Research, Interrupted: Rethinking research, relationships and responsibilities in the pandemic

Researcher Molly Gilmour shares her experience of having to stop her own research in Lebanon due to the pandemic lockdown, and how she is trying to apply, reflect on and develop the community-engaged principles of that work in the present study.

This research project is taking place at a time when a lot of our own research has been interrupted. The normal face to face interactions that enrich and have been fundamental to social research in social science is no longer possible for the foreseeable future. As researchers, we’re re-learning how to conduct the meaningful research with communities in different ways. For instance, how do we best coordinate a project of 25 researchers, across four different areas of study, when many teammates have never met one another? How do we create and sustain meaningful relationships when we can’t rely on familiar small-talk shared over teas and coffee?

In March I was two weeks into a ten-month participatory ethnography in Lebanon when the pandemic hit. I was working in partnership with an INGO and a local NGO conducting data collection for my PhD. My research asked, ‘how can community engagement methods be used to improve trust and enable more appropriate and effective humanitarian healthcare provision’. I was required to stop this work, I was told by my research partner that it was unsuitable for me to continue researching in the public hospital with refugee populations, and I have since taken up a role in the Scotland in Lockdown project.

Over the past five months, through attending trainings and webinars, I’ve been inspired to rethink and disrupt the ways that I research. I’ve been working through this difficult and messy process in the midst of a global pandemic and protests against systematic racism. I’ve been using these few months as a time to reflect and re-think how the current context relates to my roles, relationships and responsibilities in both academia and the humanitarian aid sector.

Rethinking interventions

The current context is challenging what it means to do research in a social setting as a social scientist, it’s challenging power dynamics and the traditional intervention styles of aid delivery and research. Now, large institutions who move people and things across borders have had to find new ways of working.

I was told by my University and my research partner, a large humanitarian medical aid NGO, that I had to pause my fieldwork. The current climate was not considered suitable for my participatory research design, methods or partnerships style. I had to find a new way of working. Importantly, it challenged and questioned my research partnerships and practises. It’s revealed underlying assumptions about what I considered valid knowledge; do I have to go there to ‘discover’ this knowledge?

Are there other ways I can establish research partnerships to conduct research more effectively and appropriately? As a critical race scholar, the crux of my argument is less international intervention, more localisation.

The issues which stem from international interventions are being hotly debated in the charity sector.  As a keynote speaker at a recent humanitarian medicine conference I attended, described: the aid sector has experienced a massive rupture of working practises due to this pandemic as people and resources are stuck behind borders. It’s led him and his colleagues to question their practises and they’re inevitably confronted with pertinent issues of systemic racism embedded in the sector, which is accused of having a ‘two-tier’ system divided by European staff and ‘local’ staff, as in the recent report on ‘Decolonising Aid: Again’. An article in The New Humanitarian quoted a defensive response from the head of Médecins Sans Frontières France who asserted that while there were “real discrimination problems” in MSF, the organisation had limited resources and should be advocating for its work in Afghanistan more than trying to resolve the “historical social and racial tensions shattering the American society”. Charity So White is part of a growing movement taking place across the UK and taking on stances like this to tackle the many ways in which racism operates within the UK charity sector.

I believe that this pause, the interruption of my PhD research, both weakens and questions the strength of the research partnerships in my research. I reflect on the multiple flights I have taken for one-week research visits to Uganda that harmed our planet. As someone who is employed at a UK institution whose reputation was made possible through the wealth derived from slavery, I question what role do UK Universities play in such unequal power dynamics, do we create our own two-tier systems of power through research partnerships? 

As much as this study is about understanding and addressing the challenges of refugees, we too need to remain vigilant about colonial practices of research. For instance, not assuming what we as often middle class, relatively secure researchers would find challenging about being destitute is how someone in this position would feel.

Re-orientate

As I re-orient, and virtually delve into this new research project, a project which neatly overlaps with my PhD, as a Research Assistant in the strand which explores the health and social impacts of COVID-19 measures for refugee and asylum seeking populations, I ask how can I connect with and conduct meaningful research through alternative means involving no travel or face-to-face contact?  

When I consider the multiple interviews that I’ll be conducting by phone in the coming weeks, I’m rethinking ‘what counts’ as research data. I’ve been trained to capture the more nuanced elements of interviews, such as the room’s atmosphere (room layout, scents and sounds) and the participant’s body language (toes tapping, nervous gestures).

Many researchers are switching to an intense use of the internet as a form of communication and method of research (as we are doing through interviews, focus groups and surveys). As a humanitarian researcher, I work in spaces of stark inequalities, at a time when food insecurity and health problems are being exacerbated. Can I find a way of partnering and researching in contexts with such colossal ‘digital divides’ from my flat-turned-office in Glasgow? Just as the humanitarian aid industry must be reflexive and held accountable to their positionality, academics must ensure that their approach to research is appropriate and ethical.

Molly Gilmour @MVGilmour (she/hers) is a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow working on ‘How can we strengthen emergency healthcare for forced migrants situated on the edges of Europe?’ She is also part of the research team on the Scotland in Lockdown study, working in the stream on refugees and asylum seekers facing destitution.