What a Year with No Travel Taught Us about the Future of Fieldwork

For many researchers working on projects that spanned international borders, the imposition of travel restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a rapid change in ways of working. Drawing on their own experience and those of colleagues of carrying out fieldwork during the pandemic, Talitha Dubow and Marta Bivand Erdal propose practical recommendations to support a more collaborative mode of fieldwork, which might be among the building blocks for a ‘new normal’ following the pandemic.

Photo: Richard Allaway / Flickr

As researchers based in Europe engaging in research about migration in Africa and in Asia, over the past year we have relied (or, to be accurate, relied even more heavily) on collaboration with local researchers to do fieldwork as and where it was both possible and safe.

Collaboration with research partners around the world is certainly not a ‘new’ research practice, but neither was this necessarily ‘standard practice’ across the board, pre-pandemic. Fieldwork has also been the site of considerable reflection and discussion around the decolonisation of knowledge, an issue which has been brought to the fore in new ways, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Constraints on travel, in particular, have limited the ability to conduct research in person. Some researchers, like us, have been prevented from conducting data collection ourselves, while collaboration with research partners who are able to conduct fieldwork locally has also been challenged by the lack of opportunities to meet and work in person, thereby making it difficult for researchers to build the trust, shared understanding and joint capabilities crucial to real collaboration. However, the pandemic has also offered the unusual opportunity to pause and think about how our research can be more equitable and collaborative.

In light of these challenges in our research, we draw on our experiences prior to, and during, the pandemic to offer five reflections on carrying out collaborative fieldwork, which we hope may support more equitable research practice in the future.

1 Understanding the fieldwork context from a distance

Even when some research partners are unable to travel to the field, their meaningful participation in the research process necessitates an in-depth understanding of the context where data is collected. If you are working remotely, you can make sure to be up to date on local media and current affairs, as you would when travelling, and similarly up to date on the academic and grey literature. It can also be helpful to have virtual conversations with stakeholders familiar with the local research context, and to follow relevant governmental and non-governmental actors on social media. In many contexts social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter are an important means of local information sharing which, if linguistic barriers can be transcended, can be a rich pool of contextual insight. Local research partners can further enhance an understanding of the local context through ongoing discussion of how to understand and interpret the data, and through the provision of supplementary data such as fieldwork observations and photographs, and the comments that local research partners can offer in conjunction with these.

2 Developing shared understanding and skills

Ensuring clarity and consistency regarding the methodological approach becomes even more important when working with multiple research partners, particularly when these are working across different field-sites. You will need to invest time and resources in targeted training to ensure that all members of the fieldwork team have the required understanding and skills. This is challenged by the lack of in-person opportunities for discussion and exchange. Targeted training for specific data collection purposes within a project is always necessary, whatever formal or informal competencies participating researchers might have. The need for training is therefore not about discrediting competence of researchers based in the Global South, but an acknowledgment that every research project is unique, and every data collection operation must be approached with the same level of attention. In our experience, virtual training can be very challenging, due to, for example, unstable internet connections, video-conferencing fatigue, and the difficulties of building personal rapport and reading body-language, often with everyone on the call operating in a language other than their mother tongue. However, there are ways to mitigate the potential ineffectiveness of a long and tedious Zoom session. Training might include multiple, shorter virtual sessions, combined with videos or other formats, and based on clear written guidelines and data collection tools, in order to build in-depth understanding and offer a chance for shared reflection and quality-assurance while piloting. Training can also be ongoing, allowing for responsive feedback and adaptations – for example, through the timely review and discussion of interview transcripts.

3 Adapting data collection tools

In order to facilitate a consistent approach across research team members and field-sites, it can also help to modify the data collection tools and templates. For example, where comparability is particularly important, we have found it useful to adapt our interview and focus group guides to make them clearer and more structured. This might mean imposing a more rigid sequence of questions and providing more explicit guidance on the logical flow between questions, on which prompts are necessary or optional, and on points where particular discretion should be taken. Clarity about when free and open-ended observation is needed, and when, instead, following a more structured protocol is key, is central. In order to avoid misunderstandings, often based on different experiences and backgrounds, and which shape expectations in particular ways, it can also be useful to provide clear written guidance and templates for taking written notes in the field, and for the preparation of transcripts.

