Lockdown was an interesting experience as a researcher. My first experience as a fieldworker was in my bedroom, at exceptional times in the living room, and this is quite funny.
I can’t deny that working from my room and interviewing parents and practitioners from their own houses, as well, made me feel closer to their lived experiences than I would probably feel if we were in a more neutral context.
I felt that I could relate to some of the experiences that participants disclosed to me. The alienation, the sense of isolation, the days that all look the same.
At the same time, the awe of being in your comfort zone and trying to work and live at your own pace, that is just a bliss.
Talking to people on camera made me nervous in the beginning and I felt like I had little control on my body language. I didn’t know where my body was in the conversation and I couldn’t properly read the body signs of the other person, as well.
It’s easy to hide a leg shaking nervously under the desk, or to overlook a micro expression, when you are staring at a small camera instead of a real face.
I actually wanted to look at the camera, to make the other person feel valued as if I were looking into their real eyes, but at the same time I wanted to see what the other person was doing on the screen. So that was one tricky choice.
Time after time I’ve learned to take it easier.
Talking with participants was an amazing experience and I’ve valued every single thing they‘ve told me. I’ve met amazing people from the four corners of Scotland, people of different ages and doing different jobs. We’ve talked about life, relationships, work, children.
I felt like a stranger on a train, welcoming the experiences of unknown passengers.
Everytime I managed to get up from my bed and turn my iPad on, a new person was waiting for me on the screen and no one was like the other.
There was a lot of talking about pain and joy and I was stunned by how resilient people could be. I can say that some participants were a real inspiration for me.
I‘ve chosen to present myself like a human more than a cold journalist, mostly because I wasn’t really able to do otherwise, but also because I believe that in these particular times it is more necessary to be warm, even with strangers. However, it can all be subjective, depending on the needs of the individual I am speaking with.
My advice for other distanced field researchers is to think in depth about what it means to recruit participants online. There was a lot of research going on at these times and we had to reflect, in our team, about what it means to engage people in research when everybody else seems to be already looking for participants, flooding social networks with survey requests.
Sometimes mediators are needed to involve specific groups of people into research, and as all the social life had moved online, I had to negotiate with Facebook groups admins in order to reach out to specific groups, for example people belonging to minoritised communities, or living in isolated areas – this was fundamental to ensure that the study was really inclusive. However, most times I couldn’t just access a group and post a survey, I needed to talk with the “host” first, otherwise I might have just been banned and missed an important chance. I also had to be able to understand if I was reaching out to the right groups, plus I needed to take into account that each online community has their own culture and climate, just like in real life, and that could affect my experience. Some admins can be very annoyed at researchers posting surveys, while other ones can be incredibly helpful and understanding. These are all small important things that I have realised after my own, “on-field” experience. That said, Facebook groups are a terrific source of peer support and I was stunned by how deeply people can connect on online platforms.
Our partner organisations from the third sector were also incredibly helpful and put us in touch with a number of young people, parents, carers and key workers in social care all over the nation. However, not even that was enough to keep most participants engaged in research.
Team meetings brought us to think about what it means to reach out to people in their own language. This transcends the boundaries of online research.
Let’s say it clearly: most times consent forms and information sheets are not as easy to read as they might need to be. They might look too wordy, some important policies about data protection might sound unclear, or even nonsensical. This is why participants may not want to look at them, or could be intimidated by them and just give up.
To address this issue, we’ve tried to switch to informal video presentations and more visual, as well as child-friendly, information sheets. We wanted people to be fully aware and empowered in their choices, if they decided to engage in research.
We’ve also decided to made interpreters available to interview people who might not be confident speaking in English, which makes them even less likely to be engaged in mainstream research.
Most research projects were rushed during this time, in order to provide data as soon as possible at a time where everything looked so unpredictable and urged for clarity. This could have possibly exposed some research teams to the risk of overlooking method.
As a team, in the course of our work we’ve been left with important questions: are we really reaching out to the people who we need to listen to the most? Or are we just looking for numbers?
We hope that through our continuous circular feedback within and between researchers and practitioners we have been able to adjust our aim and provide satisfactory solutions to these pressing questions, that need to be taken into consideration by every field researcher in times of lockdown.