Adapting to uncertainties: Conducting social research in the time of COVID-19
Article by Fernan Talamayan
Abstract: With the pandemic limiting people’s mobility, adopting innovative research methods has never been more relevant, especially for researchers in the fields of social sciences and humanities. Learning from the COVID-19 experience, this essay stresses the need to reimagine social research. It explores different research strategies and techniques that can be implemented during public health emergencies, such as online ethnography, online interviews, and focus groups. Social research planning and execution in virtual environments require awareness of behavioral, spatial, and technological factors, some of which are briefly tackled in this essay. As the world struggles to return to pre-pandemic normalcy, this essay invites researchers to consider using existing technologies and adopting digital research methods.
Keywords: digital research, digital text, methodology, online ethnography, COVID-19 pandemic
Uncertainty and insecurity have always been our reality. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to deal with these conditions like never before. New disease variants have been emerging across the world. Several pandemic-related problems, such as health mis- and disinformation, continue spreading and multiplying, negatively affecting government efforts in encouraging people to practice health-seeking behaviors. Vaccine hesitancy, vaccine inequities, and authoritarianism are worsening in the Global South. Despite borders starting to open up, certain populations’ mobility remains limited. As COVID-19 continues to ravage economies and societies, planning our future has become more challenging. Each day, it becomes more apparent that it will take a while before the world completely defeats and overcomes the virus’s lingering effects on individuals and societies. As we live in a society with a heightened sense of uncertainty and insecurity, we are compelled to continue our lives. We respond, and we move forward.
For us researchers, this meant a number of adjustments. Adapting to uncertainties will imply rethinking our modes of engagement with our subjects and surroundings (Hussain, 2020). Mainstream sociological methods that help us establish connections with the field will require redesigning (Hussain, 2020). While uncertainty remains the only certainty there is, research frameworks and theoretical approaches will have to be reassessed as we explore innovative forms of knowledge production.
Needless to say, today’s technology should help us take on the challenge of reimagining the field and reconfiguring our methodological practices. With the pandemic continuing to limit researchers’ movement, it makes practical sense to consider using digital research methods. Cognizant of our limitations, we have to make do with what is accessible or available to us. What data, then, can we extract from virtual environments? What technical and behavioral considerations should we account for when analyzing subjects through and within digital platforms? How can we effectively engage the field through computer-mediated communication?
Exploring digital research
Technology-aided projects, such as virtual fieldwork or online ethnography, are not new. However, each year, as a young and developing field, one can encounter new and creative approaches to digital research, constantly transforming our understanding of today’s society. For starters, one may check Harvard Library’s crowd-sourced list of current digital social research methods, edited by Deborah Lupton (2020).
With the abundance of available and accessible digital media texts on various digital platforms, we are left with massive quantities of data for empirical analysis. These data can be extracted from Facebook posts and threads, memes, tweets, TikTok videos, or YouTube content. Researchers who intend to analyze power relations will find social media a gold mine, providing tons of data on how people conduct themselves and others. People’s engagement on the platform can also provide essential clues on the constitution of the politics of truth in social networks.
We can also observe how people are continuously subjected to new surveillance technologies in digital spaces. Conversely, we can discover innovative and creative forms of resistance in the same environment. For instance, a recent work on algorithmic solidarity by Yu et al. (2022) employed online observation to understand how delivery platforms exploit gamification techniques to increase rider productivity and how gig economy riders use WeChat groups to resist delivery platforms’ algorithmic control. Similarly, central to Liu and Friedman’s (2021) work on China’s food delivery industry is the exploration of how “labor unrest has evolved alongside shifting political, economic, and technological conditions” (p. 70). Using digital research, Liu and Friedman demonstrated how gig economy riders articulate grievances, organize small-scale protests, and negotiate with the management in online channels.
Online ethnography, interviews, and focus groups
Conducting online ethnography entails treating online communities as field sites. Examples are Facebook groups and pages, Viber group chats, Twitter Spaces, or Youtube channels. Such an approach allows researchers to observe daily platform cultures, governmental practices, and political participation. Immersion in a digital field may also involve joining online communities during live streams. In one of my research works in 2021, I collected online data by taking screenshots of viral or controversial posts, as well as propaganda statements that promote the government of the self and others. I also deep-dived into the comment sections of various posts to observe political participation and social interactions. I employed the same approach on YouTube channels. Of course, I removed any sensitive and identifying information of my subjects when used as evidence in the research writing.
Researchers can also take advantage of a social media platform’s algorithm when locating potential sources. For instance, in one of my case studies, I discovered several pro-government channels or communities by following YouTube recommendations, as they often suggest similar content and channels. It is also advisable to follow multiple platforms to observe how and which content moves across these platforms. Meanwhile, participant observation helped me interpret my data as it allowed me to understand people’s language, gestures, symbols, and behavior.
Interviews and focus groups can also be done online. For remote interviews, we must take into account our participants’ time zones and locations. Depending on the topic, our participants’ environment may have varying influences on our yield during the call. Like in face-to-face interviews, we should note our interviewees’ nonverbal communication cues or body language. It is also helpful to determine the participants’ literacy levels to establish rapport. We may also want to ask probing questions to understand our interviewee better. We can also share sensescapes, eat meals or drink tea together to help our interviewee feel comfortable. Video conferencing platforms may also be used to facilitate multiple forms of interactions, such as simulations and performative games. By having shared experiences, there is a chance that we could better understand our subjects’ language, gestures, symbols, and behavior, among others.
