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Pivoting away from specific research topics when fieldwork is impossible to do

Let me state something with absolute certainty: I DO NOT BELIEVE ANYONE SHOULD BE ENGAGING IN DOING PHYSICAL, OUTDOOR FIELDWORK RIGHT NOW. The personal risk that students, faculty, research associates, postdoctoral researchers, and staff would be facing would violate any and all standards of care for field research, given the current coronavirus pandemic. Not only would it put researchers at risk, but also the communities under study.

Waste picking in Madrid

Photos from trash bins from when I did fieldwork in Madrid, Spain, in February of 2016

On Twitter, I wrote a micro-thread responding to some (well-intentioned and well-meaning) scholars who suggested that it would be possible to simply pivot from physical, on-the-ground ethnography to digital under current conditions (i.e. widespread COVID-19 with high risk of contagion). As you may remember, I wrote about this earlier this month.

I study informal waste pickers’ individual and collective behaviours. There is no way I can continue to do this using digital ethnography. I investigate access (or lack thereof) to water and sanitation within very marginalized communities. Given COVID-19’s global reach.venturing on the field at the current moment of the pandemic would probably be an assured death sentence. I am immunocompromised. I have been VERY lucky that I have been able to do ethnography for years. I was going to deploy field experiments this year. I don’t think I can. I don’t think I SHOULD.

My own view (and obviously this is a conversation that students and their supervisors will need to have) is that the research question will need to shift to accommodate current conditions. This means, resorting to online interviews whenever possible. Or digital archives.

ut we need to be honest about the obstacles current social (and natural) sciences & humanities face:

– accessing physical archives may not be feasible anymore.
– undertaking participant observation may not be advisable anymore.
– deployment of field experiment may not happen

Sorry to be the dissenting voice, but I think we ought to rethink students (and our own) research projects to adapt to the fact that we are in the midst of a global pandemic. And my considerations don’t even factor in the fact that people may not be able to FOCUS on research (care work, personal worry, etc.)!

I will rummage through my datasets (qualitative, quantitative, photographs from archival sources and newspapers and maps) to see what I can make available, but I think we ought to rethink research projects. And I’m happy to be a sounding board if need be for methods’ discussions.

I want to add one thing that is specific to PhD committees, PhD and Masters/undergrad advisors and external examiners: if a student had to abruptly cut their fieldwork because, well, COVID-19, I very strongly believe that YOU HAVE THE MORAL OBLIGATION TO TAKE THIS INTO ACCOUNT. I can assure you, they would probably continue to do fieldwork if there were no shelter-in-place/quarantine requirements. We all end up being a bit risky with our projects (I know for a fact I take risks when doing ethnography in marginalized areas). But we need to be flexible, considerate/humane.

This is a time of global crisis and we need to reimagine not only research questions, but also the research methods we use and how we engage with our communities. Dr. Kate Parizeau (University of Guelph) and I call our method and framework of engagement Doubly Engaged Ethnography. Hopefully our journal article will be helpful to you all in engaging the tough question of how we do ethnography with vulnerable communities (and how we pivot away from physical fieldwork to a different method and perhaps, another research question).

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Posted in academia, research, research methods.

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