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
Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.
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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Can collaborative research with marginalised communities be transformative, turning around unjust social relations, and supporting solidarity and rights in a practical sense? In this blog post, we (Jack Apostol, Helen ...
Fieldwork is the most critical, and perhaps, the most demanding component of research, especially in difficult and hazardous contexts such as active conflict zones or nations with authoritarian regimes.I started ...
Narratives or the stories we use to set our perceptions and experiences in a larger context of meaning are powerful tools for both supporting civic space and engagement and oppressing them. As we are often not even aware of these narratives, changing them is not easy and requires much more than spreading information. A roundtable at the recent EADI/ISS conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice” explored successful practical examples how a deeper change of narratives can take place in favour of positive social change and freedom of expression. Nicole Walshe and Anne Mai Baan summarize its recommendations.
In our work to strengthen and support civic space worldwide (i.e. the space for freedoms of meaning, and shape our understandings of the world – are like layered currents. Sometimes only a part of the narrative is visible, the tip of the iceberg, but beneath the surface it is connected to deeply held and shared social norms and values, history and culture which are often invisible and difficult to melt down.
We seized the opportunity at the recent EADI conference on ‘Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice’ to understand different strategies to influence narrative currents. The virtual roundtable on solidarity-building narratives affirmed that such narratives can be powerful tools to protect and strengthen the space to practice our civic rights – as key enablers of peace and social justice. We also learned that narrative change work is about:
Hope and Play. Narrative work finds creative ways to move people to new ideas and experiences, tapping into feelings of hope and visioning possible futures.
Relationships and Understanding. It is a process of mutual learning – demanding openness to have one’s own mind changed too.
Listening. It is most powerful when you reach out to those you don’t necessarily already agree with, to find shared values and meet in the middle.
Co-Creating: It is a constant iterative process, asking interaction with all kinds of actors and individuals, finding expressions of solidarity to create a better future together.
Showing, not telling. Narratives need to be embodied, and solidarity is best expressed through concrete actions.
Moving beyond strategic communications: The end goal of narrative change work is a deeper level of social change based on power analysis and social norm change strategies.
So what does this look like in practise? Read about the approaches, tactics and lessons from Bulgaria, South Africa and Colombia….and how funders can support this work.
The importance of Hope – shifting perceptions in Bulgaria
For Fine Acts – a global creative studio for social impact – hope is the thread that cuts through all their work. Research about what makes people care reveals that opinions don’t change through more information but through compelling, empathetic experiences. Yana Buhrer Tavanier explained that if our messaging triggers fear and guilt, people will shut down. We need to communicate hope and opportunity to engage people and gather the positive and creative energy for change! Fine Acts applied this in their Love Speech campaign, which engaged 35 leading Bulgarian artists in a vast campaign against hate speech, which has been on the rise particularly against Roma, LGBTQI+ people and refugees. The campaign featured a series of urban art interventions, a participatory installation, a viral online video, and a large free-to-use collection of illustrations, and reached more than one million people, raising awareness of the implications of hate speech on wider society. Through creativity, playfulness, hope and wit, the campaign was able to engage people in a non-threatening way to shift perceptions of these marginalized groups and counter dominant hateful narratives.
Yana’s tip: – don’t let trying to do things the ‘perfect way’ hold you back – experimentation is just as good. Try, learn, adapt, learn and adapt again!
The importance of Play – challenging beliefs in South Africa
Narrative change work combines campaigning and communication strategies. In order to be effective it needs to focus on understanding the interests and psychology of those whose perceptions you want to change, and taps into culture, humour, history to connect with the audience on multiple levels. This also requires a certain amount of playfulness – in particular when serious and demanding human rights activism can lead to burnout or feelings of powerlessness.Ishtar Lakhani illustrated the creative and playful mixed approach through the example of raising awareness on the rights of sex workers in South Africa. The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) chose to focus on challenging the specific image of sex work pushed out by Hollywood blockbuster imagery. By instead showing the multiple working identities of sex workers – as mothers, carers, often combining different jobs – the campaign demonstrated that sex work is not the only work that sex workers (can) do. For example, SWEAT also seized the opportunity of the 2019 South African National Elections to deploy their creative activism and started a fictitious sex worker-led political party called SWAG. Through political party posters, convincing social media coverage and a campaign video with the one-liner ‘Your Rights, Your Freedom, Your SWAG’ they gained attention and public space to talk about the rights of sex workers and managed to get the two largest opposition political parties to include this as an issue in their election manifestos.
Ishtar’s tip – changing the language you use can sometimes create bridges to unexpected allies and new ways of looking at the issue. You can then jointly make a new narrative!
