11 August 2020

The challenges of undertaking research during a time of uncertainty

Natalie York, a student on our MSc Environmental Change and International Development course, shares her reflective essay on the challenges of doing fieldwork during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A boat sailing near the Galapagos Islands

Feminist geographers have advocated “for a more fluid, dynamic conceptualisation of fieldwork”, remaining flexible and adaptable in order to prepare for “unforeseen and disorienting challenges” (Billo and Hiemstra, 2013: 324). This has arguably never been more relevant than during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers have been required to adapt largely field-based projects to unprecedented circumstances meaning not only an inability to travel abroad for fieldwork, but an inability to leave one’s own home during country-wide lockdowns. In light of the current situation, this essay will outline and reflect upon the logistical, ethical and personal challenges of undertaking research during a time of uncertainty, focusing on my personal experience as an international development student taking part in a virtual Galapagos fieldclass during the UK lockdown.

When it became clear that our fieldclass would be conducted remotely, the most immediate challenges I felt were logistical. Although the trip’s cancellation meant dealing with feelings of disappointment, I found these were quickly overshadowed by an urgency to re-design our project – at the time very reliant on hands-on, face-to-face research – to suit a remote research context. I was initially apprehensive about how successful the virtual project could be as I had been intending to interview tourists about their perspectives of plastic pollution and found it daunting to be changing my topic at the last-minute. Having never conducted an interview before, I was also worried about my first experience being virtual, as Janghorban et al. (2014) outline significant differences between online and face-to-face interviewing. However, after working out the necessary alterations to the methodology and familiarising myself with the virtual platforms, I began to feel more optimistic and even a little excited about the virtual fieldclass.

Another challenge of not physically being in the Galapagos was working across different time-zones. In hindsight, better organisational skills would have benefited us as one of our key informant interviews started around half an hour late due to difficulties contacting our gatekeeper during what was their early morning, and working out which platform the participant could use to call us. Following this, I am more aware of the importance of coordinating with interviewees in advance, a lesson that I will endeavour to apply in the future. Conducting interviews virtually also meant that previously simple tasks such as recording became more challenging. Recording was also even more important as only four people could be present on a Whatsapp call; requiring a translator, this meant only two group members could attend each interview. I believe we handled this effectively as a group, assigning roles so that one person was recording and another taking notes, muting their microphone to ensure their typing did not impede the quality of recording. This was a very useful technique as the ability to rely more on the recording meant I could strike more of a balance between active listening and transcribing.

Overall, although the process was a challenging one, I found the virtual research to be a very engaging substitute for the fieldclass. I have experienced first-hand the importance of maintaining a flexible and adaptable approach to research.

Natalie York

MSc Environmental Change and International Development

Conducting research during uncertain times is also ethically challenging. England (1994: 249) states that “fieldwork is personal”, an intrusion into and disruption of people’s lives, and this concept really rang true to me throughout this experience. With the Galapagos in a state of 24-hour lockdown, I was concerned about the potential of causing unnecessary further stress to participants: given the situation, how ethical was it for us to continue with our projects? On reflection, the uncertain times made it more important than ever to ensure good consent practices and ensure that interviewees felt able to end their participation at any time. I was also very aware of taking up participants’ time during a period of both psychological and financial difficulty, and so it felt important to keep the interview lengths as short as possible, condensing our questions from those we would have asked in person. As Gillian and Pickerill (2012) observe, ethics are dynamic, complex and ongoing, and so it is important that I was reflexive about the ethical implications of our research throughout the project. Looking back, our interviewees spoke so passionately about ocean plastics that I feel more positive about the process; participation in our research may have even provided a welcome distraction to participants from the realities of the pandemic.

In addition, in any research project but especially in uncertain times, it is important to consider strains on the researcher as well as the participants. With the UK also in a state of lockdown, I found myself dealing with a lot of additional stress not necessarily related to the research project, often finding it difficult to focus. The importance of checking up on each other as a team became especially clear under the circumstances. Prior to starting interviews, our group always had a Zoom call to catch up, which I found really brightened my mood and encouraged me to engage more with the fieldclass. Further to this, Billo and Hiemstra (2013) stress that reflexivity should be expanded to include a researcher’s personal circumstances, needs and abilities, and so I found myself thinking about how the context of lockdown might have altered my positionality, reflecting in particular on my placing along the ‘insider-outsider’ continuum (Dwyer and Buckle, 2009; Giwa, 2015). The remote nature of the research led me to re-consider what it means as a researcher to represent the “distant other” (Ansell, 2001: 102).

Overall, although the process was a challenging one, I found the virtual research to be a very engaging substitute for the fieldclass. I have experienced first-hand the importance of maintaining a flexible and adaptable approach to research, in particular developing my own ability to be resilient in the face of uncertainty and to work remotely as a group, a skill which I am sure will benefit me in the future as work likely moves more to virtual platforms. Although initially a little sceptical, I was pleasantly surprised by how useful I found the virtual fieldclass as an introduction to using qualitative research methods. Having overcome a number of challenges, I feel confident in applying the skills I have learnt to the field in future research projects.

References

  • Ansell, N. (2001) Producing knowledge about ‘Third World Women’: The politics of fieldwork in a Zimbabwean secondary school, Ethics, Place and Environment, 4(2): 101-116.
  • Billo, E. and Hiemstra, N. (2013) Mediating messiness: Expanding ideas of flexibility, reflexivity and embodiment in fieldwork, Gender, Place and Culture, 20(3): 313-328.
  • Dwyer, S.C. and Buckle, J.L. (2009) The space between: On being an insider-outsider in qualitative research, International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 8(1): 54-63.
  • Gillian, K. and Pickerill, J. (2012) The difficult and hopeful ethics of research on and with social movements, Social Movement Studies, 11(2): 133-143.
  • Giwa, A. (2015) Insider/outsider issues for development researchers from the Global South, Geography Compass, 9(6): 316-326.s
  • Janghorban, R., Roudsari, R.L. and Taghipour, A. (2014) Skype interviewing: the new generation of online synchronous interview in qualitative research, International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Wellbeing, 9(1): 24152.

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