covid-19, Notebook

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/

featured, Notebook

The co-productive imagination: A creative, speculative and eventful account of co-producing research

By James Duggan

What does it mean to co-produce research? The term is used so extensively and diversely that it might be considered merely a convenient buzzword used at the intersection of academics, funders, and communities. There is an extensive series of justifications for co-producing research with communities. Co-producing research, for example, empowers, emancipates, enacts equal and democratic relationships, and aligns with rights-based discourses. Despite these noble aspirations there is a long-standing critique that co-production reproduces the academic or elite power relations it claims to unsettle, whether as tyranny, governmentality strategy, or regulation. A consensus position is that co-production is the space, discourse, and practices that allow us to unlearn and re-imagine research beyond the inheritances of academia as a society of letters. What grounds and commitments might help us navigate the critique and work towards worthwhile aims in collaboratively researching across and beyond the boundaries of the campus?

The co-productive imagination is inspired by speculative and process approaches to explore ways of theorising and practising collaborative research that are adequate to understanding the complexity of the world. Following A.N. Whitehead, this approach seeks to continually question academic abstractions that may result in our minds and inquiries following familiar grooves. Instead, co-production becomes an imaginative act where we iteratively develop propositions – encounters with new ways of feeling and thinking – and then we cultivate our imaginative capacities to understand what potentials are made possible in this situation. Although including concerns of empowerment and equality the focus becomes the creative realisation of events, which are understood as new ways of thinking and feeling that changes our orientations to the world.

The focus of the article emerges from the Loneliness Connects Us youth co-research project which explored loneliness with young people through arts-based and creative methods. I describe my slow and eventful realisation that one of the youth co-researchers was playing a crucial role in co-producing the project aim of creating a space in which we could explore loneliness ethically, productively, and with care for one another across difference. The way this finding came about questioned any claims I might make for co-production as equality, empowerment, or democracy. Instead, it justified thinking about the imaginative processes and practices of doing the research and realising that something matters! Drawing on speculative and process approaches, the article identifies a series of practices and commitments – appetition, techniques of relation, patterned contrasts – that work towards eventful realisations. It is, of course, important that in the shift from co-production as equality to co-production as eventful realisation that young people are not marginalised in research in pursuit of what thoughts and feelings are interesting. Yet, it is equally important to not let abstractions of co-production fix the ways in which we develop research. The aim therefore is not to lose young people but rather to fold commitments for young people with an ethics of the event, finding and tracing multiple and eventful contributions, collaboratively creating new propositions and possibilities to re-imagine a world in process.

See full IJSRM article here.

Notebook

Confessions of a Muslim Researcher – Considering Identity in Research

By Maisha Islam

In this Research Note, I discuss some of the contentions I have faced when conducting research with Muslim students. As a Muslim myself, I initially believed it to be advantageous in conducting research with a community I also belong to. However, I was not prepared to question fundamental parts of my identity as I was conducting this research and throughout the research process.

Although my piece for the International Journal of Social Research Methodology has been reworked for publication, this paper originally emerged from a module I was taking looking at theory and ethics in Educational Practice as part of my professional doctorate in Education programme. This module gave me the opportunity to unpack the tensions I had faced in a safe and structured way, where I could delve into the literature exploring researcher identity whilst situating my own experiences within it. Whilst there have been authors who have explored the double-edged sword of conducting insider research, I myself was not prepared for some of the experiences (and the emotions they brought) I had encountered.

The paper outlines three main issues I’ve considered when interviewing Muslim students about sense of belonging, provisions provided for them in relation to their religious needs, and whether or not they believe to have been settling for less in terms of their university experience. These issues included: whether or not I was using inappropriate means to gather Muslim student research participants; If I was simply over-representing my own experiences when I was an undergraduate student and applying it to a wider Muslim student population; And how I began to question not only my beliefs but also my sense of religiosity when meeting and interviewing a wide array of Muslim students.

Within the paper, I exemplify where and how these issues have manifested. In doing so, and at times, it felt vulnerable in having to take myself back to uncomfortable situations. For example, one particular interview with a student not only made me feel like my own views were ‘too liberal’ but I also questioned why I was undertaking research when I was opening myself up to conflictual encounters. Additionally, why was I undertaking research, with the core aim to better understand and improve Muslim student experience, when my participants (notably, only one) could not appreciate this?

However, the paper is able to detail how I as a researcher have been able to reconcile with these critical incidents’, and that the research process and journey is bound to be one which brings uncomfortable situations. I conclude that, as an early career researcher, it is imperative to not only be reflexive in acknowledging such situations but, to be confident in confronting these situations. It is hoped that researchers who are embarking on the start of their journeys (particularly Muslim researchers) are able to take away lessons from this research note about and be more prepared when going into their field.