The Fieldwork shutdown is damaging both research and equity

For more than a year now, academics who rely on field research outside the communities in which we are based have all been part of a large experiment: what happens to our empirical work when human mobility is slowed or halted?

While Covid-19 has become a focus for research across disciplines, less attention has been paid to how the pandemic is altering how we do research. As the UK and Europe start opening up to travellers from selected countries (whether green or amber), most African countries remain on the red list – and, given vaccine inequality and the concerns about variants, they seem likely to stay there for the foreseeable future, making travel there very problematic.

Researchers working on and in Africa have come to expect interruptions to fieldwork, through outbreaks of conflict or political upheaval, but not on the current scale. Doctoral students have had to change topics, often to research issues closer to home, losing valuable and irreplaceable training. Research grants have had to be redesigned. And we believe that the present disruption to the grounded approach that characterises ethnographic methods raises epistemic and ethical issues that will reshape research far beyond the pandemic.

Regarding the epistemic implications, there is a creeping overreliance on remote methods of data collection. Across disciplines we have seen a shift to online research methods and attempts to engage in research “at a distance”. For some, this has meant using relatively well-established methods of virtual ethnography, while others have been turning to new troves of satellite data and big data analysis. But for many researchers who rely on understanding the context, nuance and subtle clues that emerge from in-person interviews and ethnographies, much has been lost that digital methods can complement but not replace.

Research from a distance carries other risks. Misunderstandings are more likely and a thorough grasp of the context is often missing. Take the emerging field of China-Africa studies. China-Africa relations are often based on expectations and assumptions about what China might do. Popular perceptions of China in Africa have often been shaped by so-called grey research, or non-peer reviewed research, most often conducted from afar, and driven by foreign policy priorities. But much of this work has been systematically challenged when researchers, and anthropologists in particular, have taken time to engage with what actually happens on the ground.

There is also a troubling concern that the turn to online data collection has reinforced a focus on elites: either those who have the resources to make their voices heard in the digital space or those that are able to be reached online for interviews.

Indeed, recent developments have multiple implications for equity. There have undoubtedly been some positive side-effect of border closures. African scholars have come to the fore in international projects – and not just on the societal and health impacts of Covid-19 – and the move online of international seminars and research events has also made it easier for African scholars to access them and make an impact.

But vaccine inequality is such that even as vaccinated tourists and researchers from rich countries start to enjoy increased opportunities to travel to and across Africa, unvaccinated African researchers will continue to be confined to their home countries, unable to do fieldwork either in the global north or south.

Moreover, when risk-assessing proposals for vaccinated students and staff to travel to areas with low vaccination rates, universities in rich countries must take into account recent studies suggesting that fully vaccinated individuals can still carry and spread the virus. Hence, while researchers from the global north are protected from the worst complications of the disease, they pose a potential risk when interacting with unvaccinated local partners or research participants. We must avoid fieldwork amplifying vaccine injustice.

We know Covid-19 is a global phenomenon: how the disease is managed in Johannesburg is likely to be felt to some degree in London. This reinforces just how important transnational research is. And over the past year, our research networks have been transformed, methodologies have been tested and we have all been forced to innovate. But we must be careful only to retain those innovations that enhance pre-Covid research methods and ameliorate pre-Covid power imbalances. Otherwise, all the inadvertent gains of the shift online will be outweighed by losses.

Nicole Stremlau is research professor at the University of Johannesburg and head of the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, where Gianluca Iazzolino is a postdoctoral research fellow.


Also available on the Times Higher Education website.