Covid-19 and comparative RESEARCH
Only essential travel allowed!
What’s next for an internationally comparative research project in a global pandemic?
March saw all my research plans thrown into chaos: the national lockdowns meant my planned face-to-face fieldwork became impossible, whilst the ensuing health, social, and economic crises made me question the broader aims of my work.
In this blog I will provide some context to this internationally comparative research project; discuss the concerns around continuing with data-collection; and close with reflections and practical aspects of fieldwork in a pandemic.
My fellowship project at the University of Nottingham explores the research and teaching nexus in sociology departments in several European contexts. To do so, I planned my fieldwork to take place throughout March and June 2020 in Hungary, England, Norway and Germany, undertaking face-to-face interviews with academics, researchers, university students and doctoral researchers.
With hindsight, travelling to Hungary to commence three weeks of interviews on the 8th of March was rather optimistic. Within days, Hungarian universities stopped face-to-face delivery and transitioned online, and along with others in the region, the country put travel restrictions in place. After several frantic emails to colleagues in Nottingham, I decided to leave early after just ten interviews recorded. I have started to reschedule interviews for the cases of Hungary, England and Norway, and decided to postpone the German data collection, for which the organisation was least developed. I acknowledge the substantive advantages of having to make these decisions having both research funds and institutional support. Even the alternative to returning to England would have worked fine, given I have family in Hungary – albeit I did not get to see them throughout my shortened trip.
The issue of moving all interviews online within a very short timeframe has been aided by the fact that the potential participants, such as research experts, academics and university students are regular users of the technologies I draw on. However, participants’ time has been, of course, consumed by the transition to online delivery of university teaching and often caring responsibilities, which on occasions meant they decided to withdraw from the research.
I also had to acknowledge the emotional toll of the early days of lockdown both on my interviewees and myself: the concerns for friends and family and a constant stream of awful news. All the while I was conscious of my privileges of a decent job, the ability to work from home, and having office space. I have been thinking a lot about the purpose and the ethics of this research, given the widely different context from when I started. However, precisely due to the degree of uncertainty about how Covid-19 might change universities in particular, and our lives in general, I decided to adhere to the original research focus while allowing for divergence within individual interviews.
Socially distanced research
Interestingly, interviews often proved to be a welcome space for interviewees where the pandemic was not the main focus, allowing them to think beyond the immediate concerns of a drastically altered everyday. Further, as it happened throughout my post-doctoral project, the students and doctoral researchers I was interviewing found the option of telling their concerns and problems to an external listener helpful.
My original plan was to conduct interviews face-to-face throughout a 3-4 week fieldwork in each country, and supplementing these as necessary with online discussions. Having had to move all remaining interviews online within a short space of time, my concerns about building rapport proved mostly unfounded, similar to Deakin & Wakefield’s experiences. The online interviews produced rich and engaged discussions whether the interviewee opted to use video and audio, or just audio throughout. Further, I also observed a version of the equalisation phenomenon when conducting expert interviews and those with senior academics: the online interface reduced power differentials, and as such, conducting the interviews felt less intimidating.
Most interviews fitted well within an hour as planned, albeit it does not cease to be awkward when you just ‘switch off’ a lengthy and engaged discussion by pressing ‘hang up’ – I made sure I followed up with an email expressing my gratitude for the interviewee’s time. Conducting research from home meant fewer concerns about navigating to interviewees’ offices or finding suitable sites for meeting students, such as cafes. As such, interviews in an online space proved to have substantially fewer distractions than the originally planned sites. Regarding the technology, having conducted telephone interviews with experts in the late 2000s, and Skype interviews with students, graduates, and experts at various points throughout the 2010s, I found improved availability and reliability of these technologies. Further, it has become much easier to record interviews within software such as MS Teams or Zoom, albeit security concerns remain with the latter. Nonetheless, I still used a second recording device throughout the data-collection
Finally, a few more considerations and tips for online interviews:
Acknowledge the context and resultant issues to interviewees throughout communications;
Be flexible regarding your time and make it easy for participants to reschedule the interviews as necessary; extend the length of data collection if your project allows for this;
Choose an online platform that is easy to use for your participants and that you can handle well, and be also prepared to trouble-shoot with a back-up option;
Make sure you record the interview using two different means, within the software and using an external device too;
Think about your set-up in advance: position your camera at roughly eye-level; have a good speaker (and headphones as a backup); use your schedule on the screen or printed; and have space to take notes.