Initial reflections from attempts at qualitative ‘field’ work during a pandemic

When the pandemic hit, many of us who planned qualitative research were preparing to travel to our field sites. What was initially a ‘wait and watch’ scenario, ended up being a situation where we had to consider a complete revamp of our methodologies; I know of colleagues who had to change their topics entirely because of the difficulty in conducting ‘remote’ fieldwork. I used the CASI Summer Research Fellowship this year to attempt remote connections to my field sites. Here are my initial reflections from that exercise.

First, these initial conversations with research participants were very personal. Contrary to my assumption that my research participants would refuse to speak to me until they were ready, I realised that they wanted to talk; but those conversations were personal. They discussed individual and family stresses, issues better discussed with therapists than researchers. I certainly am not trained for this. In the end, I allowed them to talk and just listened cognisant of the fact that I wouldn’t be able to use much of this material. What I did build up were relationships that would hold good in subsequent periods of research.

Second, I learned that people like to tell stories, and using different media to solicit their stories gave my respondents more control over the narrative, and felt less like a formal ‘interview’. During this period, while my participants’ verbal conversations with me were personal, I asked them to take photographs and videos of their everyday-life in relation to my research question. I found this more useful to my research process. What I now have is an audio-visual repository of photo-voice stories that speak to adaptations to living informally during a pandemic. I plan to structure questions around the audio-visual material I have received personal to each participant later this year for more systematic inquiry.

Finally, I learned that technology was both a hindrance and a tool of communication at this time for two reasons. First, the communities I research are urban, but can also be socio-economically disadvantaged. I faced a variety of issues from a complete lack of smart phones to poor internet connectivity in those particular settlements. In an observation on gender-based access to technology, I found that even in households where smartphones were in use, my research participants (all female), either did not have a phone at all, or only had basic phones. In the rare cases they did have smart phones, they were very basic models. Other family members (husbands, and male children) had the latest models of smart phones they could afford. Very rarely could my participants access these smartphones, and given the requirements to protect their privacy, I did not encourage them to use this strategy. The lack of (smart)phones made communication difficult; I could neither interview them (or get clear recordings of the voices when I did interview them), nor could they take clear photographs with their phones. In the end, they we decided to get each research participant a smart phone with an adequate data plan. This really opened up communication.

Second, and in a related vein, while regulations for Human Subject Research are well developed for in-person research, the guidance is sparse for remote fieldwork. What happens when you ask the same sets of questions from a distance? How can you successfully protect your human subjects, particularly their privacy, while conducting research? The first hurdle was technology. What would be the best program to use for these remote interviews? While Zoom is ubiquitous with many people, for my participants, Zoom was an extra program to learn during a difficult period of personal adjustment. Most of them prefer WhatApp instead. Luckily WhatsApp calls and chat are encrypted end-to-end, but it is unclear whether this level of encryption would pass muster with IRBs. Thus far, I use WhatsApp to solicit photo-voice material, and am slowly introducing them to Zoom calls; the University of Pennsylvania has a HIPAA compliant Zoom license. The second hurdle is the space where these conversations are conducted. Anyone who has ever conducted fieldwork, including interviews in informal settlements in the Global South, knows that ‘conversations’ are rarely private. Even if you begin with one person, other members of the household join in or even neighbours from the street and passersby will proffer their opinions during your ‘interview’. But even in this case in-person controls are possible. For example, once rapport is developed, I usually speak to women during their ‘alone time’, for example between 5 and 6 am when the household is asleep, but the women are awake preparing for the day. In this remote setting such variables are hard to control for. The time-difference means that I am unusually situated to talk to them at whatever time is convenient for them. Whether they will engage with a video interview that early in the morning is another question altogether.

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About Kimberly Noronha