Tag Archives: pandemic research

Online Fieldwork in Conflict Affected Areas

When I started my collaborative ESRC funded PhD in September 2019, I imagined I’d spend many months traveling for my fieldwork. My research topic looks at nonviolent responses to armed conflict, and civilians protecting themselves and each other without the use of weapons in violent conflict. During the first 6 months of the programme, I planned fieldwork interviews and workshops, as well as participant observations in practitioner conferences. Ethical and security considerations limited where I could travel, but as my project was a collaborative one with an NGO in the civilian protection sector, I was able to make contacts and plans for travel relatively quickly. When travel restrictions were first imposed in March 2020, I naïvely assumed that I could wait it out; spend a few months on my literature review before travelling, as planned, for my in-person fieldwork. By September 2020, I realised this would not be possible, and I’d need to make alternative plans.

Zoom Interviews and Workshops

Like many other researchers in 2020, I took the decision to move my fieldwork online. While this limited who I would be able to speak to – access to stable internet connections can be tricky in conflict affected areas – I reassured myself that online research could also be an opportunity to reach more people who would either be too busy to meet with me in person, or located in areas I wouldn’t (for financial or ethical reasons) have been able to travel to. I also organised an online workshop with around 20 practitioners, as I was keen to hear conversations between practitioners in a more relaxed environment than one-to-one interviews. While it was relatively easy to schedule this fieldwork (in comparison to face-to-face), there were a number of difficulties of working online this way that I either had not anticipated, or had underestimated.

(Un)social Distancing

Interviews are always tricky, especially when using a qualitative interpretive methodology where I was interested in how people made sense of their work, rather than extracting objective information. Creating a relaxed environment online, I found, was even more difficult. Telling their stories of living and working in armed conflict was an emotional experience for a lot of my participants, and not being able to give them some privacy as I could in a coffee shop by going to order another drink was difficult and felt unnatural. During one interview, the interviewee had a Zoom filter on to hide their background, and I found it very difficult to get them to relax and talk about their own experiences, rather than their organisation. Around 30 minutes in, their dog jumped up onto their lap, which disrupted the background filter so they turned it off. They then showed me around their apartment, and I showed them around mine while we talked about working from home, loneliness, and our fears during the pandemic. When I restarted the interview, the atmosphere had completely changed. They were far more relaxed and conversational, and even went back to previous questions to tell me different stories relating to them.

I realised then that being able to create a shared space with people was an important part of building a rapport. From then on, I asked interview and workshop participants to along bring objects or photographs that described how they felt about their work, and to talk me through specific memories they had. While this didn’t fully replicate my being there with them, I learned a lot from how participants would describe their towns and villages, and how the spaces they worked in shaped their imaginations of it. These object allowed research participants to talk around difficult subjects, and to show me what it was often difficult to tell with words.

Other Challenges

Another important (if slightly obvious) challenge of online research is failing internet connections. I spent months carefully planning an online workshop with practitioners in South Sudan – even down the composition of each breakout group. When the time came, however, unstable internet connections across three continents derailed my carefully drawn plan. Participants were leaving groups quicker than I could readd them, and halfway through telling an important story, people’s internet would cut out and they would leave the call. Having research assistant’s there to handle some of the technical issues was a great help, but having to abandon a plan I had spent hours agonising over was scary. I made the decision to only focus on two of the four topic areas I had planned with more time for each discussion. This meant that even with the technical difficulties, groups still had time for some in-depth discussions. I also had participants send me photographs and voice-notes on WhatsApp, which I then shared with the group. While the workshop was stressful for me, it was a shared and often fun experience. It gave me the opportunity to follow up informally with participants, laugh about the technical issues, and have more relaxed conversations.

