The Pandemic And Difficult Real-World Ethical Questions

scales-309810__340As you probably know, I am interested in research ethics in the real world. The global pandemic has highlighted a number of difficult real-world ethical questions. These are always with us, but usually they rumble away in the background. Now they are occupying a lot of column inches, airwaves, and discussion time.

At national level, how should we balance people’s health needs with a country’s economic needs? We are seeing very different conclusions about this being drawn and implemented in different parts of the world. It is easy to say ‘we should all have done what New Zealand did’ but New Zealand is an island nation, over 1,000 miles from the nearest land mass, with a small population of highly co-operative citizens and an intelligent and empathic leader. Imagine a country with a couple of land borders, a large population of citizens who prize individual freedom over co-operation, and a sociopathic leader. I expect you can think of one or two which fit that description. So clearly not every country could have done what New Zealand did.

I learned early in my research career, from Strauss and Corbin’s book on grounded theory, that absolutes are red flags for ‘not enough ethical thinking’. So, while ‘we should all have done what New Zealand did’ might pass muster at the dinner table, the ‘we should all’ formulation raises my ethical antennae. So do words like ‘always’ and ‘never’, or their more subtly presented equivalents such as ‘everyone knows…’ or ‘that’s not how we do things around here’. As researchers, we need to learn to spot these red flags and then think beyond them.

A perennial difficulty for any kind of democratic government is to balance the need to create policy with the individual and collective freedoms of its citizens. If a policy is too vague, the citizens wail, ‘they’re the government, they should be making things clear’. If it is too specific, the citizens bellow, ‘they’re overstepping their authority, they can’t tell us what to do’. How can we write policy which is just specific enough?

Even when policy is really specific – ‘stay home, save lives’ – people don’t always comply. Everyone, all of the time, is balancing their own physical and mental health needs with the needs of others: family, friends, employers, creditors and so on. We all know people who didn’t entirely comply with the lockdown rules. Most of us are those people. I know I am. I broke the rules twice, once to buy a flowering shrub to plant in my garden while my mother, who died from COVID19 in April, was being cremated with none of her family present; and once to drive a few miles to see a friend for a distanced walk around country lanes during the difficult early phase of bereavement. I also took myself into isolation around 10 days before my government required me to do so. We all make up our own minds how much, or how little, to comply with policy and regulations. We think we’re right, or at least justified, in our actions.

This highlights more difficult ethical questions: who is right, and how do we decide? Freedom of speech is a fine principle and, like all principles, requires people to exercise responsibility alongside their rights. In a modern democratic society, we might decide that freedom of speech is not permitted where that speech incites hatred and abuse of others. That means misogynistic, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and other such statements are not allowed because women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, Jewish people and others have a right to live free from oppression, This trumps the freedom of speech of those who would oppress. So far, so straightforward – in theory, if not, alas, in practice. How, though, do we decide who is right in arguments which don’t run along such easily identifiable lines of oppression? What about the pro- and anti-vaccination movements? Vaccination has become very topical in recent months. The pro-vaccination movement cites scientific evidence and protection of vulnerable people; the anti-vaccination movement cites a range of evidence sources and freedom of choice; and religious arguments are cited by religious people to support both sides of the debate. This causes more difficulties at policy level: should governments support public health by making vaccinations compulsory, or support individual liberty by making them optional?

One question we should always ask ourselves as researchers is: ‘those people who think differently from me, what if they are right?’ It’s important to read arguments that we disagree with, and to consider them carefully. Why do we disagree? What can we learn from other arguments? And it is essential that we are willing to change our minds. If we don’t deal with all evidence as even-handedly as possible, how can we expect others to take seriously the evidence we generate?

Our own views are part of our identity, and we cannot understand our identity without understanding the existence of others. Also, identity is not singular but plural: one person may be a man, a father, an artist and an academic; another may be non-binary, a mother, a football player and an evaluation researcher. Each identity is affiliated with a group of people who also hold that identity. And each identity and group has its ‘others’: people of other genders, ethnicities, political persuasions, religious beliefs, and so on. This is an inescapable part of human life. As researchers, we need to consider the role of our own identities. Who are our ‘others’? How does this affect our work?

These are not easy questions – but then that’s ethics for you!

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $56 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $56 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Research methods to consider in a pandemic

methodsSince lockdown began, researchers have been discussing how best to change our methods. Of the ‘big three’ – questionnaires, interviews, and focus groups – only questionnaires are still being used in much the same way. There are no face-to-face interviews or focus groups, though interviews can still be held by telephone and both can be done online. However, doing research online comes with new ethical problems. Some organisations are forbidding the use of Zoom because it has had serious security problems, others are promoting the use of Jitsi because it is open source.

I’ve been thinking about appropriate methods and I have come up with three options I think are particularly worth considering at this time: documentary research, autoethnography, and digital methods. These are all comparatively new approaches and each offers scope for considerable creativity. Documentary research seems to be the oldest; I understand that its first textbook, A Matter of Record by UK academic John Scott, was published in 1990. Autoethnography was devised by US academic Carolyn Ellis in the 1990s, and digital methods have developed as technological devices have become more available to more people through the 21st century.

