Early reflections on researching together during COVID-19

Jul 8, 2020

Kayleigh Garthwaite

It’s been a whirlwind few months. This is my 17th week of working from home. Most of that time has been spent setting up our new project, which is exploring COVID-19 and its impact on low income families. 

I’m leading on the ‘COVID-19 and low-income families: researching together’ element of the project that is working closely with a range of research teams already undertaking fieldwork across the UK with families in poverty, to support the generation of data specifically on COVID-19, and the synthesising and dissemination of relevant findings to policy makers and other key audiences. Alongside this, this element of the project is also concerned with thinking through the ethical, practical, and methodological challenges that researchers are facing in doing, or in thinking about doing, research during the pandemic. 

At first, when the possibility of getting involved in the project came up, I was unsure. I was already hugely anxious about coronavirus – did I wanted to spend the next 18 months or more working on a project about it? I didn’t feel I had any headspace for this, and wasn’t sure it was the right thing to be doing. Was it being opportunistic? The more I thought about it, and as we spent time thinking through the bid, I started to change my mind. For me, working with families and researchers to develop the project was a key part of that, but there are still obvious tensions around asking too much of people at a time of global pandemic! It’s a balancing act that the whole team are cautious of, and spend lots of time reflecting on. 

For me, another important part of developing this project was the value in offering a space for researchers to come together to collectively think through the tensions and difficulties of doing research at this time. Working remotely means we don’t have the same opportunities that we once had to pop into a colleague’s office and talk things through over a coffee. We’re all working at home, often with additional caring responsibilities, increased worries and anxieties, and trying to find our way through the “new normal”. 

Through this project, we want to be able to offer researchers the support, tools, and resources to collectively think through how, and indeed whether, to carry out research on poverty during the pandemic. As part of this, we’re hosting webinars every couple of months that explore topics that are central to researching poverty during COVID-19, and we’ll be hosting an ongoing blog series that explores key issues that researchers are grappling with. Blogs don’t have to be polished, finished pieces – they could also act as conversation starters. This could also include issues that are important but that we’ve neglected to cover or adequately address so far in previous blogs or webinars. Dissent and disagreement are welcomed!

Already, it’s obvious there is a genuine interest and value in trying to think through these ethical, practical, and methodological challenges together. We’ve written elsewhere about our concerns over placing additional pressures or strains on families at a time of uncertainty, when they may be experiencing both physical and mental ill health, worsened hardship, and could likely be grieving for lost loved ones. But what is clear to me from the last 14 weeks of working on the project is that we also need to we also need to think carefully about the emotional challenges of researching during the pandemic.

I have personally never worked such long hours as I have during these last few months. It’s full on. I get up, go into the room next door, and work non-stop. There is hardly any off switch now. There is always so much more to be done, why don’t I just check my emails again at 10pm? I’ve found not having the usual outlets that I have during pre-COVID times, such as losing my voice from singing all match long in the stands at Elland Road, or having a coffee and reading a book in my favourite café in Birmingham before I jump back on the train home to the North East, really difficult. Dealing with the new remote terrain can mean working in a way that is much more insular and removed than we might like, or be used to. 

In the past few months of doing this project, I’ve had emails from people saying they’ve appreciated the chance to connect through our webinars, and think through some of the issues they’re grappling with by writing a blog, as working at home can be isolating, stressful, and uncertain. So hopefully this part of our project will be a collective space that helps the research community to think through – together how we can best carry out ethically responsible research during COVID-19 – and indeed if we need to be doing this at all.

We would love to hear from researchers on any of the ethical, practical, methodological – and emotional - challenges of researching poverty in the pandemic, so please do get in touch with me on [email protected]

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