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Plan B (and C and D): Doing Research in Uncertain Times

This blog post is based on a seminar that took place at the School of Global Studies on 15 April 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Anders Burman convened the seminar, Alexander Jung, Helena Lindholm, and Michael Schulz served as panelists, Bent Jörgensen and Hanna Leonardsson raised fruitful points in the discussion, and Dustin Johnson took notes and compiled the post. The author list appears in alphabetical order.

It is not unusual for researchers at the School of Global Studies to encounter challenges, disruptions, and situations that force us to change our plans, methods, and research questions. Many of us have faced not being able to reach research sites we had planned on visiting, not meeting key interlocutors, failing to access needed data, and various safety risks. The COVID-19 pandemic is truly exceptional, an event unlike any of us have experienced before, with profound implications for our research. As Helena explained, the “field” itself is disappearing. The pandemic raises some particularly challenging dilemmas for social science (and other) researchers in terms of the long-term uncertainty and volatility, especially for travel, that it causes; serious ethical and methodological implications, and the general disruption, distraction, and fear that the situation causes. Especially for PhD students and postdocs, or others with short-term research projects, delays in collecting data vital for their projects results in additional challenges since the clock is ticking on both research funding and employment contracts.

During the seminar, Alexander, Helena, and Michael all recounted disruptions to fieldwork that they had encountered, and how they dealt with some of these while stressing that each research project is unique, and researchers will need to find individual solutions that work for them. For Alexander, his PhD fieldwork in Tunisia was disrupted by the pandemic, causing him to quickly leave the country before borders closed and before essential parts of his fieldwork were complete. Helena and Michael have both worked extensively in Palestine and Israel, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East, and had to deal with access constraints caused by curfews, roadblocks, border controls, and violence. Although Helena and Michael’s experiences were unrelated to the pandemic, they provided excellent foundations for discussions of uncertainty.

Based on their experiences and the discussion during the seminar, we identified several key themes and questions that researchers need to consider when addressing disruptions to their work caused by the pandemic:

Make a Plan B (and C, and D...)

The most crucial step to take is to make a plan B for the research project (and probably a plan C as well). The most challenging part of this, though, is the extreme uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Some travel may be possible later in 2020, but it may be that little to no fieldwork can be carried out until widespread vaccination occurs, perhaps in 2021. This uncertainty in when fieldwork can resume indicates that one should have at least two plans: plan B for being able to carry out the planned fieldwork with some delay, and plan C for not being able to carry out the fieldwork as planned at all.

For plan B, one could change the sequence of research, such as focusing in the short term on literature review, any interviews that can be carried out via phone or the internet, or working with textual sources. Plan C would require a more thorough reconsideration of the project, such as identifying different and accessible data sources, and changing the question if needed (more on this later). Given the uncertainty involved, researchers should currently be working on both plans.

What options are available in plans B and C will, of course, significantly differ based on the researcher and their project. For those later on in a project whose follow-up fieldwork has been disrupted or working on a short-term project, options are more limited, while those still planning fieldwork have more flexibility. Researchers who are currently working on applications for new projects have even more, and it is probably a good idea to demonstrate in the application that one is thinking about how the pandemic may affect their project. Whatever stage they are in, PhD students should remain in close contact with their supervisors to discuss plans, ideas, and options. Some departments, universities, and funders have been proactive and flexible in responding to the disruptions from the pandemic, so it is essential to consider how these decisions affect one’s project and what options they open up.

Probably the most challenging part in formulating and carrying out a plan B and C is knowing when to make critical decisions about what path to follow, and being ready to cope with uncertainty. Trying to wait out the pandemic and carry out plan B with fieldwork somewhat as planned may involve waiting too long. With the speed with which events have happened during the pandemic, though, one could follow plan C instead, only to have the field become accessible again much sooner than anticipated. These are difficult decisions that we are all uncertain about, and seeking advice from supervisors, colleagues, and others with relevant experience will be important for making them.

Ethics: Surveillance, disease, impacts of the pandemic

The pandemic also raises acute ethics concerns of several types that researchers need to consider carefully. Most obviously, by carrying out fieldwork before the pandemic fully ends, the researcher may risk becoming infected, or transmitting the disease to interlocutors, research brokers, or anyone else they encounter on the way, from fellow airplane passengers to taxi drivers to hotel staff. Our number one ethical consideration during this time should be ensuring that we are not contributing to the spread of the pandemic through our research.

A second key ethical issue concerns surveillance. Some researchers may still be able to carry out their work by conducting interviews, surveys, focus groups, or other activities online. Doing so, even in “normal” times, requires rigorous consideration of the privacy and security concerns raised by using technologies that may be insecure or subject to state or private surveillance. The multitude of recent stories about the privacy concerns with Zoom, a video conferencing program used by many universities, illustrates this well. Governments around the world have also responded to the pandemic by increasing surveillance. Much of it is aimed at suppressing dissent, especially concerning how governments are handling the crisis, rather than for contact tracing and other public health measures.

Consequently, interlocutors and others we work with may be exposed to more surveillance than before, more significant penalties, and may not yet be familiar with what topics are safe to discuss. Even for those used to carrying out sensitive research in places subjected to significant surveillance, this change in context should give us pause. Before switching to online data collection, researchers should carefully consider the likelihood of and risks from surveillance, and consult with people familiar with both the technologies involved who may be able to suggest more secure options and people familiar with the context under study.

