May 18, 2020

The Challenges of Doing Research while Social Distancing

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

A group of my colleagues have started a support group for qualitative researchers, called “Ethnographers in Exile.” After spending a year securing a field site and getting Institutional Review Board approval to do an ethnography in an emergency room, one colleague found that his research could not go forward under the current circumstances, with no timeline for his project to begin any time soon.

Ethnography involves immersing one’s self in the lived experience of the group that you are studying and being present to observe interactions and ask questions that might come up in the course of our participants’ day-to-day lives. Ethnographers observe the tempo of interactions, what happens when seemingly nothing is happening, and ultimately try and learn what it is like to be a member of a particular group.

Ethnographers may study people in public or private spaces, or a combination of the two, but when people stop interacting in these spaces ethnography cannot take place. Even if people are still interacting—say, in an emergency room—the current pandemic puts researchers, participants, and everyone’s families at heightened risk for spreading the disease.

Ethnographers aren’t the only ones trying to figure out how to continue their work. Those who conduct in-depth interviews now need to rely on things like FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, or other apps to talk to participants. This might not be a problem for some studies, but if a researcher is hoping to find interviewees through their participation in school or work or another in-person organization, their recruiting might be more difficult.

Many research participants might not have access to computers or smart phones or might not be comfortable using video technologies. Those that do might not have private spaces where they feel like they can talk, and they might be hesitant to disclose information that might be important for an interviewer’s study. Studying vulnerable populations might be particularly difficult under these circumstances.

Surveys that are conducted in person are also a challenge right now. Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank that conducts polls and surveys globally, has stopped conducting much of their international research. In a recent post, Pew described their typical protocol for conducting research in places like Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America:

Face-to-face interviewing typically requires fieldworkers to travel between communities, walk local streets and knock on the doors of randomly selected households. If someone answers, several minutes are spent randomly selecting an adult age 18 or older to answer the survey. Then the survey interview begins in earnest – sometimes with the interviewer at the doorstep, sometimes inside the house.

In either instance, a respondent and interviewer can be within a few feet of one another for half an hour or more. Once an interview is completed, the interviewer moves on to the next randomly selected house and repeats the process….

The Center decided it was best to eliminate the possibility that interviewers moving between communities and households might unknowingly spread or contract the coronavirus. We suspended all face-to-face surveys in early March, including in countries with few or no reported cases of the virus. Effectively, we shut down our international face-to-face survey operations until further notice.

Research in developing nations with more limited access to technology will be particularly difficult, but even phone-based interviews could become difficult as call centers close down. And while doing archival research might remain a possibility if sources are online, for those looking forward to visiting special collections at libraries or viewing records kept in physical spaces, that kind of research is likely on hold for now.

But this doesn’t mean all sociological research will come to a halt. The pandemic has created opportunities to address lots of new research questions about work and family life, which one colleague is conducting using time-use diaries, where participants report on how they spend their time to researcher.

Many researchers had already begun to take advantage of digital technologies in their research before the pandemic, as Keith N. Hampton discusses in his 2017 Annual Review of Sociology article. From analyzing comments on social media to conducting online experiments and even conducting “cyberethnography,” the Internet provides a unique set of research opportunities to consider.

For those who conduct research in traditional, face-to-face settings, the absence of interacting directly with research participants creates more than just a methodological dilemma. Observing people and interacting with those whose experiences interest them is what they do and even part of who they are as sociologists. Perhaps we might study how qualitative researchers are managing not just their work, but also their identities as sociologists during the pandemic.


It’s great that during this difficult time, you and your colleagues created a support group. I think your research is a very useful thing. Good luck!

The absence of interacting directly with research participants creates more than just a methodological dilemma.

Ultimately try and learn what it is like to be a member of a particular group.

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