This blog post was originally published on the International Journal of Social Research Methodologies website on 6 August 2020.
Mary Brenda Herbert is a PhD student in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London .
Figure 1: Art packs in the making.
‘Where are you?’ He quizzically looked at me. Eyes darting from one corner of my screen to another. He wasn’t looking at me, but behind me.
‘I’m at home’ I say.
‘Oh, I thought you were in a bookshop when you should be at home. There are so many books behind you,’ he nodded, and so began my weekly video call to Sam*.
As ethnographers, we are used to travelling out from our homes to where our interlocutors live, but Covid 19 and the restrictions it brought, allowed the interlocutor to come into my home. I was seeing the children’s homes, and they were seeing mine. They were not allowed to leave their homes, neither was I, so we were meeting via WhatsApp, not exactly how I had imagined my fieldwork to be.
A couple of months prior to the video call I had finally started my fieldwork. After several months trying to get ethical approval from the local authority, I had finally started meeting families for my PhD research study; this is a study focusing on children, and their mothers, who have experienced domestic abuse and social care interventions. We were all ready to go when I realised that my plans were about to change dramatically. Lockdown had just been announced which would mean an end to the home visits I had been envisioning. What was I to do?
Panic was my first response but then something else dawned on me, in essence the purpose of my project had not changed, I could still be exploring children’s lives, it just happens that their everyday lives now included dealing with a pandemic. There was also the ethical question of the families wanting to continue the research. I did not want to let them down but how could I continue safely? I reflected that it was my methods that needed to change, not my aim.
In a frenzied scramble I put together an art pack made up of paper, glue tick pens, pencils, modelling clay, pipe cleaners, lolly sticks and a small toy digital camera, along with a quickly put together booklet with instructions on what to do (please see fig. 1). The aim of it was to give children the resources to creatively capture what their everyday lives were like. Just before lockdown I delivered the art pack to their doorsteps – by now entering other people’s homes was putting them at risk, so the doorstep became our area of meeting. I would put the pack on the doorstep and ring the bell and talk to the family from the required 2 metre distance. Following the discussion, the families and I agreed for me to call them once a week to see how they were getting on. Together we were working out a way of documenting their everyday lives.
While this is not the way I had initially envisage my research to go (whose research goes to plan anyway?), there have been experiences and reflections that I would not have noted so acutely if not for Covid19. One important reflection for me is how research is mediated through different materials. Two prime examples have been the internet and the weather. I see the internet as a rather insolent and unreliable research assistant, sometimes it turns up for work but then totally disappoint me. Sometimes it surprises me and stays for the duration of the task to be completed, mostly it ducks in and out. My research partner is my internet, and in this time of Covid19, I have become reliant on it, and its (un)reliability has highlighted the infrastructures that works to keep some connected and others not (Chiou and Tucker, 2020). As the Covid19 restrictions were lifted, the weather has been a major influencing factor in determining what I can do. Whether I can have a physically distanced walk with participants, or if I need to change plans because of the weather forecast, sometimes my planning doesn’t work out. One time I arrived in the pouring rain at a home and had to impromptu arrange a picnic blanket in the corridor of the block of flats to do some artwork with children because our plan on going for a walk had to be abandoned (please see fig. 2). My dependency on the internet and the weather has made me acutely aware of how my encounters are mediated by materials, structures and chance.
However, these example of changes, adaption and interdependency is not unusual for ethnography. Often these dependencies on other people and things that are outside of the communities we are researching are seldom written about or are sidelined, yet they play a vital role in how we conduct our research (Rosaldo, 2014, p. 111). The pandemic has quickly debunked any illusion that I previously held that I, the researcher, am totally in control of the design and unfolding of my research project (Pandian, 2019).
So, what of the art packs? Well some children have taken photos, some have drawn and made things, others have lost all the pens and pencils, whilst others have ignored it all together – children have used what they have felt comfortable with and that in itself is ‘data’. I have experimented with other techniques, I have tried diary/journal– that was not received well (too much like schoolwork), a digital photo diary (Plowman and Stevenson, 2012) resulted in mothers taking photos of their children rather than children taking photos of themselves (not what I had intended). Together we are trying to find a way to explore the everydayness of life through playing with methods.
This means there are a lot of negotiation, innovation, frustration and patience on both sides. From the families who have to put up with me going from room to room to try and find a spot in my home that has some Wi-Fi connection so we can continue our video call, to the children who have taught me how to play hide and seek over the phone, to socially/physically distanced walks with children in their local areas, to meeting across doorways to exchange info and materials – we’ve navigated these terrains in order to tell the story, the story of what everyday life is like to unsettle and unmake what is known (Pandian, 2019, p. 5).
The irony of researching with children about their everyday whilst my own children are glued to their screens is not lost on me. In so many ways, the mothers I am researching with are struggling with the same things I am – how to keep children occupied everyday, getting shopping, keeping well, staying safe, doing our best to get through the pandemic. At the same time, the pandemic has also highlighted ongoing issue of inequality and power relations in society. For whilst I have similar concerns and challenges as the mothers in my research study, I am not under surveillance, my children’s use of the iPad as a childcare resource is not being critiqued by social services, I can do an internet shop, use the car to avoid public transport, I have money and a supportive partner to help me through – I am in essence, cushioned by my relations, network and access to resources. The pandemic has brought to the surface the growing inequalities within society and the institutional racism that families are also dealing with. We may all be experiencing the pandemic but the effects of it are not the same.
So, when Sam asks me about the books on my shelf and how many rooms are in my home, I am acutely aware of the difference in our status and place in society, and that is a good thing to examine. So whilst the pandemic is an enormous once (we hope) in a lifetime experience, the fundamental essence of research is still the same – the creation of knowledge, and for me, the importance of the exploration of the everyday lives of children
* Not his real name
Chiou, L. and Tucker, C. (2020) Social Distancing, Internet Access and Inequality. w26982.
Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, p. w26982. doi: 10.3386/w26982.
Pandian, A. (2019) A possible anthropology: methods for uneasy times. Durham: Duke University Press.
Plowman, L. and Stevenson, O. (2012) ‘Using mobile phone diaries to explore children’s everyday lives’, Childhood, 19(4), pp. 539–553. doi: 10.1177/0907568212440014.
Rosaldo, R. (2014) The day of Shelly’s death: the poetry and ethnography of Grief. Durham: Duke University Press.