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

covid-19, Notebook

Community research during the time of Covid-19: solidarity, care, and radical thinking

by James Duggan and Abi Hackett

This blog emerges from a series of discussions held online with academics, practitioners, and early career researchers interested in participatory work with children and young people to understand how we might respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown? We began affirming that the COVID-19 pandemic ‘is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next’ (Roy, 2020) and a space for rewriting of our imaginations (Stanley Robinson, 2020). Writing earlier on this year, Rebecca Solnit (2020) writes of the challenges of navigating these uncharted spaces of COVID times:

“As the pandemic upended our lives, people around me worried that they were having trouble focusing and being productive. It was, I suspected, because we were all doing other, more important work. When you’re recovering from an illness, pregnant or young and undergoing a growth spurt, you’re working all the time, especially when it appears you’re doing nothing. Your body is growing, healing, making, transforming and labouring below the threshold of consciousness. As we struggled to learn the science and statistics of this terrible scourge, our psyches were doing something equivalent. We were adjusting to the profound social and economic changes, studying the lessons disasters teach, equipping ourselves for an unanticipated world.”

We may wish to hide away and protect our body and those of our loved ones from contamination and death. As citizens or politically-inclined scholars, we might hope to contribute somehow to a notional national effort, knowing that our research shapes even in small ways what matters, which life experiences are heard, and who counts. As academics employed in universities, however, we are interpolated as entrepreneurial subjects, developing our research career through delivering world-class research with excellent impact. Is COVID-19 an opportunity to be productive? We might recoil from ghoulish opportunism. We are not short of critiques of neoliberalising subjectivities, that position knowledge production and its ethics in terms of power and risk (Loveday, 2018). What is to be done? How might we re-imagine our position and relationships with the communities we work with? How might we grow, heal, make, transform and labour in a time of COVID-19? Some starting points and questions emerging from our discussions include:

1. Care

We welcome moves to develop questions about the future of society towards the notion of radical care, that is, care that operates within an anti-capitalist politics, thinking beyond the rational, purposeful and economically significant (e.g. Tironi and Rodriguez-Giralt ,2020). A similar perspective is summed up by Alexis Shotwell (2020) in her discussion of the novel Station Eleven, in which much of the plot is organised around the phrase “survival is insufficient”. That is, things and people should be valued beyond function, this involves asking, beyond survival, what does a good life look like?

  • How might we find purpose for our research beyond the notion of function and economic imperative?

2. Time

Lockdown can feel like suspended time, waiting time, waiting for the curve to flatten, unable to control or predict in the usual way or make plans for the future. We have felt busier than usual, and at the same time struggled to fill time (or both); as Solnit points out in the quote above, notions and practices linked to “productivity” or how we use our time, might be shifting.

Kim Stanley Robinson (2020) has argued that notions of time and future are significantly shifted by the pandemic. Writing about the threat of climate catastrophe, he suggests that for many in the West, we can only really conceive of the lifestyle changes necessary to avert the disaster of climate change for our descendants, some future people, in abstract terms. “The fact that these problems will occur in the future lets us take a magical view of them.” Yet, the pandemic can be seen as a parallel challenge to climate change but with a tighter timescale – how we act now (e.g. lockdown) affects our future lives, rather than our descendants. As Robinson writes, now “we are the future people”. He argues that this may offer a shift to new ways of conceptualising the future, which might have repercussions beyond the immediate lockdown.

  • How can we rethink timescales, cause and effect, linear progress or the rhythms of lived experience in our research?
  • How do shifting conceptualisations of time make our research more / less relevant?

3. Speculative Practices

After decades of marginalisation, speculative practices have become resurgent in diverse range of fields including art, design, media and education (Levitas, 2013; Wilkie, 2018). For Gorz (1999), utopian imagination functions to provide us with distance from the existing state of affairs, allowing us to judge what we are doing in the light of what we could or should do’. These speculations might invite us to encounter forms of difference, and to clarify our values in the present. Or we might envisage how our lives, communities and societies might face the shocks and uncertainties of an unpredictable future. Alternatively, emerging as a counter to techno-utopianism, Foster’s (2013) ‘future mundane’ aesthetic invites us to concentrate on the continuities and rhythms of everyday life. Here we remember the mundane activities that fill our lives (e.g. lost passwords, empty batteries) and the struggles as we navigate a world of grime and smudges in the rhythms of quotidian existence.