Documentary research is also called document research or document analysis. Interest in this approach has been growing recently, with two books published in the last two years in the UK alone. The first is Doing Excellent Social Research With Documents (2018) by Aimee Grant (with a gracious foreword by John Scott). The second is Documentary Research in the Social Sciences (2019) by Malcolm Tight. These books demonstrate that documents can be used as data in a wide range of research projects. Of course some documents are only available in hard copy, such as those held in archives or personal collections, but a large and growing number of documents are freely available online. A range of analytic techniques can be used when working with documents, such as content analysis, thematic analysis, or narrative analysis.

Autoethnography is ethnography written by, about, and through the researcher’s self (just as autobiography is biography written by its subject). In some quarters autoethnography has a bad reputation as self-indulgent navel-gazing. And of course, like all research methods, it can be poorly used – but when used well it has great potential for insight. I am seeing signs that there are going to be a lot of COVID19 autoethnographies, so I would recommend steering away from this, but there may well be other aspects of your life that could become a fruitful basis for research. Using autoethnography well requires the researcher to make careful judgements about how much of their self to include in the research as data, what other data to gather, and how to analyse all of that data. Also, good autoethnography is likely to have a clear theoretical perspective and implications for policy and/or practice. Texts I would recommend here are Autoethnography as Method (2009) by Korean-American academic Heewon Chang, and Evocative Autoethnography (2016) by US academics Arthur Bochner and Carolyn Ellis.

Digital research or digital methods are terms that have come to encompass a wide range of methods united by their dependence on technology. Although this is the newest of the three approaches I’m covering today, it is also the most complex and changeable. Many pre-digital research methods can be adapted for use in digital ways, and the digital environment also enables the development of new research methods. Documentary research in lockdown will be mostly, if not entirely, digital, and there is also scope for digital autoethnography. Texts I would recommend, again both from the UK, are Understanding Research in the Digital Age by Sarah Quinton and Nina Reynolds, and Doing Digital Methods by Richard Rogers. One thing to remember when doing digital research is that inequalities also exist in the digital environment; it is not a neutral space. I can recommend a couple of texts on this topic too, both from the US: Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Noble, and Race After Technology by Ruha Benjamin.

Doing research in a pandemic also requires considerable thought about ethics. I have long argued that ethical considerations should start at the research question, and I believe that is even more crucial at present. Does this research need doing – or does it need doing now, in the middle of a global collective trauma? If not, then don’t do that research, or postpone it until life is easier. Alternatively, you may be doing urgent research to help combat COVID19, or important research that will go towards a qualification, or have some other good reason. In which case, fine, and the next ethical question is: how can my research be done in a way that places the least burden on others? The methods introduced above all offer scope for conducting empirical research without requiring much input from other people. Right now, everyone is upset; many are worried about their health, income, housing, and/or loved ones; increasing numbers are recently bereaved. Therefore everyone is vulnerable, and so needs more care and kindness than usual. This includes potential participants and it also includes researchers. We need to choose our methods with great care for us all.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $47 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $47 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

 

Not Spock! The myth of “objectivity” damages public trust in science

Dan Cleather cover kdpI am happy to host this guest post by Dan Cleather, a lecturer at St Mary’s University in London.

Public perception of the nature of science and scientists is neatly encapsulated in the portrayal of scientists on the big and small screens. It is a well worn trope – the scientist is a highly intelligent but eccentric character who struggles to understand human problems and to fit into society. Some of film and television’s most popular fictional characters are cast in this mould: Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in Star Trek, Dr Emmet Brown in Back to the Future, the Ghostbusters, Sheldon and the gang in the Big Bang Theory, Jeff Goldblum in almost all his films…

These characters suggest that scientists live in ivory towers where they seek to solve abstract problems without ever considering the human condition. Science is a complex game with little relevance to real life. As a scientifically literate, but admittedly weird, kid, I experienced the effect of these prejudices first hand. “Yes Dan, you’re very clever, but you have no common sense…”

Scientists often reinforce aspects of these stereotypes. Many scientists believe that science is objective – that they are engaged in a pursuit of universal truth and are unaffected by bias. Most scientists would consider this objectivity to be a hugely important, positive characteristic of science. In particular, they think that their objectivity and ability to impartially weigh the evidence should lend authority to their opinions on key issues of public debate like climate change or vaccine hesitancy.

Unfortunately, in today’s “post-truth” world, the expert opinion of scientists is increasingly marginalised. A key factor in this is a lack of public trust in scientists. In 2019, the Wellcome Trust published a survey of global attitudes to science and health which was based on responses from more than 140,000 people in over 140 countries. They reported that globally, only 18% of people had a high level of trust in scientists and 54% a medium level of trust. Only 40% of people believed that science benefits most people in their society.

The public’s perception of scientists is clearly a key factor in whether they will trust them or not. The problem here is that we would trust Sheldon Cooper to fix a mobile phone, but we wouldn’t let him look after our children. If people see science as clinical and soulless, they don’t believe that it will properly capture and reflect the human considerations that are important to them.