The importance of Relationships and Showing, not Telling – Human Rights outreach in Venezuela
Doing narrative change work can also be about using concrete action to show people what we mean when talking about rights. Often those concrete practical examples are precisely what pulls people towards social change activism rather than mere rhetoric and general statements about rights. In Venezuela two things came together to change the way a team of pro-bono lawyers did human rights outreach to communities. The team had already been facing narrative attacks labelling human rights proponents as ‘anti-Venezuelan’, and had been working on a series of events that would ‘materialise’ rights in ways beyond their traditional legal accompaniment. By offering opportunities for sports, music, and entrepreneurial training, for example. With the onset of COVID, the need to creatively rethink how they reached community members became even more urgent. So they held upcycling workshops to make PPE face-shields, began partnering with community kitchens, and formalized a position for creative community activism. These creative approaches resulted not only in more effective community engagement, but also prompted reflections on what it means to be lawyers and how they might give a face to human rights that resonates more with the lived experiences of the communities they work in.
Lucas’s tip: Appeal to people’s ideal collective future, to reveal how much the values underlying these visions of an ideal society align. Narrative success depends on making relationships and experiences the ends of your project, not the means.
The importance of FAILing and funding failure!
FAILing, or a First Attempt In Learning, is something James Savage from the Global Fund for Human Rights encourages all funders to not only be excited about, but to incentivize and enable. He suggests some key points for funders who are interested in supporting narrative change work to bear in mind:
Focus on the process, not product, and fund the process. Work on shifting norms, perceptions and deep currents in society has different timelines and measures of change!
Embrace risk, unpredictable outcomes and experimentation. ‘Success’ is redefined by the learning, iterations and ‘FAIL’ing forward.
Understand the objective of a funder as ‘accompanying a learning journey and building of narrative power’, and translate this directly into an accountability framework focusing on changes and learning instead of impact.
Resource local narrative changemakers & foster connection for mutual support, learning and collaboration. Lots of small initiatives may be the answer.
Support an infrastructure of narrative work with the means to widely disperse and deeply immerse narratives over time that shape how societal norms are set.
James’s tip: Funders need to be prepared to FAIL forward and to support others to FAIL forward.
Solidarity in Narratives, Narratives for Solidarity
Humans tend to assemble mutually reinforcing stories in order to establish common sense and construct shared beliefs or truths about people, places, communities, cultures and their understandings of rights and social justice. Narrative work is about changing what is ‘known’ about a group of people, or about a situation. It is, however, not about ‘convincing’ people; rather about building new and different relationships and understanding. Co-constructing narratives can be a key way to connect with different constituencies and build solidarity across groups, including those that didn’t start out with the same perspective or agreement. It is as much about story-listening as story-telling. And the stories continue to be written:
Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.
About the authors:
Nicole Walshe coordinates Oxfam’s Knowledge Hub on Governance & Citizenship (KHG&C) – a network for staff working on themes of governance & citizenship, with a specific focus on civic space, fiscal justice and active citizenship. She does this together with the inspiring KHG&C Core Team, who are based in The Netherlands, Bolivia and Vietnam. Nicole is passionate about the topics of civic space and human rights and combining these with influencing tactics and strategy, and has a keen interest in supporting knowledge and learning processes that can help us take action and make strategic decisions based on what we observe and learn.
Anne Mai Baan is a Knowledge Broker on Civic Space & Narratives in the KHG&C Team at Oxfam. This position is all about convening connections and building relationships across Oxfam’s network on the topics of civic space and narratives. Within the knowledge Hub we find creative and inclusive ways to make different forms of knowledge (experiences & expertise) more visible, accessible and useful for greater reach, impact and influence! Anne Mai is passionate about issues of power and exclusion, the way language shapes our experiences and the impact of competing narratives in humanitarian and development contexts.
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Researchers who conduct their fieldwork in unfamiliar or hazardous settings are routinely exposed to risks that can bring them harm if these are not anticipated and circumvented. Often, junior PhDs ...
Discussions on the transformative potential of research have focused little on how research is communicated once it has been conducted and, indeed, while it is conducted. Instead, the focus hitherto ...
Taking an ethnographic route to study disaster-affected communities makes us grow deeply aware of seething worldly inequalities that disasters bring forth. At the same time, it makes us compassionate towards the world outside. It is imperative we reserve a piece of that compassion for our own selves, too, writes Mausumi Chetia.
On a summer night eleven monsoons ago, sleep evaded me. Outside, the winds were growing stronger by the hour and the rain refused to stop pouring. My sleepless thoughts held the image of a family and an incessantly shaking, Kare Okum (chang-ghar in Assamese) or stilt houses built over a flowing channel of water. I was in Majuli, a densely populated island in the Brahmaputra river of Assam, my home state in northeast India. I was collecting data for my Master’s dissertation around the time the monsoons began, bringing the annual floods to our state.
A few days later, my then research supervisor pulled me out of the field site. With a calm, but commanding voice, she asked me to return to ‘safety’ at the earliest. With partially collected data, mixed emotions and a river that was continuously expanding (due to massive erosion of its banks), I left Majuli for my home’s ‘safety’.
Fast forward to fieldwork for my current research in Assam in 2019. I was faced once again with the ethical dilemma of applying a methodological approach focusing on people first and foremost vs prioritising my own safety as a researcher. They were the very puzzles I had left behind in Majuli when I left a decade ago. Research is a deeply political process, but it is a humanising journey, too, as I would come to see (and as Kikon 2019 explains).
