All posts by Rachelle Cobain

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.


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.

The meanings and pressures of ‘rapid research’ on Covid-19

In this blog, co-PI Sarah Armstrong talks about the pressure, meanings of and need for ‘rapid’ social research on Covid-19: to respond to emergent funding, to inform the current response to the current pandemic, to study a phenomenon that is itself rapidly changing.

We learned about a call for rapid Covid-19 research in late March, just after the UK officially went into lockdown. In a single week, we pulled together a team of 18 investigators across four distinct research areas. We Zoomed our ideas about topics and methods in light of the new normal and organisations we might partner with, costed the work and distilled all this into a single (!) page application. After a successful result on the application, we moved forward, enlarging our team with a set of 17 partner organisations, and 7 RAs, most conducting their own doctoral research that was now stymied by lockdown.

I have never worked harder in my entire life, and can imagine my colleagues feel the same about this period. Looking back, I think two things provided a sense of motivation to get through it. First, throwing oneself into a major research project about Covid-19 turns out to be a really effective means of not having to think about Covid-19 in personal terms, and the upending of a whole way of life that was just beginning for all of us. Second, I know I speak for my colleagues in saying all of us felt that the encroaching shutdown would be tough enough for us, but would have profound consequences for people who already are positioned at the margin of society’s interest and attention.

  • In prison, lockdown triggered confinement of people in their cells up to 24 hours per day and stopping all visits of loved ones.
  • In homes across Scotland, people were being locked in with abusers, cut off from the normal routines that would provide respite and relief from isolating situations.
  • The limited services supporting those fleeing from unsafe home countries were being forced to close or restrict operations.
  • And, people living with disability or long-term health conditions found themselves at different points categorised as expendable or extremely vulnerable, and subject to greater restrictions and scrutiny of their movement.

At its heart, our project aims to give voice to the experiences of those who face particular hardships and challenges in getting through a global pandemic.

During April and May, we designed research tools that by June needed updating. As the most extreme phase of lockdown gave way gradually to allow access to more spaces and people, it became clear we needed also to include interview and survey questions about coming out of lockdown. We needed to be thinking about the Coronavirus response not as a sprint but a marathon – crisis funding was holding some things together; what will happen when people need help in September, October and onwards? How will people’s ability to weather a storm change when the storm coincides with winter and with the generosity of public spirit fraying?

These questions have stayed with us as we have worked through the nearly overwhelming logistics of carrying out 100+ interviews – thinking about the ethics and technology of using phones, WhatsApp, email, Zoom to talk to people at one of the toughest times of their and our lives.

Logistics have been frustrating and complex, and as with most research, the time taken to set things up is longer than anticipated, or at least hoped for. There has been added pressure given the fact that universities are not just studying, but also experiencing the pandemic. Colleagues without permanent contracts are exposed to even more anxiety and insecurity. University finances are being policed closely, to the extent that there can be challenges purchasing the equipment we need to do our work.

At the same time, delays to the research schedule have meant we are further along in the course of the pandemic, revealing new issues emerging and needing exploration. This has included positive as well as negative developments, and we are adopting an open mind to ways people may, at least in some ways, have flourished or learned adaptations point the way to better ways of doing things after the pandemic. Covid-19 is itself rapidly changing in terms of its distribution and incidence, and the response to it, including even the vocabulary of disease control. We are rapidly learning to adapt to the unstable circumstances we find ourselves in as researchers, and the meaning of ‘rapid research’ is evolving too.

What has become clear along the way is that social research is absolutely essential to understand how to get through a pandemic. The ways societies are organised, how they treat their least well off, how caring works and suffering is experienced, what contributions and needs are valued or invisible will all determine the effectiveness of medical and public health interventions. A sociological lens will help us employ and innovate concepts that allow us to understand the import of what is happening, situating and contextualising issues of power, marginalisation and crisis.

Ultimately, we hope the knowledge we produce with and alongside those at the front line, will make a positive difference in people’s lives.

The views of the author do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the University of Glasgow nor are they intended to represent the views of all working on this study.

Recruiting Now


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Glasgow University Study to explore how lockdown impacts on some of the most vulnerable in Scotland 

Research will focus on groups already experiencing isolation or societal exclusion prior to the pandemic.

The study runs through November 2020 and is now recruiting for participants.

Researchers working with nearly 20 partner organisations serving at risk groups.

A team based at Glasgow University are now recruiting participants for research that explores how lockdown may be differently experienced by those who are already isolated or marginalised. 

It focusses on four groups – those affected by: 

  1. refugee and asylum processes and facing destitution; 
  2. domestic abuse or sexual violence; 
  3. disability or long-term health conditions; and, 
  4. criminal justice control (e.g. in prison or community supervised)

The study aims to help inform Government efforts to prevent further hardship and inequalities. 

The study is funded by the Chief Scientist Office of Scotland and is one of numerous projects supported under its Rapid Research Call for Covid-19 projects. While some research funded under this call focusses on medical and related scientific breakthroughs, this project addresses the social dimensions and impacts of Covid-19.

The study is led by Prof Sarah Armstrong of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research and Dr Lucy Pickering of the Institute of Health and Wellbeing, both part of Sociology at the University of Glasgow. It involves a large research team of 25 including 18 investigators and 6 PhD and postdoctoral research assistants. 

Prof Armstrong said: “It has now become clear to all that the pandemic does not affect us all equally, we are not all in it together. Just as important, lockdown doesn’t affect us all equally either. For the person isolated with her abuser, or the person who cannot enjoy the gradual easing of lockdown because they are shielding, or the child who has been unable to visit a parent in prison for over three months – lockdown intensifies pre-existing hardships.” 

She continued, “This study seeks to document the voices and experiences of those who may be impacted more significantly than most.”

Dr Pickering noted: “We aim to reveal the ways that the response to a pandemic can interact with pre-existing inequalities.”

“At the same time,” Dr Pickering added, “we hope also to learn of ways that we could address inequalities, or to discover that people who have had to cope longer than many of us with isolation can teach us something about not only surviving but new ways of thriving in these conditions.”

The team is now recruiting participants, aiming for at least 100 interviews. They are also preparing an online survey for organisations to capture the picture of the challenges and adaptations of those providing services to vulnerable groups. Those interested in learning more or participating can check out the project website, email or call 0141 330 7715. 

The research will be conducted between now and the end of November, but the research team will provide regular updates and early findings briefings on the study website. 


Notes to editors 

  1. Scotland in Lockdown: study website: Twitter:@LockScot
  2. CSO Funded Research under Rapid Covid-19 Call:
  3. Overall project queries:
  4. Media contacts for specific groups

Press contact: 

Email of press contact for further detail or to set up radio/broadcast interview with named investigator: