Session Report prepared by Tessa Bonduelle with Hannah Quinn and Andrew Gilbert
On Friday, May 15, 2020, the Ethnography Lab hosted the second of three sessions for our “Ethnography in/of the Pandemic” series. Session 2 focused on the pandemic’s impact on research projects and writing, addressing pragmatic and practical questions spanning all stages of a research project (designing and defending research proposals, funding, data collection, writing and dissemination). From the start, our conversations demonstrated a diversity of perspectives about the uncertainties and instabilities introduced by the pandemic but which nonetheless could be identified with three positions: those pre-fieldwork, those in-fieldwork, and those post-fieldwork. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic is impacting researchers differently based on what stage we find ourselves in.
Inevitably, those who have yet to embark on the main fieldwork portion of their research projects are faced with much uncertainty, as are the supervisors, funding agencies, and university offices we might turn to for guidance. Contributors to our discussion noted that the main options being suggested—postponing field research or pivoting and changing research focus and design to make a project do-able under current conditions—carry with them risks that are hard to know how to manage, in part because the future itself is so uncertain. Nevertheless, contributors drew upon their experience to offer a few suggestions.
A few contributors reminded us that “the field” is not given but constructed in relationship to research questions – and it can be reconstructed as those questions or conditions shift. One contributor, who meant to undertake field research during the summer in the US, shifted to pursue her research interests through an “anthropology of/at home” in her own community. Rather than focusing on an inaccessible cross-border community, she was turning towards her own neighborhood’s crisis response, using the emergent Facebook groups, as well as personal connections and experiences to gather data. Doing anthropology of/at home also provides an opportunity to shift the anthropological gaze inwards, where it is traditionally turned outwards.
Yet pivoting one’s research focus and methods is not always conceivable when one is committed to a research site and a community and has expended considerable time and effort on developing a research proposal. Another contributor, planning to work with Toronto drug users, rightly pointed out that not all studies can simply shift online. Some research populations simply do not have access to the technology needed to undertake interviews online. This raised a number of important questions: pragmatically, do we then target more affluent and tech-connected populations in order to move forward with our program of study? Or do we push back our original projects, without really knowing when research will be possible again? How important is it for researchers to undertake the research as initially intended? Several participants added that the prospects of switching to online ethnography were entirely unappealing. As one of them put it, “I just don’t want to do ethnography via Zoom and sit in front of a computer all day. That’s not why I came to anthropology.”
One way to wade through these difficult questions is to take them to our would-be interlocutors, those people in our study populations with whom we have already created research relationships. It is worth asking them what they think constitutes valuable research in the current context and what they think is possible. Such frank and open conversations may reveal that our interlocutors still very much want our research to go forward and may have thoughts on ways to make it possible. If not, shifting projects to focus on topics our interlocutors might find important in the COVID context and its aftermath may be another way to proceed. As one contributor pointed out, the pandemic is a good opportunity to use our privileged positions in academia to render certain people’s vulnerabilities visible and legible, especially if there has been a gap in the public discourse.
One overriding sentiment in our discussion was that space needed to be maintained for research not COVID related. Indeed, as anthropologists we may have good reason to want to resist the incitements (whether explicit or implicit) to focus on this crisis. Or we may want to interrogate what the crisis reveals or occludes in our anticipated field site, or to think about who or what is being left out in mainstream discourses about the pandemic. This is not to say that we should not make use of the research funding opportunities that are fast emerging around this crisis. There are, however, ways to position ourselves within the emerging COVID-induced discourses (and benefit from the opportunities) whilst also flipping, twisting or challenging some of its assumptions.
Those caught mid-fieldwork by this pandemic are likewise confronted with their own special liminal position as they have had to, sometimes overnight, put everything on hold. Some pointed out that research may not in fact be all that important in the current moment. One contributor again suggested that one response is to orient ourselves to the needs of our communities of research and the diverse ways in which we may support them at this time. In this context, feminist or community-engaged methodologies would push us to ask, “What matters right now to my interlocutors? What can I do?” Such support offered to interlocutors may include organizational, networking and even intellectual work.
Other contributors noted that we were now being forced to do the review work that accompanies any good ethnography research project. That is, it may be a good time to look back over our notes, follow those suggestions or reminders to read that policy or report, or to reach out to that person we had been meaning to get in touch with once we had the time. Without forcing ourselves to necessarily be productive in this pandemic, in-fieldwork anthropologists wanting to continue their study may use this time to do the desktop research inherent in all studies.
Those post-fieldwork are perhaps less confronted with the uncertainty related to research feasibility, and yet central questions remain around how much our writing should take into account the pandemic. This gets at a classic question for all researchers: when do we say that our fieldwork is finished? There is always more data to gather. Our discussion revealed diverse, and sometimes divergent, ways to respond.
Some contributors observed that the COVID crisis was generating new relevant data that complicated their analyses and had to be addressed. Others noted that because many of our research participants are actively addressing the pandemic, and much of that activity is happening online, it is very tempting to be drawn into this online flurry for all the interesting data it might represent. But again, our discussion struck a cautionary note to step back and consider whether we need this added data. It may be too early to tell whether the pandemic is truly having an impact on our research topic. Some contributors therefore suggested it is wise to set limits and boundaries to how much we actively engage with online activity, so as not to entirely abandon writing.
Indeed, although we recognized that the social and public framework for the reception of our work may have changed, there are reasons to resist the pressure to include this crisis: our data and our arguments may well transcend the enthusiasms and preoccupations of the current moment. As such, we may want to bracket and defend the data that we have, at least for the purpose of the dissertation. Perhaps later, if we consider turning the dissertation into a book, that will be the right moment for including something on COVID. Alternatively, one contributor suggested that we may consider including an epilogue on the pandemic, including open questions on how or whether COVID may have complicated our conclusions. In any case, already beginning to articulate why COVID isn’t crucial to understand our research questions may be important.
No matter where on our research timeline we may happen to be as this pandemic unfolds, many of us articulated a struggle around the question of motivation—for research, for graduate programs, for the work required to finish degrees or funded projects. As one contributor put it, while the issue of motivation is one we all had to confront in pre-pandemic times, this is a good moment to reconfirm why we do what we do, what we are interested in, and why we put our energy to examining a certain topic rather than another.