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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.

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Adapting research with men during COVID-19: Experiences shifting to mobile phone-based methods

By Joe Strong, Samuel Nii Lante Lamptey, Richard Nii Kwartei Owoo, and Nii Kwartelai Quartey

It is impossible to understand masculinities without social research methods. Speaking and interacting with men is the fundamental cornerstone of the project Exploring the relationships between men, masculinities and post-coital pregnancy avoidance. Conducting these methods through ‘non-social’, distanced means, as a response to COVID-19, presents new challenges and opportunities and ethical considerations.

The original research sample frame was men aged 16 and over, who slept (proxy for ‘resident’) for at least some of their time in the study area. The research team were predominantly based / resident in the study area [a suburb of Accra], and all were living in Ghana prior to the declaration of a pandemic in 11 March 2020.

Response to COVID-19

The original research design necessitated close contact between respondents and the research team, using a household survey, focus group discussions and in-depth interviews. This proximity was quickly deemed unacceptable when compared to public health best practice (social distancing, limited movement, etc). Such methods endanger the respondents and the research team.

As it became evident that the pandemic was long-term, the team discussed potential mechanisms through which to continue the research in a safe and responsible manner. Mobile phone technology emerged as the only feasible way to ensure that social distancing and limited movement would be required for the research project to continue.

In the study area, mobile phone use is relatively high, reflecting broader trends in Ghana. However, these mobile phones were not all ‘smart’, i.e., it could not be assumed that respondents would have access to data or internet on their mobile devices. As such, continuing person-to-person survey interviews was the most feasible way, so as not to limit the sample to a) access to smart technology and b) ability / desire to navigate an online survey.

Thus, focus group discussions were removed entirely from the research design, as these could not be facilitated meaningfully through non-smart mobile phones. The survey questionnaires and in-depth interview schedule could remain the same, with additional questions on the impact of COVID-19. These had been tested prior to the pandemic in person to check for consistency, comprehension and relevance.

Practicalities

Obtaining equipment for the team in a timely and safe manner was essential – this included a mobile phone and three sim cards for each of the major telecommunication networks in the area. Fortunately, the team each had smart phone technology that allowed for communications to continue over WhatsApp.

Ethical amendments were submitted to account for consent being provided verbally, as written consent required inappropriate close contact. A huge outcome of the ethical amendment was the removal of anyone who could not consent for themselves. This has serious implications for the inclusivity of and representativeness of this research. The nature of the gatekeeping could not be observed or accounted for over the mobile phone. For example, it would not be clear if the parent of an adolescent – who required parental consent – would be in the room listening in. Critical voices, such as adolescents, people who need assistance with communication, e.g. sign language interpreters, are also not able to be incorporated into the survey.

The household listing conducted prior to the pandemic did not collect mobile phone information, as retrieving mobile numbers for each household member would be cumbersome and invasive. Thus, no sampling frame was available for the survey. To mitigate this, the study uses respondent driven sampling, whereby each survey respondent is asked to recruit three people from their personal network to be surveyed next and is compensated per successful recruit as well as for their own survey.

The experience of new methods

The use of mobile phones allows the respondents to decide when and where they want to be surveyed, providing them with greater autonomy than a household survey. In many ways, it empowers the respondent to have much more control over the survey. However, this also can make it harder, as the lack of physical presence makes distraction / missing a call much easier.

Moreover, the element of “out of sight, out of mind” hinders the efficiency with which respondents might recruit their friends, and the additional effort of conducting this recruitment through mobile phones might not help. We created regulations – no calling the same person twice in one day if they picked up, no more than three times in one week, end contact if asked – to try and mitigate overburdening respondents with reminders that might feel harassing.

We are finding that some respondents are reticent to be interviewed over the phone, preferring face-to-face interviews so that they might see the interviewer and build trust through sight. Despite the easing of lockdown in Ghana on 20 April 2020, the decision was made to maintain strict protocols of distancing between data collectors and respondents. This reflects the causes behind the ease of lockdown and that our research is non-essential, and we have a duty to avoid risking ourselves and the respondents. 

Responses to the lack of face-to-face cues were mixed. It makes it harder to use e.g. body language to gauge the respondent experience of the survey. On the other hand, it preserves a greater sense of anonymity for the respondent. It is necessary that data collectors “check-in” on respondents during an interview to ensure that the interview questions are not causing undue harm or stress, and that respondents be reminded that they are in control of the interviews. It is important that we acknowledge that the mobile phone becomes a part of the “context” of the research and it is essential to reflect on the impact of this.

