Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

Samantha Ruppel on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the researcher and her field, the ethical standards guiding her work, the cooperation among scientists and the topics they´re working on.

When your lab is the world but the world is closed down – Social Science Research in times of Covid-19

Stay at home. This sentence has become a common mantra for all of us during the last weeks. Most of my academic colleagues and friends are among the lucky ones who can actually stay at home and do not need to go to work. Working from home, we all fight for a bit of normalcy and routine, doing our best to teach online, discuss papers with colleagues over the phone and follow a (more or less) structured work schedule. Because for much of what social scientists do they only need a laptop and a desk, they can easily work from home. But this is only the case for those who do not depend on qualitative data collection – and thus, interacting with other people.

Around the world, universities have been closed. Except for research that is system relevant, that has crucial benefits for its participants (such as research on medicines, drugs for vaccines or cancer treatments), scientists have been asked to suspend research activities that require personal contact with others. I am aware that some of my colleagues risk their health in order to carry on their research and to save lives, still how often during the last days have I found myself sitting at home on my couch, trying to get some work done, wanting to be one of them, wanting my own work to be more relevant for the system right now. For me and a lot of other social scientists there is no lab. Our lab is the world, we study interactions and gather data from the world that surrounds us. A world that is closed down, a world where personal contact and possibilities to travel change and currently shift towards online meetings. Therefore, it is important to ask how do the effects of Covid-19 influence the way in which we conduct (qualitative) research in social science? How are topics, methods and researcher’s ethics changing due to Covid-19? The answers to these questions could  be chances to develop new behaviours in research and evolve into new methods and approaches.

Research will change due to Covid-19. These changes will be even stronger for those researchers who  work with qualitative approaches, such as real life interviews and fieldwork and depend on international travel to vitsit the country they are researching.. Of course some interviews can be shifted towards an online or telephone interview and some fieldwork can take place online; for example as online ethnography (Hine 2010; Rahm-Skågeby 2011; Sade-Beck 2004). More ideas for fieldwork during Covid-19, like journaling, virtual discussions or videos can be found online (Lupton 2020). But this is not suitable for every topic, particularly when you need to gain the trust of the people in the field first (Beuchling 2015), when you work with participatory and inclusive methods or with groups of people who often have no internet access. I research power (im-)balances between local and international civil society organizations in post-conflict countries. For me it is important to speak to people more than once, as I realized that people open up if you are really interested in their opinion and if they can trust that you will keep the information they give you anonymous. This makes a shift towards  fully online research is simply impossible for qualitative data collection. For me it is important to experience the work atmosphere of my subjects, visit workshops on the ground and get a feeling for the people I interact with.  Many researchers have had to cancel their field trips and are now back in their home countries, with incomplete data. Even more have  postponed their field trips, uncertain when or if they will take place. This uncertainty particularly  affects graduate students, who  absolutely need to finish their research in time, as not all universities or scholarships are willing or able to extend the contracts.

The current lockdown has already had  an impact on what and how we do research during this crisis, but Covid-19 and the experiences that follow will most probably also affect its aftermath. This article will discuss four possible ways of how the current Corona crisis may influence aspects of epistemic, ethical, methodological and interests of qualitative research in the near future, without pretending to be exhaustive.