Top tips for online research:

  1. Plan:  Spending so many hours planning gave me the confidence to be able to think on my feet and improvise, without having to consult my plans and notes, as I’d learned them by heart
  2. Abandon the plan: While it might seem scary, knowing when to abandon the plan and improvise is important, because you can never foresee every possibility. Some of my best research findings came this way
  3. Keep a diary: Keep a research diary after every interview/ workshop/ conference/ piece of research you do. I find taking a walk and recording a voice-note on my phone straight after allows me to decompress. Even small reflections that you notice at the time but would usually forget can turn into important ideas if you keep a note of them.
  4. Ask your participants what they want: While planning my workshop, I had many exchanges with participants about how best to design the session. Taking photographs worked really well for some interview participants, but could be dangerous for others so finding multiple ways for participants to engage (beyond traditional interviews) is more inclusive.

Although my research has definitely turned out differently to how I’d planned it in a pre-Covid world and online research has been a challenge, it has also allowed me to interview participants in many more projects than my initial plan of three case studies. It also gave me the opportunity to get creative in my research methods. After two pandemic years I was used to improvising when things didn’t go quite right in my workshops and that’s something that will be useful in all future research. I’m hoping to follow up with people in person after completing my PhD but I will keep hold of some of my online methods, and always ask people to bring along objects that represent themselves. My research didn’t go as planned, but Covid has taught us that nothing ever does!

You can contact and follow Louise’s PhD journey using the icons below:

“Been there, run that!”: Reflecting on the pandemic

I’m writing this fresh from a crisp Winter jog near Pontyclun. I moved to the area recently and, not knowing many places to explore, tried a run that I’d seen others complete on a well-known activity tracking App.

Someone commented that the route was deceptive, but with a steady pace and the top in sight I thought to myself, “that wasn’t so bad!”. What I didn’t appreciate was that the ‘summit’ I’d reached (picture, right) was fake news – and several bigger climbs were needed. Three miles later, my beetroot face and I finally reached the top.

On my plod back home, I was thinking about how my morning summed up a typical PhD journey. After all, we sign up for a PhD despite people eagerly pointing out how strenuous the route is. However. we’ve not run a ‘normal’ post-doctorate challenge; the Coronavirus pandemic forces us to tackle some of the trickiest elevations and undulations. As we continue to work from home, many of us still need to juggle our academic endeavours with other uncertainties. As a part time PhD candidate with a young family, I’m still ‘dealing with’ unforeseen childcare needs and competing pressures from my non-academic employment. However, I press on because of my wish to make a difference in a subject area that’s of long-standing interest – investigating the nature and organisation of waste crime in Wales. You can read more about my research here.

My interest in this area comes from my non-academic work for the organisation responsible for regulating the waste industry in Wales. With these connections you’d assume that my methodological approach is straightforward, even in these uncertain times, on account of an ‘insider’ status benefiting access to data and participants, and the development of professional experiences that enable strong challenges and opinions.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been that simple. Waste management has been affected enormously by the pandemic, with huge increases in waste production (especially clinical waste), household recycling centres being closed for long spells, and regulators modifying the way they police the industry to ensure staff work safely and in line with Government restrictions. These factors are all seen as causes of increased illegal waste activity during the pandemic… something I’ll look to explore!

However, from a methodological viewpoint these developments have completely changed the nature of the industry, the validity of regulatory data and the availability of participants. I’ve also seen first-hand the pressure on regulators and policy makers to respond to the pandemic, whether by publishing temporary regulations to act to certain matters, by coping with staff shortages, or by needing to support mutual aid requests from other agencies. These factors, combined with key contacts juggling their own complex personal circumstances, have (understandably!) put my PhD way down their list of priorities.

In the early stages of the first lockdown, I used my time to discuss plans, and potential alternatives, to address these setbacks. As time’s passed, I’ve come to realise that the changes we face aren’t temporary, and our challenges aren’t going to be resolved by simply extending our deadlines. It’s been important for me to move beyond the “list of worries” or anxieties over the future of my project, towards a state of mind that looks to find alternative perspectives on the challenges I’ve faced academically. In doing this, what I’ve realised is that running isn’t just analogy for the PhD. There are many things enshrined in my weekly routine as a runner that have helped me.

I thought I’d share three key ones with you.

