The First Alarm: A Homeless Hostel’s Response to its First Potential Case of COVID-19

Ethnographic storytelling uses literary techniques ‘to construct from fieldnotes a narrative that will interest an outside audience’ (Emerson, 2011: 202). The resulting narratives have been praised for creating a ‘more public, engaging, affective, and panoramic sociology’ (Watson, 2016: 431). As such, this blog post tells the story of the first potential COVID-19 case at a 93-bed homeless hostel.

Today the atmosphere had changed. One-word responses from staff, ever-increasing posters urging you to “WASH YOUR HANDS!”, and a constant disinfecting of door handles. The residents were aware that something was up, taking a pump of hand sanitiser as they left the building, propping doors open with their feet, and using sleeves as makeshift facemasks.

But despite the tension in the air, there were tasks that needed to be done, and today Lisa was carrying out room checks. With the fourth floor checked off, she made her way down the off-lemon corridor and knocked on room 37, “Hello! Staff!”, she called twice before letting herself in. After scanning the room – clothes piled on the floor, cigarette butts on the bedside table, a few flies – she identified no major concerns, so gave it a ‘green’.

As Lisa scribbled down this result, a door clunked open behind her. She turned to see a resident hovering in the doorway of room 39, mouth buried in the crook of his elbow, “I’ve just been told to self-isolate”.

The words that everybody had feared.

“Stay in your room!” insisted Lisa as she ran towards the stairwell. Gloves discarded and hands washed several times over, Lisa knocked on the managers’ door, hurriedly recounting the last few moments.

Charlie sighed, “here we go”. His shoulders deflated. Armed with gloves and a mask, he went to speak to the man himself.

His short trip to room 39 filled him with disbelief. As he returned to the safety of his office, Charlie began mulling the conversation over; how could they advise him to go to the GP for testing? That goes completely against government guidance.

This couldn’t be right, there must be a solution to this testing conundrum. Though after the sixth phone call and at least 40 minutes of hold music, it dawned on Charlie that there was no solution: 111 didn’t answer, 101 said that it wasn’t their issue, and 999 refused to come out for testing. He took a moment to silently process this, before facing his staff.

Handover was often an orderly, mundane affair, a summary of the day’s events. But not today. Today, the small office resembled a stock exchange, a sporadic voicing of questions and concerns:

“But he’s on a methadone script. It’s daily pick up, how can he isolate?”

“And what about people with alcohol dependency? If they stop drinking, they could die!”

“Lots of our guys have health conditions, they could be really vulnerable, especially here.”

“I’m vulnerable too.”

“My wife has COPD. I don’t want to take it home to her.”

“If it gets in then we’re all screwed.”

“So, if one person isolates, would they all have to?”

“They won’t all go for that, too many are focused on their next hit.”

“They can’t stay in their rooms anyway; they share a kitchen!”

“There are rumours going around that people have it, some of the guys are really worried.”

Charlie scribbled down these concerns then addressed the room, “all we can do for now is log any residents who present with symptoms on the system, I’ll pass this on to Public Health England and hopefully they will be in touch, we should be a priority after all.”

Elizabeth interjected, “room 15 complained about feeling hot and sweaty earlier, but he gets like that after using anyway, so I don’t really know what to do”.

Charlie, “can you get him to call 111?”

Elizabeth, “I tried, but he hung up, didn’t want to wait in the queue.”

Adrian chipped in, “he’s got to self-isolate then, he can’t be walking around like that!”

Elizabeth, “but what am I meant to do? I can’t force him to stay in his room.”

Returning to his office, Charlie confided in Lisa, “the government haven’t thought about our residents; the general advice is meant for a nuclear family not a 90-bed hostel! It just won’t work for them”. He logged onto his computer and was greeted by an overflow of covid-related emails.

There was a loud knock and Elizabeth poked her head around the door, “room 39’s gone to his GP for a test”.

On 23rd March, just three days later, England went into a national lockdown. Forced to continue my ‘fieldwork’ at home, I turned my attention to secondary sources. Keen to read the government’s advice on managing COVID-19 within a hostel setting, to see whether it would address the staff’s many concerns, I visited the government’s website on a near daily basis. What I was greeted with, rather than solutions to script collection or isolating in a congregate setting, was a simple message promising to provide guidance ‘as soon as possible’. This message, shown below, was in place until 5th August 2020, when the government finally published their advice.