  • Whilst living through a pandemic, where and how might we imagine things otherwise? 

A question that has seemed to circulate like a refrain in conversations we have had with friends and colleagues over the last few months is – how can we make sure we don’t go back to normal? To a ‘business as usual’ society that was flawed, precarious, unfair and continually reproduced trauma and inequality? How, then, might we ensure research does not go ‘back to normal’ either, but slowly, painfully, begins the work to think collectively, generously and expansively about how research might become ever more caring, relevant and radically imaginative?

References

Chiaporri, M.Z. (2020). Hacia una cultura del cuidado / Towards a Culture of Care, Solidarity and Care, May 15th, Available online: https://www.solidarityandcare.org/stories/hacia-una-cultura-del-cuidado-towards-a-culture-of-care

Gorz, Andre, (1999). Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Foster, N. (2013) Future Mundane, Core 77, Available online: https://www.core77.com/posts/25678/the-future-mundane-25678

Loveday, V. (2018) ‘The neurotic academic: anxiety, casualisation, and governance in the neoliberalising university’, Journal of Cultural Economy, 11(2), pp. 154-166, DOI: 10.1080/17530350.2018.1426032

Roy, A. (2020). The pandemic is a portal, Financial Times, April 3rd. Available online: https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca

Shotwell, A. (2020) Survival will always be insufficient but it’s a good place to start, Alexis Shotwell, March 25th, Available online: https://alexisshotwell.com/2020/03/25/survival-will-always-be-insufficient-but-its-a-good-place-to-start/

Solnit, R. (2020) What Coronavirus can Teach us about Hope, The Guardian, April 7th. Available online: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/07/what-coronavirus-can-teach-us-about-hope-rebecca-solnit

Stanley Robinson, K. (2020). The Coronavirus and our Future, New Yorker, May 1st, Available online: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-inquiry/the-coronavirus-and-our-future?utm_source=facebook&fbclid=IwAR2uQEmAbT-vL9iSctXoHaToIc0lmmSw1pcj28jQr-ykynzPYeeDmEXUtcM

Tironi, M. and Rodríguez-Giralt, I. (2020). Radical care in times of COVID-19: lessons from Puchuncaví, Solidarity and Care, May 8th, Available online: https://www.solidarityandcare.org/stories/radical-care-in-times-of-covid-19-lessons-from-puchuncavi

Wilkie, A. (2018). Speculating, in Lury, C., Fensham, R., Heller-Nicholas, A., Lammes, S., Last, A., Michael, M., & Uprichard, E. (Eds.). (2018). Routledge handbook of interdisciplinary research methods, London; New York, New York: Routledge, pp. 347-351.

covid-19, Notebook

Considerations for designing pandemic-friendly research

By Dely Lazarte Elliot, Dangeni, Rui He, Emily-Marie Pacheco, Dayana Balgabekova, Natthaphon Tripornchaisak and Kara Makara

Our research group from the School of Education, University of Glasgow, UK comprises two supervisors and several international doctoral researchers who occasionally engage in undertaking small collaborative research projects that are aimed at reinforcing research learning via informal platforms. Everyone actively participates in collaborative planning and decision-making, as well as working in pairs or in groups. Over the years, our group has continued to harness opportunities for mutual learning, particularly in advancing everyone’s appreciation of the research process and academic writing while building a sense of community and camaraderie among its members.

Following the successful publication of a conceptual paper on international doctoral researchers’ learning via community participation towards the end of 2019, our group again decided to embark on another small research project. Unpredictably, the pandemic started and subsequently disrupted major academic and research activities globally. Specifically, the coronavirus pandemic has radically changed the way scholars teach, learn, and conduct research.