Dan Cleather Star_Trek_Spock

Both scientists and their opponents revel in the supposed difference between science and common sense. Scientists like it because it suggests that they have rarefied skills that aren’t available to the common person. For science deniers, a perceived lack of common sense serves as a useful cudgel with which to attack scientists’ positions.

The myth of scientific objectivity defines these debates in a similar way. Scientists consider that they have truth on their side, and thus have little patience for debate. Science deniers are suspicious of scientists’ claims to objectivity and believe that the stance serves to disguise some type of hidden agenda.

But is science objective? Of course not! We all have conscious and unconscious biases that affect the way we think. One key strength of science, however, is that we study our biases. The naive scientist believes that this process allows them to eliminate bias. Better scientists try, instead, to understand how their biases affect their thinking.

The apparent dichotomy between science and common sense is false. Both forms of thought are based on reason, and on using evidence to understand the real world. Scientific training is simply based on refining these skills and understanding how bias can mislead us.

The solution to vaccine hesitancy or climate change scepticism does not lie in disenfranchising science deniers because we believe they have an inability to listen to reason. For instance, public health messaging is more effective when a sustained effort is made to listen and respond to public concerns.  Scientists need to demonstrate how they use evidence to arrive at their positions. They need to show how the human factors that preoccupy science deniers are also captured within scientific debate, and that scientific consensus does account for their concerns.

It is disingenuous to claim that science is objective, and the public can see through this claim. Rather, scientists need to be honest as to the strengths and limitations of science, and be open to alternate points of view. Who knows, if we listen to the concerns of science deniers we might learn something that can help us.

As Spock himself put it, “”Logic is the beginning of wisdom … not the end”.

Dan is an affiliated researcher with the Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education. His new book, “Subvert! A philosophical guide for the 21st century scientist” (geni.us/Subvert), is out on 14th May 2020.

How To Prioritise

prioritising

Laurie Prange is Professor of Business and Management at Capilano University in Vancouver. She and I have been talking online for some years, and last year I was lucky enough to meet up with her. She treated me to a wonderful brunch at Aphrodite’s Organic Café, and then we took a stroll to look at the beautiful Kitsilano houses by the ocean. Also, we talked non-stop.

Our online talk is more intermittent. Here’s an example from last week:

 

Laurie’s question got me wondering whether people are having difficulty in prioritising during these lockdown times, particularly those who are not used to home working. I had a look round the blogs I’ve taken to checking before I write a post, in case the topic has already been covered: the Thesis Whisperer, the Research Whisperer, Pat Thomson and Raul Pacheco-Vega. I found quite a lot of advice about planning, but very little on prioritising. And they’re not the same thing.

Planning is, of course, essential. You need a plan before you can prioritise. So this post assumes you have a plan. Some people need detailed long-term plans and Raul Pacheco-Vega offers lots of good advice on how to construct and manage this kind of plan. Others can manage with a pen and the back of an envelope. And others still – like me – take an in between approach. I have a top-level to-do list of all my current projects: research work for clients, teaching and speaking engagements, writing and publishing projects. I use that to create a lower-level list of what I need to do each month, then use that list to figure out what I need to do this week, and refer to that list each day to write my daily to-do list. This may sound like a cumbersome approach but in practice it takes just a few minutes each day. I write my weekly to-do list on a Friday evening for the following week, which helps me to put work down for the weekend in the knowledge that come Monday morning, I won’t have to think about what I need to do, I’ll only have to prioritise.

Prioritising is micro-level planning: it’s about what you do first, what you do next, and why. The former US President Dwight D Eisenhower coined a helpful principle. He said that it is necessary to understand the difference between urgent and important tasks. Those that are both urgent and important take top priority. Then – and this may seem counter-intuitive – the second priority goes to the important non-urgent tasks. This is because important tasks are those which help you move towards your goals, while urgent tasks may not be urgent to you but only to someone else. Of course to that other person the task may be both urgent and important – but if a task is not important to you, it should take a lower priority in your life. This is linked with the vital task of saying ‘no’. Then tasks which are neither important nor urgent take the lowest priority.

More things to consider when prioritising are your own energy level and working style. There are three good options for what to do first in any given day. One is the most urgent and important task on the day’s list; if something is screaming ‘now now now!’ then get it done first. Another option, particularly on a day when you don’t feel so good or you’re struggling with motivation, is to do a small easy task to give yourself a sense of achievement. The third – and the one I use most often – is to ‘swallow the frog’. This expression comes from a saying by the American humourist Mark Twain, who said that if the first thing you do each day is eat a live frog, then for the rest of the day you can have the satisfaction of knowing that the day’s worst experience is already behind you. This jest has become a useful metaphor in prioritising, summing up advice given to me as a child by my mother: do the thing you least want to do first of all or, at the very latest, second. It’s tempting to do the easier or more enjoyable tasks first, and work up to the more demanding jobs. But that can quickly turn to counter-productive procrastination, as the more demanding jobs are even harder later in the day when you’re tired.

