I’d just finished a three-part blog series on interviews (the before, during and after), and was about to post the first one, when I thought, but will people even be interviewing right now? And then I saw Pat Thomson’s important post about the impact of the pandemic on PhD students. I have to admit, the thought was in the back of my mind, but this post brought it to the forefront. So here are some ideas for those that may have to delay their in-person data collection because of Covid-19, or re-imagine it all together.
Ways to pass the time:
Get familiar with methodology and methods
I see an extraordinary number of students who have no idea what methodology or method they are using for their research, and this often after they have collected their data and started analysis. If this is you, know you are in good company. Take this time to read up on it. To be honest, I remember finding these concepts a little daunting to start, and unless you have a good guide, the Ideas of epistemology, Ontology, theoretical perspectives and so on can seem quite abstract and daunting. An excellent book that I often recommend (where I learnt from) is by Michael Crotty called Foundations of Social Research. Do go beyond this and explore other references.
Play around with qualitative analysis software
Most people use software to help them analyse data these days, including for qualitative analysis. This might be a good time to look into the different types of software and CAQDAS packages available, to see which works best for your research. This site provides excellent summaries for a lot of the different types of software available out there at the moment. Sign up to a few webinars, download a trial of software that you’d like to try.
Different ways to collect data:
Difference between face to face and telephone/online interviews
I guess one of the things to consider is the difference between face to face, skype, or telephone interviews. I would like to say here, that I have found it possible to build rapport with people over skype, though this takes experience, and nerves don’t help. There are downsides to doing these things online, and the best thing to do is be upfront about your situation. I would hope examiners understand why a student was unable to conduct in-person interviews given the current situation, though it will be important to state these limitations in your dissertation.
I really like this reference as a starting point when considering telephone interviews Interviewing by Telephone: Specific Considerations, opportunities and challenges by Block and Erskine.
Reframing your research question
If the other suggestions don’t work, then you may need to look at ways to reframe your research question to better suit online data collection methods. While technically it isn’t the best approach to conduct research by choosing the method first and then coming up with a question, in total honesty, I suspect that the majority of people do this anyway.
Think about different methods and types of data
Lots of people fall into using face to face interviews, focus groups or fieldwork as a form of data collection because it is familiar and common. I suggest having a look at other forms of data collection, including visual and digital ethnography. This site has some interesting ideas. These can be useful even for some projects that might be of a sensitive nature, or with vulnerable communities. Here are some other ideas to consider:
- Ask participants to draw or “create” something about their experiences
- Ask them to take photos and write about it, or record themselves talking about it (why they took it, what it represents etc)
- Ask them to record their experiences in any way, be it a journal, diary, scrapbook, or even audio or visually.
- You could prepare a little creative kit for them, with stickers, scrapbook, notebook, pencils and so on, and include a note about how they can use it.
Of course you will have to seek ethics approval for these changes. I do hope that ethics committees will be accommodating.
I also highly recommend having a look at the book Collecting Primary Data: A Time Saving Guide by Helen Kara, as well as her book Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide. I am sure there are other references so please do have a look. I really like Helen’s writing style and find it very accessible.
Of course, there are the classics:
Doing Qualitative Research by David Silverman & Social Research Methods by Alan Bryman.
Research journaling is essential right now
Record your thoughts
If you have read any of my writing, you will know that I am big fan of keeping a research journal.
Right now, I cannot emphasise how important it is for you to document what you are going through right now, in some form or another. I promise you it will help you later on during your studies. Document it in any way that works for you: audio-record yourself talking; draw; scrapbook or write. This is just for you. Write your fears, the challenges you are facing. While it may not seem like it right now, this will really help you later on. It may even slot int your methodology chapter.
What can we do?
We are all facing real challenges. There are health risks and there is a level of global stress and anxiety which makes research difficult. It changes things. This time is like no other and means that the research, and data you collect (and data you create through your journal) will also be invaluable. My go-to is to always try and see things as an opportunity, but I din’t know about that right now. I think we all just need to do our best to get through in whatever way we can. Maybe the best thing we can do is simply accept what we are feeling and accept that whatever we are producing is okay right now.