For focus group discussions (FGDs), we can take advantage of the breakout groups feature of some video conferencing platforms. For surveys, researchers may consider using free web-based software like Google Forms.
Researchers must also recognize technology’s limitations to utilize it for generating data effectively. Several factors often affect technology-mediated interviews, such as respondents’ limited understanding of technology or privacy and safety concerns.
Examining digital systems and texts
When analyzing digital texts, it is required that we learn the rules of digital environments, including “where one can move, what one can see, who could see oneself, what regimes of surveillance were enacted and where censorial intervention may occur” (Morris, 2021). It would be best to read about algorithms and software designs to understand how they shape conversations, threads, and other forms of social relations on digital platforms. One may want to ask, how does the user interface influence user experience? What are the functional and behavioral designs that hook users in specific platforms? How do algorithms amplify hate and social polarization?
Answers to these questions help contextualize data since algorithms and software designs dictate the parameters by which a user is able to interact with other users in digital environments. Apart from making finite the number of possible operations in computer and mobile systems, they also influence a vast range of activities and behaviors—from shaping daily habits and creating routines to changing or reinforcing political inclinations. For instance, infinite scroll and other intuitive User Interface (UI) can promote behavioral addiction. Filter bubbles can polarize societies, administer people, and organize individuals into persuadable masses. In some cases, it can also alter perceptions of reality, making imaginaries “more real than the real” (Baudrillard, 1994/2010). Multilevel nested comments provide an avenue for the governance of the self and others through the exercise of normative power. It can also become instrumental in reproducing the state’s domination over an individual’s behavior, attitude, and perspective.
Relatedly, when conducting virtual fieldwork on social media platforms, it is crucial to recognize filter bubbles, as it affects the level of our exposure to particular issues—and thus, affect the type of data we collect. It would help, too, if one keeps an eye on gatekeepers, as they play an editorial role in determining information flows in digital platforms.
Note, too, that we must know the rationale behind our selection of field sites and digital texts, as well as the methods we use for data collection. We must be clear on how we select sites and why certain pages, communities, and texts are biased from others. Most importantly, we must consider people’s privacy, security, and safety.
Preparing mentally and emotionally
While I agree with Morris (2020) that one must be playful when exploring digital field sites, I would add that one must also have endurance, especially when dealing with pro-government online communities. For instance, Twitter conversations and Facebook comment threads in the Philippines are flooded with toxicity; one must be mentally and emotionally prepared for daily doses of logical fallacies and incivility. Every time I encounter disinformation and hate comments, I always bear in mind my research objectives, which is to understand the underlying conditions that shape and govern people’s behavior.
It is precisely for this reason that social listening involves recognizing and acknowledging people’s everyday concerns. Their political inclinations, problems, anxieties, and sources of insecurities generally influence their word choices and conversation practices in online public and private spaces. To listen effectively, we must consider two things: keeping an open mind to our subject’s expressions of their worldview and being conscious of our political and theoretical biases. This is especially crucial for researchers belonging to extremely polarized societies—researchers in such contexts should ensure that their political views do not intervene with their analysis of other people’s perspectives on contemporary issues.
In this essay, I covered various research methods that social researchers can use to investigate digital environments. I outlined several considerations that researchers must take when conducting digital research, such as the strategies researchers can employ to collect online data, the type of data that can be collected and examined in cyberspaces, and the behavioral and technological factors that can affect data collection and analysis.
I also explained how some scholars used digital research to examine various forms of control and resistance. Of course, governmental practices and power relations are only among the many topics researchers can explore in digital spaces. As the pandemic continues to limit researchers’ mobility, today’s social media and other technologies should help us take on the challenge of reimagining the field and reconfiguring our methodological practices. While uncertainty remains the only certainty, it is in our best interest to adapt and take advantage of technologies accessible and available to us to conduct remote research effectively.
However, in our attempt to explore innovative forms of knowledge production, we must stay committed to our research agenda, that is, to decolonize knowledge and promote social justice. As social researchers, we must never forget that the responsibility to unshackle the chains that bind societies is in our hands. We must bear in mind that our intervention should not only provoke curiosity or demystify social phenomena. We must, at the same time, give voice to the voiceless and make the unseen seen.
Baudrillard, J. (1994/2010). Simulacra and simulation. The University of Michigan Press.
Hussain, Z. (2020) Field research in lockdown: revisiting slow science in the time of COVID-19. Women, Peace and Security at LSE (29 April) Blog entry. URL: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/wps/2020/04/29/field-research-in-lockdown-revisiting-slow-science-in-the-time-of-covid-19/
Liu, C. & Friedman, E. (2021). Resistance under the radar: Organization of work and collective action in China’s food delivery industry. The China Journal, 86, 68–89. https://doi.org/10.1086/714292
Lupton, D. (editor) (2020). Doing fieldwork in a pandemic (crowd-sourced document). Available at: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1clGjGABB2h2qbduTgfqribHmog9B6P0NvMgVuiHZCl8/edit?ts=5e88ae0a#
Morris, C. (2021). Playful exploration and digital (field) sites: Understanding the sites in which we practice (digital) ethnography. Field Research Methods Lab at LSE (18 January) Blog entry. URL: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/fieldresearch/2021/01/18/playful-exploration-and-digital-field-sites-understanding-the-sites-in-which-we-practice-digital-ethnography/
Yu, Z., Treré, E., & Bonini, T. (2022). The emergence of algorithmic solidarity: unveiling mutual aid practices and resistance among Chinese delivery workers. Media International Australia, 183(1), 107–123. https://doi.org/10.1177/1329878X221074793