Training the Covid-19 cohort: Adapting and preserving social science research

Training the Covid-19 cohort: Adapting and preserving social science research

Fotini Christia and Chappell Lawson address changes in research and impacts of the pandemic on fieldwork in a recently published piece for the Social Science Research Council (SSRC).

July 30, 2020 | SSRC | Fotini Christia, Chappell Lawson
Female scholar studying along in library
Fotini Christia, Chappell Lawson
July 30, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing natural scientists to wrestle with how to keep laboratory research going and how best to do peer review. Social scientists and humanists are similarly having conversations about what Covid-19 means for social science research. In the short term, Covid-19 has disrupted the plans of graduate students and faculty members conducting fieldwork that cannot be readily transferred online. In the long run, the research norms and practices that emerge will affect social science more broadly. We see three crucial questions:

1) How should we approach social science research related to Covid-19 itself?

2) How can we adjust to the impact of Covid-19 on field work?

3) How can we manage and mentor a cohort of scholars who could not do the conventional field work that is essential to their professional development?

Setting research agendas
As with the natural sciences, Covid-19 has set an agenda for social scientific inquiry. For instance, work is already underway on what the pandemic can tell us about public opinion, political communication,1 voting behavior, political mobilization, and protest. Several questions on inequality have become salient too, with scholars interrogating the differential effects of income and race on the likelihood of testing,2 fatality rates, and the degree to which orders for shelter in place,3 and preferences about social distancing measures match people’s “objective” interests. And of course, the varied responses of governments (national and subnational) to the pandemic will undoubtedly become both dependent and independent variables in social science research. In the latter case, they will prove crucial in informing policy choices.

These research projects span the globe. For instance, some Europeanists are examining the role of intergenerational ties4 in the hard-hit case of Italy, while others have lauded the examples of good governance and citizen compliance in Denmark5 and Greece.6 Other researchers are investigating increasing gender violence in Egypt, while in India there is ongoing research on in-country migrant flows7 and displacement associated with the pandemic. Scholars of East Asia are researching cases like Taiwan and Singapore that exhibited early success in combating the disease, while some Latin Americanists are focusing on Mexico and Brazil, and the impact of their governmental responses to remain open.

There is, however, the danger that research dollars may flow too freely into Covid-19–related projects. The topics that most social scientists have studied to date—such as violence, culture, economic development, regime change, distributional politics, survival strategies, and public policy—remain salient and deserve to be funded. As reviewers for grant proposals and advisors of graduate students, we must avoid a situation where Covid-19–related projects crowd out equally qualified projects on other topics.

Doctoral students contemplating their dissertations should also proceed with caution. Projects related to Covid-19 may seem appealing, especially if funding is readily available, but there may well be a glut of research and fatigue with the topic by the time students go on the market in in a few years. In the meantime, many Covid-19–related outcomes remain rapidly moving targets, making them risky subjects for junior scholars.

Adapting research methods
Covid-19 has largely forced the suspension of face-to-face data collection, including most ethnographic work and participant observation, in-person interviews and surveys, field experiments, and archival research in locations that have been closed (or to which researchers can no longer travel). Many scholars must now choose between abandoning their original question or using a suboptimal method to answer it. Social scientists have been here before—for instance, when conflicts or natural disasters compelled graduate students to halt research in a challenging location or when the 2008 financial crisis dried out research funds—but not on this scale. The central concern now is that fieldwork, an essential element of social science research, will be sacrificed, even as inquiry based on other methods (statistical analysis, lab experiments, library research) proceed. Scholars must seize the opportunities that the new environment presents, while salvaging as much as they can of conventional fieldwork.

As the pandemic is closing off some options, it is opening others. Online experiments—through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk or virtual labs such as Harvard’s Digital Lab for the Social Sciences— may actually be easier given that a large amount of social life has moved to the virtual realm. And although the pandemic makes in-person interviewing more problematic, it makes teleconferencing feel less like a “second best” alternative. Initial rapport may be a bit harder to build with unknown informants, but the logistics of conducting the interview are now easier: it is no longer awkward for the researcher to be typing or looking at notes, and it is easier to record the session. With no associated travel time or costs, in some cases scholars can reach a larger universe of sources more easily, and some interviewees who are normally less accessible (such as senior bureaucrats) may have more time on their hands.