The half-written story of a monsoon auto ride: taking a submerged path
My fieldwork in June 2019 took me to one of Assam’s severely flood-prone districts. The geographical location was chosen based on longstanding professional relationships and empirical familiarity with that region.
A local humanitarian organisation aided me in accessing the research site. I found an accommodation in the district town, about 45 kilometres away from the actual site of study. My research populations lived about 15 to 25 kilometres away from a national highway, on a rehabilitated government-owned piece of land situated along the banks of a river.
The initial fieldwork days were about establishing access and meeting key contacts. The weather was mostly cloudy with occasional showers. One day looked particularly promising, with the sun high up in a clear, blue morning sky. Predictably, the sky got dark in no time. Despite warnings of rising water levels, our auto-rickshaw driver decided to risk continuing the trip. Then the drizzling started.
I could see a blurring silver line across the trees. It was the water. My heart skipped a beat as I remembered the last time I was in a heavily flooded river in a steamer boat, almost two monsoons past. Some thatched houses appeared inundated already. Buffaloes and cows were clutching at tiny islands that had formed in the paddy fields, which in turn resembled huge lakes on either side of the road.
Gradually, it felt like we were surrounded by a sea of water. There came a point where the road ahead looked completely submerged. Our auto-rickshaw came to a halt. A few vehicles had stopped ahead of us. The rain continued pouring. There was chaos and confusion. People needed to cross the submerged part of the road to reach their homes. But the prospect of crossing the waist-deep water with their luggage, infants and children delayed their decision. Three of my fellow passengers told me that they were indeed afraid of the water. Nonetheless, they had to cross it on foot. Devoid of alternatives, two women and a teenaged boy started marching ahead. Many, like them, were from villages as far ahead as 15 kilometres.
An ethical-methodological dilemma
I continued standing there next to our auto-rickshaw, almost in a stupor. A billion thoughts crossed my mind. And here was my dilemma. By design, understanding the ‘everydayness’ of the research population was at the heart of my research methodology. By that virtue, even the present situation of crossing a flooded area should theoretically have been something I would have had to prepare for. However, faced with the disaster first-hand, I was anything but prepared to encounter the ‘lived experiences’ of my research population. I found myself debating whether loyalty to my research methodology was more crucial than my personal safety or, more importantly, whether being an empathetic researcher and registering the real difficulties faced by the research population, in hosting me in their flooded homes, was the most important objective.
The first thing that was stopping me from stepping into the waters was not the fear of the water itself. We were witnessing people crossing the submerged road. And in all fairness, it was not an ‘alarming flood situation’ by any measure, while perhaps only moving towards that. My concern was one of return: my rapport with these families had not matured adequately to a point that I could stay unannounced in my interviewees’ homes. At the same time, if the rains continued (which was most likely), it would have been risky to return. The families were already struggling with minimal living spaces. Basic amenities like food, drinking water, public transport access, markets, hospitals, etc. were already limited and at far-off distances. With rising waters, it would be inappropriate to obligate them to accommodate an additional person, that person being myself.
I was tiptoeing ahead absent-mindedly with all these thoughts in my head when my auto-rickshaw driver called out, asking me to return to the vehicle. Along with a few passengers, he was planning to return to the main highway. He insisted that I must, too, as I looked like an ‘outsider’ and I wouldn’t be able to cross the road like the ‘locals’. With a sense of self-betrayal, I shut my umbrella and got back to the vehicle.
The next morning, we were informed that the entire road till the bank of the river (located at least 15 kms from where we had returned) had been submerged. Even steamer services to Majuli were shut down indefinitely. I realised my return to meet the families would have to wait. This reflected my limited role as an ethnographic researcher – to study the research population during disasters that very much defined the everydayness of their lives.
The ethnographic project is in itself embedded within power relations between the researcher and the researched (Behar, 1993: 31 cited in Prasad, 1998). Empirically speaking, the research population and I share our homeland (of Assam), culture and language, both literally and figuratively, to a considerable extent. Yet we are anything but parallel in the legitimacies of our respective lives. To begin with, for instance, my family or I have never encountered a disaster first-hand. Concurrently, in my research, it is I who determine the design, selection of site, population for study and methodology. This essentially puts me in a position of power and privilege over the research population I study who, in contrast, had no choice in choosing my research through which to share their everyday lives.
Given this inequality, the power (of the researcher) could end up being wielded against the best interests of the researched in ethnographic studies during or after disasters. The delicate balance between prioritising the research methodology and prioritising the research population then becomes crucial for us as disaster researchers. The power divide and our mandate to negotiate these nuances becomes much more apparent during our fieldwork. Critical reflection (Foley and Valenzuela 2005) at this juncture might prove to be a useful exercise.
My fieldwork experience has underlined that remaining empathetic and putting the interests of the research population facing disasters before our own research methodology is fundamental. The classic ethnographic training for young researchers is to become ‘one among them’ (the research population), given all other factors are in place. Thus, from the start, there silently remains a distinction between ‘them and us’. However, coming from the wider socio-cultural horizon of the researched, local researchers like myself must be trusting of one’s own understanding of issues and instincts for making decisions in the field, even if such decisions do not necessarily fit within the our methodological approaches that have been argued to be rooted in western thoughts. Engaging in other aspects of fieldwork then, for instance making contacts with local experts, especially with researchers based and working in the field site for sustained periods, could be fruitful.
