Research Ethics for Independent Researchers

Research Ethics in the Real WorldThis post was requested by people in the Facebook group of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS – actually an international organisation despite its name). You don’t have to be an NCIS member to join the Facebook group, and if you’re an indie researcher or scholar I would recommend joining one or the other, both if you can. NCIS offers a range of benefits to members including an open access peer reviewed journal, networking opportunities, and grants.

Independent researchers often don’t have access to research ethics committees (aka institutional review boards in the US). These committees and boards are set up by institutions such as universities and health authorities. I studied this as background for my book on research ethics, and found that a minority do try to help researchers work more ethically, but the majority are focused on institutional protection. This post is not about the rights and wrongs of institutional protectionism, so I will just say that I think committees or boards that focus on institutional protection should be called ‘institutional protection committee/board’ not ‘research ethics committee’ or ‘institutional review board’.

I am interested to see that some communities and some organisations are setting up their own systems of ethical review, such that researchers who want to work with them have to satisfy the community or organisation’s ethical requirements. Indeed, I’m delighted to be advising some organisations on how to do this in a way that meets their needs. There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to research ethics, and each community and organisation is best placed to figure out what constitutes ethical research practice for them.

There is also, interestingly, an independent research ethics committee: the New Zealand Ethics Committee (NZEC), set up in 2014. NZEC is run by volunteers to provide expert ethical advice for community-based researchers and others without access to an institutional ethics committee or board. Initially it offered its services free of charge, but it proved unexpectedly popular, so it is now charging a negotiable rate while it seeks sustainable funding.

Many professional bodies have their own codes of ethics that independent researchers can follow. I belong to the UK and Ireland Social Research Association (SRA), and my clients often feel reassured when I tell them I follow the SRA’s ethical guidelines. In fact there are loads of free open access research ethics resources online and new ones appear from time to time. I’ve been working on the EU’s PRO-RES project, to create an ethics resource for all non-medical researchers. This is still in development but the website already contains a lot of useful information.

If you’re an independent researcher, you already know your work involves a lot of thinking for yourself. If you want policies and procedures to follow, you either have to find ones you like or write some of your own. The same applies with research ethics. OK, we rarely get the chance to spend days filling in a massive form to be challenged or approved by a committee. It might be showing by now that I’m not fond of the current research governance system, and I think its absence offers an important opportunity for independent researchers: we can do research that is more ethical than research done by institutions. If we choose, we can attend to the ethical aspects of research that research ethics committees rarely consider. These begin with the generation of a potential research question. Is it ethical to ask that question? Can the research to investigate be done ethically? And they span right through to aftercare for participants, data, findings, and researchers ourselves. Of course being independent also means we can operate scams, cheat, defraud people and be as unethical as we like. Which means it is vital for every independent researcher to think and act as ethically as possible, to uphold and improve our collective reputation.

There are no absolutes with research ethics. In fact there isn’t even an agreed definition; research ethics is a collection of diverse theories and practices. This is partly because context is a factor: what is ethical in one context may not be ethical in another. Slicing open someone’s belly with a knife? Definitely not ethical – unless you’re an accredited surgeon in an operating theatre, in which case it may be life-saving and therefore highly ethical. Context is crucial, and that is why we all need to learn to think and act ethically throughout our research practice. And that learning is never finished, because every research project is different and the world is always changing. So independent researchers need to be ethical ninjas: knowledgeable, skilled, responsive, and good at solving ethical problems.

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 $54 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $54 – 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!

Taking a Break in Lockdown

reading on holidayA friend asked me a while ago if I was going to have a break this summer. I couldn’t really see the point when I would only be where I’ve already been for months. But then I realised I was getting tired and, actually, a break from work, at least, would be a good idea.

I realise that even having the option to take a break is a sign of considerable privilege. But I do have that privilege, and that option, so the next questions were: where, and how?

It doesn’t feel safe or sensible to try to go to a hotel in the current climate, or to a restaurant or pub, or to anywhere really. (I made an experimental trip to a café last weekend, but I had to write down my contact details even though I was sitting outside, and when I thought about what a pain it would be if I had to self-isolate for another 14 days, I decided not to repeat the experiment.)

So that’s the where: at home. However, I didn’t just want to sit around in my house all day. I don’t have a helpful hobby; I like to cook for friends, and socialise, and travel, none of which I can do at the moment. I felt a little envious of one of my Instagram friends who is taking a break with a very clear mission: to knit and read crime novels, both of which she loves. I used to knit and crochet but my hands went wonky which put paid to that, and I don’t have an equivalent passion. Writing is my hobby now, but it’s also my work.