  • Run a different route

When the Welsh Government restricted the amount of time we could exercise, it meant that I was forced to find shorter, more local runs. While completely understandable, there was a frustration that I couldn’t safely continue my status quo. In fact, these different routes have greatly improved my running experiences – so whilst being creative and going out of my comfort zone, I was still achieving the outcomes I wanted: fresh air, a clear head and fitness. Within the context of my research, I’ve taken new paths to address my research questions. I’ve scrapped plans to ‘get out’ in the field, deferred data requests to ease pressures on key staff in participating agencies and staggered my interviews. I continue to make changes to my research questions – even in year 3 – so it really is never too late to think about a fresh perspective or element for your project. Have a chat with your supervisors and read as broadly as you can around other methodological techniques.

  • Don’t train alone

On a race day I rely on so many people: spectators, fellow runners, volunteers and pace setters. Ultimately, we can only perform at our best when surrounded and supported by others. Our research is no different. In a post-doctoral environment, it can be hard to ask for help when we’re struggling, particularly when working virtually and dispersed. However, we’re all surrounded by understanding research participants, inspiring peers and supportive supervisors, so make sure you learn from – and encourage – the people around you. Pose questions. Test ideas. Ask for advice. And don’t forget… there are still loads of opportunities to discuss your ideas with others. I recently presented my progress to the Cardiff Centre for Crime, Law and Justice, which was the perfect way to get fresh ideas for my project, practice presenting some results and plans, and get feedback on them.

  • Measure your progress positively

I regularly scroll through my activity tracking App to check the progress I’ve made. The issue is I only really focus on two measures – the number of miles I’ve run and the pace I’ve set. The same can be said for our research. We always seem to focus on the number of hours we’ve sat at your desk or the number of words we’ve written.

For anyone reading this who’s new to the PhD I’d encourage you to look beyond this kind of #GoHardOrGoHome progress monitoring. After all, the pandemic continues to generate more significant and long-term realities for us. So it’s vital we focus more on things like the quality of our outputs, on our creativity and innovation during challenging times, and on the skills, expertise and academic nous we’ve picked up along the way. You never know, the latter point might come in handy… as when the time comes to justify our methods and approach to external examiners, the effects of the pandemic on our work, the mitigations we’ve chosen and our justifications for these will surely be the perfect answer.

Mentioning ‘external examination’ has probably made us all daydream about our post-doctoral finish lines. This is some way off for me, but I hope that this blog has helped to remind you that, in spite of the unique, challenging and sometimes overwhelming nature of our PhD journey at the moment, the sense of achievement and the experiences gained at your end point will be a sure way of forgetting the slog…

Pob lwc a dal a ti pawb. Good luck and keep going everyone!

Martyn Evans
Cardiff University
Twitter @MartynEvansNRW

Creative Solutions: Using creative activities to facilitate online focus groups during the pandemic.

In this blog, I recount my experiences of conducting online focus groups with young women as part of my Social Science Research Methods MSc dissertation research investigating relationships between Welsh Government education policy and experiences of community participation. Creative activities including mind mapping and zine-making enabled me to more deeply explore participant experiences.  I offer some top tips for working with participants using these methods, based on my learning from this experience.

Before starting my ESRC DTP studentship in Social Sciences at Cardiff University, I led a very different life: not working alone in a library, but talking to all sorts of people in public buildings. I worked as a tour guide at the Welsh Parliament and as a workshop facilitator at the National Museum of Wales. These roles sparked my interest in relationships between government, civil society, and everyday life. As a graduate in Social Anthropology, I became increasingly interested on turning the lens on Wales as my own country, as opposed to Aboriginal mythology, or Papua New Guinean rites of passage. I’d also worked as a tutor for home educated children, sparking an interest in learning outside of school and the application of the curriculum to contexts outside of formal education. These experiences culminated in my SSRM dissertation topic, exploring a purpose of the new curriculum for Wales, which is currently being designed and implemented.