Growing together with our research: prioritising researchers’ self-care
More than a year has passed since the field experience elaborated above. Since returning to safety that day, I keep wondering if the decision was methodologically ethical. My choice that morning reflects the power imbalance between the researcher and the researched very clearly. I call it a power imbalance because I had the choice to not move ahead to meet the research population, whereas they themselves had no choice to leave their flooded home and return on a sunnier, drier day. That is their life. These families continue living in similar conditions of high risk and vulnerability, even today.
I made my choice balancing the palpable risks of entering a flooded area and as an ostensibly empathetic researcher. That being said, it was also because I prioritised the safety of the self. Many of our decisions as disaster researchers get shaped by our relationship of accountability to our host organisations (if any) and towards our own families and loved ones. Ensuring our own safety is one such challenging decision.
From the dilemmas of my ethnographic fieldwork, I learnt to appreciate that our research is as much about us as human beings/researchers as they are about understanding research populations. As I examine their lives and they examine mine, we grow together. After all, ours is a social and not a controlled laboratory situation. What I seek to reiterate here is this: many aspects of fieldwork are beyond our control. What is in our capacity, however, is to take care of our own research, the research population we engage with and our own selves.
By self-care, I refer to not just the physical and mental/emotional health safety. Beyond such strictly defined medical aspects of health, I emphasise being self-empathetic throughout the period of research while referring to a researcher’s self-care. This is especially true if we engage with disaster-affected populations over long periods. Having and practising contingency plans for safety prior to the fieldwork and regular communication with supervisory teams and our support system is a must for disaster ethnographic researchers. That being said, a researcher’s self-care must be held dearly by none other than the researcher herself.
Traversing the ethnographic road to meet disaster-affected populations
Upon my return from the flooded area, I found that colleagues at my host organisation had been worried about me, as had been my friends and family. I am glad I retraced my steps, albeit guiltily. In hindsight, I question whether I should have changed my methodology considerably for smoother sailing or perhaps should have conducted fieldwork in areas with minimal probability for a disaster. In that case, how true would I remain to my research question and how ethical would that be? My original fieldnote from that day reads,
… this sight (of the flooded paddy fields all around me) is making me question whether my original study population is even living in the same place where I’d met them, or have they already had to move to avoid the rising river? What, then, does it reflect about the (mobile) lives that these (displaced?) families lead and about the credibility of the gaze I want/need to have for this research?
(‘Reflections’ – Fieldnotes of a missed interview, July 10th, 2019)
Such reflexivity helped me reshape aspects of my fieldwork’s methodology in tune with the dynamic external environment. Physical safety and mental health of aid workers are integral to the everyday conversations of the world of humanitarian aid. While discussing reflexivity in her auto-ethnography with disaster-affected communities of Aceh, Indonesia, Rosaria Indah (2018) shares that secondary traumatic stress (STS) could be one of the long-lasting impacts on disaster ethnographers. Thus, this conversation deserves to pick pace within the academic community too, especially for researchers engaging in long-term humanitarian contexts.
Taking an ethnographic road to disaster-affected communities makes us grow deeply aware of seething worldly inequalities that disasters bring forth. At the same time, it makes us compassionate towards the world outside. It is imperative we reserve a piece of that compassion for our own selves too.
This is an edited version of the article that was originally published on the LSE blog.
Foley, S. and Valenzuela, A. (2005) Critical ethnography: the politics of collaboration. In: N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln, eds. The Sage handbook of qualitative research. 3rd edn. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, pp. 217–234.
Indah, R. (2018) Probing problems: Dilemmas of conducting an ethnographic study in a disaster-affected area. International journal of disaster risk reduction 31, pp.799-805.
Kikon, D. (2019) On methodology: research and fieldwork in Northeast India. The Highlander 1(1), pp. 37–40
Prasad, P. (1998) When the Ethnographic Subject Speaks Back: Reviewing Ruth Behar’s. Translated Woman. Journal of Management Inquiry 7(1), pp. 31-36.
About the author:
Mausumi Chetia is a PhD researcher with the ISS. Prior to joining academics, she was working as a development and humanitarian aid professional in India.
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The current COVID-19 pandemic is preventing many scholars and students, especially those in the social sciences, from visiting identified research sites and interacting with the groups or actors important for their research. Many researchers now plan to shift to forms of remote research where data are gathered without meeting research participants in person. While COVID-19 compels this trend, even before the pandemic scholars have had to conduct remote research when fieldwork is considered risky or difficult, for example in high-conflict or remote contexts. Our research of the interaction of disasters and conflict in Afghanistan and Yemen shows what to keep in mind when conducting remote research.
