Since 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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