Consequently, the foreseen grave implications of the pandemic and/or lockdown for the physical and mental health and psychological well-being of both researchers and participants took its toll and also caused serious implications for the types of research studies that were deemed ‘safe’ to undertake. As a case in point, this situation led to the majority of Master’s empirical-based dissertation projects for 2019-20 in our School to be halted due to heightened concerns about various ethics-related risks if students were to conduct empirical studies in the midst of a pandemic.

Bearing all this in mind, our group had to reflect carefully what might be an achievable project given the multiple and intertwined concerns that unexpectedly arose. In other words, the crucial question we were faced with was: ‘How can undertaking even a small-scale research project be manageable in the light of these very challenging circumstances?’ – a single question that prompted numerous carefully-thought out responses.

And so, in designing our new project, we were initially guided by the different strengths and expertise within our group – both in subject knowledge (i.e. the research focus being relatable to researchers) and research methods (e.g. a few members employed creative research methods; two members wrote a book chapter on audio-diaries; some members used an advanced approach to data analysis). On another positive note, the novelty of the pandemic and the lockdown got everyone’s creative juices flowing – not only tapping into the most important and interesting dimensions in these unprecedented circumstances, but equally, considering how to acquire these important data.

Through further discussion, we came to agree on a topic but also on a pandemic-friendly research design that we were all comfortable with. Overall, our small-scale empirical project necessitated the following considerations that:

  • maintain social (i.e. physical) distancing;
  • seek careful use of the least intrusive manner of collecting data, yet capable of stimulating reflection and deep thoughts;
  • are sensitive to researchers’/participants’ circumstances and supportive of their psychological well-being;
  • capture the depth and intricacies of the phenomenon explored
  • consider the therapeutic component of selected research methods;
  • stress strongly the ‘no coercion policy’ to participate;
  • avoid dwelling on the negative dimensions of the circumstances; and
  • ensure both feasibility and trustworthiness of the proposed project.

We then envisaged an exploratory project with a longitudinal dimension where group members serve as both participants and researchers – where data came from personal reflection during lockdown experience. With the intention of acquiring an in-depth perspective from the group members of their experience while in social confinement, we elected to employ two-interlinked methods:

  • Audio-diaries – All researchers/participants recorded a maximum of a ten-minute audio-recording at the end of every week for six consecutive weeks. Overall, each participant was encouraged to describe their experience and prevailing feelings while highlighting any crucial incidents they encountered or dealt with during the week in question. They were also asked to reflect on how their experience contributed to their evolving understanding of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Visual/drawing metaphors – At the end of the six-week period, each participant provided a visual metaphor to describe their lockdown experience – as a way of eliciting a holistic perspective of their experience to complement the audio-diary series. This was complemented by short narratives offering an explanation for what the metaphor meant, what the accompanying interpretation was, and why this mattered to the participants/ researchers themselves.

At this stage, although the analysis is now over, the writing element has just begun. With the multiple challenges that other fellow researchers may face in undertaking small projects like ours, we argue that the three considerations, i.e. use of creative, sensitive and therapeutic research methods, which enabled our group to realise our intention to undertake another collaborative research project in the midst of the pandemic are crucial in the light of these challenging circumstances. Therefore, taking them into consideration not only opens possibilities for empirical research projects, but equally importantly, they contribute to enriching the quality of the data (by eliciting in-depth and reflective insights) and making the research process as pandemic-friendly as it could possibly be.

covid-19, featured, Notebook

Conducting focus groups in a global pandemic

by Cordula Hinkes

The COVID-19 pandemic poses new challenges for researchers in the social sciences. Several research methods require communication and interaction between the researcher and respondents. Some of my colleagues were planning to conduct focus groups with consumers in multiple countries earlier this year. Due to travel restrictions and social distancing requirements, they had to put their plans on hold. Waiting for the restrictions to be lifted, they re-organized their research plans to focus on other tasks they could complete in the meantime. But as the development of the pandemic remains uncertain, they now must think about alternatives to conduct face-to-face focus groups in order to proceed with their project.

