Conducting qualitative research during COVID-19

Everything has changed post-COVID-19- How can fieldwork continue now that researchers cannot simply meet with participants?

Dr Deborah Lupton asked this question to her Twitter and academic community and crowdsourced a resource – Doing fieldwork in a pandemic – with alternative methods to qualitative fieldwork. She shared this in a fully subscribed webinar hosted by QRS international.

Digital and analogue methods were outlined as alternatives to qualitative fieldwork. Expected alternatives included

  • Phone interviews
  • Online research platforms (that can be set up by a market research company)
    • see in real-time what people are typing online (and avoids transcription)
  • Apps and social media – public and private Facebook groups, Reddit, etc
  • Online surveys
  • Scanning social media

Dr Upton outlined and emphasised novel techniques – and made me reflect on whether my own research practice could do with reinjection of creative techniques:

  • Photo and video voice elicitation
    • probes that can be shared via mobile phone
    • talking and messaging in real-time
  • Re-enactment videos followed up with discussion online
  • Story completion method where people are given the beginning of a story to complete
    • Can be done via pen and paper or online using survey platform
    • Helpful for researching sensitive or highly personal topics as participants can project their experience to a hypothetical third person.
  • Epistolary interviews asynchronous, one-to-one interviews mediated by technology.
    • e.g. using email, and/or Microsoft Word to go back and forth
    • Allows time to build a relationship with the participant

There was a big emphasis on diary studies and journaling, as an alternative to ethnographic field research and interviews with lots of questions. This included creative methods as prompts for future phone and online discussion

  • Paper diaries that can be mailed, online diary platforms, or simply emailing Word docs
  • Including creative exercises such as drawings, handwritten creative responses, mapping exercises, letters, cultural probes, zine-making and collages where images are taken from magazines and words added

Revisit ethics

Dr Lupton emphasised ethical considerations of remote research in the COVID-19 context

  • People may be experiencing additional anxiety
  • The privacy of conducting remote fieldwork in shared spaces – people are now stuck in their homes with family all around them
  • People may be experiencing disrupted family relationships, violence, may be unwell, have underlying chronic health issues
  • Digital data privacy management

In some contexts, including academic contexts, the response to these considerations will require new approvals by ethics committees. In all contexts, researchers need to build trust with participants and demonstrate an understanding of the difficulties that different people are experiencing.

Everything has changed

Dr Upton believes any research of any subject will now be in the context of COVID-19.  She argued we are all COVID researchers now. The social impact of this pandemic is unknown. Upton cautioned that now is not the right time to dive into research – there’s an adjustment period and people are feeling traumatised, worried and anxious, wondering what will be happening with their lives. As researchers, we need to pause, ‘read the room’ and understand the affective atmospheres of when to do applied research. We need to protect the wellbeing of participants and ourselves and consider the timeframes when we and participants will be ready.

Alongside the wonderfully nerdy method catalogue, Upton reminded us that “this will be a long moment.”

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