Bibliography

Emerson, R. Fretz, R. and Shaw, L. 2011. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Watson, A. 2016. Directions for Public Sociology: Novel Writing as a Creative Approach. Cultural Sociology 10(4), pp. 431-447.

How Covid-19 made me think again: digitally recording walking interviews

This blog article explains how the pandemic challenged the foundations of the work which underpins my PhD research, and how there could be some useful new digital opportunities for researching biographical accounts of the past, present and future. 

By Aled Singleton, November 2021

In October 2021 I started an ESRC-funded postdoctoral project in human geography at Swansea University. The work focuses on the environment in which the UK’s ageing population (born between the late 1940s and early 1960s) grew up: spaces including semi-detached houses, cul-de-sacs, out of town industry, and shopping centres.

I developed an interest in this broad subject through my PhD research at the Centre for Innovative Ageing at Swansea University. The empirical element of my work in 2019 included two interviewing techniques: (1) walks of the mind as face-to-face indoor conversations; and (2) outdoor walking or go along interviews, where the interviewee accompanies research participant(s) as they discuss and respond to the environment in which they find themselves.

These two techniques provided unexpected and deep insights into how people experienced everyday life in the past, ranging from the 1920s through to the present day. The first technique is useful for people who have limited mobility, and it worked well with one person who had dementia. I also like to work with artists to make  site-specific indoor and outdoor public performances as a way of assembling and making sense of the underlying story.

This methodology of considering past, present and future is important (see more from Sarah Marie Hall’s Oral Histories and Futures work) when the interviewer may be many decades younger than the interviewee. Looking to the future, as we all age, the method could be useful for understanding the lives of people who are much younger than us.

Responding the pandemic in 2020: taking the method online?

Many of us were restricted in our movements in autumn 2020; and this influenced my thinking as I wrote the evaluation chapter of my PhD. The outdoor walking interviews would still be possible, albeit with some modifications to maintain distancing – some useful new resources from the National Centre for Research Methods. However, the walk of the mind – a sat-down experience using geographical references like maps and images to navigate through memories and emotions – would be a lot harder if you can’t easily share space.

I connected with artist and teacher Dr Simon Woolham; sharing a life course journey through Google Earth – more on https://insearchoftheshortcuts.com. On a subsequent family chat with my Mum and nephew – then aged 3 – we focused on an estate agent photo (dated from 1977) of the house where my brother and I would grow up. The image featured an outdoor toilet, only white clothes on the washing line, and neat rows of vegetables in the garden. As we had been swapping lots of family videos, we agreed to record the conversation as a memory for us all. Part of the experience included drawing on the photo, which helped conversations flow. My nephew loved the tractor in the field behind the house and compared the outside toilet to a campsite that he had recently visited. Altogether it helped me sense how some everyday culture is lost, but how certain things are reinvented and modified.

Figure 1- Singleton family chat in autumn 2020

A short video from our family chat was shared in a workshop at the Swansea Science Festival in October 2020. This was useful in terms of finding out whether the approach could work for people with whom I had no previous connection. After these experiences I decided that recording and editing content from these digital walks of the mind  – including the drawings, voices and text that are overlaid – would be something that I aim to develop in any postdoctoral research.

Happily, my postdoctoral project was supported by the ESRC and Wales DTP; I now have scope for up to 5 new digital interviews. The plan is to produce the recorded interviews, including images and conversations, into short films which publicly communicate and examine how spaces from the first three decades after World War II still influence contemporary life.

Developing a digital approach for 2021 and beyond

At present I am preparing an application for ethical approval, with interviews proposed for early 2022. These hour-long conversations would take place on a Swansea University digital meeting platform such as Zoom or Teams. One of the main ethical issues is whether people will be happy for their own image to be used, or whether they would like to be anonymised. Although I hope that people want to appear as themselves, the wider project also has resources to employ performance artists who can turn extracts of verbatim accounts into short monologues.

Figure 2 – Workshop ideas © Amy Barron, October 2021

In the past month I have looked at how other researchers use geography to spark conversations. For example, Amy Barron ran a workshop at the NCRM Methods e-Festival in October 2021. The image above offers questions to ask people about their response to photographs that they have taken whilst outside – more information on Aspect about the Photo go along technique.

