14 July 2020

Methodological anxiety syndrome: Researching law and compliance under Covid-19

Jed Meers, Simon Halliday and Joe Tomlinson

York Law School

In the introduction to their edited collection of interviews with socio-legal researchers, Schmidt and Halliday define what they describe as “Methodological Anxiety Syndrome (MAS)”. Symptoms include a ‘pervasive and sometimes debilitating doubt’ about your methodological pedigree, often accompanied by a sinking feeling – perhaps in the pit of the stomach – that empirical work has “gone wrong”. Although their diagnosis is mostly attuned to socio-legal researchers, it is surely a condition that most social scientists have suffered from at one time or another.

As researchers on the Law and Compliance under Covid-19 project (based at York Law School and funded by the Nuffield Foundation) we have certainly had a couple of bouts of “MAS” over the last few months. Our project focuses on compliance (or not) with the Covid-19 restrictions in the UK. In particular:

What is driving compliance with the government response to COVID-19?

How do people rationalise the trade-offs between their rights and the “greater good”?

How should the answers to these questions inform responses to future pandemics?

There are three “work packages” in the project. The first is a legal analysis of the lockdown regulations, with a view to building a database to capture the full legal response and make sense of the Government’s regulatory approach. The second is a panel study, with two survey waves delivered through YouGov on the public perception and behaviour around key lockdown rules (for some early findings from these, see here). The third is our qualitative strand, tracking the perception and impact of the lockdown with around 100 participants in focus groups and 50 interviews.

This blog focuses on the last strand of the project. Here, participants have been divided into 10 groups of 10 on an online discussion board. We have presented them with a series of topics to discuss in “waves”: the topics from the first three waves are listed below, and we have two move to follow before we wrap-up data collection. Throughout, participants can share anything they like through an open chat box.

The interview participants are drawn from the focus groups – recruited in part to get a demographic spread and in part on the basis of what has already been posted. The initial sample was drawn from a Facebook and Instagram marketing campaign, to which we had 780 responses.

Getting these work packages off the ground quickly has proved challenging and we have faced numerous methodological challenges along the way. In the spirit of this blog’s focus on methodological and ethical challenges, this short blog raises two issues that we are still struggling with and to which we are unsure of best practice.

How to account for inequalities in impact?

Our participants have hugely divergent experiences of the pandemic. Some people’s lives have changed fundamentally and the impact has been financially and emotionally draining; others have actually enjoyed the lockdown and remain largely unaffected. These two quotes come from responses to the same focus group thread:

The lockdown has been devastating to leading a normal life. The total disruption to my everyday existence for myself, my family and extended family is quite heartbreaking. I have two elderly parents who have letters from the NHS to stay indoors for 3 months. I’m looking after their needs, shopping etc. Coming from a very close knit family and community not being able to go to my place of worship on a daily basis is also very heartbreaking. At the place of worship we tend to look after each other, that is all gone. Our community has seen so many deaths, more than other communities.

Focus group participant

I am enjoying the lock down to be honest. I have more time to be with my kids (teenagers) and don’t have to commute which I hate. … I am aware that not everyone is as lucky as me. I had a call with a colleague yesterday about work and she burst into tears half way though. She is in a one bed flat with a partner small child and dog and the only place she can make work calls with sat on the loo.

Focus group participant

This presents a series of ethical and methodological challenges. First, how do we design questions in qualitative data collection that can account fully for this divergent impact? For a participant who has lost their job, a series of detached questions about the restrictions will not reflect their experiences of the pandemic. Second, how do we ensure that this divergent impact is not a cause for distress on the focus group platform? We have opted to mix the group demographics as much as possible – as a result, experiences differ substantially. Reading others’ accounts of enjoying having time to take up painting again may jar those who have suffered.

So far, we have attempted to manage the former by incorporating broad questions on the “impact of the crisis” in our interview question guide and allowing participants to direct the focus of much of our qualitative work. For the latter, we have let the focus groups run with only modest editing (to, for instance, remove swearing or identifying information) – participants can contact the research team directly with any issues. The issue is one we are still navigating as we move through our qualitative collection and these inequalities in impact become more acute.

How to be sensitive to participant fatigue?

We think that public compliance with Covid-19 restrictions may be in part led by public understanding of them. There has been significant confusion about some of the lockdown restrictions, what is “law” or “guidance”, and how to interpret Government messaging. All of these themes are emerging in our qualitative data.

Is it clear from our data collection, however, that – even participants who were initially enthusiastically consuming Covid-19 news and information – are becoming fatigued with it. Bar one participant who has sat and watched all 92 Government briefings (!), many have expressed a desire to tune out of the news or an exhaustion with information overload.

This has been evident in response to a number of topics, but was perhaps set into sharp relief best in response to a focus group topic on the Dominic Cummings episode:

I’ll be honest, I don’t know who Dominic Cummins is or what he has said/done. Perhaps this is because I am sick of seeing anything about covid 19 on TV whenever the news comes on I turn it over because it makes me depressed.

Focus group participant

I’ve actually been avoiding all news regarding covid (except short updates about new changes) for my mental health so I actually don’t know much about Cummings. Was he the one that broke the rules but told everyone to follow them- therefore ruining trust for Boris & govt?

Focus group participant

Data is beginning to support their point. Recent Reuters Institute analysis suggests that “news fatigue is…setting in” and data from Australia has found that half of respondents are “tired of hearing about COVID-19” and find coverage “overwhelming”.

This same sentiment is bubbling up through the interviews. People are fed up of the constant Covid-19 information load and many find the volume of material to keep track of anxiety-inducing. For a qualitative project that has now been following its participants for over three months, we want to avoid becoming part of the same problem. How often do we space out contact with participants? How do we decide when to end the research project? How do we make participation as quick-and-easy – but retaining sufficient depth – as possible?

Our approach so far has been to contact participants once every three weeks or so and provide a long window – normally a fortnight – for them to make posts on the platform at a time of their choosing. Interview invitations are flexible and slots are offered across 7-days a week. However, as with all projects of this kind, retention rates have decreased across waves – it is not clear how much participant’s fatigue with information overload is part of that.

We could have chosen from a smorgasbord of other methodological and ethical issues we have come across (including in the other work packages), but these two are a flavour of a couple we are actively continuing to consider as we enter the final stages of our qualitative data collection. As we draw our qualitative strand to a close at the end of July this year, we know that the implications of this pandemic will stretch far into the future. We will look forward to hearing about how others have navigated the ethical and methodological challenges on this blog as the Covid-19 research agenda marches forward.

Dr Jed Meers is a Lecturer in Law at York Law School with interests in administrative law and social security law.

Dr Joe Tomlinson is a Senior Lecturer in Public Law at York Law School and Research Director at the Public Law Project.

Professor Simon Halliday is a Professor of Socio-Legal Studies at York Law School, with long-standing interests in legal consciousness and administrative justice.

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