4 Regular communication

Research partners can be asked to commit to regular debriefing calls to discuss the day’s interviews, or the week’s work, etc. to focus on what went well, what did not go so well, and what alternative approaches might be used. Timely communication between partners is crucial for the joint resolution of any problems on-the-go, so communication should be easy and relatively informal. Rather than relying only on email, we have used WhatsApp and other instant messenger platforms, and combined written and oral interaction. The dynamics in the research team are important to consider here, and in particular how hierarchical relationships may be adapted through the use of more informal communication platforms. In our experience, these more informal, open modes of communication have been very beneficial in terms of building personal relationships and trust between research partners who may never have met in person.

5 Ensuring an equitable research partnership throughout

The co-design of research projects by research partners based both in the Global North and Global South is an important principle for equitable, non-extractive, and productive research partnerships, but may not be possible in the case of previously planned research projects which must now be adapted to the Covid context. Whatever the particularities, dialogue about research partners’ contributions and their formal recognition is needed. Ideally, research outputs would be co-authored and/or rights to the dataset should be shared such that all research partners can make use of the data to support their own research and publications. As a bare minimum, local research partners’ contributions should be credited in any research outputs, and this ought to be based on an open dialogue about expectations and opportunities, and the ways in which co-production of knowledge can work in the specific context of a given project and research collaboration. It might also be useful and appropriate to give early-career local fieldworkers recognition that could support their own career development – such as a reference letter or a certificate of completion. We have found that getting to know individual fieldworkers better – for example through the more regular and informal modes of communication we discuss above – may also help to better identify opportunities to support career aspirations and research interests.

Towards a better and fairer “new normal”

There is increasing recognition that collaboration with local research partners can offer a best practice approach, both in terms of helping to address structural inequalities between the Global South and North, as well as ensuring robust knowledge which is sufficiently grounded in local contexts, expertise, perspectives, and priorities. Our hope is that the pandemic may help to accelerate the shift towards better and fairer collaborative research practices that become the “new normal”. That is, by preventing researchers in the Global North from collecting data themselves or even visiting field-sites, the pandemic is pushing us to become more familiar with collaborative modes of working. This means opportunities to appreciate the advantages of such collaboration, as well as recognising the pitfalls that we must work to overcome, and to build relationships that may strengthen future research collaboration.

Questions about how to work as researchers in the context of global asymmetries – including of resources, power, and mobility – are not new. Fundamentally, these questions are about ways to achieve research-based knowledge of the highest quality globally. The answers rarely lie with individual researchers alone.

Unfortunately, a persistent challenge can be finding academic institutions which are willing to take on and back such research collaborations. In many countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East red tape prevents the efficient execution of research administrative procedures, which leads many skilled researchers to set up their own consultancies. Sometimes these consultancies provide excellent grounds for research partnerships; in other cases, their potential is undermined by vulnerabilities regarding staff stability and long-term planning. The requirements set by funders and research institutions in countries in the Global North do not always align in constructive ways with research realities around the world. This can make it very difficult for individual researchers – wherever they are based – to commit to and manage to live up to their ideals of equitable research partnerships. Contributing to systemic change, that would contribute to more equitable research collaboration landscapes – also when it comes to budgets, financing and formal, institutional requirements – nevertheless, remains urgent.

However, in thinking about the post-pandemic future, actively striving for more equitable modes of collaborative research practice is something we as individual researchers can choose to do. The context of the pandemic therefore offers us as researchers an opportunity to take seriously the challenges of equitable research partnership, in the context of efforts to decolonize knowledge production, and to strive together toward the highest research quality.

  • This blog posts draw on conversations with Jessica Hagen-Zanker at ODI, and Camille Kasavan at Samuel Hall, who have had to adapt their approaches for the MIGNEX project, and for Samuel Hall’s ORION study, respectively. We have also benefitted from the wealth of information shared through e.g. webinars and blogs by the research community during the pandemic – key resources are linked to.
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