Remote research refers to research where the principal researcher is not engaging in face-to-face data gathering processes ‘on the ground’. This means that other people can gather data on behalf of the researcher in research locations, or that interviews with research participants are conducted by phone or using the Internet. Whereas quantitative research often uses enumerators to survey, qualitative research usually relies on face-to-face interviews or focus-group discussions that now need to be organized and conducted from a distance. Research shows that it is indeed possible to talk to participants using interfaces like telephones or social media platforms and to obtain rich and qualitative data through these, mostly internet-based, forms of communication. However, the use of technology also needs to be approached with caution and in a reflective manner, as discussed in another blog.
Fundamentals and ethics for sound research still apply
No matter how hard one tries, remote research creates additional challenges, and some research questions beg so much nuance and depth that they better not be considered in remote research. Data gathered by means of remote research is also difficult to triangulate and validate, as a multitude of data sources not considered at the onset of the data collection process may present themselves in the field. Researchers may also come closer to understanding complex dynamics when immersed in the communities they are studying. Otherwise, many other routes can be explored to validate data. Think newspaper articles, GIS or satellite images, secondary sources, consulting other researchers familiar with the area, among others.
Research ethics can also be complicated when research is conducted remotely. Whether data are collected through video-based conversations or by using a third person to conduct the interview, it is important to consider whether informed consent genuinely has been obtained and how confidentiality can be guaranteed. In case of sensitive issues, face-to-face interaction allows one to read participants’ body language to detect whether the interview creates discomfort. It also allows researchers to build a trust relationship with research participants. How can researchers make sure that enough checks and balances support remote interviewing processes to avoid interviews creating anxiety or discomfort?
Finally, we need to think about how to convey the message that the research is in the interest of the research participants. Without the engagement and personal attention of a real encounter, will participants feel that they benefit from the research? Researchers often seek to ‘leave something behind’—stories, information, advice, or perhaps volunteer work for a community or NGO—to ‘give back’ to the research participants. Remote research requires questioning ways in which to move beyond the mere extraction of information that so clearly signals the asymmetric power relations between researchers and researched actors.
Some do’s and don’ts
When these complicated questions have been addressed, the question remains how to do remote research. Here are some pointers that we developed out of our experiences of researching the interaction of disasters and high-intensity conflict in Afghanistan and Yemen:
Some research questions cannot be addressed remotely, hence, the research design and questions needed to be adapted for remote research.
Ethical board approval is just as important for remote research as it is for fieldwork and cannot be skipped.
In order to enrich and triangulate findings, we need to be innovative. For our research, interviews were also conducted with people that recently migrated from the areas of interest to a place where they could be reached physically. Similarly, aid workers active in the area were interviewed during stop-overs at airports.
In order to create a broad and in-depth range of data, a multiplicity of methods besides interviews were used. These included digital surveys, the analysis of photographs taken by the participant and voice messages from participants describing places and situations, and many other creative options.
To remotely understand the context, relevant news, and everyday life in research areas, talking to people who know the area and reading the news about those places were key. This information allowed for better interviews and better data analysis.
Just like in normal interviews, body language is important for creating trust and diminishing anxiety. Sitting too close to your camera can make your presence intimidating, whereas keeping some distance and not filling the screen allows the participants to see your hand movements and background. Participants will see everything, also when you stop being attentive because you want to check some information on your phone, for example. It is therefore important to be mindful of your actions and to try to remain focused and engaged.
Rules for asking questions, such as using active language, asking questions one by one, trying to phrase questions and reword them in understandable language, apply even more in remote research.
Remote research is possible, but as students and researchers have to adapt to remote research, so do universities, research institutions, supervisors, and donors. Budget lines for travel may be reduced, but it may be important to provide funds for better computers, webcams, and video-based solutions.
Remote research can also be seen as an opportunity to do research differently, especially in an era where the need for travel must constantly be weighed up against the harm of adding to emissions related to climate change. We can now think of expanding the geographies of our research and reaching people in regions and places that were not considered possible before. For many students and researchers with limited budgets, it also can be a means to reduce the costs of research. However, as mentioned before, all these benefits and the use of remote research need to be weighed against adverse risks.
Which other relevant considerations would you like to share? Please feel free to leave a comment with tips, tricks or concerns.
This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.
About the authors:
Rodrigo (Rod) Mena is a socio-environmental researcher and AiO-PhD at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research project focuses on disaster response and humanitarian aid governance in places affected by high-intensity conflict, with South Sudan, Afghanistan and Yemen as main cases. He has experience conducting fieldwork and researching in conflict and disaster zones from in Africa, Latin America, Europe, Oceania and Asia. Twitter: @romenaf
Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.
Disasters are lived in different ways by different classes of people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the differential impacts of disasters lie in the blurred spaces between populations fortunate enough to ...
How are belonging, citizenship, and rights contested through creative practices such as music and dance? What role do the creative industry, international cultural institutions, and the mobilities of performing artists play in this? And what is the significance of all this for rethinking development in post-conflict settings such as Sudan and Laos? This article briefly reflects on these questions that are driving a new ISS-funded research project.
Researching development through creative practice
A new research project led by ISS researchers Katarzyna Grabska, Roy Huijsmans, and Cathy Wilcock called Creative Development: Migration and musical mobilities in Sudan and Laos seeks to investigate the intersection of migration and creative practice. The project commences in 2019 and involves qualitative, arts-based and ethnographic field research in France, Laos, Sudan, and the UK. This research will contribute to an emerging body of work studying the relations between arts, popular culture, migration, and development.