Another thing that can help with prioritising is to eat a healthy balanced and regular diet. I can hear you asking me, Helen, what on earth has THAT got to do with it? Stick with me, reader; this is evidence-based. The psychologist Roy Baumeister used empirical research to demonstrate a link between willpower and blood sugar. Doing unappealing tasks takes willpower, which requires good blood sugar levels. This does not mean you should eat all the chocolate or snack throughout the day; that poses a particular danger in these lockdown times when the fridge is close at hand. It means you should, whenever possible, eat three healthy meals a day. If you have a low patch – for me it’s around 4 pm – add in a healthy snack; my go-to options include a cup of cocoa with no added sugar, or some carrot sticks and hummus.

It is also necessary to be flexible. Prioritising is not a one-off task; it needs regular revision in the light of external changes. The need to make changes can make people feel as though they are poor prioritisers, as if their prioritising techniques are at fault because they haven’t been able to stick to their original micro-plan. Don’t fall into that trap; recognise that changing circumstances require us to reprioritise, and be ready and willing to do so. Use good time management techniques, though, such as batching tasks and minimising distractions, to help you recognise the events that mean reprioritisation is needed. Don’t let your micro-plan be knocked off course by every incoming email.

And finally: always, always, prioritise self-care.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $47 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $47 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Creative Research Methods – Second Edition!

Creative research methods (Second edition) [FC]My book on creative research methods was launched almost five years ago, at a conference on creative research methods at the British Library. The book has been well received worldwide and has had some excellent reviews. Around 18 months ago my editor and I decided it was time to start thinking about a second edition.

The field of creative research methods is exploding, and the changes to the second edition reflect the speed and extent of the field’s development. Almost all of the first edition content is still present, apart from a few edits and one or two citations which have been superseded by later work. And there is a lot more. Five new chapters, over 35,000 new words, and over 200 new references. And a new cover – isn’t it gorgeous?

Also some of the emphases within the book have been rebalanced. One proposal reviewer said they didn’t think there was enough in the first edition about research using technology; another said they would like more on creative approaches to quantitative methods. I wanted more examples from the global South. These have all been addressed.

The attentive reader may notice that the title has changed. The first edition was called ‘Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide’. That title always annoyed me; it should really have been ‘Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences, Arts, and Humanities, and to some extent STEM subjects as well’ but that was too unwieldy for a book title. This second edition is truly interdisciplinary so we’ve dropped the ‘social sciences’ tag, but we’ve kept the subtitle because the book is as practical as ever. It won’t answer all your questions – no book could do that – but it offers a fairly thorough guide to the options available, and is carefully referenced to help you find more information on topics of interest.

Sorting out the new structure was a massive headache and it took a few iterations before we arrived at the final result. The first part of the book has expanded from four chapters to five, with a new chapter on ‘transformative research frameworks and Indigenous research’. The second part has expanded from five chapters to nine. Data gathering, data analysis, research reporting, and presentation now each have two chapters, one covering arts-based and embodied methods, the other covering technology-based and multi-modal research.

As this suggests, my conceptualisation of the field has also changed in the light of recent literature. The first edition identified four ‘pillars’ of creative research methods: arts-based research, research using technology, mixed-methods research and transformative research frameworks. The expansion of the field over the last five years has led to the inclusion of embodied research as a fifth ‘pillar’. These are not mutually exclusive; creative research often falls into more than one, but they offer a useful way to help us think and talk about a highly complex interdisciplinary field. Also, thanks to the suggestion of an anonymous manuscript reviewer, the term ‘mixed-methods research’ – with its implication of quant data + qual data – has been replaced by ‘multi-modal research’. This term reflects the point made in the first edition, and now more widely understood, that methods may be combined within quantitative or qualitative research alone, and at any stage of the research process.

I’m really excited about this second edition and I hope you are too. It will be published in September and is available for pre-order now. I have developed a two-day course based on the book’s content, in conjunction with the UK’s National Centre for Research Methods, which we will run when everyone can move around again. Also, I am currently developing online versions in collaboration with universities in the UK and Australia. If you are at a university which would like to book me for a course, do get in touch.

Twelve Top Tips For Writing While Distracted

please do not disturbWe’re all quite distracted at the moment: by world events, changes in routine, the needs of family members and friends, and our own emotions. Yet many of us still have writing work to do. And it’s hard. Writing is hard anyway, and in this time of massive uncertainty it’s harder than ever.

I have been thinking about this a lot as I have a whole bunch of writing on my to-do list right now. I’ve also been watching and participating in online conversations about the difficulties people are experiencing when they’re trying to write. And I’ve tried out a few strategies of my own in recent days. So here are my twelve top tips.

