Conducting social science research during the Coronavirus pandemic

Buddhadeb Halder



Due to the COVID-19 crisis, we had to postpone some of our planned fieldworks in past months. We also do not know the best time and opportunity to resume regular fieldworks for the research we conduct. At the same time, it would be a bit illogical not to carry out any research work until the public health researchers find a permanent solution to stop spreading Coronavirus. As far as India is concerned, Coronavirus infections are raising in the country. The Central Government and several state governments have taken a significant step towards loosening the lockdown, and experts want that the country is yet to hit the peak. As travelling to the research site has become a major concern, many social science researchers at universities, research institutions and non-government organisations researchers are now trying to figure out how to go ahead with the research work planned to conduct in-person. In this circumstance, crucial questions for social science researchers – how to collect data without meeting respondents face-to-face, and also how to collect data without compromising the quality? As social science researchers need to redesign their planned research and integrate as many as digital data collection methods, can digital ethnographic research become the most reliable research method for social science researchers? 


India has the world’s second-largest internet population i.e. nearly 500 million users, and more than 73% of India’s total web traffic comes from mobile phone. As most participants are using mobiles to send texts, chat with friends, capture everything from images to video, mobile phone has the power to become a major force to implement digital ethnographic research method. Thus, the use of digital tools and technologies to conduct social science research would not be a difficult task for social science researchers. 


Digital Ethnography

The study of people in a real-world situation is known as Ethnography. Ethnographic research offers better understanding of how respondents really react than asking them to complete a questionnaire or asking questions over the phone. Digital ethnography is just the digital version of ethnographic research, and it is defined as ‘any ethnography in which ‘data-gathering methods are mediated by computer-mediated communication or digital technologies’ (Murthy, 2011). Digital ethnography encompasses a variety of different online research methods in which researchers are able to collect the data they need from respondents. Digital ethnography is also known virtual ethnography, cyber ethnography or online ethnography. Digital ethnography helps researchers to understand the in-depth insights more easily. Pink et al. 2015 outlined five key principles for conducting digital ethnography: multiplicity, non-digital-centric-ness, openness, reflexivity and unorthodox. There is more than one way to engage with the digital world. Digital ethnography is an open event which involves reflexive practice, and requires attention to alternative forms of communicating responses. In digital ethnography, methods can vary from blogging and video diaries to instant messaging. By analysing video diaries, photo uploads and comments, researchers can gather and assess reactions of respondents as they happen. Digital ethnography provides new tools and abilities to capture more accurate data quicker and easier than ever before. Finally, it also saves time to clean and analyse collected data. 


The McGill Qualitative Health Research Group at McGill University has published a list of useful resources for doing qualitative researcher during a pandemic. Other useful resources are – the LSE Digital Ethnography Collective Reading ListDoing Fieldwork in a Pandemic by Deborah Lupton, ‘Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice’ by Sarah Pink, Heather Horst et al, How to conduct an ethnography during social isolation by Daniel Miller, A book by social science researchers Virgina Braun, Victoria Clarke and Deborah Gray titled ‘Collecting Qualitative Data: A practical guide to textual, media and virtual techniques’ provides useful information and guidance on what these various techniques have to offer, what types of research questions are most suitable for answering as well as specific ethical issues that require consideration (Jawett, 2020). 


Data Collection Online

During a crisis like COVID-19, quantitative data can be collected through a digital data collection form or questionnaire. SurveyMonkeyGoogle Forms can be created to collect quantitative data online. A simple online survey platform can also be developed to collect data from remote respondents. Further, any relevant quantitative data collected online by a different researcher, institute; newspaper etc. other than the researcher can also be collected as secondary data. Qualitative data collection involves face-to-face interviews, focus group discussions and fieldworks. Though the COVID-19 has forced researchers to conduct regular research work, there are numerous ways researchers can collect qualitative data for their intended research work.  


Digital Individual Interviews 

Due to social-distancing measures and other Coronavirus health advisories, taking individual interviews are not business as usual anymore. With the help of emerging ICT tools and technologies, qualitative data can be collected. For example, text messages, voice calls, video calls and instant messaging are some techniques which can be used to conduct individual interviews. To carry out individual interviews, which can also be referred to as ‘depth’ or ‘in depth’ interviews, perhaps the easiest way is the use of video calling services like Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp calling, Facebook messenger etc. 


Digital Focus Group Discussions 

Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) are used when it is better to gather information from a group rather than individuals. Conducting FGDs in a virtual world i.e. DFGDs could be one of the easiest qualitative data collection methods. Most of the individuals using smart phones are members of groups on social media platforms (Facebook) and instant messaging applications (WhatsApp). Similarly, a virtual group with a sample size of 6-10 respondents can be created in various digital communication platforms, including group-video calling platforms. Unlike, conventional FGDs, Digital Focused Group Discussions (DFGDs) are more flexible and convenient for both – respondents and researchers. Researchers do not need to worry much about their time constraints, lack of manpower or lack of finance in DFGDs.  


Video-Based Observation Method

Observation method may take place in natural settings and involve the researcher taking lengthy and descriptive notes of what is happening. With the new technological improvements, and considering the present pandemic situation, video-based observation research method could become a promising social science research method. Video-based observation research methods have already been used in primary care health environment to examine complex interactions (Asan. O, Montague. E, 2014). However, collecting video-recordings directly from the survey site is somewhat difficult in the time of a pandemic like COVID19. While some challenges remain in terms of video recording on the ground, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones could help researchers to record the people, situations or environment. Researchers have already used UAVs in health, economic development, statistics, and other fields in social sector research. Reasonably priced drones are now available in the market place. UAVs pose excellent possibilities for social and cultural inquiry and aerial data collection


Online Participant Observation

The participant observation is a research method where the researcher is a member, or has access to engage, with the matter under investigation. In participant observation, researchers ask questions; engage in discussions with individuals or groups, and sometimes researchers even “do” the activity being studied. Researchers need to contact the moderator requesting for permission to study the online group or forum in ‘Online Participant Observation’ method. As the nature of groups and the nature of the studies differ from each other, researchers may or may not decide to disclose that they are collecting data as a participant in the group. If necessary, the participant observer may chose to post information about the study, ask any question, and make any comments (Salmons, 2020). During the implementation of Online Participation Observation, researchers begin to see the phenomenon from the viewpoint of the members associated within the group as researchers experience what the group experience. 


Online Action Research

Action research is a research method which ‘involves action, evaluation, and critical reflection and – based on the evidence gathered – changes in practice are then implemented’ (Koshy et al. 2010). Researcher needs to identify whether an online action research is suitable for the research. Online action research could be done in a participative and collaborative way in an online group or forum like facebook group, WhatsApp or facebook group messaging created by individuals with a common purpose. Researcher also needs to explain the situation and the context of the phenomenon. Online group participants then make the interpretation and the researcher develops reflections based on interpretations made by the online group participants. 


Considerations prior to the adoption of virtual research methods 

Whilst the virtual research methods appear to be better research methods in social science field, issues like privacy and security of respondents must be taken into account before researchers implement virtual research methods. In my next blog, I will write about how to conduct social science research virtually in a more secure way and without any potential security concerns for respondents.

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