Aims for the future

I hope these new interviews can develop a co-produced methodology, which goes beyond traditional sat-down interviews and gives agency to all research participants as the experts of their own biographies. Beyond academia, I also hope that this technique can help generations to facilitate, develop and share their family stories.

Dr Aled Singleton

a.m.singleton@swansea.ac.uk

Methodological Plan vs Pandemic Reality

Well, a lot has happened since I first wrote a piece of temporal data and longitudinal research for this blog in November 2018! Read more about the changes I had to make to my plans due to the pandemic.

Well, a lot has happened since I first wrote a piece of temporal data and longitudinal research for this blog in November 2018!

At the time, I planned to write some updates on my progress along the way. My research is with asylum-seeking and refugee mothers, focusing on their learning experiences in Wales. My original plan was to try to generate some temporal data, through three phases of interviews (research conversations) and creative methods. My first phase went well. I successfully interviewed 24 women across Wales, 18 of whom did drawings to represent their experiences. I started my second phase in early 2020 and re-interviewed 6 of those women, all of whom did drawings. Then the UK went into lockdown! The global Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdowns in the UK mean that, like so many PhD researchers, I had to re-plan my project. Adapting and mitigating (as the UKRI asked us to do) while also crisis schooling my children felt like fire-fighting – it often felt like fighting a blazing inferno with a water pistol! However, I am now in the ‘writing up’ stage of my PhD and can reflect a little on how my methods changed and whether I captured that temporal data I wanted.

I chose not to continue with my phase two interviews in the spring and early summer of 2020. Although remote interviewing was promoted by my university as the primary way to adapt interview-based data generation, I felt it was not an ethical option for me. Most of ‘my’ mothers had experienced trauma and now faced exacerbated issues of digital poverty, language barriers and home-schooling/entertaining young children. Internet-based calls were not possible with some of the women, initially, and telephone calls could accentuate any communication difficulties, especially with children needing attention. Additionally, I had conducted my face-to-face interviews in spaces that were familiar to the women and where they had support. Asking mothers to potentially re-tell traumatic stories when they were so isolated during such difficult times did not seem at all ethical. In fact, asking for any continued assistance with my project straight away did not seem ethical. So, I waited a little while and re-focused the analysis of my existing data.

In the meantime, I maintained simple human contact with my participants. I had been communicating with my participants between interviews through email and WhatsApp messages. This was to maintain relationships for the duration of the project and part of my overall feminist and decolonial approach (working together with my participants, rather than appearing to get information before disappearing again). I also simply got on well with some of them! So, it was a natural step for me to exchange messages discussing how we were doing, during the first UK lockdown. During those exchanges some of the women asked me about my PhD progress and I was then able to comfortably ask about their continued participation. I still did not conduct remote interviews but instead requested photographs, with descriptions. I decided to be led by my participants giving them options and letting them choose. As time progressed, I did conduct one remote interview, at the woman’s request and two more women volunteered to participate and chose to do remote interviews too.

The data I had generated for my research therefore reflected two distinct phases, rather than the three I had originally planned; there were pre and post-the March 2020 lockdown. The first phase generated primarily linguistic data with some visual data and the second resulted in primarily visual with some linguistic data. I thought I might have to drop my plans to include temporality (that was not based on the pandemic.) However, as I analysed my data, I was able to find some clear temporal elements that were not just demarked by the pandemic. Some of the women had received Home Office decisions during the time I had got to know them. The impact of those decisions was reflected in the data generated, particularly the images. For example, women who gained refugee status between our first and second interview drew second pictures reflecting more positivity and hope than their first ones. In other stories, I found clear effects of living in limbo with no positive asylum outcome while in others I was able to see the progression with English, work, and life in general that came for those living with refugee status for a while. That temporal data was not generated in the linear and sequential method that I had planned (and perhaps it never would have been). My methods, my data, and my analysis were messier than I’d hoped at the outset; yet they reflected the messiness of qualitative data and the challenges of continuing a research project that changed, forcibly and abruptly with the arrival of Covid-19.