  1. Don’t expect to do as much work as you usually would. We are all anxious and, at some level, grieving. Be gentle with yourself, and cherish what you do manage rather than beating yourself up for what you haven’t achieved.
  2. Establish a writing place in your home. It doesn’t need to be solely devoted to writing – it could be one corner of the sofa, or of the dining table – nor does it need to be large.
  3. Plan a swift pre-writing ritual e.g. making a ‘writing drink’ – hot or cold, whatever your preference, but the same one each time. This all helps to reinforce the message that you’re about to write and it’s important.
  4. Get a routine going. Many of us have less structure in our lives than usual, and routine is often helpful for writing. Write at the same time each weekday, or on the days that are best for you. Or, if your routine is irregular, e.g. due to shift work, plan your writing times in advance and stick to them.
  5. Use sound or silence in the way that helps you most. Some people like to write to music, others prefer soothing sounds like waves or rain – there are plenty of options on YouTube. If silence works better for you, use earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones.
  6. If you’re writing first draft material, set yourself small daily goals: half an hour of focused writing, or a few hundred words if you respond better to word count goals. If you’re at home alone with children, unless they’re too young, set a timer so they know when they can interrupt you again (barring emergencies of course). If there’s another adult in the house, do a deal with them so you get time to write and in return they get time to do whatever they need to do.
  7. Break down your writing jobs into small chunks. Usually I regard ‘edit book chapter’ as a single task. On Tuesday I scrolled aimlessly around in the text of a chapter I needed to edit, wondering how on earth I could tackle the work in front of me. In the end I wrote myself a list: add bullet points to the end of section 1, check case study on page 3 against citations elsewhere to ensure a smooth flow, write reflective questions – that kind of thing. Then I found I could deal with each small job in turn, albeit more slowly than usual.
  8. Renegotiate deadlines if necessary. Supervisors, editors, and other such people are likely to be sympathetic to the need for extensions. Try to be as realistic as you can about how much extra time you need, and then aim to stick to your new deadline.
  9. Restrict your consumption of news websites and social media. At present, they increase anxiety. I’m now looking at the news, briefly, just a couple of times a day; I have mostly stopped using Tweetdeck with the rolling feed that I usually love, and am using my Twitter notification page instead; and I’m spending less time on Facebook and Instagram. This is helping.
  10. Join and use a virtual ‘shut up and write’ group or book a virtual writing retreat. New ones are springing up all the time at present and you can find them by searching online. Writing with others can help you to focus, even if you’re with them virtually rather than in person. If you don’t fancy a group or a retreat with strangers, maybe you have a colleague/peer/friend or two who you could write with online.
  11. Five minutes of freewriting can help you to get going. Set yourself a prompt in the first person, e.g. ‘What I want to say is…’ Then set a timer for five minutes and write whatever comes to mind, without stopping or editing or censoring yourself. If you pause, or get stuck, write the prompt again, as many times as you need until it takes you somewhere else.
  12. Take as good care of yourself as you can in this unprecedented situation. When possible, do things that soothe you and take your mind off your troubles: hot baths, making, exercise, gaming – different things work for different people. Looking after yourself will help you maintain the resources you need to write.

Given a chance, writing itself can become a useful distraction. I wrote this while intensely worried about the health of two people, one family member and one friend, both of whom are very unwell. It took my mind off everything for a little while. If I can do it, so can you. Good luck!

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

“Stockpiling” and the Blame Game

shopping-3225130_1280Here in the UK, stockpiling citizens are being blamed for empty supermarket shelves. Stockpiling is part of the problem for sure, though not all stockpilers use legitimate means to acquire their supplies. However, there is also stocking up, and the fact that more people need more food and domestic supplies these days. I’m going to explain why, then suggest a partial solution. UK examples, probably also relevant in other parts of the world.

I have asthma. Fortunately I have a supportive partner with no underlying health conditions who has been doing our shopping (or maybe unfortunately if that brings me the virus; we’ll see). A few weeks ago several national newspapers in the US, UK and Australia – maybe elsewhere too – were advising readers to stock up before the coronavirus spread. (I’m not providing links as we understand this very differently now; if you want verification, the articles are easy to find online.) If I was living alone, I think when as our Prime Minister announced that vulnerable people would soon be asked to stay home for 12 weeks, I would have been trying to buy enough supplies of non-perishables to enable me to do that. Not stockpiling; stocking up, exactly as some newspapers had been advising.

Now, staying at home all the time means I need more supplies. If this week was going as planned, I would be away at a friend’s house over this weekend, away again for a night midweek, and so would only need a top-up shop of a few perishables for my four nights at home. I would have taken several meals, and used other supplies, at motorway service stations, in restaurants and cafes, and at my friend’s house. She would have bought a few extra bits, but not a great deal; there are four people in her household, and feeding one extra mouth (and wiping one extra bum, washing one extra pair of hands etc) doesn’t require much extra shopping.

Because I am staying at home all week instead, I need to buy more than usual. Also, I’m aiming to increase my social distance by moving to one weekly big shop from a single supermarket, rather than a few visits to various shops through the week. Yesterday afternoon I had managed to land a click-and-collect slot and I did a whole weekly shop. Am I stockpiling? No, I’m stocking up. I didn’t get everything I wanted but I got enough to see me through the week.

Many others will be in a similar position. Not eating in cafes and restaurants, not using toilet paper and soap in service stations and railway stations and cafes and restaurants and hotels, not visiting friends’ houses. I know the restaurants and cafes have only just closed, but many of us have had the sense already to socially distance. Ideally we need to buy enough of everything at home, in one go, for a full seven days or even longer.