 This purpose is: ‘Ethical, Informed Citizens of Wales and the World’: Yes, I wrote my whole dissertation around exploring these eight words. I studied how women make meaning of them, and how they might be evident in participants’ discussion of experiences of civil society participation during the pandemic. Having constructed my data, I considered the implications of my findings for Welsh Government policy.  My research demonstrated that participants’ meaning-making around the curriculum purpose contradicted elements of policy literature, including government focus on  ‘national’ citizenship and the future of the economy. My participants instead drew on a range of contexts for discussing ethical behaviours in community contexts, and used historical examples of discrimination against specific groups to discuss contemporary ‘ethical’ behaviour. ‘Cultural’ citizenship was more prevalent than ‘national’ citizenship, with participants drawing on a range of resources to make meaning of citizenship (Swidler 1986).

Getting Creative

I identified that this kind of research into meaning-making required a qualitative approach  (McLeod and Thompson 2009).I wanted to go beyond interviewing, giving participants opportunity to express their experiences in different ways. I had originally wanted to conduct ‘in-person’ focus groups, but like all of us, I was forced by the pandemic to research online. I tried to embrace this opportunity to research in a different way, as my previous research had used good old-fashioned anthropological ethnographic methods.  Focus groups enabled me to gain insight into collective views and meanings (Gill et al 2008:291), and acknowledge my active role in creating group discussion for data collection (Morgan 1996:130). This was significant for my feminist approach working with women participants, as feminist approaches prioritise reflexivity (Bozalek and Zembylas 2017:114).

I decided to use creative methods to facilitate focus group discussion (via Zoom) because such multimodal methods can ‘go beyond’ verbal communication, affording deeper insight into experience (Dicks et al 2013:656). Visual methods specifically  can be a tool of ‘defamiliarisation’ (Mannay 2010), meaning that this could help participants to think about their experiences in different ways.  Specifically, I used mind mapping to explore relationships between concepts within the curriculum purpose. Mind mapping can ‘ aid reflection and individual meaning- making as well as exploring relationships between concepts’ (Wheeldon and Åhlberg 2012). The mind maps enabled me to gain insight into relationships between concepts, such as Christine’s connections between ‘local and global’ through the news: ‘ localised global’.

Christine’s Mind Map

I chose to ask participants to create zines, as zines have potential in identity expression (Gabai 2016) and self-representation (Ramdarshan Bold 2017), and I was interested in exploring the curriculum purpose, which could relate to Welsh identity or citizenship identities. Using zine-making enabled me to gain insight into participants’ experiences. For Lily, online contexts were significant in connecting with her Cornish identity. Discussing her zine revealed that she felt was an ‘ethical’ duty, in terms of preserving a minority language.

Lily’s Zine

Following the focus groups, I used interviews to ‘clarify, extend, qualify or challenge data collected through other methods’ (Gill et al 2008: 293). The interviews uncovered deeper insight into participants’ meaning-making, such as elements of the zines which were the most significant to participants. Rhian drew a sanitary pad to discuss campaigning around period poverty, and the significance of gender equality issues to her community participation.

“And I did one (page) about ending period poverty, because we did a lot of campaigning around that. I’ve drawn a (sanitary) pad.. It’s something that excites me because I don’t think you see that often, as an image. It’s probably my favourite page.”

 Rhian, student and gender equality charity volunteer.

So, what did I learn from my experience of facilitating creative workshops online? Using creative methods online worked well in some ways. Participants reported that it enabled them to express themselves freely without pressure from others to draw ‘ well’, and created a relaxed atmosphere. However, some participants struggled with the possibilities of zine-making, which can include poetry, comics, illustrations and more.  Some felt that they would have preferred more specific directions. Additionally, of course there were the usual issues around ‘technical difficulties’!

Top Tips

Here are my top tips for getting creative over the internet with young women participants.

1.- Make it simple as possible: don’t overwhelm participants with lots of instructions.

2- Build in flexibility, enabling participation in different ways (take breaks, use different media for creative data construction),  but consider how you will balance this  with thorough data collection and comparison between participants, if this is part of your analytical strategy.

3- Consider the types of  data collection afforded by using Zoom-  in the form of screen shots, chat discussions, and so on, not just audio transcripts.