You Got Your PhD With THAT? (Part II)

Oh, hello, there! You look like I know you from Part I of this post? If not (a) your face is awfully familiar to someone else and (b) you might want to go there. It would make the experience of reading what follows here more…coherent? Enjoyable?

More like the author intended, anyway. For those of you whose reading skills have already been tested in part I, this is – unsurprisingly – the sequel to your adventure, called: Part II Continue reading “You Got Your PhD With THAT? (Part II)”

You Got Your PhD With THAT? (Part I)

‘I know what I want to say, but I just can’t write it down!’ – Look like a familiar trope? Unless you are of the rare breed of (novice) researchers, who just happens to be an erudite word artist, you might find that ‘writing a thesis’ is much more than ‘just writing stuff down’. That is, I would argue, in large parts due to the idea of what a ‘thesis’ is supposed to look like, i.e. (implicit and explicit) conventions on how to format and formalise ‘outcomes’ of successful PhD research. Such premeditated norms, however, function arguably less as orientational guidelines and more like incredibly high bars to jump over, as part of a somersault through the proverbial burning loop of tight deadlines and inexperience. Even with growing experience, such norms influence research dissemination forms a.k.a. ‘outputs’ at later research stages with similarly stress-inducing consequences.

This blog post suggests (and hopefully incites) questioning the established Modus Operandi of ‘disseminating research findings’ or ‘sharing knowledge’. In such a ‘writing against writing norms’ spirit, I refer anecdotally to my PhD thesis that is a Live-Action Role-Play (LARP) to make several points about unconventional research methods and their possible usefulness. But just to take off the edge straight away: Yes, I did get my title with that. Continue reading “You Got Your PhD With THAT? (Part I)”

Creative methods for the not so creative

Using creative methods in qualitative research is not a new practice. There is a huge amount of variability in what ‘creative methods’ entails. This can include asking participants to take photos (Croghan et al. 2008), draw (Bagnoli 2009), make timelines (Mazzetti and Blenkinsopp 2012) and even creating scenes using children’s sand-trays (Mannay et al. 2017). Even though creative methods were taught during my Masters degree, the technique still felt intimidating.  I regarded it as being more suited for those with artistic temperaments and my creative speciality tends to be drawing stick figures. Continue reading “Creative methods for the not so creative”

Using Performance in Research

This blog article outlines the use of performance – namely public walks and small dramatic interventions – as part of research methodology and practice. This article is supported with links to a short video made as part of this work and supported by the 2019 ESRC Festival of  Social Science. At the conclusion we offer theory that performance supports research practice of generosity and open engagements. Continue reading “Using Performance in Research”

XML mark-up: an annotation tool for discourse analysis

Working recently on a critical discourse analysis project that required annotation of sentencing remarks from UK judges, our team were introduced to the practice of XML mark-up. Manual XML coding was used as a way of recording the different representation strategies used by the judges when referring to the convicted offenders (Van Leeuwen 2008). This blog delves into the theory behind the annotation method to explain how manual XML mark-up contributes to the linguistic research process. Continue reading “XML mark-up: an annotation tool for discourse analysis”

The Challenges of Conducting School-Based Research

Prior to being awarded an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Wales Doctoral Training Centre (DTC) Studentship, I worked as a Research Administrator at the Centre for the Development and Evaluation of Complex Interventions for Public Health Improvement (DECIPHer), Cardiff University. DECIPHer brings together leading experts from a range of disciplines to tackle public health issues such as diet and nutrition; physical activity; and tobacco, alcohol and drugs, with a particular focus on developing and evaluating multi-level interventions that will have an impact on the health and wellbeing of children and young people. Continue reading “The Challenges of Conducting School-Based Research”

In Defence of Pragmatism: Less a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ and more a ‘Community Chest’

For myself, undertaking a ‘Research Methods’ MSc was my earliest introduction to the ontologies and epistemologies we hold as individuals and researchers. It can be intriguing and exciting learning about the intrinsic views we hold regarding the nature of the world (Ontology), and what we deem as acceptable knowledge (Epistemology). However, during this time I found myself at a crossroads, agreeing with varying aspects of different ontologies and epistemologies, seeing a place for both positivism and interpretivism, especially when different research questions are posed. Continue reading “In Defence of Pragmatism: Less a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ and more a ‘Community Chest’”