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.

covid-19, Notebook

COVID 19 and ‘Big Qual’ Research

By Lynn Jamieson, University of Edinburgh

It seems appropriate to review the possibilities of secondary analysis of data that has already been gathered by face-to-face techniques, as the current pandemic closes down many such forms of research. The substitution of virtual means of data collection for face-to-face means, such as interviewing using internet telephony, is not the only possible response to barriers against tried and tested methods; researchers at or able to return to the design stage might consider the creative possibilities of drawing together existing archived qualitative data for new research. 

Secondary analysis of qualitative data remains a relatively under used research strategy, despite the accumulation of anonymised, quality-assured and well-documented data that has been carefully curated in official archives having been generated by peer-reviewed, funded and published studies. Researchers seem less able to see secondary analysis as ground breaking and, in the case of qualitative research, heightened sensitivity to the creative connection between researcher and researched builds concerns about ethics and intellectual property.  However, in our published work (Davidson, Edwards, Jamieson and Weller, 2019) we counter these claims and point to the ground breaking opportunities of merging data from several studies in a new data assemblage using a set of steps that iteratively combine breadth and depth.  The way of proceeding that we advocate, helps the analyst to ask new questions, to make theoretical use of comparison and, in the process, extend the generalisability of qualitative research. 

Our method is the outcome of a project under the umbrella of the National Centre for Research Methods http://bigqlr.ncrm.ac.uk/. We set out to develop materials that would assist other researchers to remain true to the principles of qualitative research while working with what could be called ‘big qualitative data’ or ‘big qual’ for short – a data assemblage that is much larger than the typical volume of a single project and too large to readily tackle solely by conventional qualitative analysis techniques. We have called our method of ‘big qual’ secondary analysis the ‘breadth-and-depth method’. 

The four steps in the method are described using an analogy with different stages in an imagined archaeological project. At each step, it may be necessary to return to the starting point or a previous step.

  1. The researcher’s research questions shape the direction of an enquiry-led overview of archived qualitative research using meta data about the archived data sets. This is equivalent to an archaeologist using photographs taken in an aerial survey to select ground for further scrutiny.
  2. Computer-aided scrutiny using text searching means that are so-called ‘data mining;’ albeit that the techniques used are more like surface mapping of the breadth of the selected data collections. This is like the archaeologists’ ground-based geophysical survey on the surface of an area to assess what merits closer investigation by digging.
  3. Analysis of multiple small samples of likely data, equivalent to digging shallow ‘test pits’ to find an area worthy of deeper excavation.
  4. In-depth analysis of the selected sample, using techniques and processes drawn from the repertoire familiar to qualitative researchers. This is the equivalent to archaeological deep excavation.

Our own demonstration project worked with the Timescapes archive https://timescapes-archive.leeds.ac.uk/  Because we were interested in possible convergence by gender in the language and practice of care and intimacy over time, we re-assembled data from across four projects into age cohorts of men and women. This new data set is now available for research and teaching purposes