Coronavirus Pandemic

Collaborative research: the potential of COVID contingencies.

By Julie Walsh and Asma Khan

It’s Monday 23rd March, and Boris Johnson broadcasts the historic statement: ‘From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home’.   On April 1st – just a week later – we are due to start fieldwork for the ESRC funded project, ‘Everyday Bordering’ in the UK: The impact on social care practitioners and the migrant families with whom they work’.  Is it possible, during  a global pandemic, to begin fieldwork for a qualitatively designed research project working with people who live in vulnerable conditions? 

The project is set to work with social care organisations in the Yorkshire region and migrant families that access their services.  The aim is to understand if and how the hostile environment affects social care practice, and how migrant families experience social care. As an ethnographic and collaborative study, the project relies on developing respectful, voluntary research relationships, ensuring that practitioners and families influence the focus of the research, and that all involved work together to achieve meaningful change.  Spending time with practitioners and migrant families, developing creative methods with them, and facilitating focus groups, interviews and engagement activities, is central to the research plan.

Image Credit: Humber Bridge over the River Humber, joining Lincolnshire with Yorkshire. Sourced from istock.com/espy3008

A COVID-19 ‘Lockdown’ has been on the cards for a while, but as Johnson makes the official statement, we have to face some stark realities about the study. What does ‘staying at home’ mean for the work of our collaborating organisations? How much of the original research plan can be achieved remotely? How will we develop mutually trusting relationships with practitioners and families? And how does all of this work when schools are closed and people have their children at home?

Fast forward a few weeks and we are taking baby-steps in the implementation of our carefully but rapidly developed contingency plan. We – the research team and two of our collaborating organisations – have decided that work with practitioners can continue via online platforms. We also agree that we will wait for face-to-face services (and research) to resume before we work with migrant families. We’ve gained ethical approval for these changes, tested and agreed a video calling platform that we can all access, and identified tech that will reliably record online focus groups. We’re ready to start our first virtual focus group with social care practitioners.

As we sit and wait for the practitioners to ‘appear’, one of us moves a pile of washing out of shot and shouts upstairs to remind a teenager to not play loud music for the next two hours. Louise is the first to appear and she is sitting in her car. From previous conversations – what we refer to as ‘portholes of ethnography’ in more detail below – we know that she does this to avoid her sons ‘walking past in their pants’. Next it’s Paul. He comes into view with his little boy leaning into the frame to say ‘hello’. Paul’s in a bedroom because that’s where he gets the best WIFI connection. Whilst one of us chats to Paul and Louise, the other is on the phone talking through the process of connecting to our agreed platform with Lucy, another participant. She suddenly appears and cheers. We’ve solved the technical issue, and we’re ready to begin.

Image Credit: Sheffield, UK – Hallam University, The Hubs, Student Union building. Sourced from istock.com/travellinglight

Despite our initial concerns, we have adapted our research design in ways that have allowed us to make progress in achieving our research objectives. Not only this, but we feel that this has presented us with opportunities for reflection and learning that would not otherwise have emerged. For us, the circumstance brought about by COVID-19 has, in some ways, enabled a more collaborative approach and allowed practitioners to influence the research design in ways that would not have happened ordinarily.  The grant application process, and the necessity to provide a detailed research design as part of this, can hinder aspects of co-production. In reality, collaborators have limited resource to contribute to what are, in essence, speculative applications. Organisational contacts, people accessing services, and issues and concerns, also change during the time it takes to write an application, await a decision from funders and eventually to start working together. 

The pandemic has however made elements of the research plan outlined in the grant application untenable. Not only because face-to-face research is not currently possible, but because collaborating organisations need to prioritise adapting the delivery of their services. This means that we have had to revisit the entire research design. We have had to pause, progress with caution, and work closely with our collaborators to understand and agree what was and is possible in this unprecedented situation. This means that organisations and current contacts have actively revisited the decision to collaborate.  By necessity, they have set the pace of engagement and influenced when and how the research should progress; these are key features of collaborative research that have been amplified because of the COVID-19 lockdown. For us, this highlights a need to strike a balance between developing a research plan that provides funders with adequate detail, but that also accommodates modifications when research grants become active.