In development studies, there is some recognition of the role of popular culture in development practice, perhaps most noticeable in research on the phenomenon of ‘celebrities’ as goodwill ambassadors (e.g. David Beckham, Shakira, Angelina Jolie). In migration and refugee studies, the engagement with the arts has been more profound and has gone beyond a focus on the rich and famous, also breaking with a western-centric view of development.
A good example is the collaborative project led by Dave Lumenta at Universitas Indonesia. The project is entitled ‘Performing out of Limbo’. It is a musical/research collaboration between Oromo refugee youth from Ethiopia and musicians, students and academics from Indonesia (see a short YouTube clip here, and a write up here).
Music and dance as acts of citizenship
The project’s conceptualisation of citizenship and belonging draws on the work of Engin Isin. In the social sciences, citizenship is mostly treated as a ‘status’. In their 2008, book ‘Acts of Citizenship, Isin and Neilsen depart from such a view and approach citizenship as an act. Such a conceptualisation of citizenship enables us to rethink ‘who’ can be a citizen based on ‘collective and individual deeds that rupture socio-historical patterns’ (p13).
This approach enables viewing music and dance performances as acts of citizenship, as explored by Aoileann Ní Mhurchú in her article ‘Unfamiliar Acts of Citizenship’. Here she engages with the experiences of young migrants in Ireland and their engagement with hip hop and vernacular languages. Their practices do not fit into conventional categories of belonging based on language use, ethnicity, or nationality, and are better described as processes facilitating ‘creative hybrid refashioning of self’ (p163) through which political identities and relations of belonging are renegotiated. Although these songs, like much hip hop, come with a message, the focus on processes and effects lead us to go beyond a discursive analysis of the lyrics to ask what senses of belonging those involved in these musical practices realised through them.
Creative development and contested acts of national belonging in Laos and Sudan
This research project will build on the work of Ní Mhurchú and others through examining music and dance as acts of citizenship in post-conflict settings. With recent histories of violent internal conflict, followed by regime change Laos and Sudan offer fertile terrain for studying acts of citizenship in and through (re)emerging creative practices.
In both Laos and Sudan, questions of national belonging are delicate matters. Expressions of citizenship are not only regulated through legal practices, but also actively promoted through national education curricula and state-censored media. This indicates that citizenship in these contexts is much more than a matter of status, but also a matter of conduct, and one that comes with a strong national(ist) morality. From such a perspective, it is not difficult to see why a music video by the popular Thai national country singer Lumyai shot in the Lao tourist site of Vang Vieng stirred debate in Laos. Although the lyrics hardly refer to national belonging, other elements of the clip do. The music video is shot in a famous rural Lao location, and in her dance moves Lumyai weaves together elements from the traditional Lam Fong dance with sexually provocative moves. As such, Lumyai transgressed norms about proper (gendered) conduct on Lao soil.
Emplacement and movement in creative development
Due to recent histories of violent conflict, there are significant Lao and Sudanese diaspora, and the diaspora play an active role in the creative scene. Migration, like popular culture, is a transnational phenomenon. Moreover, culture is also transnationalised through international cultural institutions. This is evident from the work of the Institut Français in Laos and in Sudan and the Goethe Institute in Sudan. Culture has always flown, but this is particularly true in the present-day social media landscape. In addition, diaspora networks and international cultural institutions also facilitate the movement of artists and creative development. At the same time, dance and citizenship become acts of citizenship when they are emplaced—that is, when these creative expressions become meaningful in relation to more territorialised relations of belonging. Hence, the research project will pay close attention to the dynamics of mobilities and placemaking in the manifestations of creative development under study. Stay tuned!
On 5 February 2019, the ISS will host a workshop on ‘Moving methods: creative approaches to experiences of displacement, migration, social justice and belonging’.
Roy Huijsmans is a teacher/researcher at the ISS.
Katarzyna (Kasia) Grabska is a lecturer/researcher at the ISS and a filmmaker.’
Cathy Wilcock is a postdoctoral researcher at the ISS, with a background in critical development studies. In her role at ISS, she is continuing her work on political belonging in the context of forced migration.
An external committee found that the ISS’s research is highly societally relevant, but what does that really mean, and what determines it? Here four broad questions guide us toward a better understanding of societal relevance and impact to contribute toward an ongoing conversation on the topic within the ISS community. We find that the complexity and contingencies of societal relevance in relation to research must be appreciated before attempting to develop a methodological framework for measuring it.
In 2017, the ISS’s efforts to make its research societally relevant were assessed as ‘excellent/world-class’ by an international peer review committee. In their final report, the committee defined societal relevance as occurring at three levels: globally (themes with an international scope); nationally (in the countries in which ISS researchers are doing their work); and locally in Dutch society (where ISS is increasingly providing comparative insights on key domestic issues).