The researcher and her field

Covid-19 will influence the way researchers define themselves regarding their field. This change has to do with the epistemological nature of qualitative research, as it is always questioning itself. These inherently methodological questions ask: ‘What is reality and how can it be known?’; and ‘what is the relationship between the knower and what they know?’ (Yilmaz 2013). These questions  can guide the researcher in the field and can help to understand the researcher’s position towards the field in times of Covid-19.  Further qualitative research questions the characteristics, assumptions and principles that guide the research process and strengthens the elements of reflexivity and repeatability in the research process.  Many researchers, (and particularly those doing fieldwork) often see themselves as part of not only the scientific community but actually of the field, as constituent of  the topic and community they research  (for a discussion on the different roles of a field researcher see Bachmann 2009; Breidensetin et. al. 2013; Gold 1958; Hammersley and Atkinson 2007; Schöne 2005). That process can be a very important part of the research, as on an epistemological level, a research process also includes how we, as researchers, understand things and includes the relationship between the researcher (the person that wants to learn) and the people in the field (the people that know the insights of the field).  Due to the changes in times of Covid-19 researchers start to reflect one those questions and their one role in regard to the field even more (Witt and Schnabel 2020) and start to realize that they are actually visitors to the field and are part of it for a while. Can researchers truly be part of a field in the real world – maybe even a field in a country that is heavily affected by Covid-19 – if they only sit at home comfortably checking on their field contacts on social media and video call? I am not convinced. Furthermore, researchers are starting to realize that in the fields which they are used to visiting and  being part of for a while, research is changing. Actors in the field might not be able to take up business as usual and might not be able to take part in the field like they used to do before. But still, they are there and are witnesses of the changing field on the ground. Researchers, however, are not. Depending on how you see yourself as a researcher, you might consider yourself to be part of a field as long as you are there (Jones 2014; Schöne 2005). If you had asked me before Covid-19, I probably would have said that it might be possible to stay part of this field afterwards, particularly if you had  been part of the field for a longer time. But now I ask myself, is it enough, at the moment, to check on friends and colleagues in the field and maybe donate some money? For me, this  doesn’t mean becoming  part of the field again, you are not a witness to the current situation and changes that are happening. There is a distance, while everybody is staying at home, in their own place and their own country. e as researchers, could only try to stay part of the field virtually and witness the changes that are happening from a distance, but in the end, to really tell if a researcher is still part of a field or not, we should ask the people on the ground.  In general, people all over the world are not actively taking part in social life, which also opens up the question, if nobody is actively taking part in the “field”, do  we need a new definition for the term “field”? This more or less describes the current situation, one that will remain so for the next couple of months. But what will happen afterwards? Will researchers go back to their field as if nothing has happened or will there be a new understanding of how to define a field? In my opinion, there is no general answer to these questions. I assume that it depends on the research topic and how much the field will change due to Covid-19. There could be cases where a research topic or field is put on hold and everybody will be able to pick up the work again in a few months. In other cases, the topics, people in the field and the field itself might change significantly due to Covid-19 (Witt and Schnabel 2020). I am sure most researchers will try to continue working on their topics, in their field again. My hope is that we will all keep some ethical considerations that might change due to Covid-19 in mind.

Research Ethics

Second, an important shift will happen in the ethical questions of research. Is it really necessary to “bother” people by asking them to take part in  research now, or possibly  a year after Covid-19, when a lot of people, especially in low-income countries, will still be feeling the effects of the crisis? For those who  conduct online field-research and make use of public content from blogs, Facebook or reader’s comments under articles, it is important to ask  ourselves if this is ethically correct (the guidelines by the Association of Internet Research 2019 can help). What is public and what is private? The fact that scientists raise ethical questions now is rather interesting. After other health crises like Ebola in Liberia or Sierra Leone  the scientific community often conducted research and interviews with affected people (see for example Czerniewska and White 2020; Gizelis But this time the global north – is affected as well and researchers have started to ask more ethical questions. For example we might question whether  it is ethical to go to a hospital to ask nurses about their work experience or whether it is ethical  to film Covid-19 patients being treated in hospital. This is in comparison to just a few months ago when it was quite normal to film people dying on their route to Europe across the Mediterranean, even if it might was not ethically correct by that time as well (for an ethical discussion on that topic see Jacobsen and Landau 2003; Forced Migration Review 2019; Mackenzie et. al. 2007. The construction of a “we” and an “other” (Said, 1987) which is always a topic in critical qualitative research, gets a new twist, as anyone  can become “the other”, once they are in contact with Covid-19. We must always value the safety of people over our own research interests, no matter who or how they are affected and should keep do-no-harm-approaches (Anderson, 1999) in mind. These ethical questions are especially important for research conducted in highly affected Covid-19 countries, and  also in regards to North/South power relations and the responsibility that comes with conducting research. For example, the question of how the research will affect the people or whether they will benefit from it will become more important. It will be crucial for researchers to reflect even more about the ethical impacts of their research and ethics boards will need to adapt to new approaches research, for example by allowing digital  confidentiality agreements which are signed online. If the researcher adopts a research-ethical reflexivity with a special element around Covid-19, it will help to explain why  certain actions in the research process are  justifiable or unjustifiable. We will need to make more informed decisions when it comes to planning research processes, and will need to  ask ourselves  what is really necessary and what is not. I can also imagine that some ethical guidelines and codes will need to adopt  certain Covid-19 paragraphs and that we will need to prove that our research is Covid-19 friendly, particularly if it involves one-to-one contact with people. This paragraph might include questions like: Will participants be tracked in case of a Covid-19 outbreak? Is social-distancing possible during research interactions?

