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  • Writer's pictureGeorgia Crossland

Fieldwork During COVID-19: Challenges and Advice.

In this blog post I will discuss some of the issues PhD students are facing with field work and provide some advice and links to help deal with this.

Of course, first and foremost, the current COVID-19 crisis is a global health crisis, and people have been put in much worse situations than their PhD research being delayed. However, Social distancing is essential to minimise the spread of COVID and for many researchers this represents a change in fieldwork methods; moving away from face-to-face practice.

With this in mind, I thought I would write a post on the difficulties of field research in the current times and point to some helpful resources to assist others in the same predicament. I will focus on interviews and focus groups as research methods, as this is my main area of expertise.

Doing research with human participants as a PhD student can be challenging at the best of times, and many articleshighlight this. It can be hard to find people willing to give up an hour or so of their day for a doctoral research project. This may be particularly pertinent when, at a PhD level, researchers cannot generally pay participants. For researchers, online methods for focus groups and interviews may pose some further difficulties.

Firstly, securing participants may become even harder. Some researchers, especially those conducting elite interviews or interviews of subject matter experts, rely on meeting participants at events and inviting them to interview with them at a later time. Using existing contacts and reaching out to people via social media is one way around this issue. Many conferences and events are going ahead online and researchers may be able to get additional contacts this way.

Secondly, building rapport with participants is an important part of the focus group or interview process and is considered essential to ethical practice when conducting research. Having a rapport with participants makes them feel more comfortable and this will likely have an impact on whether participants feel they can ‘open up’ about the issue at hand. Building rapport in a one-off interview or focus group can be often be difficult in person and the skill takes practice. Online interviews exacerbate this difficulty by reducing the tools available to the researcher to build rapport, such as non-verbal cues and the ease of small talk. I, and others I have spoken to, have experienced first-hand these complications with online interviews and focus groups.

Despite the difficulties, there are a few research papers that suggest a number of ways researchers can build rapport with participants online. One of the main (seemingly obvious) factors that fostered rapport in one study was good quality video. Furthermore, there are some potential benefits of online interviews. One paper has suggested that participants can feel an increased sense of ease online, as the physical absence of the researcher reduces the risk of exposure or embarrassment. Others highlight the opportunity presented for a geographical spread of participants in a timely and affordable way.

Of course, there are some valid criticisms of online interviewing, such as accessibility issues. However, all research methods have their pros and cons and despite these issues, online interviewing is now a widely used method, backed up by breadth of research evidence demonstrating its effectiveness. I found such research evidence helpful to read through to both gain technique and confidence in the method.

It is also possible to conduct focus groups via group video communications, such as Skype or Zoom. I have read papersthat have utilised this technique and taken confidence from their success. However, issues, such as participants talking over one another, may cause problems for transcription and subsequent analysis. If this is something researchers see as a significant problem for their research, for example particularly sensitive groups where overtalking could be detrimental to participant’s confidence, instant messaging platforms could be utilised, such as WhatsApp.

Lastly, the current health crisis poses some specific issues to the information-security discipline that researchers need to consider. People globally are now being advised to work from home, and this provides a new cyber threat landscape. Therefore, participants and the threats they face will be impacted by this. I hope to work with this by acknowledging and incorporating this into my methodology.

For further advice and resources on interviews and focus groups, and other social research methods, there is an extremely useful crowd sourced document, initiated by Prof. Deborah Lupton, available online. This document provides many papers and resources for social researchers and I have found it extremely useful, link here.

With all this being said, researchers who have the opportunity to move their research online are at a relative advantage to some of their colleagues and hold the benefit of being able to conduct research in the midst of incredibly challenging circumstances. Many other human researchers who need direct contact, for example those working in medical and psychology labs must be struggling even further. Additionally, PhD students working in the humanities also have difficulties in these times. There is no access to archives and libraries, which provide the necessary materials for their research. Hopefully such individuals will be able to get funding extensions to complete their research.

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