Despite this high score, within the ISS community understandings of societal relevance and impact, and its importance in current and future ISS research is not so easily delineated. This blog post aims to present a number of different takes on the question of societal relevance and impact with the aim of stimulating debate on the topic as the ISS seeks develop a stronger methodological framework to assess whether ISS research is indeed societally relevant per one of the recommendations of the abovementioned committee.
The very nature of social science research is to engage with questions about the social. This means that social science research is well-placed to respond to matters relevant to society. Yet this is not to say that all social science research is by definition societally relevant, or should be. Rather, it is perhaps the task of social scientists to think through what it means to claim that research is societally relevant or has a societal impact especially in times in which research is increasingly evaluated in such terms. In this post we put forward four broad questions around how one might understand societal relevance and impact.
Societal relevance or societal impact?
First, what is the difference between societal relevance and impact? Do they always go hand-in-hand, or can research be societally relevant without making an impact, and vice versa? These two terms are often used interchangeably, but can have very different contextual connotations. While relevance refers to ‘the quality or state of being closely connected or appropriate,’ to make an impact means to have a ‘noticeable effect or influence’. For example, the review committee considers ISS research to be societally relevant because of the topics it addresses, how it is used by others, and how it contributes to more inclusive and equitable ways of knowing. As a result of its relevance, they believe the societal impact of the research will be broader and more sustainable. But could a particular piece of research address a burning issue in today’s society, such as immigration, without having any impact on real-life processes, such as ways of managing immigration? And if so, does this mean this piece of research is less relevant?
Is societal relevance time/space-specific?
Second, is what is deemed societally relevant time and context-specific, and therefore subject to change? This means that rather than research being societally relevant while it is being done, it can become societally relevant (in both expected and unexpected ways) after the fact. Consider the hypothetical example of having a specialist at ISS who is researching Northern Thai caves. Her/his research would probably have been entirely absent from any ISS inventory on societally relevant research up until July 2018 when such research, regardless of its academic quality, would have become highly popular among all sorts of societal actors in the context of the rescue operation of the young football players in Tham Luang Nang Non. Even if this research only receives a flood of readers for a few weeks, can it still be considered relevant?
Societal relevance to whom, when, and why?
Third, in which societies – which are unequal, conflicted, and full of contradictions – or segments of society, is/should our research be (most) relevant, and why does this matter? This can be illustrated by Oscar Salemink’s historical work on the relations between ethnographic representations of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders and the shifts in historical context in which such research was produced and consumed. Salemink refers to the work of the French anthropologist Georges Condominas, whom Salemink describes as ‘developing into a critic of colonialism’, when his 1957 publication Nous avons mangé la forêt came out. In 1962, the US government illegally translated this French language publication into English and distributed it to their Special Forces active in what is known in Vietnam as the American War. This example shows that the relevance of social science research may well be understood and acted upon very differently between those producing and those consuming research. Similarly, various actors differ significantly in their capacities and interest in making research relevant to certain societal interests rather than others.
What is a scholar-activist approach to societal relevance?
Fourth, how does an engaged or scholar-activist approach to research understand and interact with societal relevance? As a social science methodology, this approach has received both increasing recognition and critique in recent years due to its interest in blending social and political commitments with scholarly research. Charles Hale (2006) notes that this approach stems from ‘rebellion against the complete “academicization” of social science’ and demands for more research relevance that emerged in the 1960s. This relevance is not just about reaching a broader public, but about heeding calls to do social science in a way that engages more with non-social scientists. He defines activist research as an approach that attempts to embrace a dual loyalty to both critical scholarly spaces, and to struggles occurring outside of academia. These dual commitments transform research methods from the very beginning of a project to the end.
David Mosse’s (2004) conceptualisation of the relation between development policy and development practice further complicates how we go about claiming societal relevance in development research. In contrast to linear models of theories of change typically propagated by development organisations, Mosse asks ‘what if…practices produce policy, in the sense that actors in development devote their energies to maintaining coherent representations regardless of events’. When ISS researchers act on calls from the development industry to provide ‘capacity building’, training, conduct commissioned research, give lectures, or sit on their advisory board, this is counted as evidence of ‘societal relevance’ in our current accounting system. Mosse’s claim pushes us to think yet one step further by reflecting on whether such activities go beyond merely contributing to the legitimacy of the organisations and its practices.
A framework for assessing whether ISS research is indeed societally relevant, requires mapping out how we understand this notion in the first place. It also requires accepting that any answer will be historically and contextually contingent, and that whether and how social science research is made relevant, and to what end, is something that researchers, at best, only have limited control over.
The Development Dialogue, an annual event organized by and for PhD researchers, this year welcomes over 80 participants. The conference theme is “Social Justice amidst the Convergence of Crises: Repoliticitzing ...
Economic diplomacy, although perceived as marginally important by neoclassical economists, is a highly relevant topic first and foremost because it works in practice, but also because it provides an essential policy answer to the increasing uncertainty of international transactions. In this article, Peter A.G. van Bergeijk and Selwyn J.V. Moons, editors of the recently released Research Handbook on Economic Diplomacy, briefly introduce the topic of economic diplomacy and highlight the value of the new publication, to which several ISS researchers have contributed.
