Global Development Institute Blog

Covid-19 is affecting all of us, but in varying ways. It helps to map some of these diverse effects – and possible responses – for a particular group that we’re part of or support: social science research students. Because Covid-19 is having such far-reaching effects on society, both short- and longer-term, many such students are having to ask themselves how they should, or could, adapt their work. This is especially for students in development-related fields.

Here are some things to consider. A premise of these broad suggestions is that different students will face varying implications of the current crisis, so we encourage you to discuss this with your advisor, mentors, or peers.

Studying the crisis may not be a priority right now

As social scientists, many of us will feel a need to make sense of the current crisis and its implications for society, and to contribute to scholarly or public conversations on this. This feeling may be enhanced by the many suggestions to “make good use” of the crisis or at least to “keep going” with your research. It may also be fed by feelings of guilt or helplessness, as we remain confined in lockdown.

The first principle is to feel free to ignore this need or opportunity to analyse Covid-19 as a social scientist. This is especially so if you have more immediate needs. You may have more pressing worries if your household is negatively affected by disease, health risks, or economic concerns due to the shutdown. You may have children that need attention and schooling, or parents or neighbours that need support. Finally, you may need to prioritise looking after yourself, bearing in mind the emotional stress that this crisis is creating.

Keep your eye on the prize

There are also academic reasons why you may want to bracket scholarly responses to Covid-19. The most straight-forward is that your existing research is not substantively affected by Covid-19. Even if the world is changing in remarkable ways, there are plenty of research themes or projects that shouldn’t.

A second reason to bracket Covid-19 from your scholarly mind might be because you are close to handing in your dissertation or thesis. Don’t think you must change your analysis or even collect more data. Even if your topic is linked to the effects of or responses to Covid-19 in some way, focus on submission. You can add a few paragraphs in a suitable place to reflect on Covid-19, if you like. You can even explore the unfolding crisis as a “side-project.” But keep your eye on submission.

Everything is data

All that said, you may feel like it’s your scholarly calling to organize your thinking as much as possible about this crisis. One aspect of this could include a more systematic approach to collecting data while the crisis unfolds.

Part of the response to the uncertainty and anxiety, for many of us, has been to binge on online news and social media. Yet this often serves to merely enhance anxiety. It may help to see these stories and analyses as data to be collected systematically, for instance, by identifying some themes that are of particular interest and then collating online material in those categories. Newsletters, Facebook pages, the proliferating online discussions and webinars – all these things can add to your emerging dataset.

Especially if you are in some way involved in emergency relief efforts (for instance, via one of the many Community Action Networks in Cape Town, where we’re based), this will give you access to potentially important information. You may also want to keep a detailed journal. These are remarkable social processes that we are witnessing and participating in, so it may help to keep a researcher’s perspective on this, at least for a bit of time each day.

Interviewing in the time of Covid-19

For many of us, a key source of data is interviews. Obviously, the opportunities for interviews are constrained during lockdown, and they may be for some time beyond, too. The question thus arises, what about online interviews?

There are a number of factors to consider. If your interviewee is comfortable with online conversation and is used to doing so professionally, that obviously helps. The interviewees’ access to the relevant technology and connectivity, and her or his availability and time, are all important to consider when requesting an interview online during the unfolding crisis.

Also, it helps to have experience in interviewing in-person. Especially if you don’t have such experience, discuss or practice online interviewing with people who do, such as fellow students or your advisor. Similarly, if you have met the interviewee before, it is probably easier to establish rapport online.

If many of these factors line up to discourage online interviews, you may be better off putting them on hold. You could make use of this time to advance your literature review or to collect other forms of data, such as media reports and documents.

More generally, as people grapple with the crisis, it might make more sense to have short and informal conversations, rather than long interviews. Part of the motivation for such conversations, for us, has been to “check in” with some of our previous respondents and to see how they are doing.

If they are struggling, there may be something we can do, for instance, to connect them to local emergency relief efforts.

Writing to clarity

Especially given the potentially overwhelming nature of the crisis and the associated barrage of news, it helps to write or draw to coalesce and organise the impressions you gain in your scanning and data collection process. This may be just for your own benefit, or to collect ideas for subsequent reconsideration, or for sharing with a broader audience. If you can develop ideas and motivation for such reflective pieces in discussion with thinking partners online or in your household, so much the better.

In sum, the Covid-19 crisis is creating disruption in diverse ways for different people. As social science research students, we are also affected differently, with varying levels of hardship. We should thus have the freedom to respond in different ways, too, even if we all aspire to help us collectively make sense and meaning in this troubled time.

This text reflects discussion among post-doctoral, doctoral and MPhil researchers and their adviser at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business: Alecia Sewlal, Annika Surmeier, Christine Fyfie, Ishara Maharaj, Jenny Soderbergh, Jody Delichte, Lindie Botha, Lulamile Makaula, Mandy Rapson, Neeve Pariag, Nishana Bhogal, Sarita Sehgal, Thanyani Ramarumo, Vanessa Otto-Mentz, and Vedantha Singh. It was organised and hosted by Prof. Ralph Hamann.


Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole