The “new normal” for researching the new normal

Posted by on November 19, 2020  /  0 Comments

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know. It required citizens to ‘stay at home’. Access to basic needs such as food and medicine was limited under lockdown. Social distancing forced those involved in the last mile provision of food and medicine to quickly shift to remote service provision. Similarly, schools and hospitals attempted to provide services remotely. On the other hand, those in need of such services adapted to new means of them.

The vast spectrum of behavior change triggers many research questions. Who can access those services? Is it easier for one group than the other? How do you ensure inclusion in the whole process? Who are the winners in this situation? Who is losing out? We thought of researching these questions soon after the first wave of COVID pandemic in Sri Lanka.

We are serious about methodology, about making sure we do rigorous research and acquire data that is representative. We got to work selecting research sites, populations, target groups and data collection tools etc. Sri Lanka came out of lockdown in June 2020. By August, research design was completed. We were ready to go out to the field armed with quantitative and qualitative methods and tookl, to find out how the digital landscape and everything connected with it had changed since lockdown in March 2020.

September 2020 the pandemic hit again. The second wave. Though we had talked about new normal and how it affected the world around us, we hadn’t properly understood how it affected us: the researchers. As a result, our research design was not resilient to the new normal. We had planned to conduct focus group discussions, observations and in-depth interviews to explore respondents’ experiences. The objective was to get their reflections on how they accessed basic needs during lockdown. But now we were back in lockdown and the second wave did not allow us to go to the field and research barriers encountered by people in lockdown.

Everyone was talking about going back to work in the new normal. Now we were faced with what it is like for a qualitative researcher. If you cannot carryout fieldwork, collect data and connect with your respondent how does a researcher resume work? This was the biggest challenge.

Then I found this innovative research conducted by UNDP. It was published about two years ago; WhatsApp-based surveys of Syrian Refugees and Host Communities in Lebanon. It was all about collecting data remotely. Respondents shared images, voice clips and video clips through WhatsApp. It was not the classic qualitative data that you collectedthrough discussions or observations. But it added a different dimension to the inquiry.

The UNDP study in Lebanon triggered us to design a qualitative research which is doable under lockdown, while maintaining social distancing. We came up with an e-diary method to research persons living under lockdown.

Respondents were recruited via phone with help from field recruiters, consent forms shared and voice consent received. Data was collected via WhatsApp. Respondents sent us messages, images and voice clips, daily, sharing their experience with key issues (access to essentials, cash, healthcare, education etc.) over a period of 14 days. At the end of the 14-day period, researchers called each respondent to discuss points of interest in detail. Instead of getting respondents’ reflections in retrospect, the e-diary gave us a live feed of information.

Though the e-diary interactions between researcher and respondent were remote, we saw that gradually therespondents opened up to the researchers.

screenshot of a WhatsApp conversation between researcher and respondent

A respondent initiates a friendly WhatsApp chat with the researcher.

In some cases, the researchers’ voice call or WhatsApp message was something that the respondents looked forward to, each day. Those who prepared special food wanted to share photos with the researcher. Children wanted to share an image of their completed homework. What was the reason for this kind of high interaction? Was it because of the data collection tool? This begs the question: what is the impact of the data collection tool on the data?

A whole new set of questions have emerged for us, on how we do our work. This is the challenge of the new normal. We have to figure out ways to resume our work. We have to innovate. And we have to keep asking questions about our innovations. This is the new normal of the researcher.


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