For the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Adam Baczko and Gilles Dorronsoro argue for the necessity of resuming fieldwork. They trace how subcontracting research or shifting to methodologies which are remote in time and space—solutions often touted in the pandemic age—in fact produce unreliable, exploitative, and undertheorized work incapable of accurately analyzing dynamic conditions on the ground. These transformations relate to broader research trends toward neoliberal privatization, and the authors outline how they can be resisted by returning, carefully, to the field.
Debates about research in conflict zones foreshadowed the constraints that Covid-19 now imposes on all fieldwork. This theme, part of the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, brings together a diverse group of scholars from across the social sciences to examine how the pandemic has changed research practice and how researchers and institutions can navigate the insecurity and ethical concerns raised by remote research and transregional collaborations in the age of Covid.
This theme of our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” essay series has been curated by Tatiana Carayannis, program director of the SSRC’s Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum (CPPF) and Understanding Violent Conflict program.
For the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Ilmari Käihkö reflects on the effects of distance. Mirroring the author’s experience of research impacted by the Ebola epidemic in Liberia, Covid-19 too has forced a reckoning with the emergence of “new normalities” and the physical and social distancing imposed by viruses. Käihkö not only considers the work of ethnography from a distance, but also weighs the effects—and affects—of researching and writing in isolation.
For “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences,” Fotini Christia and Chappell Lawson address changes in research and impacts of the pandemic on fieldwork. They trace the shifts in research focus that it has produced and find opportunities in newly broadened methodologies, but warn of the dangers of neglecting non-Covid research and the traditional fieldwork that still remain essential to social science. They further outline ways to support the “Covid-19 cohort”—graduate students whose research has been undermined or transformed by global pandemic—in order to keep from losing an entire generation of fieldwork-based scholars and scholarship.
Jamie Monson, writing for our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, reflects on the transregionality that characterizes the Covid-19 era. The pandemic, she notes, has further underscored the imbalances of power and resources that structure relations among transregional partners in research collaborations. She argues that the pandemic requires us to take a hard look at the resource divides that constrain fully equitable participation in transregional social science research and calls for investments in robust and sustainable transregional research networks as an antidote to these inequalities.
Kanisha D. Bond, Milli Lake, and Sarah E. Parkinson offer four lessons from conflict research for the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series. Based on their own extensive backgrounds conducting fieldwork in insecure places, the authors outline several points for researchers newly grappling with pandemic-induced insecurity: that crisis heightens conditions of vulnerability and inequality, that fieldwork is perpetually fraught, that researchers must demonstrate restraint, and that empathy is key. Keeping these lessons in mind, they argue, will help researchers to center the concerns of those at the margins and produce research that is both methodologically and ethically sound.
Contributing to the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” essay series, Oscar Abedi, Maria Eriksson Baaz, David Mwambari, Swati Parashar, Anju Oseema Maria Toppo, and James Vincent outline various paths toward reducing field research’s potential for exploitation, especially that of Global South collaborators. The pandemic has highlighted inequalities and immobility that differently affect facilitating researchers and contracting researchers. In response, the authors identify key issues that institutions, publishers, and individual researchers must reflect on in order to counteract these imbalances—and take advantage of an opportunity to fundamentally transform field research into collaborative knowledge production.
Writing for our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Shobana Shankar reflects on how the pandemic has thrown into question basic assumptions that emotions impede knowledge-creation and dissemination. She explores instead how we might consider how emotions and their manipulation are part of social norms, including norms of scholarly work; and how the disclosure of emotions that affect our perception and presentation of research, along with privilege and positionality, is the new ethical turn in a landscape of research insecurity.
Disturbing the Aesthetics of Power: Why Covid-19 Is Not an “Event” for Fieldwork-based Social Scientistsby Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka
Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka, writing for our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, queries why Covid-19 has not become an “event” for Western social researchers: an accident that radically reverses the normal order of things. Instead, he demonstrates that the Black bodies of research assistants continue to carry the weight of a colonial system of knowledge production, rendering them vulnerable to dangerous conditions. How, Bisoka asks, might a decolonizing response change research practice—and how have African artistic productions helped to map this terrain?
In their contribution to the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Elisabeth Jean Wood, Douglas Rogers, K. Sivaramakrishnan, and Rene Almeling explain that for the foreseeable future, research in many field sites will face complex ethical and logistical challenges, and argue that immersive ethnographic field research will likely be among the last areas of academic research to resume something resembling its prepandemic rhythms. They reflect on the necessary conditions for the resumption of US-based or international field research and propose a series of principles that academic institutions can follow in order to avoid promulgating unresponsive, blanket policies.
Writing for the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, Monica DeHart reflects on how the mobility restrictions of the pandemic has thrown into question basic assumptions about how we do what we do and how we know what we know—particularly poignant questions for ethnographers used to studying social phenomena through their embodied experience and sustained engagement with their objects of study. She explores analytical and methodological strategies for thinking ethnographically despite the current contingencies of research (im)mobility.