The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown that ensued caused disruption in every possible dimension of life, including the way in which academic research projects were conducted. In this article Wendy Harcourt, who led the recently completed EU-funded WEGO project, reflects on the effect the pandemic had on the project, showing how its network of researchers had to think and work together creatively and innovatively to keep the project going.
In March 2018, I was proud to launch the EU-funded WEGO (Well-being, Ecology, Gender and cOmmunity Innovation Training Network) project – my dream project. I had been awarded 4 million euro to set up this innovative training network with a group of dynamic feminist political ecologists and had the chance to select 15 talented young people from around the world to do their PhDs with us. As we celebrated with balloons and cake on Women’s Day at the ISS, what we couldn’t have foreseen is that the COVID-19 pandemic would appear smack bang in the middle of our four years together. The pandemic scattered the dreams we had but, as I suggest here, it also offered surprising insights into how to do research differently. The project was recently concluded, which allows me to reflect on what happened during the past four years – the good and the bad.
WEGO’s research focus was the hugely challenging idea to investigate how communities were building resilience strategies to cope with environmental, political, and economic change in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa by learning from the ground up. WEGO PhD projects were designed as intimate studies on communities’ resistance to extractivism, embodied experiences of ageing and care, community economies, emotional engagements with water, and contested academic debates around and political protests.
The PhD researchers, supported by a network of nearly 30 academic mentors from around the world, headed out in 2019 to record and analyze the dynamic everyday experiences of damaged and contested environments, collaborating with women and men in communities who are rarely visible in political ecology research. The network used participatory action methods along with self-reflective and non-extractive feminist research approaches to engage with individuals, local communities, and social movements.
Then COVID-19 hit in early 2020, and all PhDs had to close down their research projects and literally flee to places where they had permission to reside. For some, that meant going home; for others it meant moving back to the place of their university. For all of them, it meant major adjustments to their research plans. The network as a whole was thrown into the unknown – could we continue to do research as the world was shutting down? Would we continue to be funded? We worried that it seemed we had to break every rule in the EU book. But, like everywhere else in the world, the EU had to adjust – and so did we.
And, to our surprise, we survived and even, in an odd way, became stronger. The two-and-a-half years of the pandemic meant moving from individual research projects with rigid expectations of what were to be the results to learning to work collectively, connecting online, opening up conversations about how we dealt with our emotions, as well as our concerns about how the (often very vulnerable) communities with whom the PhDs were doing research were coping with pandemic restrictions and lockdowns.
The pandemic changed the nature and focus of WEGO’s research in creative and unexpected ways. Going online meant opening up new questions about embodied and in-place convergences and between the personal and political space. This posed a challenge in the implementation of feminist methodologies engaged with participatory action research techniques, but it also allowed for creativity to transform how we harnessed digital spaces to reach faraway voices in the places the research was situated.
Doing research during the pandemic allowed the network to raise diverse questions around languages of care in feminist and environmental justice research, and politics. The encounters with the virus, and our isolation, reinforced conversations about how to include more-than-human actors to think together with non-western epistemologies, natures, and voices.
Moving from a research project that was designed for face-to-face connections to going online, forced us to respond and adapt to disruptions. We realized it was important to make visible the troubles of doing politically engaged research, learning from the pandemic restrictions on mobility, lack of face-to-face engagement, as well as the possibilities of using the technical openings in digital space. We created new methodological, theoretical, and epistemological ways of doing research across geographical arenas, breaking down some older barriers around needing to travel and be in-place. As a result, WEGO produced writing that is collaborative and fluid (Harcourt et al. 2022) allowing for reflective, emotional, and creative responses to the thorny questions we found ourselves asking about power, resistance, and pain, using art, photos, drawings, and storytelling.
The experience of WEGO during the pandemic illustrates the importance of innovation and adaptation in research. It is crucial to be experimental, creative, and flexible in order to deal with individual, institutional and global uncertainties. And, in this way, we learn to cope with disruption as the new normal.
Harcourt, W., K. van den Berg, C. Dupuis and J. Gaybor (2022) Feminist Methodologies: Experiments, Collaborations and Reflections
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About the author:
Dr Wendy Harcourt was appointed full Professor and a Westerdijk Professor together with an endowed Chair of Gender, Diversity and Sustainable Development at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam in The Hague in October 2017. She was Coordinator of the EU H2020-MSCA-ITN-2017 Marie Sklodowska-Curie WEGO-ITN from 2018-2022. From 1988-2011 she was editor and director of programmes at the Society for International Development in Rome, Italy. She has published 12 monographs and edited books and over 100 articles in critical development theory, gender and diversity and feminist political ecology.
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