Such experiences provide important opportunities for learning. Generally, we are finding that men are not afraid to talk to us over the phone. But we must acknowledge how many more men will be excluded through these methods and consider opportunities for their future inclusion. The greater control respondents have in arranging interviews to suit themselves is an important reminder of the need for patience and respect for respondents’ priorities and the (non-)essentialness of research.

At the time of writing (30 July 2020), 73 respondents have completed interviews, not including 22 seeds. For ongoing data visualisations and sneak peaks, visit the project website at: https://www.masculinitiesproject.org/

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Are novel research projects ethical during a global pandemic?

By Emily-Marie Pacheco and Mustafa Zaimağaoğlu

The global pandemic has inspired a plethora of new research projects in the social sciences; scholars are eager to identify and document the many challenges the COVID-19 situation has introduced into our daily lives, and explore the ways in which our societies have been able to thrive during these ‘unprecedented times’. Given the wide acknowledgement that life during a global pandemic is often more difficult than in our pre-pandemic circumstances, researchers must consider whether asking those in our communities to donate their time and energy to participating in our research is acceptable. Does recruitment for research which seeks to explore the psychological wellbeing and adjustment of those living through uniquely challenging circumstances during COVID-19 really reflect research integrity?

There is no simple answer to whether asking people to share their stories and experiences of COVID-19 is ethical or improper. Many would argue that social research has the potential to contribute many vital insights about life during a global pandemic which are unique to the humanistic lens and approach often reserved for the social sciences; such investigations could propel scholarly dialogue and manifest practically in recommendations for building resilient societies. However, social scientists have a responsibility to protect their participants from any undue harm they may experience as a result of their participation in a study. Thus, while social research may be especially important during a global pandemic, traditional study designs need to adapt to the circumstances of the pandemic and be held to higher ethical expectations by governing bodies and institutions.

Ethical social research during a global pandemic is reflected in research methods which demonstrate an awareness that we are asking more of our participants than ever before. Simple adaptations to existing projects can go a long way in bettering the experience of participants, such as by providing prospective participants additional information on what is expected of them if they choose to participate in a study – whether it be an online survey or an interview. Projects which aim to collect data using qualitative or interpersonal methods should be especially open to adaptation. These studies may be more ethically conducted by offering socially distant options, such as online focus groups or telephone interviews; adopting multimethod approaches and allowing participants the opportunity to contribute to projects in a medium which is most suitable for them may also be an ideal approach, such as by allowing participants the option to participate in online interviews or submitting audio-diaries conducted at their own discretion.

Attention should also be given to the various details of the research design which pertain to participant involvement more specifically. Does that online survey really needto include fifteen scales, and do they really need to ask all thosedemographic questions? Do online interviews really need to exceed thirty minutes and is it really necessary to require participants to turn their cameras on (essentially inviting you into their homes)? The ‘standard procedures’ for collecting data should be critically re-evaluated by researchers in consideration of the real-world context of those from whom they wish to collect data, with the aim of upholding their commitment to responsible research practices. Ethics boards should also aid researchers in identifying areas of their research designs which may be adapted to protect participants. This additional critical perspective may highlight participation conditions that may be arduous for participants, but which may have been overlooked as part of a traditional research design. 

Research during unprecedented times should also aim to provide a benefit to participants who generously donate their time and energy despite experiencing various transitions and changes in their own personal lives. While some researchers may need to devise creative solutions to meet this aim, many research methods in the social sciences have the inherent potential to serve as an activity which provides a benefit to those who engage in their process. For example, researchers may opt to collect data through methods which have a documented potential for promoting psychological wellbeing, or which are also considered therapeutic mechanism. Such approaches include methods which ask participants to reflect on their own experiences (e.g., audio-diaries, reflective entries, interviews with photo-elicitation) and those which focus on positive thoughts or emotions (e.g., topics related to hope, resilience, progress). Beyond these recommendations, researchers should also consider whether they really need participants at all. There are many options for conducting valuable research with minimal or no contact with participants, such as observational methods, content analyses, meta analyses, or secondary analyses. Some may argue that research during a global pandemic should only be conducted with either previously acquired or secondary data; others may argue that primary data collected voluntarily from willing participants is entirely ethical. Either way, respecting participants and their role in our research is always necessary. Beyond the requirements of doing so to uphold institutional research integrity expectations, it is our individual responsibility to ensure we, as researchers, are protecting those who make our work possible by assessing vulnerability, minimizing risk, and enhancing benefit, of participation – to the full extent of our capabilities.

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Researching together: the value in collaboration when researching poverty during COVID-19

By Kayleigh Garthwaite, Ruth Patrick, Maddy Power, and Geoff Page

At the beginning of March, as universities started to close their campuses and it emerged we wouldn’t be returning to our offices for some time, it became clear that our usual practices and ways of carrying out research were about to change massively. Some of us will have been thinking about how to shift our existing research online, or wondering how to best document the effects of the pandemic. Others were considering if they should even be doing research at all.