This has been a valuable experience in learning how creative methods can work well online, helping to gain insight into participants’ experiences and meaning making, whilst creating a comfortable atmosphere for participants who may not be familiar with research processes. But, I have also learnt how I would improve this practice going forward, including making the most of the online medium for data collection, and streamlining and simplifying the process to improve accessibility.

Reference list

Bozalek, V. and Zembylas, M. 2017. Diffraction or reflection? Sketching the contours of two methodologies in educational research. International journal of qualitative studies in education: QSE 30(2), pp. 111–127.

Dicks, B., Mason, B., Coffey, A. and Atkinson, P., 2005. Qualitative research and hypermedia: Ethnography for the digital age. Sage.

Gabai, S.2016. Teaching authorship, gender and identity through grrrl zines production. Available at: https://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1909&context=jiws

Gill, P., Stewart, K., Treasure, E. and Chadwick, B. 2008. Methods of Data Collection in Qualitative research: Interviews and Focus Groups. British Dental Journal 204(6), pp. 291–295.

Mannay, D. 2010. Making the familiar strange: can visual research methods render the familiar setting more perceptible? Qualitative research: QR 10(1), pp. 91–111.

McLeod, J. and Thomson, R., 2009. Researching social change: Qualitative approaches. Sage publications.

Morgan, D.L. 1996. Focus Groups. Annual review of sociology 22(1), pp. 129–152.

Ramdarshan Bold, M. 2017. Why Diverse Zines Matter: A Case Study of the People of Color Zines Project. Publishing research quarterly 33(3), pp. 215–228.

Swidler, A. 1986. Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies. American Sociological Review 51(2), pp. 273–286.

Wheeldon, J. and Ahlberg, M.K., 2012. Mapping mixed-methods research: Theories, models, and measures. Vis Soc Sci Res, 4, pp.113-48.

Stigma and Research Design: Promoting the Participant’s Voice in Qualitative Research on Stigmatised Matters

With the value of lived experience being realised in qualitative research, promoting the voices of participants was essential to my research (McIntosh and Wright, 2019) as it would not only acknowledge my participants as the real experts in the area but would also allow for the findings to be more grounded in and applicable to their work. However, as my research explored personal tutoring staff’s opinions of and experience with student sex work, I knew that stigma would be a significant issue throughout the research process.

Although my work specifically navigated sex work stigma, I feel that my reflections on the process could be generalised to other forms of stigma (particularly moral stigma) and could also be used in wider research on professional or busy populations. In particular, these reflections will relate to method selection and data collection as the relationship between stigma and research design could easily become a series of blogposts given how complex the matter. Before this discussion can begin, stigma will first be defined as well as the potential impact it can have on participants.

The Many Faces of Stigma

As previously said, stigma can come in various forms. These were categorised by Goffman (1963) and described by Cook (2012, p.334) as: bodily (relating to physical problems), moral (perceived flaws in the person’s character) or tribal (perceived familial or lineal flaws of the person). These types of stigma can then be further categorised as being experienced first-hand or by association (for example see Hammond and Kingston 2014 and Ahearne 2015).

While these categorises can be helpful in planning your conduct during your research as well as the research itself– such as, in my research, it was important to emphasise to participants that I was not there to cast moral judgement but to more objectively analyse their reactions and actions as part of the wider institutional response of their university – it is important to acknowledge that they are not rigid and should be approached with caution as defining such complex matters requires much nuance and flexibility.

This need for caution is also essential to your research design as qualitative methods like interviews have been found to act as concentrations of wider social processes and so can intensify experiences of stigma and make participants uncomfortable (Cook, 2012). This discomfort comes from the methods interrogating ‘the perceptions of individuals and the consequences [of them]’ (Link and Phelan 2001, p.366). This can then cause your participants to answer less openly and can be a hinderance to researcher-participant communication. For this reason, stigma needs to be a key consideration in your research planning as you need to go beyond complying with ethical guidance and ensure that sensitivity and nuance are at the heart of your approach.