Online focus groups provide a way out of this situation. Many researchers might be hesitant to use qualitative online methods that are not well-established yet. As part of my current research, I conducted both face-to-face and synchronous text-based online focus groups, implemented in the form of web chats. This approach helped me to explore relevant methodological advantages and disadvantages. Based on this experience, I identified key aspects to consider during the preparation and implementation of synchronous text-based online focus groups. These include the size and composition of the groups, the discussion process, the moderator’s lack of control, and technical issues.

With respect to group composition, an obvious benefit of online focus groups is that people from different locations can be brought together. In my study, the focus groups were composed of participants from all over Germany, which would have been doable in a face-to-face setting. The online setting instead allows for the participation of target groups that are otherwise difficult to reach, such as physically disabled persons or people living in rural areas. Further advantages result from this mostly anonymous environment including that participants felt more comfortable discussing sensitive topics, and potential power imbalances became less influential.

On the downside, it is difficult for the moderator to manage the discussion due to the synchronous nature of the discussion process. The lack of visual and vocal cues aggravates this problem and makes it hard to capture feelings or moods. I experienced that participants who type rather slowly found it difficult to keep up with the pace of the discussion. Some were still formulating answers to a question, while the discussion had already moved on. Another major issue is information threading, meaning that the group discussion splits into parallel conversations on different topics.

The moderator’s lack of control also extends to the discussion environment. After one session, I noticed that one respondent had copied and pasted a statement from a website as a response to one of my questions. This was something that previous research accounts of focus groups had not prepare me for and could lead to serious problems for the validity of this method. In my article published in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology, I elaborate on these aspects in more detail and provide recommendations on the selection of suitable chat software to reduce the risk of technical issues and disturbances. It is important to keep differences between online and face-to-face focus groups in mind; but with good preparation, some disadvantages of remote discussions can be overcome. Synchronous text-based online focus groups are a method worth exploring – not only in times like these.

Read full IJSRM article here.

covid-19, Notebook

Creatively adapting research methods during COVID-19

By Mary Brenda Herbert

Where are you?’ He quizzically looked at me, eyes darting from one corner of my screen to another. He wasn’t looking at me, but behind me.

 ‘I’m at home,’ I say.

Oh, I thought you were in a bookshop when you should be at home. There are so many books behind you,’ he said, nodding. And so began my weekly video call with Sam*.

As ethnographers, we are used to meeting with our interlocutors in-person on their territory or on neutral ground, but rarely, if never, in our own homes! However, the COVID-19 restrictions changed all that. Through video conferencing tools like Whatsapp, I now seeing into children’s homes and they are seeing into mine. This was not exactly how I had imagined my fieldwork to be.

I had only begun my fieldwork a couple of months prior to this change. After several months of applying for ethical approval from the local authority, I finally started meeting families for my PhD research study. My study focuses on children and their mothers who have experienced domestic abuse and social care interventions. We were all ready to go when I realized that my plans were about to change dramatically. Lockdown had just been announced which, meant an end to the home visits I envisioned. What was I to do?

Panic was my first response, but then something else dawned on me. In essence, the purpose of my project had not changed; I could still research children’s lives, it just happens that their everyday lives now included dealing with a pandemic. There was also the ethical question of the families wanting to continue the research. I did not want to let them down but how could I continue safely? I realized my methods that needed to change, not my aim. In a frenzied scramble I put together an art pack made up of paper, glue tick pens, pencils, modelling clay, pipe cleaners, lolly sticks, and a small toy digital camera, along with a quickly made up booklet containing instructions  (please see fig. 1). My aim was to give children the resources to creatively capture the new normal of their everyday lives. Just before lockdown I delivered the art packs to my interlocutors’ doorsteps, and I was careful to abide by the social distancing rules when speaking with the families from outside their homes. Following the pack deliveries, the families and I agreed for me to call them once a week to see how they were getting on. Together we worked out a way of documenting their everyday lives.

Fig. 1 Art packs in the making.

