Mona Röhm | PhD Candidate, University of Salzburg
2020 hit all of us with unexpected challenges. Nation-states, communities, and individuals have been facing life-changing and radical constraints due to the Covid-19 crisis since early spring. Uncertainty and a lack of foresight became an integral part of our everyday lives.
Within my PhD project, I am focusing on the negotiation of intimate relationships of Afghan migrants, which questions, among other things, belonging and exclusion in the context of romantic relationships. To talk about intimate topics requires a trusting relationship with my interlocutors, which is only possible by establishing long-term relationships. Thinking practically and pragmatically, in ethnography this means at least several meetings with the same person, in order to gain trust. Even under normal circumstances, this approach is demanding and time-consuming. Since spring, we are facing restrictions that were set in place to contain Covid-19, starting with a lockdown in March. This measurement included an official directive to stay at home and avoid going outside, closed cafés and restaurants, and travel restrictions within Austria and was followed by a summer under the umbrella of social distancing and with few public events. With rising infection numbers in Fall, we are currently in the second lockdown in Austria. So, where to start with the plan to conduct intensive ethnographic research with Afghans in Austria and Iran?
Starting the second year of my PhD project in the middle of a pandemic forced me to put many of my plans on ice and ultimately adjust my research approach. My initial plan to go to Iran in November 2019 was postponed to February 2020 due to the nationwide demonstrations against the Iranian regime at the time. Following a visa rejection, it was once again delayed for April 2020, which proved impossible as we entered the worldwide Covid-19 crisis in mid-March. Consequently, I decided to focus on Austrian fieldwork.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis in Europe, we did not know much about the health consequences of catching the virus or the impact on our social and professional lives. When I talked to my colleagues, who also conduct qualitative interviews, the strategies to handle data collection during a pandemic were as different as the individuals themselves. I noticed, based on my own and my colleagues’ experiences, several aspects affecting the decisions and strategies of contacting new people for a research purpose in times of contact restrictions. I’m going to elaborate on three of them that I find especially relevant.
First, as researchers, we carry a responsibility towards our research participants not to harm them through our research. In social science, this responsibility mostly refers to negative social or political consequences interlocutors could face when sensitive statements they make during an interview fall into the wrong hands without proper anonymization or is misinterpreted. Nevertheless, not to harm research participants also includes considering their physical and mental well-being that should not deteriorate as a result of research, for example, through retraumatization. In the current crisis, the responsibility towards the physical well-being of interlocutors also means to think about and plan according to measurements that can be taken in order to not to become a carrier and spreader of the virus – possibly infecting the interlocutors when meeting them face-to-face. Therefore, between the two lockdowns, I had to decide where, how, with whom, and how long meetings with interlocutors would be possible and responsible regarding not spreading the virus and a find way of communication that feels safe.
Secondly, as there is no general recipe for qualitative research during a pandemic, it is also important to consider who your research participants are. As my research focuses on Afghan refugees, most of my interlocutors experienced war and living conditions that were and are characterized by exclusion and discrimination. Trust issues toward official authorities and language barriers led to confusion about the virus and appropriate behavior, especially in the pandemic’s first months. In this light, I had the impression that managing everyday life at that moment was more important for them than being involved in biographical narrative interviews. Moreover, the situation posed particularly difficult for interlocutors facing worries for family members in other parts of the world. Another factor that characterizes the interlocutors within my project is that we do not share the same first language. To overcome language barriers, it proved essential to see face impressions when talking, preferably sitting face-to-face. Having to conduct interviews wearing a mask, on the phone, or via meeting online, has therefore proven to be not ideal for creating an atmosphere where research participants are willing to talk in detail.
Finally, there are also difficulties in realizing qualitative research in these times on an institutional level. As a researcher, I am affiliated with an institution; in my case, the University of Salzburg that is concerned with its own obligations and risks that employees should or should not undertake. Since March, the official procedure for ongoing research projects includes the instruction to continue research as usual. At the same time, the university communicated strict hygiene and social distancing rules regarding contact with colleagues and students. These different strategies pose a contradiction for research projects that focus on a qualitative research approach.
Consequently, every researcher has to decide situationally and based on their specific research design about fieldwork possibilities. Nevertheless, balancing the university’s directions with the practicalities of the field is particularly challenging in an ever-changing environment. In addition to the university related practicalities, the numbers of social events, or group gatherings that fit for participant observations are minimal. On a regular basis, interview appointments are cancelled on short notice due to the current health-related uncertainty or an officially ordered quarantine – either by research participants or by myself.
After giving some insights into the methodological issues and considerations of ethnographic research during a pandemic, I want to continue with a positive perspective on how I adapted my research methods concerning our current living situation. First of all, I put the plans to conduct fieldwork in Iran aside and focused on my research in Austria to avoid travel restrictions. Further, although switching to online interviews is not a substitute for face-to-face conversations, I was able to intensify existing relationships through online communication. For example, with one research participant, whom I already met several times, text and voice messages and video calls became relevant sources. The positive aspect of these kinds of additional data is that research participants can send them whenever they want to and whenever they think about a topic they might like to share with me.
Nevertheless, meeting somebody in person is still necessary to get to know each other. In the style of “Fieldwork on foot,” I will continue meeting people for walks, following Ingold’s approach of “word follows word as foot follows foot.” Walking and talking together is not a substitute to sit down with a person in a quiet and protected surrounding, but can be an inspiring environment to let thoughts and experiences flow as they come through walking together in the same rhythm.
All in all, data collection is much slower in times of Covid-19. The crisis encourages us to think about our methodological approach and challenges our data collection strategies – even more than we already do when applying qualitative ethnographic research methods.