Navigating Stigma in Your Research Design

Although other methods may have also been suitable, the methods I chose to gather data from my participants were self-administered online surveys (which contained vignettes and a series of open-ended questions) and follow-up semi-structured Zoom interviews. Despite these decisions being made for practical reasons such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and being a sole-researcher with a small amount of time to work with, they also had several benefits when it came to navigating stigma and enabling participant communication.

The first of these methods was the survey which catered to the needs of my busy sample by allowing them to complete the survey when it suited them as well as the added benefit of giving an increased sense of privacy during the completion of the survey and providing them with room to reflect on their answers (Sierles, 2003; Braun et al, 2020). This reflective element would be extended on in the later interviews (which not all of my participants completed) but due to the long-form and open-ended nature of the survey, it allowed me to gather data so detailed that interviews would not be a necessity for all. However, the most important aspect of these surveys, I believe to be the vignettes. The vignettes allowed participants to explore the topic in a more hypothetical manner that reduced the chance of their discomfort whilst providing them with ample room to create responses around their interpretations of the scenarios (Barter and Renold, 1999). The final part of the process was a semi-structured interview on Zoom which were flexible in terms of scheduling and increasing the comfort of my participants. Additionally, the semi-structured nature of the interviews provided opportunities for greater reflection, further questioning of their responses by myself and presented them with a more casual chance to ask me any questions they had related to the research and anything they thought I may have neglected.

This combination of methods not only encouraged an open and comfortable setting for data collection but also allowed for sex work stigma to be acknowledged and for this to consciously influence the data. This decision to acknowledge stigma I found to be incredibly effective and, despite it not being an original part of my research plan, I believe it improved the experience of data collection and helped to actively destigmatise sex work even in such a small setting which ultimately, I argue to be the point of research on stigma in the first place.

In conclusion, methods that prioritise openness and reflection prove ideal for promoting participants voices on stigmatised matters especially when more private options are also available. However, what the most important things to bring to your research on such subjects are sensitivity, understanding of your participants and a willingness to confront the discomfort head on. Without these elements, real progress towards destigmatisation cannot be made.

References:

  • Ahearne, G. 2015. Between the Sex Industry and Academia: Navigating Stigma and Disgust. Graduate Journal of Social Science 11(2), pp.28-37.
  • Barter, C. and Renold, E. 1999. The Use of Vignettes in Qualitative Research. Social Research Update 25.
  • Braun, V. et al 2020. The Online Survey as a Qualitative Research Tool. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 23 pp.1-14.
  • Cook, KE. 2012. Stigma and The Interview Encounter. In: Gubrium, JF. and others. eds. The SAGE Handbook of Interview Research: The Complexity of the Craft. SAGE Publications, pp.333-344.
  • Goffman, E. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Touchstone.
  • Hammond, N. and Kingston, S. 2014. Experiencing Stigma as Sex Work Researchers in Personal and Professional Lives. Sexualities 17(3), pp. 327–347.
  • Link, BG. and Phelan, JC. 2001. Conceptualizing Stigma. Annual Review of Sociology 27, pp. 363-385.
  • McIntosh, I. and Wright, S. 2019. Exploring what the Notion of ‘Lived Experience’ Offers for Social Policy Analysis. Journal of Social Policy 48(3), pp. 449–467.
  • Sierles, F.S. 2003. How to Do Research with Self-Administered Surveys. American Psychiatry 27, pp.104-113.

A reflection on the use of in-person, telephone and virtual interviews.

Aimee Morse
Countryside and Community Research Institute
aimeemorse@connect.glos.ac.uk
@06aims

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic I had been planning to carry out in-person interviews with farmers and land managers across England to discuss their experiences of the Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund. The easing of restrictions from July 2021 meant that this was still a possibility; however, I offered alternative types of interview to ensure my participants could take part according to their preferences.

The relative merits of face-to-face, virtual (Zoom and similar platforms), and telephone interviews are examined in numerous studies which employ qualitative methodologies (e.g. Carr and Worth, 2001; Glogowska et al., 2010; Trier-Bieniek, 2012; Archibald et al., 2019; King et al., 2019). Though I was aware of the pros and cons of each interview type, I felt my new approach allowed me to explore participants’ experiences of the interview itself in the context of my work. I drew on Holt’s (2010) work with participants in telephone narrative interviews and included reflective questions at the end of my interviews.

