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.

covid-19, Notebook

Childcare is an important consideration in qualitative social research, pandemic or no pandemic

By Katherine Mackinnon

We are going to be living with COVID-19 for a long time.  While school and nursery pupils in Scotland look set to return in August, in future we may see a return to distance learning or temporary school and nursery closures. Flexibility around childcare when doing research is more important than ever.

I am a part-time PhD student in my first year of an oral history project documenting refugee experiences of everyday life in Scotland. When working with refugees and asylum seekers, important concerns include security, access to technology, English communication skills, and caring responsibilities—all of which have only been heightened by the pandemic. However, even in the pre-COVID world, access to childcare was an important consideration in developing a methodology for recording oral histories of refugee lives in Scotland.

Availability of childcare is a potential barrier to participation for anyone with child caring responsibilities, but particularly significant when working with newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees who may not yet have developed a strong local support network. Most people are unable to call on family members for informal childcare, and language barriers along with a lack of knowledge of carer entitlements can make negotiating the bureaucracies of formal childcare difficult. On top of this, people in the asylum seeker process are regularly forced to move at short notice to a different neighbourhood, which can result in delays to accessing nursery accomodations and longer periods spent on the waiting lists. Without taking these factors into account and providing ways to participate that work around the presence of children, a significant group of people will be excluded from the research – parents of younger children requiring childcare, the majority of whom are women.

As a PhD student I was unable to write a budget line for participant childcare costs into my proposal because it didn’t come with a budget. It is very difficult to find standalone funding for participant expenses, so it’s even more crucial to consider ways to work around childcare if you are not able to cover these costs  

In non-pandemic times, offering flexibility around interview times and locations which are specifically designed to work around school opening hours is a good way of taking advantage of the institutional childcare available. Given that provision of external childcare is not possible at the moment – and that school holidays will always be a thing – it is important to design adaptable research methods that are functional without formal childcare.

My research was never intended to involve children as participants, so these workarounds have all been designed to include the presence of younger children without actively involving them. This is feasible because of my focus on everyday life, meaning people are able to choose aspects of that topic they feel comfortable talking about with a child present. Obviously, this approach is not suitable for all topics, nor is it the optimum interview scenario. However, I would rather record the voices of parents who are somewhat distracted than not include them at all.

One way I have tackled the childcare issue is by choosing methods which can be done with children involved, like walking interviews around the local neighbourhood which could include younger children in a buggy. Navigating a public space with a buggy is a very different experience to walking through it alone, and the use of walking interviews can foreground aspects of everyday life which might not arise in a standard interview.

Another approach is to include methods which can be done at a time which suits the participant, like keeping a diary. Bea Gardner’s  audio diaries are a great example of this because they track longitudinal developments by recording over time. The audio diary has the benefit of being accessible to participants whose levels of literacy in English would make keeping a written diary challenging.

The prospect of ongoing restrictions on social gatherings ,  varying levels of comfort associated with different venues (indoor or outdoor, well-ventilated or not), and the availability of known, comforting meeting places like libraries and community centres have all made me consider ways to adapt, change, and develop my research when I can do face-to-face work again.

With young children, so much of everyday life happens in the swing park: Could I audio record a conversation there? And would this location lend itself to a more nuanced conversation about the experience of being a parent and a refugee in Scotland? The audio quality of many of these methods would be sub-par compared to a recording made in a quiet indoor space. Though, we have adjusted to news reports over Zoom, to weird angles on interviewees, and to children bursting in on discussions. These recordings will be artefacts of this time. They will be records of the radical changes to everyday life we have all experienced, some of which will be with us for the long term.

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Call for blog posts: the methodological challenges of doing research in a pandemic

After many weeks of lockdown measures, it is increasingly obvious that we are entering into a ‘new normal’ in which restrictions on movement and interaction will be imposed for the foreseeable future. This poses a profound challenge to the practice of social research, not least of all for those using research methods which involve interpersonal contact. To support the social research community during this difficult time, the International Journal of Social Research Methodology is inviting blog posts which reflect on the methodological challenges of doing research in a pandemic. This might include topics such as: 

  • Issues in rethinking project methods in the light of the pandemic
  • Is socially distanced research possible?
  • The ethics of observation in a time of pandemic
  • What might post pandemic methods look like?
  • Using remote methods?
  • Overcoming sampling issues in online and remote research
  • Using sentiment analysis to understand attitudes to social distancing/ virus spread
  • The role social media can play in researching a pandemic: for good or ill

However these are only suggestions and we’d be interested to receive contributions on any topic relating to the current difficulties we face as social researchers. We’d like contributions to be under 1000 words and map out issues in an engaging and accessible way with a view to the practical challenge of doing research in a pandemic. There’s more guidance for contributors available online here

Please send your posts to tsrm-editor@tandf.co.uk by July 31st 2020.