Lockdown fieldwork

By Christine Hine

Recent weeks have seen disruptions across all arenas of contemporary social life, as international travel has been cut to a bare minimum and many countries have implemented restrictions on individual movements and gatherings on an unprecedented scale. Any complacency that we live in an unassailably stable world has been rocked, as we re-evaluate on a daily basis what is within the bounds of possibility. While some consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the steps taken to control it will be short-lived, there are some social changes happening that may go beyond temporary rearrangements of the existing order: political and economic orthodoxies are challenged; forms of work previously under-valued become visible as a kind of  heroism; previously ordinary social behaviours become unacceptable acts of defiance. Everyday space-time has shifted (Fuchs, 2020) and we do not know how much of this will stick. There is much here for social researchers to investigate – gathering the insights to support wellbeing, to understand emerging and exacerbated social inequalities, to highlight flows of information and misinformation and to track the emergence of new loci of power. All require robust social research, informed by rich qualitative data that gives in-depth insights into the varied dimensions of emergent social change.

Just as the need for qualitative social research is greater than ever, though, social research itself faces a huge challenge. Social research is, after all social not just because it studies the social but because it is itself a social practice. Doing social research involves interaction: building trust and rapport, listening to people, asking them questions, being with them as they go about their daily business and finding out what matters to them. How ironic then that just as social researchers find themselves faced with such times of urgent need for the forms of understanding they can offer that they should find their own practices also under threat. Times of social isolation and social distancing leave social researchers finding that society itself seems to have moved to somewhere beyond the reach of traditional research methods. Social researchers accustomed to building rapport through face-to-face fieldwork find themselves no longer sure where to find the people whose viewpoints they seek to understand and unsure how to listen, observe and gather data.

As a Director of Postgraduate Research in a Sociology department, I am keenly conscious of the immediate practical and conceptual challenges that so many social research projects face and amazed at how resilient PhD students are being in the face of moved goalposts and shifted timelines that threaten their carefully crafted research plans. We need to reassure social researchers at all levels that these are indeed challenging times to live through and that the challenges are to be treated as a collective responsibility rather than as individual burdens. A crowd-sourced document initiated by Deborah Lupton provides some really useful guidance on moving fieldwork online and on revising classic methods for remote interactions and will bring hope and practical support to many researchers. A generation of doctoral theses will have these events written through them and will reflect the conceptual shifts that the social science community will have to make to accommodate a changed sense of social possibility and to re-write sociological theory to match.

With that wider picture in mind, in this blog I present some further thoughts about how to move forwards as a qualitative researcher in times of social distancing that have become, in a more profound way than before, digitally infused. Digital technologies are an inherent part of the contemporary experience of lockdown. The lived experience of social distancing measures would undoubtedly have been drastically different even a few years ago. For many of us (although it is important to remember, not all of us) there is a multitude of technological platforms and devices available that allow us to communicate. We have access to social media platforms, online shopping, video-calling with friends, families and workplaces, media streaming on-demand, local community hubs and neighbourhood chat groups and a wide array of news media and online forums of choice. Each person builds their own repertoire of communicative capacities depending on socio-economic resources and personal networks. As we become less immediately visible to one another face-to-face, these digital glimpses of one another that we use to position ourselves within a social world become more and more significant. A social researcher wanting to understand lived social experience in these times more than ever will need to engage in these networks of digital communication. Here are a few thoughts on some principles to guide this kind of exploration:

  • It is important for at least some social research to build fieldwork across online platforms as people move across them. We need to look at the way that content recirculates and is reinterpreted from space to space. If we want to understand society as manifest online it is crucial not to restrict our focus to one specific platform taken in isolation, because this is not how people experience their social worlds. We also need to be sensitive to the varying levels of access that a researcher has to different forms of interaction, some of which are very private and others of which are closed to just a few chosen individuals. We should not take “society” to be just the digital interactions that are publicly visible.
  • Rather than taking our observations on any one platform as representing “how people think” it is important to attend to the specificities of each platform – each platform has its own conventions and its own technological affordances that shape what can be said and how it can be said. These qualities shape how the agenda is set and vary dramatically between the various online spaces. It is also important to remember that users operate their own filters – assessing the various spaces according to what they know about the people who use them and the extent to which they should be taken seriously. People want to observe others, to know how what they are doing themselves fits in with social norms, and to use whatever traces they can to understand themselves as social beings, but they do this critically with a good eye to the qualities of different platforms: our analysis needs to reflect this sophistication of use.
  • Social research conducted in this spirit will end up amassing multiple forms of data that are cross-connected in complex and unpredictable fashion. Exploring the connections and uncovering patterns in the data will require both a keen archivist’s mind (and some good CAQDAS software) to keep track of the data and also an imaginative spirit of enquiry alert to the different meanings of data. Taking on board all of this complexity at once is impossible. Our analyses are destined to be incomplete and to contain many uncertainties. Each of us can only manage to reflect a facet of the entire situation, rather than capture the whole (Mason, 2011).
  • As we cross different platforms we need to be alert to the shifting forms of value attached to virtual interactions and be sensitive to what people think is going on and what it means to them. We live in times of polymedia (Madianou and Miller 2012) where people have an array of different media available to them for any communicative act and where their choice of the specific medium carries meaning. As social distancing takes hold we need to be alert both to how people choose among the media available and how they repurpose and creatively adapt those media to carry their meanings. I have been moved by the choice that my children’s school have made to continue with the familiar format of emailed formal letters and school assemblies (conducted by video), but now deliberately end each with a frank expression of love and support. This is not the way we are used to a school communication looking, as the media are being repurposed to the felt needs of the time.
  • As we observe the various online spaces and take heed of their diverse meanings for participants it is important to remain alert to what we cannot see online. Not everything that people do or feel leaves a trace in a digital space and we cannot know the interpretations and emotions behind the screen. Our digital interactions arise from embodied existence and are embedded in other aspects of our everyday lives (Hine, 2015). It is important for social researchers not just to observe, but also to reach out, to interact and to open up our observations to being challenged and questioned. Social distancing may limit our capacity to visit every relevant social space in person, but our interactions can help to expand our imaginations, at least, into that space.

Fuchs, C. (2020) Everyday Life and Everyday Communication in Coronavirus Capitalism tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique 18 (1): 375-399

Hine, C. (2015) Ethnography for the Internet: embedded, embodied and everyday. London: Bloomsbury

Madianou, M. & Miller, D. (2012). Migration and new media: Transnational families and polymedia. London: Routledge

Mason, J. (2011). Facet methodology: The case for an inventive research orientation. Methodological Innovations Online, 6(3), 75-92.

Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.