Results

46% of my participants were happy to have their interview in person. Several felt strongly about this, stating that it was much better to sit down face to face to discuss their experiences as they felt more comfortable doing so:

Participant: I feel more comfortable talking face-to-face. I think you get better dialogue.

This was largely as a result of being able to read cues throughout the conversation, which provide richness and nuance for researcher and participant:

Participant: This is much better! Yeah, I can react to people, for instance if you give a smile every so often you think ‘I must be doing alright!’ Whereas you just hear sounds on the phone and you’ve got no idea.

Some participants also appreciated being able to point out specific documents and areas of their farm that were relevant to our conversation, something which others felt they were not able to do virtually or over the phone:

Participant: I expect that everything would be more illustrative and so more meaningful.

For some, their preference for speaking in-person was a result of negative experiences during telephone conversations, particularly through cold calls and when the conversations were of a serious nature. Several commented that they had appreciated meeting me at a group event prior to the call, as it gave them an idea of who I was and the work I was completing . This highlights the importance of building rapport with participants, regardless of the interview type.

Though several authors found that telephone interviews were more likely to be shorter than those conducted face-to-face, this was not my experience. In fact, some participants found that, because they could continue with their daily tasks while talking into the phone, they were able to talk for longer than if they had put time aside to sit down for an interview:

Aimee: Was it more convenient to talk over the phone
Participant: Yes, I’m sorting me dinner out!

This raises questions about how focused participants were during the interview; however, telephone participants did not need significant prompting in order to answer a question, nor did they need the questions repeating any more frequently than those who were interviewed virtually or in-person. A preliminary analysis of interview data also shows their answers to be related to the questions being asked.

Virtual interviews were felt to be the best of both worlds, saving time but also offering the visual cues those conducting interviews in-person found so valuable:

Participant: From my point of view it saves time and I much prefer it to a phone thing because being able to see you and speak to you, it’s as good as being in the same place.

Participants who completed an interview virtually did so as they felt comfortable using the tools, and we did not experience any technical issues during the calls. This highlights the importance of a reliable broadband connection and the need to become familiar with virtual tools. Participants noted that not everyone may be familiar with these tools, and recognised that frequent interruptions could have an impact on the interview quality.

Future use

As researchers, we should continue to recognise the value of carrying out interviews in person. Meeting face-to-face allows us the opportunity to build rapport with our participants and provides nuance which may be lacking in other types of interview. However, there is value in considering the other types available to us, for reasons other than cost and efficiency!

Offering participants the opportunity to take part in the type of interview which works best for them can make the research process more accessible and inclusive. Several of my participants also noted the reduced climate impact of virtual and telephone interviews, something which may become an increasingly important ethical consideration in research projects of all kinds.

Bibliography

Archibald, M., Ambagtsheer, R., Casey, M. and Lawless, M. (2019) ‘Using Zoom Videoconferencing for Qualitative Data Collection: Perceptions and Experiences of Researchers and Participants’, International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 18, https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406919874596

Carr, E. and Worth, A. (2001) ‘The use of the telephone interview for research’, Journal of Research in Nursing, 6(1), pp. 511-524, https://doi.org/10.1177/136140960100600107.

Glogowska, M., Young, P. and Lockyer, L. (2010) ‘Propriety, process and purpose: considerations of the use of the telephone interview method in an educational research study’, Higher Education, 62, pp. 17-26.  

Holt, A. (2010) ‘Using the telephone for narrative interviewing: a research note’, Qualitative Research, 10(1), pp. 113-121, https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794109348686.

King, N., Horrocks, C. and Brooks, J. (2018) Interviews in Qualitative Research, 2nd Edition, London: SAGE.  

Trier-Bieniek, A. (2012) ‘Framing the telephone interview as a participant-centred tool for qualitative research: a methodological discussion’, Qualitative Research, 12(6), pp. 630-644, https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794112439005.

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!

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.