Rapid response calls for research funding were everywhere. We started working together on a bid for the Nuffield Foundation’s call, which focused on social scientists conducting COVID-19 research in real-time to capture people’s experiences of the social, cultural, and economic impacts of the pandemic. When bringing the bid together, we were conscious of the many ethical issues connected with carrying out a research project on poverty with a participatory focus during a pandemic. While we were nervous – and at times uncertain – about the value of what we were planning, we were also acutely aware of the significant pressures families on a low income were facing due to the pandemic. We wanted to use what skills we had to try and ensure that their needs, experiences, and the appropriateness or otherwise of the policy response was placed firmly on the political agenda. We knew other researchers would also be cautious of how to navigate this in their own work on poverty and social security, too.

We started working on the Covid Realities project in April 2020. The project is exploring how families in poverty with dependent children are experiencing the pandemic, while also tracking how the social security system responds. We have sought to create a safe, online space for parents and carers to document their own experiences, and are also working with Child Poverty Action Group to draw on evidence emerging from their contact with front line welfare rights advisers, through their Early Warning System.

A significant strand of the project is working collectively with other researchers on the ‘COVID-19 and low-income families: researching together’ element of the project. This focuses on working closely with a range of research teams already undertaking fieldwork across the UK with families in poverty to support the generation of data specifically on COVID-19, and the synthesising and dissemination of relevant findings to policy makers and other key audiences. This is no easy task; working across 15 different research projects, and various research teams both inside and outside of academia requires a serious amount of planning, consideration, and above all, time. There is a huge value of working together and emphasising key findings across our diverse set of projects. However, important concerns can arise over data ownership, outputs, and key messaging, which need to be carefully thought through on an ongoing basis. But this process is already proving to be a really important way of collaborating, at a time when we are adhering to social distancing measures and working remotely.

We’ve already worked together to submit evidence submissions to parliamentary inquiries on the impact of COVID-19, drawing on emerging findings across our diverse studies. Conducting ethical research into poverty at this time means we need to try to create clear and effective chains of policy making engagement and dissemination. We know this isn’t easy; but we’re all doing our best to make sure that evidence generated can help inform current and future policymaking. Making sure we also include the voices and experiences of families in this process is central to fulfilling the aims of our project in communicating research evidence effectively and ethically.

Creating a space for researchers to think through some of these issues was something we wanted our project to be able to provide. Through this project, we want to offer researchers the support, tools, and resources to collectively think through how, and indeed whether, to carry out research on poverty during the pandemic. The idea is to create a place for honest discussions about what has or hasn’t worked well; a forum in which we can consider ethical debates and dilemmas together.

As part of this, we’re hosting bi-monthly webinars exploring topics that are central to researching poverty during COVID-19, and we’re hosting an ongoing blog series to unpack key issues that researchers are grappling with. So far, we’ve hosted blogs on whether we should be doing research during the pandemic at all, alongside others that have reflected on how we can be sensitive to participant fatigue around COVID-19 – should we really be asking people more questions about it when many people will associate the virus with fear, trauma and grief, or might just be fed up of thinking about it at all?

Already, it’s obvious there is a genuine interest and real value in trying to think through these ethical, practical, and methodological challenges together. There is a very real danger that requests to take part in research could be experienced as insensitive and inappropriate given the scale of the demands and pressures people are facing on a daily basis. We’ve written elsewhere about our concerns over placing additional pressures or strains on low-income families at a time of uncertainty, when they may be experiencing both physical and mental ill health, worsened hardship, and could possibly be grieving for lives lost in the pandemic.

We also need to fully consider the emotional impact on researchers themselves. Maintaining the role of researcher requires more emotional effort than before. What do we do when the interview is over? Our support mechanisms of colleagues and friends in the office next door are no longer there. Since beginning the project, we’ve had emails from people saying they’ve appreciated the chance to connect through our webinars, and to think through some of the issues they’re facing by writing a blog. Working at home can be isolating, stressful, and uncertain. Hopefully this part of our project will continue to be a collective space that helps the research community to think through, together, how we can best carry out ethically responsible research during COVID-19 – and indeed if we need to or should be doing this at all.

We would really like to hear from researchers on any of the ethical, practical, methodological – and emotional – challenges of researching poverty in the pandemic, so please do get in touch with us if you’d be interested in writing a blog or being part of our ongoing conversation.

COVID Realities is also working with parents and carers living on a low income to document and share their experiences. Find out more at www.covidrealities.org

The project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.

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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