Negotiating engagement in participatory research during the pandemic: new ethical questions

Oct 20, 2020

Jo Biglin
PhD Research, University of Manchester

People seeking asylum have been amongst some of the hardest hit by the pandemic lockdown; as people living in an already hostile and precarious situation faced an array of new challenges on top of their existing exposure to suffering and destitution. In this blog piece I reflect on some of the questions and challenges of carrying out participatory research with people seeking asylum and with refugee status during this extremely challenging time.

A participatory project in the pandemic

As part of my PhD from January 2019 to November 2019, I worked with people seeking asylum and with refugee status on a participatory photography project exploring their experiences of place, belonging and citizenship in the context of the Hostile Environment. By November participants had taken their photographs and engaged in numerous  group dialogue sessions, and we concluded this stage of the project was ‘complete’. I took the next few months to explore the data and do some writing on my PhD, before embarking on the next stage of the project with participants. This next stage was set to be final discussions over the findings and begin working together to produce a blog and exhibition of the photographs to share the photographs and findings with the public. I expected to begin this stage in March then all of a sudden the Government announced the first national lockdown. After the initial upheaval began to subside and lockdown appeared to become the new normal, I tried to reconnect with participants and begin the process of doing this next stage virtually. However, participants were reluctant and many said they did not have the time as they were dealing with the new stresses brought on by the lockdown. It has been extremely difficult to keep in touch with participants during the lockdown, because of both my own and participants added pressures and stresses of the pandemic. I also did not want to put extra pressures on participants who were already experiencing some of the worse aspects of lockdown. As I have progressed with writing my PhD I have been left with a barrage of ethical questions and feelings.

Ethical questions

By respecting participants’ wishes to be less involved in the project, I have felt guilty about writing up findings and articles without any input from participants and there has been no opportunity for participants to share their photographs with relevant stakeholders and the public. Having participants closely involved in every stage of the research process and incorporating praxis into the project are key tenets of participatory epistemology. Therefore, this decrease in participation because of the pandemic has led me to feel that the project is failing in its participatory epistemology.

This experience of participatory research in the pandemic has led to a number of ethical questions:

How are equal-power relationships maintained during the pandemic when I am geographically, socially and economically distant from participants at the moment?

This relates to my point above about writing up aspects of the PhD without input from participants. Although the lockdown presented many challenges for me, I was also acutely aware of my privileged position. This made it difficult to maintain an equal power relationship, as I was in a position that allowed me to continue with my PhD work whilst participants had to withdraw from the project to deal with other more pressing and immediate issues. This also raises more questions of how to support participants as a researcher, but also as a friend.

How is the ‘success’ of a participatory project measured?

Epistemological tenets of participatory methods include facilitating marginalised voices being heard, and a groups empowerment and self-determination. Participants evoked their right to withdraw and this is a move encompassed by  a freedom to make agentic decisions. Therefore, participants removing themselves, or pausing their engagement, does not make the project unsuccessful, but is in fact the opposite. This leads to more questions relating to what defines empowerment in a participatory project, when empowerment is unique for every person, and trying to determine what is empowering for another person would be an exercise of unequal power.

Finally what happens when research aims are no longer an immediate priority to participants?

Key to participatory projects is having research aims that are developed by participants and relevant to practical interests of the group. Exploring participants’ experiences of place, belonging and citizenship in the context of the Hostile Environment was something participants were keen to engage in initially, to draw attention to the way the Hostile Environment exposed them to various forms of violent state practices, but also the ways in which they challenge and contest these practices. During the pandemic this may have become less relevant to practical everyday needs. Importantly here would be for researchers and participants to adapt and evolve a project in accordance with a community groups interests (for example starting to explore the links between Hostile Environment practices and the impact of COVID-19 on people seeking asylum). However, this was difficult for me to do as a PhD student who has a timeline and deadlines to meet (this relates to more broader issues of carrying out a participatory project as a PhD student - something which requires its own lengthy discussion).

Summary: ways forward

The difficulties and new challenges that have been posed by a participatory project in the pandemic have led to new ways of doing things: for example, I am now in the process of trying to develop an online version of the exhibition and blog. This is going to involve working with participants to develop new and alternate ways that they may, or may not, want to engage with the project. Carrying out participatory research in the pandemic has led to a number of new ethical questions that relate to existing and on-going discussions in the participatory methodology literature: empowerment, power and so forth. These ethical questions new, and old, will require deep and meaningful discussions between community members, organisations and researchers, as participatory research adapts and evolves.


Jo Biglin is a lecturer in Criminology and Sociology at York St John University. She is just finishing up her PhD at the University of Manchester in the School of Social Sciences. Her research explores the links between place, belonging and citizenship for people seeking asylum and with refugee status in the UK, using methods situated at the intersection of participatory/collaborative methods and embodied, sensory approaches to knowledge production. She has been a volunteer at a Manchester-based charity that supports refugees and asylum seekers for around four years.

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