Other ethical concerns also require reflection, and transparency in our ethical choices when writing up results will be critical. The economic crisis accompanying the pandemic may place our interlocutors in more vulnerable situations than we had anticipated when planning research. Alexander noted that being able to leave Tunisia as borders were closing (more stringently than before) raises additional ethical considerations when researching migration. Bent noted that during fieldwork it is often already challenging to reach marginalized groups, and in person ad hoc measured and informal means of communication are often necessary. Being forced to work at a distance due to the pandemic will make it more challenging to do so, and require the use of more formal channels and gatekeepers with relatively more power, which raises methodological and ethical concerns.

How does the pandemic change what you are researching?

Most of us have probably realized that we cannot go back to “normal” after the pandemic. Instead, there will be a before and an after. Social scientists, in particular, need to consider the impact the pandemic will have on the people, relationships, processes, and situations we study. For instance, Alexander reflected that his work on migration aspirations in Tunisia will likely be significantly affected by the pandemic. He reasoned that the closure of borders and severity of the pandemic in key migration destination countries like Italy, France, and Germany will influence how Tunisians view the prospect of migration. Even absent significant effects on the phenomenon one studies, the pandemic may influence people’s views of foreign researchers, make building trust with interlocutors more difficult, or make it harder to access groups who have been hard hit by the crisis.

Change methods and data sources (and then the question if required)

If one goes with plan C, there may be ways to acquire much of the data you need via different sources or means, particularly over the internet. For some projects, it may not be too difficult to switch to methods such as interviews via phone or video call, internet ethnography, chatting with interlocutors on WhatsApp, following organizations on social media, and other internet-enabled methods. Many of these are well established and have methodological literatures that one can turn to for guidance, and build upon to make a methodological contribution. Other, more accessible, interlocutors, or data sources, may still provide what the project needs, such as members of the diaspora community of one’s country of focus. More co-productive and interactive forms of research may still be possible online. Secondary sources such as media interviews with prominent figures, or internet-accessible archival materials and documents may also be useful.

Making this switch to research via the internet or with different groups than planned raises significant methodological issues that will need to be addressed, in addition to the ethical ones discussed above. Not all projects will be able to replace sources of data using these methods, such as many projects relying on more ethnographic methods. You and your interlocutors may not be familiar with the same apps and programs, or may not have access to them at all. Not everyone is as comfortable talking on the phone or via Skype as in person, and so interviews may not be as effective over these media. Members of the diaspora are not necessarily subject to less surveillance.

Addressing these issues requires close attention to the ethics involved, consultation of the existing literature on these methods, and considering how they interact with one’s research aims and question. The project might have to rely on a more diverse array of smaller sources of data, rather than one large set acquired during fieldwork. More attention will be needed to triangulate and confirm data that is collected online or from secondary sources. Researchers will need to take different approaches to building relationships with interlocutors, such as having repeated discussions online over a more extended period than typically allocated. Most importantly, researchers need to engage in frequent reflections on the coherence between research aims, question, and methods, and how a change in methods alters how they construct knowledge. The need to change and adapt methods may require alterations to the research question and aims to maintain coherence and still produce a valuable contribution to knowledge.

Employing research assistants?

For some projects, hiring a research assistant/broker in the fieldwork location may be possible. Some researchers may have already been planning on working with research assistants but might now rely on them even more, while for others, such an approach simply is not possible for their project. There are well-established ethical and methodological considerations for how working with research assistants and other brokers influences the production of knowledge. Researchers should read and reflect on this literature. Research assistants will influence whom you have access to and what kind of data you can collect from interlocutors. While not being physically present might make it harder for the researcher to understand the influence of these factors, the greater involvement of research assistants can also produce a more collaborative relationship, improve their ownership of the project, and facilitate the co-production of knowledge.

While a research assistant might be physically located where the planned fieldwork was to take place, proliferating lockdowns and travel restrictions globally mean that they might not be any more able to collect empirical data than you are. Where such measures are not as strict, researchers need to carefully consider whether hiring an assistant to conduct research activities will put that assistant at increased risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19. Given the severe economic shocks from the crisis, researchers should also consider the possibility that research assistants in precarious positions may be too willing to take risks in order to secure employment. The heightened surveillance discussed earlier should also be considered for how it could affect communications with a research assistant and potentially put them at risk.

Consequently, hiring a research assistant may be a feasible alternative to allow data collection to happen during the pandemic. However, the additional ethical concerns that are raised specifically by the pandemic require careful reflection.

Become a better researcher

However the crisis ends up affecting your research, as a PhD student or postdoc you will always be in the generation that developed their research skills in the midst of a pandemic. The disruptions to fieldwork and our subjects of research caused by it and the emotional stress of living through a crisis will have a significant impact on what research carried out over the next two years produces. When writing up our articles and dissertations, we should be transparent about this and reflect on how it has affected our projects. To do so, we should make regular notes about how we feel about the crisis, how it is affecting our research, and what choices we are making because of it. We all need positive things to hold onto during this time and using the challenges to our projects to become better researchers through adapting, being flexible, and making methodological contributions is one option that can help us get through. While the extent to which this is possible will depend on the researcher and their project, we should all support each other to adapt as best we can to our new world.


Alexander Jung and Dustin Johnson are PhD students, Helena Lindholm is a professor, Michael Schulz and Bent Jörgensen are senior lecturers, and Hanna Leonardsson is a researcher, all in peace and development research at the School of Global Studies. Anders Burman is a senior lecturer in human ecology at the School of Global Studies.


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