Global Development Institute Blog

Malte Skov and Andreina Carrillo Espinoza, PhD researchers, Global Development Institute

The global outbreak of the novel Covid-19 virus has meant that travel restrictions, as well as national, regional, and local lockdowns across the globe, pose major limitations on conducting research in the field. Human contact has been unprecedently restricted, which has resulted in new practical and ethical challenges for many researchers, not least within the field of migration.

To explore the methodological impacts of these new challenges, the Research Group on Migration, Refugees and Asylum hosted an online workshop on 13 November 2020, which brought together a group of Academics working with migration in different contexts and locations.

Based on their research before and during the pandemic, the intention of the workshop was to share and discuss experiences, challenges, as well as new opportunities that arise when using online and digital methods. The contributions provided insightful accounts of the ways in which technology, literature, active archives, and networks can be used as alternative or complementary resources to carry out research during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.

Mesghina Abraha, Post-doc Research Associate at The University of Manchester, provided a summary of the challenges and opportunities of conducting remote recruitment and interviews in the horn of Africa as part of the Transnational Lived Citizenship Project. His contribution highlighted the importance of contingency planning, creating a safe space for participants, and thinking on the affordability and accessibility of the platforms to be used. His intervention provided a space to reflect about the many practical, logistical, and ethical challenges of conducting remote research with human participants, but also the resilience and learning gained by pushing physical, geographical, and technological barriers. View Mesghina’s presentation.

Nicole Bonino, Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of Virginia, and Visiting Researcher at The University of Manchester offered examples of methodological paradigms and critical approaches to virtual research in the humanities. Her presentation was an invitation to explore literature and other data sources such as open-access museums, social media, digital repositories, and photographs as alternatives to in-person interviews. She reminded the participants of the importance of thinking ’outside the box’, and use the manyfold data sources available online as active archives to do new things differently, rather than insisting on doing the same thing in other ways. View Nicole’s presentation.

Building on her current research on motherhood, Erika Busse, Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology, Macalester College, reflected on the challenges of conducting interviews and observations virtually and transnationally, during Covid-19. She highlighted the importance of planning in advance of each interview, being flexible, patient and building trust among participants. Likewise focusing on new ways of doing research differently, Erika drew on the Ethnographic Toolkit as discussed by Reyes (2018), to reflect on how the visible and invisible characteristics of the researcher, such as class, race, gender, age and socio-economic background, can be used to connect with people remotely. For example, volunteering and being involved in online activities of grassroots movements in various places can provide a space for online observations and interviews. While interviews are carried out over sometimes great distances, they also give ethnographers a view into people’s homes where interruptions by and interactions with family members are not just disruptive but can also be very informative. However, as was elaborated in the discussion, this is something that also happens when you do fieldwork in person.

Based on her research on religious life among catholic sisters in East and Central Africa as well as in the UK and Ireland, María Calderón Muñoz discussed some of the challenges of online interviewing – especially when covering difficult and very personal experiences. As several of the speakers stressed, asking into people’s personal stories requires a strong relationship of trust. However, trust takes time to establish, making it difficult in a time-limited online interview. Connectivity problems, lack of social cues, frequent interruptions as well as fatigue and increased self-awareness from being on video all further complicates building a trustful relationship. As such, María stressed the importance of acknowledging the limitations of online interviews and thinking carefully about how to use them. Multiple sessions over a period of time can give more room for building a relationship of trust and it could be worthwhile to combine online methods with other means of communicating such as phone calls or, if possible, meeting for a walk. View María’s presentation.

Trust and the relationship between the researcher and research partners were also central themes in the presentation by Yvonne Riaño, Associate Professor at the Geography Institute of the University of Neuchâtel, who questioned whether research in the times of Covid-19 mainly is a problem of techniques. The problem of distance is not new in research on migration, and how to establish trust between researchers and research participants in an ethical way has long been discussed within feminist and post-colonial research. Sharing her experiences with fostering collaborative research partnership through WhatsApp chains and online workshops, Yvonne argued that digital techniques have great potential for overcoming social and geographical distances as well as helping democratise research. Yvonne’s framework for mutual learning – the Minga Methodology – provides five useful principles guiding this potential. View Yvonne’s presentation.

The five contributions at the workshop all highlighted, that while the Covid-19 pandemic has brought new challenges for doing research on migration, there is also much creative potential for alternative methods and for building reciprocal research collaborations. Furthermore, the disruptive circumstances brought by Covid-19 has, first of all, underscored the importance of trust and collaborative relationships as fundamental in migration research– a point that is highly relevant both during the pandemic, but certainly also beyond.

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.