Also, there are more people than usual who need those supplies because nobody is going abroad on holiday. The UK population do this a lot. There are over 66m of us on this damp little island, and 17% holiday abroad each year – that’s over 11m – for holidays with an average length of almost 9 days. This means that, in an average week, at a conservative estimate over 215,000 people are out of the country on holiday for the entire week. So they are not shopping in the UK’s supermarkets.

Then there are the people who travel for work, or to visit family and friends. In 2018 there were almost 72m trips overseas from the UK. That’s almost 1.4m trips per week. Of course we get visitors too, but far fewer; almost 38m in 2018. And over half of those go to London. Holidays are the most common reason for those visits, and tourists in the UK are much more likely to eat in hotels and restaurants than to shop in supermarkets.

So there is a net increase in the number of people using UK supermarkets right now, and we need more supplies than usual because we’re doing everything at home. Being unable to get those supplies for ourselves and our families is causing fear, anger, and sadness. The thinking behind this post was inspired by a Facebook post from a friend, who wrote:

So just been to do my mum’s shopping. For the past x number of years we’ve bought 4 cartons of uht milk every week, so she doesn’t have to worry about running out. She used to have a milkman deliver, but milk kept getting pinched. She’s 87, eats next to nothing, but likes her cornflakes and cups of tea. Just made me sad. She requires so little but I can’t get what she needs.

However, there is at least a partial solution to this. There are food wholesalers who usually deliver supplies to restaurants, cafes, hotels etc. Those businesses will be making fewer or no orders. We need to join up the wholesalers with community groups, local retail outlets (if they don’t supply them already), and food banks. One or two are already showing willingness to sell to personal customers, as long as a minimum order threshold is reached, and showing initiative in recruiting more drivers and other staff. The others need to follow suit.

Stocking up is an everyday response to unusual circumstances in our lives. Scheduled for surgery and need to convalesce at home? Better stock up. Going on your annual staycation in a caravan, tent, or rented accommodation? Get the supplies in. Christmas on the horizon? We all know what that means. So it seems to me that most people are behaving quite normally. What people aren’t taking into account is that the circumstances we now face are not the ordinary kind of unusual; they are unprecedented.

I’m not blaming the Government for this. Of course I can criticise some of their decisions, but it’s a complex, fast-moving, and unique situation, with a huge number of factors to balance; mostly I’m thankful I’m not involved in making those decisions. I’m not blaming the food industry either. Retailers, thrown into the front line of a global crisis, are doing an amazing job. As so often, I find myself thinking the mainstream media need to take a long hard look at themselves, though perhaps this too is easy to say because of course I have the benefit of hindsight.

I suspect the actual stockpilers – those trying to provision themselves for months or years – are in a small minority. And at least some of those people may be thinking it’s a sensible response to the situation because, once provisioned, they can take themselves right out of the equation for a long, long time.

It feels more difficult right now to acknowledge that it’s OK for people to think differently from us. I find myself railing against people who aren’t practising physical distancing – “why are they so STUPID, don’t they REALISE” – and struggling more than usual to imagine myself in their place. When we’re fearful – and all of us are fearful – it’s easier to demonise others. But I don’t think it helps. Maybe what we really need is to stop blaming people, and acknowledge that most of us are doing our best, according to our own, inevitably flawed, knowledge and understanding.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Writing Is A Research Method

writing on keyboardIt has always struck me as odd that people don’t recognise writing as a research method. I doubt there is a single piece of formal research in the Euro-Western world which doesn’t involve writing. Yes, we can make all our reports with video, but those videos need scripting and that requires words. As researchers, writing is one way in which we exercise our power. You may not think of yourself or your writing as powerful, yet writing is an act of power in the world. I was reminded recently by a colleague that my words on this blog are powerful. I’d forgotten. It’s easy to forget, but we need to remember.

Writing, in Euro-Western research, is universal. It’s the one method used regularly by both quantitative and qualitative researchers. Perhaps that’s why it isn’t recognised as a method, because it unites us rather than dividing us. But it is a method, and I would argue that it is a qualitative method. We can’t do research without writing, and how we write affects the ways our work is understood and used by other people.

I’ve been interested in the terminology around the COVID-19 pandemic, which I think provides a useful example. Last week I wrote a post about self-isolation. Following a lot of travelling the previous week I’ve been voluntarily staying at home, seeing only my partner and a couple of delivery people. One friend challenged my use of the term ‘self-isolation’, saying that in their view I was doing social distancing because I wasn’t sleeping separately and staying 2m away from my partner or using separate washing facilities, and I was still taking deliveries in person. I could see their point, though I know others are using the term ‘self-isolation’ in the same way as me. My view of social distancing is that it is more about literally keeping our distance from each other in public places. But these are new terms and we’re all trying to figure this whole thing out while it’s happening.

