Shut out (of the field) and shut in (our homes) – navigating a PhD in times of pandemic
As a political scientist, I research how young people in Africa use social media under repression, and am affiliated with a research project focusing on the politics of inclusion and exclusion of Youth in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. When travel restrictions and lock down were first introduced, researching youth and social media seemed at the very least convenient. Because I research what happens online, I could afford to “wait and see”. But is it really such an advantage?
A little over a year ago, in February 2020, I was preparing for what I hoped would be the most enriching time of my PhD: the very first round of fieldwork, in Kampala, Uganda. After ten years working in the security industry, I was tired of analysing political issues in Africa from afar, relying on secondary sources and social media, with little connection to the politics of the countries I was analysing, or to the people who live there.
The goal of this first round of fieldwork was to get a better understanding of how one uses social media if one is located in Kampala. The previous year, I had been reflecting on the normativity usually implied in the study of autocracies, frequently seen from the perspective of their potential for democratisation. What are the implications of studying the role played by technologies developed in the Global North in politics in the Global South? My plan was to study social media censorship through qualitative methods, in order to contextualise my research as much as possible, to avoid blindly applying concepts developed in the Global North (Schoon, Mabweazara, Bosch, & Dugmore, 2020). In short, following Fanon’s analysis of colonialism and postcolonialism, I hoped to avoid reproducing patterns of domination while doing my research (Fanon, 1961/2002, pp. 61–62, 290–292). And to do so, I wanted to spend extensive time in the context I am studying. But then, the pandemic hit, and I felt trapped in what I had hoped to avoid.
In a somewhat ironic turn of events, Uganda was one of the very first countries to impose stringent quarantine rules on travellers coming from Europe, including Norway, where I live, due to Covid-19. As an EU citizen, I am used to being able to travel very easily. Travelling is now impossible for me, an experience that is very familiar to my colleagues from the Global South, either due to stringent regulations regarding visas, or to limited budgets. In fact, the project to which I am afilliated was unable to fly in colleagues for a stakeholder engagement workshop in London a few months before. The pandemic shut me out of the field – and in my home office.
The pandemic shut me out of the field – and in my home office.
Facing the reality that travel is unlikely to be possible in the near future, and that I cannot simply suspend working on my PhD, I have had to adapt. Initially, I considered conducting online/remote interviews with experts in Uganda, and use digital ethnography as a method. However, as I study the effects of online censorship, engaging with participants without having had the opportunity to spend time in the country to understand how sensitive an issue it might (or might not) be and to build trust does not seem responsible.
I decided instead to turn to more quantitative methods for the time being.
Following a hectic spring, between lockdowns, and re-thinking our research plans, my project team started meeting regularly online. These distanced meetings have moved from platform to platform, in search of the one that will be the most stable for our African colleagues, who enjoy at best unstable internet access. This highlights stark north-south inequalities in terms of digital access, despite all of us being part of the same project. Using video is not always possible, as it uses too much bandwidth. One of our meetings was planned close to election day in Uganda. As the Ugandan government shut down access to social media (‘UCC Orders Social Media Shutdown Ahead of Tense Poll’, 2021), most online meeting platforms became unavailable to our colleague in the country – until we managed to find one that worked. This direct experience of the phenomenon I am studying further reaffirmed the complications and complexities of engaging with the field from afar.
This highlights stark north-south inequalities in terms of digital access, despite all of us being part of the same project.
The goal of these regular meetings is of course to hear how everyone is doing in their respective countries. Does everyone manage to stay safe? Those of us in Europe are getting impatient to travel to our different field locations. Our local colleagues have to undertake the bulk of the project’s field work, in difficult conditions. We regularly discuss the risks we realize are involved in carrying out interviews – for both researchers and informants. We talk about whether friends or family members have fallen ill, about the number of cases in our respective countries, and whether numbers can be trusted. It is also difficult to face the reality that while the Norwegian health system seems to cope relatively well with the pandemic, this is obviously not the case in the countries of our African colleagues. Our meetings are also incredibly enriching. We actually manage to stay in touch and collaborate a lot more than we expected to do pre-pandemic. There is nothing like a crisis to help adopt new ways of working. Yes, we suffer from digital meeting fatigue, but we never expected to be able to collaborate so closely across continents.
There is nothing like a crisis to help adopt new ways of working.
Now, a year after the start of the pandemic, I am half-way through my PhD programme. I see that extensive fieldwork is unlikely to be possible, if I am to finish on time. I cannot yet fully measure the consequences for my research - and for future career opportunities. Of course, I have developed new skills in a series of quantitative methods, but I have also left behind me, at least for now, the ambition to conduct situated research. Thankfully, the team supports me, and we discussed potential solutions to supplement my research with more grounded perspectives. Suggestions include hiring research assistants in Uganda to conduct interviews on my behalf. It would be materially possible, as the budget dedicated to my fieldwork has not been spent. However, doing so raises a series of questions, such as what would be fair retribution for their services be, and how their contribution should be recognized in future publications (Cronin-Furman & Lake, 2018, pp. 610–611). In addition, would I be fully able to do justice to the material thus collected, if I remain as far away from participants’ reality as I am now? Doing this would in some ways reinforce the postcolonial hierarchies I had hoped to avoid.
I cannot yet fully measure the consequences for my research - and for future career opportunities.
Whilst the pandemic has magnified ethical issues around how to responsibly engage with the field, it has also opened opportunities for more rich collaboration as a team. Looking into what I can do from where I am, it seems that leveraging the new habits adopted by the team in the past few months, working and writing together – if virtually for now – with my colleague in Uganda would be the most fruitful option. I know I have much to learn from working together, and I hope that I can contribute with the quantitative skills I recently acquired. Strengthened collaboration within the team and regular discussion of our ideas has certainly been one of the highlights of the pandemic.
Turning to the future, I wonder how the experiences of young researchers such as myself will be considered by research institutions. How is an already limited job market going to include or exclude newly minted researchers with little field experience? Are we going to reinforce the already unfortunate division of labour observed between those who study digital media through big data, located in the global north, and those, locally based, who rely on qualitative methods?
Pauline Lemaire is a political scientist focusing on the interactions between young people and the state as mediated by new technologies. She is a PhD fellow at CMI within the project Youth in Africa: How Africa's post conflict regimes handle the African millenials.
Cronin-Furman, K., & Lake, M. (2018). Ethics Abroad: Fieldwork in Fragile and Violent Contexts. PS: Political Science & Politics, 51(03), 607–614. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096518000379
Fanon, F. (2002). Les Damnés de la Terre. Paris: La Découverte. (Original work published 1961)
Schoon, A., Mabweazara, H. M., Bosch, T., & Dugmore, H. (2020). Decolonising Digital Media Research Methods: Positioning African Digital Experiences as Epistemic Sites of Knowledge Production. African Journalism Studies, 41(4), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1080/23743670.2020.1865645
UCC orders social media shutdown ahead of tense poll. (2021, January 12). Retrieved 23 February 2021, from Daily Monitor website: https://www.monitor.co.ug/uganda/news/national/ucc-orders-social-media-shutdown-ahead-of-tense-poll-3254532