An old friend who lives alone, and needed a week’s break from her intense job, had a genius idea. “I’m packing my suitcase,” she told me, grinning from the screen. “What – but – hang on – eh?” I spluttered. She explained that she had her suitcase out on the floor, as usual when packing for a break, and she was putting in lots of lovely things for her holiday: books she’d like to read, DVDs to watch, art and craft supplies, special holiday snacks, and so on. Then during her holiday, when she began to wonder what to do next, she would go to her case and choose from the available resources. For my friend, this created the joyful anticipation of a much-needed break, and helped her week off feel really different from the weeks when she was working at home. “I enjoyed that more than I thought I would,” she told me afterwards. “I’m going to do it again!”

I love her idea – but it didn’t feel right for me, and for a while I couldn’t figure out what would feel right. Then, in my office one day, a teetering pile of books caught my eye. My to-be-read pile of work books had grown, over the last year; there were 12 books I either hadn’t read or hadn’t read properly, which I was waiting to find time to tackle. That’s it, I thought to myself – I can have a reading week! Universities have those so I can too. Reading is also my work, but it’s a part of my work that doesn’t get enough attention, and one I find relaxing and pleasant.

So, this week, that’s what I’m doing. On Monday I read two books (they were short, I read fast, and skip-read bits I’ve already read or that aren’t relevant for me). On Tuesday I only read one chapter, but I also did an online exercise class, made muffins and a salad, had a distanced picnic and walk in the park with a good friend I haven’t seen for ages, and wrote this blog post. And anyway I was never going to read 12 books in a week – some are quite long – and it’s more about having a break than getting through the list. It’s relaxing and delightful having time to read, properly, and think.

This also got me wondering about other creative approaches people may have taken to having a break at home. If you too have been in this lucky position, and you’ve done something that might provide inspiration for others, please let us know in the comments.

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 $53 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $53 – 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 Work In Lockdown

podcast-5227930__340This week’s blog is a short podcast produced by the lovely people from Policy Press and featuring an interview with me about research work in lockdown. The podcast was featured earlier this week on the Policy Press blog, Transforming Society, which is well worth a follow, not only for its excellent content but also because followers get a hefty 35% discount on all Policy Press books. You can listen to the podcast on Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts or Spotify – just click on the link for the platform you prefer.

How To Respond To A Call For Chapters – Twelve Top Tips

callingI recently put out a call for chapters for an edited collection on research methods in times of crisis, together with my co-editor Su-ming Khoo from the National University of Ireland. We received an astonishing 102 proposals in response, and selecting chapters for publication was a really tough job. It also taught me a lot about what works – and what doesn’t – when responding to such a call.

We made our requirements very clear (if you want to take a look, you can download the PDF here). The call was circulated via social media and our own networks. Proposals began to arrive within hours, though over half arrived in the 48 hours before the deadline. I have learned a lot from this process and I’m happy to share it here.

  1. Address the editors politely and personally. Dear Dr Kara and Dr Khoo – fine. Dear Dr Helen and Dr Su-ming – also fine. (In some countries the former is commonly used, in other countries the latter. They’re both polite.) Hi Helen and Su – we were OK with this too as informality is increasingly acceptable by email. Dear Sir Or Madam – very much no. To Whom It May Concern – also no. If the editors’ names are on the call, use them.
  2. Don’t bang in something you wrote for another purpose in the hope that it will pass muster. It won’t. Take the time to prepare a proper proposal.
  3. Think about topics and themes that are likely to be common in the responses, then write something different. (We had a lot of proposals from researchers who wanted to write about how they had planned in-person interviews or focus groups, and now they were conducting interviews or focus groups online. This is understandable, but no editor is going to accept more than one of those.)
  4. If the call states a word count, stick to it; it’s there for a reason. (In our case, we knew the word counts for the chapters would be tight, so we needed to see that potential contributors could write effectively to a tight word count.)
  5. Use all or most of the allotted word count, especially if it’s low – unless you really can say everything that needs to be said in fewer words. Only one of our contributors did this effectively. Others submitted proposals around half of the length of the word count we specified. We have no idea why. Maybe they were trying to impress us, but it didn’t work, as they were unable to tell us enough about their work to give us confidence that it would make a good contribution to the book.
  6. You don’t have to include references in the word count – but in most fields we would suggest you reference lightly, if at all. Remember you’re only writing a proposal for a chapter, not the chapter itself. (I am grateful to my co-editor Su-ming Khoo for the latter point, and for approving the rest of this post.)
  7. If you want to reference the work of the editors, do so sparingly. Peppering your proposal with their names will not increase your chances of success. In fact, they are likely to read your work even more critically.
  8. Do not try to get around a word limit by adding extra information in the body of your email. The editors are unlikely to take it into account.
  9. In fact, keep your email brief and business-like.
  10. If the editors ask for specific information, provide it in your proposal; they are asking for a reason. For example, we asked for the location of the research, so we could ensure a good geographical spread. Some people responded with statements such as ‘online worldwide’, which was perfectly acceptable. Others didn’t state any kind of location which was unhelpful.
  11. There may be something relevant to your research that the editors haven’t asked for. If so, work it into your proposal. For example, we didn’t ask for information about the use of theoretical perspectives, because (a) we’re creating a practical methods book and (b) many methods can be used with more than one theoretical perspective and vice versa. (There’s a longer discussion here about the relationship between theory and method – and, indeed, practice. I’ll write about all that one of these days.) Even so, some contributors told us how they were using theory. That was useful, though never the deciding factor.
  12. Meet the deadline.

