Our Doctoral Researcher Swantje did virtual field research in the Caribbean and MENA region using qualitative interviews. Read more about Swantje’s experience doing field research during the pandemic.
Swantje Schirmer started her dissertation with the title “Human Rights Legitimation in Regional Organisations” in 2018. From September 2020 to May 2021 she did virtual field research in the Caribbean and MENA region using qualitative interviews. Read more about Swantje’s experience doing field research during the pandemic in the interview below:
How was your field research planned before the pandemic began?
From the very start of the research project that I am part of (LegRO project), it was clear that doing extensive field research is an essential part of my work for the project. It was even stated as a requirement in the job description. So, for me it was only logical to also design my PhD project accordingly. We had planned for field research stays abroad for summer 2020, so I was just getting started with the organisation when the pandemic hit. The rough plan was to stay for two to three months in the two regional organisations that I work on, that is where their head quarters are based. We also considered to do a second round in 2021 to review some of the initial findings. All of that seemed quite unrealistic very abruptly.
When did you realize that you needed to adapt your field research to the pandemic?
I think not until a few months into the pandemic. The first few weeks were simply too messy mentally to come up with any clear thoughts on future planning. But it came to my mind very quickly and I remember asking my supervisor about it quite early on. Obviously, he was lacking any clear answer as everyone did at that point. The overall motto was somewhat ‘wait and see’. I think it was some time in summer, maybe July or so, that I got fed up with waiting and felt like I needed to change something. I did not want to delay the progress of my PhD for too long. It was still unclear whether onsite field research would be possible any time soon and no one was really ready to make any clear pronouncements on this. So, I somewhat decided for myself to just go ahead virtually. Plus, a postdoc colleague in our project – Lynda Iroulo, who was scheduled to take off to Addis Ababa in spring just a few days into the pandemic, straight away reverted to virtual interviews. So, I knew that it was somewhat feasible.
What was the biggest challenge when planning your field research?
Getting interviewees to talk to me! It turned out really difficult for both organisations. And this is also the reason it took so long. At times, I went a few weeks without doing an interview simple because no one was responding to my emails, calls and messages on social media. I spent hours and hours trying to find additional addresses or names or points of contact. I went through third parties, such as cooperation partner of the regional organisations, got a Linkedin Premium account and I do not even want to start counting all the emails I sent without ever getting a response. That was really tiring and frustrating at time. But a senior scholar recommended “polite stubbornness” as the proper attitude for this situation, and with that I managed to get a little more than 50 interviews at least…
What worked well in your digital field research? What did not work well?
Flexibility was pretty great. I managed to do a lot of things on the side and was able to make progress in other parts of my PhD. On site, I think I would have been a lot more immersed. Also, flexibility with regard to interview partners. I mean I talked to people in Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Curacao, Lebanon, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, Tunisia, Great Britain, Austria…. And sometimes switched time zones three times in a day. That would have been impossible on site.
For what did not work well, as I said recruitment… it was extremely tedious. And I guess immersion. I did field research for my master thesis in Lebanon in 2018. And it is definitely a whole different experience if you are there physically.
What are your tips for other researchers who want to conduct field research in times of a pandemic?
I suggest to just get started with it and give it a try. There is really not much you can lose. Either it works out well or it doesn’t. But patience and persistence is really key here. And also maybe setting clear boundaries. At some point I did interviews on Friday nights, Sunday mornings and felt like I needed to adjust my whole schedule and private life to make a maximum of interviews possible. It was very exhausting. When all is virtual and in so many different time zones, it feels like it never stops. Also, for stopping this work phase: you do not have a clear exit point simply because there is no flight to reach. Virtually you can go on as long as you want. So I think it is worthwhile to think about such personal and temporal boundaries in advance.