However, neither of them are particularly lovely terms, and I have appreciated the appearance of alternatives. The first I saw was I think an FB post taken from Instagram (I can’t remember who generated either post now – my apologies; if it was you or you know who it was, please comment below and I’ll edit to credit). The post suggested that we’re not doing social distancing, we’re doing physical distancing for social solidarity. I really liked that concept. Then yesterday Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach of Ireland (and a doctor), spoke of cocooning, and I heard that Americans were talking of ‘shelter in place’.

While I have no evidence for this beyond my own reactions, I suspect that more positive terms are likely to lead to more acceptance. Asking someone to isolate themselves has connotations of loneliness, sadness, and prison (which also has associations with the term ‘lockdown’ currently in use around the world). Physical distancing sounds easier and more accurate than social distancing, and coupling it with social solidarity makes it feel stronger and more righteous. Cocooning makes me think of cosiness and warmth, plus it rhymes (or almost) with other gentle words like soothing and crooning. Asking someone to shelter in place has connotations of home, familiarity, and safety.

As researchers, we often have new information to impart and we sometimes arrive at new concepts which need to be named. There are a whole bunch of words and phrases for us to choose from in writing each new sentence. The words and phrases we use can make a great deal of difference to how our work is received. This means we need to take care in choosing our words and phrases, and in putting them together to make sentences, and in putting sentences together to make paragraphs. These tiny laborious steps are like the strokes of an artist’s brush or the stitches from a crafter’s needle: the beating heart of the writer’s art.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Why I Am Self-Isolating

self-isolationYesterday afternoon I came home at the end of a week away teaching and speaking at universities in Southampton (England) and Stavanger (Norway). It was an odd week: last Sunday emails were whizzing back and forth about whether events might be cancelled; by Wednesday night the organisers in Stavanger decided to cancel the last half-day of their conference scheduled for the next morning; and on Thursday morning they got so worried by rumours in Norway that Oslo airport was about to close, that they booked me a new flight back to Heathrow that afternoon and a hotel at the airport (I’d previously booked myself onto an early flight the next day to Manchester).

Between Monday morning and Friday afternoon I went through three airports (one of them twice) and eight train stations (three of them twice). I travelled in two planes, one tube train, eight regular trains, and four taxis. I stayed in three hotels, and had two work-related restaurant dinners with other travelling professionals. One was with a single colleague who had flown from South Africa to the UK to attend the course I ran in Southampton and the other was with around 35 people in Stavanger, many of whom had travelled a considerable distance on planes and/or trains to get to the conference.

Even so, considering the current stage of the pandemic, I would be unlucky to have contracted the virus. I took all the precautions I could; my hands have never been so clean. People in Norway were being very careful: elbow bumps replaced handshakes; hotel workers wore disposable gloves to serve food and drink and to collect used crockery and cutlery. But I won’t know for sure whether I have caught the virus for at least 14 days, maybe longer – and if I have caught it, then during those days I could infect tens or hundreds or even thousands of other people. Preventing this would save potential misery for individuals and families, and potentially also reduce – or, at least, help to spread – the burden on the health service. As the NHS has been undermined by ten years of austerity, plus the impact of Brexit, it is not in the best shape to manage a pandemic. Our hospitals were already full before this pandemic hit.

Making the decision to self-isolate, in the absence of official requirements for me to do so, wasn’t easy. Several things helped. Conversations with family members – some in their later years, others with several serious and complex health conditions including immunosuppression – were useful. These people are also self-isolating; like me, as much for others’ protection as for their own. One family member sent me this really well argued article which also helped. And my partner’s willingness to support my wishes was crucial. Also the requirements in other countries such as Canada, Norway and now New Zealand for self-isolation in circumstances like mine were helpful too. (I can’t find links for the Canadian and Norwegian requirements so my evidence there is anecdotal: I have family in Canada who recently returned from the Caribbean and are being required to self-isolate for 14 days, and an airport official at Heathrow told me of a similar requirement in Norway for travellers returning from the UK.) This photo, posted on Facebook, also helped – I’m interested in Ireland’s response because their Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, is a doctor, as is his partner.

Irish Daily Mail 13.3.2020 save many lives

(I usually source reusable photos from Pixabay, or use my own. I don’t know who generated this image; if it was you, and you want me to credit you or you’re unhappy with my use of the image, please get in touch.)

I am lucky that my work allows me to self-isolate. All my forthcoming speaking and teaching engagements have been postponed, most of them indefinitely, which means a loss of thousands of pounds of income over the next few months. However I have desk research to do for clients, and research teams I’m on are considering changes to planned fieldwork as bringing groups of – mostly older – people together in the UK and the EU doesn’t look like an option any more. Meetings are being moved online, though that can come with its own problems as tech providers deal with unexpected spikes in demand. So I can still earn a living, albeit a smaller one.

Then there’s the question of how to self-isolate. Usually when I get home from a trip I turn to domestic tasks such as shopping. My partner agreed to do that instead of me, so I offered to put everything away. While I was waiting I read some more and learned that the virus may be able to survive on hard surfaces for days. So, after putting away the shopping, I washed my hands again – and resolved to continue my frequent and regular hand washing during this period of self-isolation.