If you do all that, you are maximising your chances of success. That said, there are never any guarantees. We had to reject over 50% of the proposals we received, for a number of reasons; ‘didn’t meet the submission requirements’ was rarely the only reason. Sometimes we had two or more good quality proposals featuring much the same method, or approach, or participant group, or theme, and we would have to find other ways to choose between them. We spent hours on Zoom weighing up the pros and cons of different proposals and combinations of proposals. We spent more time negotiating with the publisher, Policy Press, to find ways to accept as many proposals as we could. The good part, though, is at the end of all this we’ll have an excellent book – or three!

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!

 

The Power To Do Things Differently

doing things differentlyAs an independent researcher I have the power to do things differently. My last journal article was in a forensic science journal; my next (due out in TQR on 13 July) will focus on comics. When I was writing my book on research ethics, I talked through the innovative approach I was taking with a senior professor, who commented that I wouldn’t have been able to write that book if I’d been working in academia.

There are increasing numbers of people doing research and scholarship differently. As a result, there are new societies and organisations springing up – and some that are not so new. The National Coalition of Independent Scholars (which, despite its name, is a global organisation) was formed in January 1989 to support researchers who are not part of an institution. It offers networking opportunities, grant awards, and discounts on professional services, and operates a peer reviewed journal. Some countries do have national associations of independent scholars, such as Australia (founded 1995) and Canada (founded 2001).

The Ronin Institute was founded in 2012 to facilitate and promote scholarly research outside academic institutions. It is based in the US and is a non-profit, which means its members can apply for some research funding (presumably restricted to US members and US funding). It makes a good case for funding independent researchers – something I’ve been lobbying for here in the UK, with the support of the Social Research Association – and also offers publicity and networking opportunities.

The Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education (IGDORE) was founded in 2016 to improve the quality of science and science education, and to improve the quality of life of scientists and scientists’ families. They are open to researchers within institutions, though their main long-term aim is to build a new type of university where researchers can choose whether – and, if so, when and what – to teach, and the focus will be on using openly accessible materials and open source software to teach open and replicable scientific practices. At present they have a small not-for-profit campus in Bali, Indonesia, which is open to the public, and offers a small academic library, meeting rooms and facilities, and plenty of space to read, think, and work.

Others are also working to build new types of university. The London Interdisciplinary School plans to offer courses encompassing the sciences, arts, design, technology, the social sciences and the humanities. The aim is to produce graduates who are better equipped to tackle real-world problems than those who have studied a single or double discipline. Their admissions process does not only focus on grades, but also takes into account applicants’ educational, familial and personal backgrounds. Their first cohort will begin study in 2021.

An even more recent innovation is the Free Black University. This is a significant step in the essential decolonisation of academia. The long-term vision is for a university, with its own university press, which ‘will centre radical and transformational thought that may not be respected under the current frame of knowledge’. Also, the project is thoroughly intersectional, being ‘Black, queer, trans, anti-colonial, and revolutionary from its very heart’. Funds are currently being raised for the Free Black University. I have made a contribution. Maybe you could too – or, if money is tight for you, perhaps you could circulate the link on social media to encourage others to donate to this important cause. We all have the power to do things differently, in small ways and/or large, and to help others do things differently. Let’s find and use our power.

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!

Research Methods Books By Women Of Colour

Last week I was tagged in a tweet asking this very interesting question:

I thought of a couple of responses immediately, then another the next morning. I also decided to write this blog post because I knew there was more I could say.

Disclaimer: this isn’t a ‘best of’ or a full review, this is simply what is on my shelves in my personal research methods library. I have found these books from social media, peer reviews, bibliographies, recommendations. Between them they cover a wide range of methods and topics: qualitative, quantitative and multi-modal research; arts-based methods and technology; decolonizing methods and Indigenous research; various disciplinary topics; and a lot of ethics.

‘Why to’ books

These books make a case for doing research in certain ethical ways. Let’s start with a classic: Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith. I read this ground-breaking book during my Masters’ in Social Research Methods around the turn of the century, and bought the second edition when it came out in 2012. This little paperback is remarkably comprehensive and full of wisdom.