There are also exciting opportunities for researchers to charge ahead in the online world, with user-friendly tools for online data collection and analysis of text,8 images,9 voice,10 or video. With the pandemic pushing an array of interactions to the virtual space—Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, or more exotic platforms like Telegram—the online population has now become increasingly more representative of society as a whole and thus considerably more interesting to scholars who previously engaged less with it. In a world of social distancing, it is increasingly clear that cyberspace counts as “the field” and “virtual ethnography” is fully legitimate, as colleagues working in these spaces have long attested. Adapting the traditional qualitative interpretive research methods to the virtual space for communities that have migrated online will renew attention to questions of positionality, embeddedness, and the ethics of field work (including privacy concerns).

The migration to the online space affords real openings for computational social science research, as well as for scholarship in digital humanities. Interdisciplinary programs that have been set up to have social science inform big data research, such as MIT’s Institute for Data Systems and Society and Digital Humanities program, are now faced with unprecedented opportunities for fruitful collaborations.

But how about those of us whose work absolutely requires in-person field presence, such as conventional ethnography? Given that the world has now already started opening up, is there room for traditional fieldwork in the Covid-19 space? For younger researchers without underlying conditions, the risks of death from Covid-19 fade into the background level of risk from fieldwork, so there could be an argument for their charging into the field as fast as they can.

But even if scholars are not concerned about being infected themselves, they must avoid becoming a vector for contagion. Several human subjects’ review boards that have imposed a near-universal ban on human subjects’ research need to consider the appropriate protocols to inform such work. For instance, they may consider testing regimes for researchers, a prohibition on in-person research with new categories of vulnerable populations (eg, people in refugee camps, the elderly, or those with underlying conditions), or mandatory use of a face mask for in-person interviews. Lessons about how to conduct field research in these environments may be found in scholars who have already been doing fieldwork where they or informants wear masks (as in parts of Asia) or have dealt with past epidemics such as MERS, SARS, or Ebola.11 One valuable outcome would be for Institutional Review Boards to adopt a broader conception of when researchers might inadvertently endanger or inconvenience informants.

The pandemic will not be with us forever, and we should not allow the opportunities it affords for new research topics and methods to undermine the role of conventional field research. We must work aggressively with funders of research (Fulbright, SSRC, etc.) to keep the fire of fieldwork alive by making accommodations for research that must be rescheduled, awarding grants for projects we suspect will have to be delayed, and accepting proposals that make adequate accommodations to the pandemic even if these accommodations render certain elements less than perfect.

Advising the Covid-19 cohort
As scholars who have relied on fieldwork for our own research and who teach qualitative methods to doctoral students, we are cognizant of the problems in educating a cohort of PhD students who may have no experience with traditional fieldwork. The challenge extends beyond their specific dissertation projects to the intellectual capital they gain about local culture, personal connections with individuals in-country, language training, and the like. What can we do to avoid losing a generation of field work and field researchers?

First, programs should try to build in mechanisms that would allow younger scholars to go back into the field at a later date, even if it means insisting that they finish their dissertations earlier. We can do the same for recently hired junior scholars, and we should also consider allowing them to come up for tenure later on an exceptional basis. Second, programs should actively assist students who have the opportunity to take temporary leaves from the program to work in the “real world” or undertake some other practicum experience until they can return to their originally planned field research. Third, editors of journals should be prepared to offer expedited review for doctoral students and junior scholars who could credibly demonstrate that their projects were delayed because of Covid-19, allowing them to make up for some of the lost time.

Fourth, we need to nourish the self-supporting activities and communities that are already springing up. There has been an increased demand for guidance and new directions including webinars and increased discussions and inquiries on Facebook pages dedicated to social science methods. A crowd-sourced Google document lists an array of data collection methods to consider during the pandemic with a list of relevant references to go with it. These include substituting in-person focus groups with online group interviews; have subjects record data on audio or video about their activities or keep diaries (ie, to cut out the researcher from the data collection process; using YouTube data and podcasts as a way to study culture and context).

Finally, because some students will inevitably move away from their original fieldwork-intensive topics, we must offer methods training for our graduate students that exposes them to the techniques and tools that enable virtual fieldwork. In practice, this requirement translates into enhanced training in web scraping; machine learning techniques, including natural language processing for text and voice; newly developed tools for image and video processing; and incorporating training on online interviewing to classes on fieldwork method. Several departments across the country cover some of these concepts in their advanced methods sequence, but they now need to consider how to make them more mainstream and easily accessible (including via online learning platforms such as edX).12

These are unprecedented times for the world and for social science scholarship. And while we dash ahead to embrace the new opportunities of the online world, we should not overshoot. We will meet again—in the field, in a couple of years or sooner—and the new generation of scholars needs to have the tools to engage with the field as we have known it.

Written by Fotini Christia and Chappell Lawson
Banner photo credit: Anastas Tarpanov/Flickr