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Methodological anxieties in times of COVID-19

COVID-19 has brought much anxiety for many researchers and PhD students who were planning to conduct fieldwork of some form. If a project promised extensive fieldwork, it is difficult to turn around and not do it. The timeframe for PhD research would also mean that fieldwork and qualitative face-to-face research might be difficult to fit, particularly without commensurate extension to the timeframe. It is not clear whether face-to-face research can resume any time soon, how it would deal with a range of local and international restrictions, but also considerations about power and vulnerability.[1]


While it is important to take these anxieties seriously, anxieties about methods are not new. Methods have always created anxiety – about what is the right method, about access, about secrecy, about risk and about power relations between the researcher and subjects of research, effects of potential interventions through research etc. I want to suggest that our discussions of methods need to include these elements rather than rush to propose online or remote methods as ‘emergency’ methods for the pandemic time.


That requires us not to start thinking from the methodological binaries that are taught in textbooks: qualitative or interpretive vs quantitative; online vs face-to-face; discursive vs ethnographic (including some combination of interviews and participant observation) or immersion vs simulation. These binaries, as we know, are positively and negatively coded. This coding depends on context and location: certain strands of political science would code quantitative statistical research positively, while qualitative research would be seen as less rigorous or otherwise lacking in some way. International Relations has more recently coded ethnographic research positively while discursive or textual analysis is often equated to ‘armchair’ scholarship. Yet, in so doing, there is less reflection on the conditions of possibility of fieldwork: the forms of privilege and global mobility that comes easily only to some. Another distinction that has been normatively coded recently has been that between online and face-to-face (distant or proximate methods). Mark Duffield has argued that ‘remote methods’ can lead to a decline of ethnographic and area studies work.


It seems to me that social science responses to the COVID19 pandemic have challenged some of the coding, but not the binaries. Online interviews, digital ethnography, social media research appear much more desirable today – though often are still rendered as replacement or ‘emergency’ solutions to the travel restrictions. This coding has been reinforced by the blanket prohibition of face-to-face research that institutions in the UK and elsewhere have taken. Yet, the work on digital methods or what can be called ‘distant’ methods is not new as many of you probably know. For instance, methods of distant reading have been the subject of much debate in digital humanities. The sociologists Deborah Lupton has compiled a useful list of methods responding to the call to extend fieldwork in a pandemic.


The list alerts us to the instability of boundaries between these different methods. For instance, where do we place visual methods in these binaries or journaling? A different way way to approach methods is to understand them as performative devices. As devices, methods can enact social and political worlds in multiple ways – the world of terrorism is different when accounted for by mapping global inequalities rather than by mapping terrorist networks. Methods as devices connect and assemble ontology, epistemology, theory, and worlds by putting them into knowledge-generating action. Understanding methods in this way – rather than simply being the expression of ontological and epistemological choices – is an important step. At the same time, something else is implied. If methods are an active practice of bringing these various elements together, then methods are ‘messy’ in their work of connecting and assembling. This means that, instead of looking for ‘replacement’ or ‘emergency’ methods, we need to do the work of connecting and assembling.


Claudia Aradau

[1] For a helpful reflection on this, see https://items.ssrc.org/covid-19-and-the-social-sciences/social-research-and-insecurity/resuming-field-research-in-pandemic-times/.

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