Building on the work of Smith: Decolonizing Educational Research: From Ownership To Answerability by Leigh Patel (2016). This is a thoughtful, passionate clarion call for education research to focus on learning.

Building on both of the above: Decolonizing Interpretive Research: A Subaltern Methodology for Social Change, edited by Antonia Darder (2019). Interpretive research prioritises philosophical and methodological ways of understanding society. While this book is quite conceptual, its use of multiple voices provides a depth of insight into the importance of the points it makes. Also, if you have read Smith and Patel before you get to this book, it will make more sense.

‘How to’ books

Heewon Chang’s Autoethnography As Method (2008) is a book I frequently recommend to students. It is readable, practical, and clear. Autoethnography is sometimes criticized as self-indulgent and navel-gazing, but if you do it Chang’s way, it won’t be. Also autoethnography has a key role to play in these pandemic times.

Pranee Liamputtong’s Performing Qualitative Cross-Cultural Research (2010) is another classic. It is great on cultural sensitivity and gives lots of really helpful examples. Every researcher should read this book unless they’re absolutely sure they are doing monocultural research – and even then they would probably learn something useful.

Caroline Lenette’s Arts-Based Methods in Refugee Research: Creating Sanctuary (2019) is more specialist, yet has a lot to offer to anyone interested in arts-based methods. She pays particular attention to the methods of digital storytelling, photography, community music, and participatory video.

Indigenous methodologies

 Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts (2009) is by Margaret Kovach from Saskatchewan in Canada. This very readable book includes conversations with six Indigenous thinkers which contribute an interesting diversity of ideas and experiences.

Indigenous Research Methodologies (2019 – 2nd edition) by Bagele Chilisa from Botswana in Africa is another classic. It is also very readable and comprehensive.

The first disciplinary book I found on Indigenous methodologies is by Lori Lambert: Research for Indigenous Survival: Indigenous Research Methodologies in the Behavioral Sciences (2014). Lambert is from the US and, like Kovach, includes other voices in her work. However, the other voices in Lambert’s book are of people from Indigenous communities, in Canada, the US and Australia, who are subject to research. As is common with Indigenous research texts, Lambert’s book is very readable.

Maggie Walter from Tasmania is lead author of Indigenous Statistics: A Quantitative Research Methodology (2013) with Chris Andersen from Canada (who is a man, but I guess he can’t help that, and evidently he was happy for Walter to be first author so good for him). If you’re quant-averse, don’t worry; this is not about how to do sums, it’s about which sums are worth doing and why. And, again, it’s very readable.

Edited collections

These are both edited by men, but are on relevant topics and include chapters by women of colour. The first is White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology (2008) edited by Tukufu Zuberi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Two-fifths of chapters are written or co-written by women of colour.

The second is Research Justice: Methodologies for Social Change (2012) edited by Andrew Jolivétte. Only two chapters in this book are by men, the other 14 are by women (including Antonia Darder and Linda Smith). I reviewed this book for the LSE book review blog back in 2015.

Other relevant topics

While these books are not directly about research methods, they are on topics which are so relevant to researchers that I will include them here.

Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (2018), by Safiya Noble, is a passionately and beautifully argued book about why algorithms are not neutral and the impact that has on society. Researchers use search engines all the time and we need to know about this stuff.

Race After Technology (2019) by Ruha Benjamin builds on and expands Noble’s work. She demonstrates that advances in technology are lauded as objective and progressive, but in fact they reproduce and reinforce existing inequalities. Crucially, she includes a chapter on practical ways to counter this dissonance.

Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias (2020) by Pragya Agarwal helps us to understand and challenge our own unconscious biases. Any researcher concerned about ethics would benefit from reading this book.

In fact, any researcher concerned about ethics would benefit from reading any of the books listed here. Although the word ‘ethics’ doesn’t appear in any of the titles, each of these books points the way towards a more ethical research practice.

This is certainly not a comprehensive list of methods and other research-relevant books (and chapters) by women of colour. If you have other suggestions to make, please add them in the comments.

This is a simulpost with the blog of the Social Research Association of the UK and Ireland.

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!

Call for Chapters

undefinedI am delighted to be working with Su-ming Khoo, from the National University of Ireland, to co-edit a book on Research Methods in Times of Crisis for Policy Press.

We put out the call for chapters last Thursday and we have already had several submissions.

This is no doubt in part because this is a fast-tracked book which will be swiftly written and produced, initially as an e-book. However, there is still plenty of time to respond to the call; the deadline is not until 15 June. So please click on the link above if you want to find out more, or download the PDF here.

 

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.

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