Methodological dilemmas: How lockdown took a toll on conducting qualitative research

The pandemic has evaporated many a future fieldwork plan, and the possibility of qualitative research in a similar vein appears to be precarious.

 |  6-minute read |   06-08-2020
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For quite a while, researchers have been inquiring ‘fieldwork truisms’: separations between ‘field’ and ‘home’ and ‘proclivities’ toward suffering subjects. The pandemic has evaporated many a future fieldwork plan, and the possibility of qualitative research in a similar vein appears to be precarious. Researchers have an amplitude of contemporary concerns about research. The concerns range from identifying participants, as people are no longer congregating together physically, to approaching people for time to do interviews, focus groups, or different requests time — given the burdens placed on everyone by this pandemic. These concerns are focal, given that life has fundamentally changed since completing their research designs — people are displaced or uprooted, working from home, unemployed, shuffling family duties now and again including children and elderly parents during the workday, unwell or dealing with individuals people who are sick, and so on.

This global moment, significantly, requires learning a set of new skills important to design and conduct valid, humanising research online.

The Pivot: What changes in the shift to digital? Most of the world cannot leave homes, which brings up issues about conducting an entire data collection process utilising online methods. Of the ‘big three’ – questionnaires, interviews, and focus groups – only questionnaires are yet being utilised similarly. There are no face-to-face interviews or focus groups. However, interviews can still be conducted by telephone and both – interviews and focus groups – can be done online. There are numerous instances of using online survey tools or doing content analyses or ethnographies utilising existing online interactions as research materials. Executing research does require new tools, workflows, and creative thinking. As we take research online, we should be prepared to oversee things like technical difficulties, ensure creative research activities are articulated clearly in the fieldwork guide, and that everyone knows their role while facilitating, participating, or listening in. 

main_social-science-_080620020132.jpgThe concerns range from identifying participants, as people are no longer congregating together physically, to approaching people for time to do interviews given the burdens placed on everyone by this pandemic. (Representative photo: Reuters)

In terms of data sampling techniques, there are abundant potential data sources available. For instance, print media (such as news and magazine articles) can easily be used to analyse social portrayals of a wide scope of themes. Broadcast media (such as television or radio discussion programmes) can imitate focus group discussions on topics, published autobiographies or blogs can provide first-person narratives for examining a wide range of human experience. Social scientists have also conducted qualitative analyses of textbookswebsitespolitical speeches and debatespatient information literature, and so on. There may even be open-access qualitative data archives of research interviews and focus groups that you could use for your purposes.

Digital research or digital methods are terms that have come to encompass a wide range of methods united by their reliance on technology. Numerous pre-digital research methods can be adapted for use in digital ways, and the digital environment also enables the development of novel research methods. At this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, the ideas of emergent design and research and structure responsiveness take on new meaning and import. They can serve to interface traditional qualitative methods with participatory frameworks and critical and humanising methodologies, as has been elaborated below.

‘Critical humanising’ qualitative methodologies: In these times, the idea that we are all connected, reliant on, and responsible for, one another as humans — as we re-evaluate and work to dismantle deficit orientations and bogus, socially constructed binaries relating to illness or wellness and ability or disability as the embodied struggles of the human family. Engaging this kind of critical and humanising methodology appears the primary way that our research can continue with humility and authenticity in these testing times. We must unlearn or unadapt so much now as we relearn forward — all of which requires an emergent design mindset and a collectivist orientation.

Digital Autoethnography: Documentary research in lockdown will be mostly, if not so much, digital, and there is additional scope for digital autoethnography. It is important to note when doing digital research that inequalities also exist in the digital environment and that it is not a neutral space. While ethnographers have been adapting to various fieldwork challenges through online research, multi-sited fieldwork, auto-ethnography, and by attending to research subjects who are mobile, familiar, or themselves experts, these innovations have largely been based on the needs of research subjects. Few ethnographers have attended to how ethnographic practices are being reshaped by researchers’ own lives and our multiple professional and personal commitments — from childcare and health concerns, to financial, environmental, political, and temporal constraints, to relationship commitments at ‘home’, to the transience of particular research subjects.

“Type Me Your Answer”: Email interviewing is an exceptionally convenient and a reasonable method of generating rich and significant data. It permits access to a topographically dispersed group, or individuals who may be reluctant to participate in face-to-face interviews. It still generates rich and in-depth personal narratives. Researchers can also consider consolidating email interviews with conventional research methods as opposed to supplanting them.

Instant Messenger (IM) Interviewing: Collecting data using instant messaging programs provides researchers with an opportunity to overcome distance and different deterrents to reach participants. While IM interviewing does present some unique challenges, the advantages of the method outweigh concerns introduced by the computer-mediated chat. IM interviewing expands the toolbox available to qualitative researchers.

Online Discussion Forums: Online Discussion forums offer researchers a treasure trove of textual information and interaction. The research might be keen on the subjects examined and the researcher might be keen on how they function as correspondence. In any case, they provide insight into human activity in ‘naturally occurring’ groups that are not put together by researchers! They empower to recognise and analyse the sort of discussions and contentions that go on about topics in contemporary society, from the incomprehensible to the socially significant.

While all of the above are feasible options, they come with their own methodological advantages and disadvantages. Some may address whether media sources — produced for explicit purposes and that have experienced obscure editorial processes — are valid sources of data for research. While the validity of novel data sources is a significant issue to consider, the validity of interviews and focus groups have also been questioned. While studies examining the pandemic might provide a useful snapshot of life during the crisis, the benefit of hindsight might provide a fuller picture. There are also complex ethical issues to consider when thinking of conducting research during a global pandemic, and each of the methodological techniques proposed above come with unique ethical contemplations.

This pandemic is driving every one of us to think about how we get things done. Researchers should take time to pause and reflect on whether data collection can be deferred. The online environment potentially requires new ways of thinking outside the limitations of traditional research, sampling and ethical issues. Moving data collection wholly online creates specific validity and ethical issues that should be recognised and addressed as part of the research design. Planning and rehearsing online data collection is crucial to create a positive, engaging and enriching research experience.

Also Read: Why UGC needs to take strict action against pay-and-publish journals

Writer

Kusha Anand Kusha Anand @kushaaanand

The writer is a Research Fellow at the UCL Institute of Education (London) and Senior Research Fellow at IRDSE based in Delhi.

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