The eminent breakdown of multilateralism and supranationalism due to Trump and Brexit has led to a revival of the debate on economic diplomacy, properly understood as a broad field that comprises those aspects of diplomacy that are aimed at:
the opening of markets to stimulate bilateral cross-border economic activities such as imports, exports, mergers and acquisitions and greenfield foreign direct investments;
the building and use of bilateral cultural, political and economic relationships between countries in order to assist domestic companies; and
the use of bilateral economic relationships, including (the threat) to discontinue these activities, as a tool of diplomacy.
Neoclassically oriented economists in the past have considered this topic of marginal interest only. Their analysis typically heralds the costs of government intervention and the benefits of free international trade and investment flows. Consequently, the economic analysis of positive and negative diplomatic interactions did not feature prominently on their research agenda. But it is increasingly being recognised that economic diplomacy is a highly relevant topic, especially in Development Studies, (a) because economic diplomacy works (Moons 2017, 2018, Muniz 2018), (b) because it is more important for developing countries and emerging markets (Rhana 2018) and (c) because it provides an essential policy answer to the increasing uncertainty of international transactions (Bergeijk and Moons 2018).
Surprise and confusion
The international economic reality of 2018 is surprising and confusing. Europe struggles with its trans-Atlantic ally, and the UK’s exit and a new Italian government with an anti-EU attitude contribute to this sense of confusion. America is separating itself from its traditional partners (the EU, NAFTA, and the OECD). The trade relationships between the world’s economic #1 and #2 are more strained than ever before. Trust in the multilateral backbone of the world economy evaporates and US hegemonism is weakening. Clearly a new and better understanding of the interactions between governments is necessary because of the changing playing field and dynamics.
Trump’s open confrontational approach to foreign policy as a form of negative diplomacy bears costs both in the US and abroad;
Bilateral relationships become more relevant and valuable, especially for developing and emerging economies; and
Bilateral economic diplomacy needs to be carefully designed and properly managed in order to generate optimal impact.
Representing a move away from Eurocentric books on the topic, the Research Handbook offers relevant and focused contributions that provide three valuable lessons for current and future policies. First, in addition to the full coverage of positive interactions, our contributors also explicitly consider the impact of negative interaction. Second, the Research Handbook in addition to the analysis of OECD markets provides a comprehensive set of detailed empirical analyses of developing and emerging economies in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The contributions by 31 leading experts from industrial nations, emerging economies and developing countries in five continents provide a unique perspective on both the heterogeneous dynamics of economic diplomacy and the tools to analyse the impact and efficiency of economic diplomats both qualitatively (case studies, interviews) and quantitatively (macro-economic gravity models, micro-economic firm level data, surveys, meta-analysis, cost benefit analysis). Third, the Research Handbook provides detailed discussions of information requirements, data coverage and the impact of (changes in) the level and quality of diplomatic representation. The studies in the Research Handbook thereby reveal how and under which conditions economic diplomacy can be effective, providing clear guidance for evidence-based policy.
What are the major findings and implications of recent research? First, economic diplomacy works and this is true both for positive and negative interaction. One can build on positive interaction to strengthen economic ties and similarly the twitter tsunami of the current US president and his increasing reliance on economic sanctions will carry a significant cost (Rose, 2018). Second, uncertainty itself already reduces international specialisation: the threat of trade disruption and discontinuation of treaties in itself influences perceptions and thereby the behaviour of consumers, firms and governments. Third, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Economic diplomacy should be aimed at the niche where its contribution can be most significant: complex products, complex markets and countries with diverging political, cultural and historical background (Moons 2017).
Relevance for developing countries and emerging markets
Bilateral economic diplomacy is important for building a good country image and to promote an emerging market as a reliable trading partner with high quality export products, especially in developing countries. It is a relatively more significant determinant of bilateral exports among African states compared to regional integration (Afesorgbor 2018). New modes of economic diplomacy and (development cooperation) are being developed based on China’s pioneering approach to development (De Haan and Warmerdam 2018). Economic diplomacy, however, is not a panacea as Maharani (2018) clarifies while discussing challenges such as lacking exporter preparedness, substandard logistic infrastructure and budgets that remain below those of neighboring countries.
Bergeijk, P.A.G. van, S.J.V. Moons en C. Volpe-Martincus (2018) ‘The future of economic diplomacy research’, chapter 23 in Research Handbook on Economic Diplomacy: Bilateral Relations in a Context of Geopolitical Change, editors P.A.G. van Bergeijk en S.J.V. Moons, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, UK
Arjan de Haan and Ward Warmerdam China’s foreign aid: towards a new normal? chapter 22 in Research Handbook on Economic Diplomacy: Bilateral Relations in a Context of Geopolitical Change, editors P.A.G. van Bergeijk en S.J.V. Moons, Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, UK
Selwyn Moons has a PhD in economics from ISS. His research focus is international economics and economic diplomacy. Selwyn is currently working as Partner in the public sector advisory branch of PwC the Netherlands. Previously he worked in the Dutch ministries of Economic Affairs and Foreign Affairs.