Luv Arora, International Development: Environment, Climate Change and Development MSc
Today, we live in what has been termed the ‘information age’. Screens surround our lives and even the toaster in our kitchens has a brain of its own. News apps are replacing newspapers and information from any corner of the world is just a few keystrokes and clicks away. Don’t believe me? Just google it.
Globalisation has led to a rapid dissemination of technology worldwide, making internet a household necessity. From filing one’s taxes to running a successful political campaign, everything can be done online today. However, this wasn’t the case earlier. For instance, attending classes, conducting in-person interviews, data collection and fieldwork couldn’t be done effectively online because their efficacy would reduce, wouldn’t it? Maybe. I thought so, until everyone was forced into a lockdown.
In December 2019, Covid-19 forced everyone indoors and brought the world to a halt. Businesses shut down, educational institutes were suspended, stadiums were empty and even a morning walk was off the table. Moreover, fieldwork (local or overseas) wasn’t feasible. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ and it was time to innovate. The solution: increase the number of screens around us. Video conferencing became mainstream. Zoom saw its users go from 10 million in December 2020 to 300 million by April 2020. The growth of video conferencing apps allowed corporates to resume their work, and enabled remote teaching. Universities started to function in this new normal. But, what about development research, fieldwork or interviews in remote areas of the world that lack access to digital technology or the internet? Could that still be effectively done? Well, I’d like to argue with a resounding YES.
Digital technology, Covid-19, and Development Fieldwork
The most popular tool of qualitative research – interviews – already had its problems such as financial and logistical constraints, difficulty in connecting with geographically constrained participants, then Covid exacerbated the situation. Online interviews did provide an alternative to this but were considered inferior to the above-mentioned ‘gold standard’ of qualitative research.
I was eager to interact with the people of Uganda, and simultaneously learning the nuances of conducting a qualitative interview. Reading the code of conduct and preparing myself to be an ethical qualitative researcher made me excited for my first official fieldwork. Yet, the prospect of online fieldwork made me upset and doubtful of its effectiveness. In hindsight, my presumptions for it were misconceived.
Conventional interviews usually follow a set structure or rely on the interviewee’s responses for its composition. If it’s a group task, adapting to responses and changing the questions instantaneously isn’t easy. This is where, I argue, digital interviews have their sharpest edge. Modern technology provides us with various instant messaging apps that allow prompt conversational flow, permitting simultaneous discussion of an interviewee’s responses. The interviewing group then concurrently shares information and adapts, forming a hybrid interview style. Questions might be improvised midway based on the interviewee’s response or similarity of queries raised by the other groups, maximising the information gained. Not only is this healthy for intra-team members, but also for members inter-team to form trusting symbiotic relationships.
The growth of various social media apps have made a whole host of people in varying settings more accessible and provided a better way to conduct asynchronous (methods which do not necessitate an instant response, e.g. e-mail) interviews. Another argument may be made for the lack of rapport among the participants and interviewers, which may be hard to form over a video call. On the contrary, rapport building is easier on Skype due to prior communication between the two parties through asynchronous means depending upon the responsiveness of the person. Online interviews allow for more valuable and powerful insights when discussing sensitive and personal topics due to lack of the intimidation from a physical presence.
Digital Fieldwork: Error 101 connection timed out
Evidently, there are numerous upsides to this new form of fieldwork, however there is always a tail to a coin’s heads. The most glaring of drawbacks to online fieldwork, is the general disconnect from the location as one doesn’t experience the field itself and the potential lack of access to good quality network for conducting these interviews. Being able to directly interact and witness the conditions around provides one with considerably more information than remote fieldwork. Connection issues cause loss of communication and data as the interviewees sometimes don’t realise that they can’t be heard. This happened with us many times. The interviewee would lose connection mid-conversation and had to repeat what they said, sometimes even skipping parts as interrupting the speaker felt impolite. People who don’t have access to reliable internet to sustain a video call is another major obstruction to carrying out fieldwork remotely.
Faulty audio, video, or general logistical and technical issues may happen on both sides. The loss of video also means the interviewer loses access to a persons’ non-verbal cues such as body language and expressions. These are important elements to conducting a rigorous and effective interview. Ethical issues such as data privacy, security, and online consent are some other key areas where concerns have been raised.
The advancements in digital technology coupled with the impact of a global pandemic has permanently introduced changes into the way we function. Scientific research and fieldwork have also been affected. My initial response to the prospect of online fieldwork was cynical. I couldn’t fathom its execution, but I was pleasantly surprised.
It has its issues: ethical concerns, distribution and access to technology, and reliability of the network. Nonetheless, its upsides and future potential far outweigh these concerns. The pandemic has receded while the vaccine distribution has eased the world outdoors. My perception towards online fieldwork has transformed positively, and with technology evolving, it may even become the norm. However, until then wear a mask and keep 2 meters apart when you do step out.