along methodologies.

Walking alone but discussing together also offers a pedagogical tool for collective knowledge, with the potential to unlock the ‘mysteries’ of place (Bates and Taylor 2017: 20). The group nature of our discussion, along with the use of photographs, was crucial to the insights we gained and became a useful way into learning and knowing about relationships with place.

Such methodological reflections on physically distanced mobilities and virtual collective discussions can evoke the sociological imagination of mobile methods in physically distanc(ed) futures. Whilst our ability to be mobile side by side has been curtailed, we can learn through our feet as well as through our screens, together. And whilst our mobilities may have stopped at the doorstep or at the other side of a park bench, our virtual mobile accounts tell a story of relational lives in physically, but not socially, distanced times. 

A pond in the park with the shadows of trees

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank our colleagues and contributors from the Everyday Life and Critical Diversities research group for joining in on the discussions and sharing personal insights.

References

Bates, C. & Rhys-Taylor, A. (2017) Walking through social research. Abingdon: Routledge.

Carpiano, R. M. (2009) ‘Come take a walk with me: The ‘go-along’ interview as a novel method for studying the implications of place for health and wellbeing’, Health & Place, 15(1), pp.263-272.

Ingold, T. (2004) ‘Culture on the ground: The world perceived through the feet’, Journal of Material Culture, 9, 315-340.

Mason, J. (2018) Affinities: Potent Connections in Personal Life. Cambridge: Polity.

May, V. & Lewis, C. (2020) ‘Researching embodied relationships with place: Rehabilitating the sit-down interview’, Qualitative Research, 20(2), pp.127-142.

Rose, M. (2020) ‘Pedestrian practices: Walking from the mundane to the marvellous’, in H. Holmes & S. M. Hall. (Eds.) Mundane methods: Innovative ways to research the everyday. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Chapter 13, pp.211-229.

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.