I won’t be going to shops or to the gym; I’ll be doing my grocery shopping online and doing yoga and lifting weights at home. I’ll call my hairdresser and discuss my planned appointment for Tuesday – if it’s just him and me in the salon, and I wear gloves throughout, maybe that would be OK. (I’m aware that he runs a small business and needs the work, so at this stage I’ll take the decision with him rather than unilaterally.) I will be using contactless payment and bank transfers for everything so as not to handle cash, in accordance with WHO advice. And so on.

There are so many decisions to make. How much distance do I need to keep from my partner? That’s a really hard one. We hugged when we were reunited yesterday, but we haven’t hugged since, though that’s not a firm decision. We are due to visit friends down south next weekend; I guess we won’t go, but we haven’t actually decided. A nearby friend had a baby recently and I’ve been longing to visit but now I doubt that will be happening any time soon. I miss my friends already, but at least I can talk to people on the phone, or text, or tweet.

I’m looking forward to Monday morning when I can go to my office in my usual work routine. I’m looking forward to a time when conversations don’t centre on the pandemic. I’m looking forward to feeling able to move freely again. But in the meantime, while my Government seems to be looking the other way, and the press supporting the Government have suggested that a coronavirus-induced ‘cull’ of elderly people could benefit the economy, I will be self-isolating because I am persuaded, by the evidence, that it is the most sensible course of action.

If you would like to quote from or share this post, please do. Let’s support our health services. Let’s save lives.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Twelve Top Tips For Writing An Academic Book Blurb

blurbThe ‘blurb’ is the text on the back of a book’s cover which tells you what the book is about. It’s not simply a description, though; it is also a sales tool. For this reason some people find blurbs difficult, even distasteful to write.

Do you want to know a secret? I love writing blurbs. This is partly because I love writing and I always enjoy a different and interesting wordsmithing job. It’s also because I enjoy a chance to show off. For the same reason, I like being interviewed for contracts, giving keynotes, and running workshops. Generally speaking, showing off is regarded as bad form, but these are situations where you’re supposed to show off. And so is writing a blurb.

I do understand why blurb writing can feel difficult and distasteful for some people, particularly academics who are trained not to over-claim – and so may spend much of their time actually under-claiming in their efforts to follow academic convention. Generally speaking I think that’s a good thing, but when you’re writing a blurb, you need to use a different register. If you’re one of the people who finds blurb-writing difficult – or perhaps you’re coming to this task for the first time – these tips should help you to write an irresistible blurb.

  1. Start by studying some blurbs of books in your field. Take note of what appeals to you, what puts you off, and in particular what might encourage you to open the book and start reading.
  2. Go back to your book’s proposal and manuscript reviews and pull out every complimentary word, phrase and sentence into a new document. Think about which of these you could use in your blurb, and how.
  3. Revisit the proposal you wrote for your book. Look for ideas or wording you can use in your blurb.
  4. Explain as clearly as possible what your book does that no other book does.
  5. Use strong language. I don’t mean swearing (unless you’re in a very particular kind of sub-genre), I mean words like “first”, “brilliant”, “ground-breaking” – especially such words that were used by your reviewers and/or in your proposal. This kind of language inspires curiosity in potential readers.
  6. Specify who your book is for. This could be by category of people (students, teachers, early career researchers) or by interest (e.g. anyone with an interest in urban design and planning).
  7. Work hardest on the first sentence; it’s the most important. Make it as compelling as you can.
  8. Work almost as hard on the last sentence. Fiction blurbs often use a cliff-hanger (“Will Curtis ever recover from his terrible ordeal?” “Can Lila catch the serial killer before more nurses die?”). Academic books can rarely do this but at least we can try to be intriguing.
  9. Make every single word count. Blurbs are usually limited to 100-150 words so there’s no room for waffle.
  10. Expect input from your publisher’s marketing people. They’re good at this kind of thing. For example, the second sentence of the blurb for Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners says “Brilliantly attuned to the demands placed on researchers, this book considers how students, academics and professionals alike can save time and stress without compromising the quality of their research or its outcomes.” I have to credit Kathryn King, marketing manager at Policy Press, for most of this sentence, perhaps all, and certainly its opening.
  11. If you don’t get input from your publisher – or even if you do – test out your blurb on a few friends or colleagues who you can trust to give you honest constructive feedback.
  12. Be prepared to revise and revise and polish and polish and revise some more.

One piece of advice often given to blurb writers is to be sure to use your own voice. I only agree with this up to a point, because it’s not like any of us only have one voice. Think how you might talk to a tired two-year-old or to a police officer who has just stopped you in the street. Different voices, right? And so it is with books and blurbs. In the book, you’re talking to your reader; you know they’re there with you. In the blurb, you’re trying to persuade them to join you. Again, think how your voice might differ in equivalent real-life situations: perhaps where you’re chatting to a friend over a table in a coffee shop, versus standing in the street trying to persuade your friend to join you for a coffee when you really want them to say “yes”.

Ultimately, that’s what your blurb needs to do: persuade potential readers to say “yes”, to become actual readers, to take your words and ideas along with them.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $52 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $52 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!