Conducting research via video calling platforms – such as Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp or Collaborate – is not a new phenomenon. During the pandemic, reliance on such communication technologies has mushroomed and this has exacerbated digital inequalities. As ethnographers, challenging the power dynamic in the research relationship is central to our approach and we had some concerns about using online platforms because of these inequalities. Although practitioners have reported that some people with whom they work do not have access to digital devices or a WIFI connection, we have not encountered these problems with practitioners. There have been some technical glitches but, despite our initial anxieties, nothing we have not yet been able to solve!

Left to right: Julie Walsh and Asma Khan

Instead, we feel that the unique situation in which we have found ourselves supports the development of a more equal research relationship between ourselves and social care practitioners. The shared experience of agreeing a way forward for the study, of unexpectedly working from home, and learning to use new technologies means that the position of ‘expert’ is fluid and changeable.  We have also found that conducting focus groups via video platforms, when all involved are in their own homes, can disrupt the power inherent in the researcher/researched relationship. In the focus groups conducted, neither practitioner nor researcher were on neutral territory; rather in the familiar territory of their own kitchen, bedroom, car or dining room.

Whist this does remove what can be the protective anonymity of the workplace, and highlights inequalities illuminated by COVID-19 – those related to living space and caring responsibilities – the frame of the video image, gave people some control over what and who they chose to include and exclude. Children and pets were assertively brought into the frame, and enquiries about objects in the space – a guitar amp or a wallpaper design  –  were often reciprocated with enquiries about objects within our frame; ‘That’s an interesting picture behind you.  What is it?’  We observed a sense of levelling in the ownership people exerted over these glimpses into their lives and feel that this has methodological potential and warrants further exploration.

COVID-19 has, of course, presented us with research problems that we are yet to resolve. Working with practitioners as the pandemic has unfolded has provided invaluable insights into our collaborator’s adaptability and commitment to the people accessing their services.  Spending time in organisations in order to develop a broader understanding of an organisation’s work is, however, central to exploring the everyday relational elements of practice.  This has been difficult to replicate via communication technologies.

By working with organisations to develop ‘portholes of ethnography’ we have attempted to create opportunities to replace some of the detailed knowledge sharing that comes about from physically spending time in organisations. Interested practitioners have, for example, taken part in regular online ‘reflective conversations’. These are not recorded, and notes are taken in the way they would be in an ethnographic research diary. For us, these ‘portholes’ go some way to replacing the ethnographic conversations we might have had if face-to-face work were possible. By providing practitioners with a space to reflect on their practice, and to build on their previous reflections, we have been able to piece together a more detailed understanding of their everyday working lives and discuss some of the learning that is starting to emerge. The ‘portholes’ do, however, provide a restricted lens, mediated by an individual’s decisions about what is significant and our interpretation, and we are increasingly aware of the missing pieces of our jigsaw that a physical presence will hopefully provide. 

Most notably, the fact that we have not been able to work with practitioners and migrant family members simultaneously has the potential to privilege the voices of practitioners over those of the migrant family members. Whilst there may have been possibilities of engaging with migrant family members via online forums, these relationships would have to be negotiated by social care practitioners, and we felt unable to guarantee voluntary participation and fully informed consent.  For some people that have migrated to the UK, the pandemic has made the impact of the hostile environment on their lives more acute, and we felt that these added vulnerabilities brought insurmountable ethical complexities. 

Although the focus here has been the impact of COVID-19 on the project’s original research design, as the Summer of 2020 draws to a close, we are also aware of related contextual factors that may further shape the lived experiences of our collaborators and the research team. These include: the global surge of Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd in the US; the unequal health impacts of COVID-19 on Black and ethnic minority communities; and a continued wave of dehumanising media and Government responses to people crossing the English Channel to seek refuge in the UK. These factors have not caused changes in the research design in the same way as COVID-19. Instead, they have shaped the social landscape in which the research project is taking place and given prominence to public conversations about systemic, state-sanctioned racism and long-standing structural inequalities. As the fog created by COVID-19 becomes less opaque, we hope to start working with migrant families to ensure that they and practitioners have equal influence over the research focus.  As we do so, it is essential that we are also mindful of these broader contextual factors – in addition to COVID-19 – and sensitive to the impact they may have on our collaborators, ourselves, and emergent findings.

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