The Covid-19 pandemic has etched in stark relief the challenges that all fieldwork-based social scientists now face. How do we undertake ethnographic research without the ability to immerse ourselves in the communities and places we are studying? What new opportunities, such as digital methods, open up as we learn to work with restraints on our physical mobility? At the same time, what kinds of inequalities or biases might these new practices create in contexts of insecurity, and how do we mitigate them? These challenges are not entirely novel. In recent years, conversations about the need for a “new” research ethics for social science research, particularly in contexts of insecurity, have multiplied. Researchers working in conflict-affected areas have debated how to best manage the ethical and methodological challenges of working in insecure contexts, while those working on transregional connections have similarly addressed the challenges of collaboration and scholarly mobility. Now, these debates take on a redoubled importance. In this theme on “Social Research and Insecurity,” part of our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” essay series, we bring together diverse scholars from across the social sciences to examine our longstanding research practices and even develop new ones in response to the insecurity that Covid-19 has created. The experiences of researchers in conflict zones and transregional contexts can provide us with a roadmap for both the potential pitfalls of and possible options for navigating research in the age of the coronavirus.

“But none of these conversations anticipated the impact that Covid would have on our ability to do social research, or that the zone of pandemic-related insecurity would grow to encompass the globe.”

In conflict zones, for example, new technologies enabling remote data collection open up the landscape for research that might otherwise be impossible to conduct for security reasons. Simultaneously, common issues about data security and the ethics of field research gain additional valences when undertaken in conflict-affected areas given the nature and extent of the risks involved. Conversations about the challenges of research in insecure zones have become increasingly prevalent within the social sciences in recent years, as the nature of organized violence has shifted from more commonly recognizable situations of armed conflict (e.g., the Iraq War) to more diffuse and complex environments of violence and insecurity (e.g., violent extremism in the African Sahel or drug cartel violence in Central America). The Silent Voices collective, for example, based at Ghent University in Belgium, has gathered research collaborators working in the Global South to publish the Bukavu Series on the ethics of collaboration and to highlight the problem of the invisibility of local collaborators. In Sweden, a research project based at Uppsala and Gothenberg Universities called Exploring the Research Backstage, has tackled the role of research brokers in conflict-affected places, while in the United States, the Advancing Research on Conflict Consortium has been training PhD students for field research in insecure contexts. But none of these conversations anticipated the impact that Covid would have on our ability to do social research, or that the zone of pandemic-related insecurity would grow to encompass the globe.

While every researcher must consider their own safety and that of their research subjects, the stakes of ensuring this safety are significantly higher when research is conducted in insecure and potentially dangerous conditions. Collaboration continues to raise questions of power relations and equity in all social science research. However, in conflict contexts—and now in otherwise politically stable but physically insecure contexts in the age of Covid—collaboration may entail physical danger for locally embedded collaborators, as well as raise other vulnerabilities not shared with their “international” or “outsider” partners. While field research in conflict zones raises particular ethical quandaries, such as how researchers who work with nonstate armed groups or in contexts of violent extremism manage the dilemma of being drawn into human rights or legal investigations like those of the International Criminal Court, a global pandemic raises equally difficult (and perhaps entirely new) ethical questions in nonconflict settings. For example, if researchers hire local brokers to make research in inaccessible areas possible, what additional questions of safety, risk, equity, bias, and exploitation arise for the broker—above and beyond those relevant to all field-based research—and how can researchers respond? How well do principles of research transparency and equitable research collaborations travel in contexts where enabling data access or joint publication could actively endanger research collaborators and researched communities?

The Covid-19 pandemic also opens up questions about research timing. These include not just how we do research and the ethical questions of continuing to research, even in novel ways, during Covid, but also whether we continue to do research, the complications of postponement and restarting research, and the implications of cancellation. There may be situations in which the most ethical response is to weigh the value of research itself against the dangers, rather than merely seeking ways to continue while minimizing danger. Alternatively, putting research on hold raises questions about responsibility to participants, time-sensitive data, and unfinished projects.

This series of essays sheds light on how to manage these issues—and more—that arise from the insecurity produced by the ongoing pandemic. Questions of fieldwork security—such as managing danger and assessing risks—have been examined through the lens of research in conflict areas, but today they take on new aspects when the risk is that of disease; we must now also consider safety and security, for both researchers and researched, in terms of vulnerability to an invisible pandemic. The series opens with an essay addressing these questions, examining the need for research institutions to address the mental health of social researchers during the time of Covid.

“How can institutions—not only individual researchers—respond to our new reality?”

Questions about ethics of research practice, especially the relationship between researchers and the researched, are particularly salient in these times. Power differentials and researcher positionality, as well as the researcher’s duty of care to their subjects, must be considered anew. Several contributions examine these ethical challenges. Methodologically new opportunities arise for technology to transform research in the Covid context: Data-gathering, especially, is changing, which is likely to have ramifications for analysis and publication. Technical questions about remote methods and their concomitant ethics combine to present challenges to the institutional contexts of research. How can institutions—not only individual researchers—respond to our new reality? One forthcoming essay, for example, argues that immersive research involving human subjects will be the last to resume, and lays out a series of principles that academic institutions can follow in order to avoid promulgating unresponsive, blanket policies.

Through this series, we bring together scholars from disparate fields to reflect on our new normal, using insights gathered from fieldwork in conflict-affected and transregional contexts to address the challenges of social research during Covid. The pandemic is likely to change field research practice for the foreseeable future—and potentially long-term. The challenges it presents are also opportunities to identify and implement changes that will not only sustain, but may improve social research in an uncertain future.

Banner image: USAID/Flickr.