While this is not the way I had initially envisaged my research going (whose research goes to plan anyway?), I have had experiences and reflections that would not have been possible if not for COVID-19. An important realization for me is how research is mediated through different materials. Two prime examples are the internet and the weather.  The internet is a rather insolent and unreliable research assistant; sometimes it turns up for work and other times not so much.  Sometimes it surprises me and stays for the duration of the task to be completed, but it mostly ducks in and out. My research partner is my internet, and I have become especially reliant on it during this time of COVID-19.  Its (un)reliability has highlighted the infrastructures that work to keep our world connected (Chiou and Tucker, 2020). As the Covid19 restrictions were lifted, but social distancing advisories remained, the weather has become a major influencing factor in determining my work methods. On one occasion, I arrived in the pouring rain at a home and had to alter my plans on short notice.  Our initial plans to go for a walk were out of the question, so I instead arranged a picnic blanket in the corridor of a block of flats to do some artwork with children. (please see fig. 2).

Fig. 2 Getting ready for an impromptu art session on a picnic blanket.

My dependency on the internet and the weather has made me acutely aware of how my encounters are mediated by materials, structures, and chance. However, these example of changes, adaption, and interdependency are not unusual for ethnography. Often these dependencies on other people and things outside of the communities we are researching are seldom written about or are sidelined, yet they play a vital role in how we conduct our research (Rosaldo, 2014, p. 111). The pandemic has quickly debunked any illusion that I previously held that I, the researcher, am totally in control of the design and unfolding of my research project (Pandian, 2019).

So, what of the art packs? Some children have taken photos, some have drawn and made things, others have lost all the pens and pencils, whilst others have ignored it all together. The children have used what they have felt comfortable with, and that in itself is ‘data’. I have experimented with other techniques: I have tried diary/journal– that was not received well (too much like schoolwork). My trial with a digital photo diary (Plowman and Stevenson, 2012) resulted in mothers taking photos of their children rather than children taking photos of themselves, which was not what I had intended. Together we are trying to find a way to explore the everydayness of life through playing with methods.

This means there is a lot of negotiation, innovation, frustration, and patience on both sides. From the families who have to put up with me going from room to room to try and find a spot in my home that has some Wi-Fi connection so we can continue our video call, to the children who have taught me how to play hide and seek over the phone, to socially distanced walks with children in their local areas, to meeting across doorways to exchange info and materials – we’ve navigated these terrains in order to tell the story, the story of what everyday life is like. We do this in “an effort to unsettle and remake” what is known (Pandian, 2019, p. 5).

The irony of researching with children about their everyday whilst my own children are glued to their screens is not lost on me. In so many ways, the mothers that form part of my research are struggling with the same things I am – how to keep children occupied, getting shopping, keeping well, staying safe, and doing our best to get through the pandemic. At the same time, the pandemic has also highlighted ongoing issues of inequality and power relations in society.  Whilst I have similar concerns and challenges as the mothers in my research. For example, my children’s use of the iPad as a childcare resource is not being critiqued by social services; I can do an internet shop and use the car to avoid public transport; I have money and a supportive partner to help me. I am cushioned by my relations, network, and access to resources. The pandemic has brought the growing inequalities within society and the institutionalized racism to the surface. We are all experiencing the pandemic, but the effects of it are not the same.

So, when Sam asks me about the books on my shelf and how many rooms are in my home, I am acutely aware of the difference in our status in society, and this is a good thing to examine. Whilst the pandemic is an enormous once (we hope) in a lifetime experience, the fundamental essence of research is still the same – the creation of knowledge, and for me, the importance of exploring the everyday lives of children.

*Not this individuals real name.

References

Chiou, L. and Tucker, C. (2020) Social Distancing, Internet Access and Inequality. w26982. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, p. w26982. doi: 10.3386/w26982.

Pandian, A. (2019) A possible anthropology: methods for uneasy times. Durham: Duke University Press.

Plowman, L. and Stevenson, O. (2012) ‘Using mobile phone diaries to explore children’s everyday lives’, Childhood, 19(4), pp. 539–553. doi: 10.1177/0907568212440014.

Rosaldo, R. (2014) The day of Shelly’s death: the poetry and ethnography of Grief. Durham: Duke University Press.