On May 1st the Ethnography Lab hosted a collective conversation raising diverse questions and concerns related to ethnographic research under pandemic conditions. Attended by upwards of 70 participants, including students, faculty, and other ethnographers from across Canada and the US, the conversation was wide-ranging and robust. Three sets of questions emerged and will form the basis for subsequent meetings and blog posts in this series. They clustered around topics of ethics and engagement, the pragmatics of research and writing, and tools and methods.
Ethics and Engagement
What are the ethics of asking people to participate in research in this moment? What if research participants are socially vulnerable, and using digital or virtual tools (or online modes of interaction) puts them in danger? How does “privacy” and “consent” change when operating in digital or virtual media, or for “public” events visible via social or other media? Alternatively, as we explore the affordances of digital or online research, who will be left out and how might be respond? Can we mitigate the tendency of such approaches to create new digital divides in our research?
How do we make situationally ethical decisions regarding in-person research where risks and vulnerabilities are distributed in complex ways, and are evolving rapidly? How do we make a case for this research to our institutions and REB’s?
How might we negotiate the significant public interest in, and research funding for, pandemic-related research and a desire not to take advantage of the suffering of research participants? Does one pivot to a project that is more aligned with the needs of the most vulnerable and thus more relevant at this moment? What might be other ways to “show up” for the communities of our research participants who might have needs unrelated to our research?
Finally, several comments and questions surfaced about how or whether to respond when we encounter public discourse that intersects with our research expertise. Examples include the tendency to compare the pandemic and war, the pandemic and gang violence, and the Covid-19 pandemic and earlier pandemics such as HIV/AIDS. Might an otherwise laudable tendency to be careful and not jump too soon into public debates and commentary end up ceding the discursive ground to “experts” from other disciplines (like economics, political science, or the health sciences) who have no such qualms?
Pragmatics of Research and Writing
How much to adapt research to the pandemic? If one wants to put the pandemic front and center, what are the various ways of framing it? (For example, it may be useful to think about pandemic as revelatory – what does this crisis reveal? Another is that this is a moment to think anew about a core theme in anthropology and most social sciences: continuity and change. This is not ground zero, not matter how much people might want to represent it as such.)
Can or should I do a project (or propose a project) that is not about the pandemic and that is not virtual? What will the world look like in the wake of this pandemic? How can we write proposed projects in a world that does not yet exist? How do we respond when the usual theories of significance that guide our research change? How important—socially important—is our research/PhD program at this moment?
Pragmatically-speaking, if research was interrupted by the pandemic, when it is safe (for me and my participants) to decide to go back? And how does one put in place a plan to deal with the possible fits and starts of research in the future?
How much and in what ways should the pandemic influence writing a dissertation? This can be approached from at least two positions: when the pandemic is germane to the topic and generating new relevant data and when the research is not at all about subjects related to the pandemic. Put another way, how might we respond in our writing when the social and public framework for the reception of our work has changed?
Finally, there is the question of motivation – for research, for graduate programs, for the work required to finish degrees or funded projects, and so on: where to find it, and should we even be trying?
Methods and Tools for Ethnographic Research
How to adapt our research methods to limits and changes of this moment, particularly with (1) research participants (like those with severe impairments) who are difficult to access, or (2) others, like children whose interactions will now be mediated by parents in ways they would not otherwise be, or (3) communities who are “offline”?
Much of the way we think about digital ethnography/virtual ethnography is generated by or presupposes a Western model of society. What if the virtual or digital do not work in that way? How can we recognize this difference, write about it, etc.?
What methods and ways of accessing and thinking through social media as site of ethnographic research are out there? How might we conceptualize, account for, and trace the rise of digital platforms for certain kinds of practices and processes (such as conferences, doing business, investing, education etc.)? And how can we spot changes that are identifiable and traceable due to pandemic?
What methods might we use to build relationships given that the pandemic has bred a wariness of face-to-face interactions in those who might be our participants?
How can we bring an ethnographic sensibility to the study of objects and processes not currently amenable to “being there,” to direct observation, to immersion or an epistemology of intimacy?
Given that the things we cannot do during research right now are data as much as the things we can do, what are the possibilities and limits of paying ethnographic attention to absence, disruption, silence? What methods and conceptualizations allow us to explore these phenomena, and how far can it take us?