Collaboration between researchers

The kinds of data we can gather as an individual researcher will change after Covid-19. Due to travel restrictions, it may be that we collect less than what we have been used to until now. Yes, questionnaires can be distributed online and analysis can still be done. But there will be a a change, as the global crisis is also affecting quantitative data collection. Not everybody has the time to fill in a questionnaire, data sets are changing due to the global crisis and topics are shifting. Therefore there will probably be a call for more shared and open data, as we can already see in some research on  Covid-19 (Kupferschmidt 2020). Sharing data with colleagues and working together on one topic will become more important in the future. We can already see a shift towards more open access publications (Schmidt et al. 2020), more journals are available online and it gets easier to submit articles for open-access publication and publication fees are lower or even for free (Barbour and Borchert 2020). Hopefully this trend will remain the same after Codvid-19 and will become part of the new normal, as it opens up science to a broader audience and in particular to  researchers and students from countries that do not have access to other publications. Furthermore, it can serve to increase the visibility of authors who might not have had these opportunities  before.

Along with this, and the changes to the research itself,  the ways in which scientists communicate are also changing. International conferences are being canceled and many  discussions are now happening online, along with faster, more informal peer reviews of articles. Some colleagues of mine who have already participated in online conferences, have reported that it can be easier, in online conferences, to speak to a person or  get access to  a keynote speaker as there are opportunities for a private chat room. Sometimes barriers to access  are lower when it comes to online communication and this can be a significant  benefit,  especially for doctoral students who might otherwise not be able  to speak to well-established scholars. Online we are all the same, so the urge to collaborate will break open existing hierarchies and make collaborations easier. Therefore the Covid-19 pandemic could be an opportunity for science and research to undertake more collaboration and cooperation.

Research topics

Research questions and topics will change. Researchers who are already working on a topic must ask themselves what impact  Covid-19 will have on  their research question, their data and their field. Covid-19 is a complex problem and it will be interesting to undertake some social science research on the lessons learned during the pandemic and to understand how they could be transferred to other complex problems that might arise in the future or that are already there: How can governments work together to prevent the spread of a disease? How can governments,  economies and health systems collaborate?  Covid-19 raises questions like: Are countries prepared for emergencies like this? How can a globalized world fight Covid-19 together? Are international corporations strong enough to fight Covid-19 together? Will the existing theories about global crises change? How is Covid-19 used as a political instrument? Is securitization the new normal? What can we learn from Covid-19 for the fight against climate change? How is a lockdown affection political processes? How do we interact with other people after Covid-19? What are the benefits of digital interactions?

These questions are very important and by answering them social scientists are not damned to sit still. Answering them offers new opportunities for qualitative research. Social science will become important in answering these new questions. Qualitative researchers have the skills to document people’s everyday experiences, and the changes in interactions and can observe international political responses. These questions show that social scientists are also system relevant, but we might need to change our focus towards these new questions.

It is argued that global catastrophes always change the world (Ahmad 2020) (for example see 9/11 as one of the last big changes (Daase 2002)) and so will Covid-19. It will change the way we work, interact, research and communicate and it will play an important role for the foreseeable future. . It will change the topics we research, but qualitative research and researchers are ready to answer the new questions and are especially able to do so, as they are used to focussing on complex interactions, can tell the stories of people and trace transformations and connections. It will also change the way we research with qualitative methods. I believe that in the end qualitative methods can benefit from these changes and a new-qualitative turn, towards new qualitative approaches, new ethical standards or new research questions could happen. This  doesn’t mean that everything will change, but it means that methods can develop. Situations like this are not normal and most of us are not used to experiencing them. It is important to keep in mind that the good-old-times before Covid-19 have been good, but so will be the times after Covid-19. We will adapt at individual levels as well as part of a scientific community and find a new normal. We will change the way we research, we will be creative in finding new ways of communication, will  develop new methods and collaborate on new levels. I am willing to do so and it is a lot for one qualitative researcher. So lets start working on it together.  The world is our lab, it is in a lockdown now, but our minds remain open.