Interacting online has not been nearly as bad as many participatory researchers feared. It remains second best to face-to-face practice without question but there have been unexpected benefits and opportunities. As we are all considering how we will build back better post-Covid, for participatory researchers this means asking what opportunities exist to improve the agency and power of marginalised communities in our research processes. What can we learn from the experience of research in times of Covid, that helps to shift power and enhance research processes going forward?
Participatory researchers and ethnographers are often passionately attached to their process. We are professionally addicted to what happens ‘in the room’ or under the tree in researcher encounters. So for us the rupture of the pandemic profoundly changed everything. Travel bans and enforced social distancing entirely removed the possibility of using our established process, of in-situ co-enquiry. The idea that moving research online might offer opportunities to improve the agency and power of research participants seemed counter-intuitive. So in the first weeks of Covid-19 restrictions many participatory researchers simply deferred planned field research in hope of an early lifting of restriction and return to normal.
Transitions to digital spaces
As it became clear that the pandemic would last many months, many of us began to redesign our planned research, out of necessity reconfiguring our training, capacity building, data collection and data analysis to take place in digital spaces – in Teams or on Zoom, using instant messaging and incorporating participatory tools like Padlet and Miro. This was done grudgingly and because there was no alternative. The results were surprising.
When we reviewed the experience of participatory researchers during the pandemic at a recent strategic planning session at IDS, people expressed their initial frustrations. Some felt that their work was ‘on hold’, the lack of face-to-face engagement was difficult and that the collective analysis they would normally facilitate had become impossible. However, people also shared unexpected positive experiences and lessons which suggest that the rupture may also be an opportunity.
Unexpected positive outcomes
Researchers found that when sessions were run in Zoom rooms online the voices of less senior participants were heard more often. It was noted that the chat function enabled people to surface issues that challenged the main narrative. Some found that leaving the comment space open after the formal end of session (and allowing anonymous comments) allowed some people time to reflect and collect their thoughts and a space to share opinions that they would not have voiced in front of more senior and articulate others. Online spaces like Zoom are not devoid of unequal power relationships but the affordances of the technology provide new possibilities for participation and new potentials to disrupt and shift power.
The climate crisis had previously foregrounded conversations about the high carbon footprint of international development but it took the pandemic to halt the conference merry-go-round and fieldwork frenzy. Similarly, despite the conversation about decolonising development, it has been the pandemic that has forced the devolution of research activities to local partners. While online engagement cannot meet the needs of all aspects of our participatory research, Covid-19 and the availability of participatory digital tools and methods represent an opportunity to transform the relationships through which knowledge is produced: away from ‘global North’ researchers going to the ‘Global South’ and towards people from the ‘Global South’ leading the process. What’s more, this shift in agency and power is fundamental to the ethic of participatory research.
Building back better partnerships
Participatory researchers and ethnographers remain keen to return to the field and conduct research face-to-face, under the tree. Yet we have an obligation to self-reflection. Is the shift in power best served by researchers from the global North returning to environmentally unsustainable levels of travel? Is the shift in power best served by our presence or our absence? Can we continue to reconfigure so that we build back more horizontal ways of working, so that we continue to support and accompany our partners, while ensuring that we hand over the stick and take a lower profile in our research partnerships?
Some aspects of our work as participatory researchers and ethnographers may not be possible, and have to be suspended until life returns to ‘normal’. In particular, how do we build new research relationships? How do we work with marginalised groups that do not have access to the internet? The barriers of digital inequalities become amplified as we struggle to connect with partners in some settings where authoritarian governments are restricting internet access. It is a challenge to find digital technology that is accessible to people with limited broadband but meet GDPR compliance requirements. WhatsApp is accessible but is not GDPR compliant. SMS has a wider reach but has less functionality and is not encrypted.
Yet, the Covid-19 induced rupture offers us an important opportunity to reflect on which aspects truly require us to be ‘on the ground’, and to think creatively about our research engagements. As we continue to work in this current Covid reality, making use of digital tools for distance research and while circumstances force us to devolve research activities – and with them agency and power – to local partners, we must use the opportunity to reflect. If we wish to prioritise the participation and agency of the most marginalised we need to ask what ‘building back better’ really looks like for the communities we work with. What lessons are we learning about the affordances of digital participatory methods that can transform our research relationships, and what parts of our practice will change as a result?