When the screen becomes the ‘field’: methodological reflections in a time of Covid-19


As we write this blog post, we continue to grapple with the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in India, losing people in close quarters and with ‘work’ continuing as it is.

Social science research has adapted with a new force to centre research on the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has forced us to redefine ‘the field’ yet again. Our lives have been rewired around the ‘screen’ (both laptops and phones), which has become a significant, symbolic object, guiding research in and on the pandemic. This has been accompanied by a hunt to find best practices for doing social science research in such times. However, the transition has not been easy. Reports suggest that in India only 50 percent of people have internet access, with an alarming gender disparity in internet usage. A smooth transition to virtual research which ensured parity was, hence, difficult to imagine.

In early 2020, aiming to undertake research with social movements, we in SuPWR were unaware of how the pandemic would unfold. We were hopeful that we would get to meet and engage with activists and members from the movements, but soon the limits to our hopes were realized. We started figuring out how many activists could use Zoom and phones, and so began our journey of data collection in a time of Covid-19, with limits, possibilities and adaptations. This blog post shares our reflections on the process in India so far.

Researching a language of/in the ‘new normal’

As we began finding our way through adaptations of and in research (from home), technology offered many choices. Moreover, there was anxiety to conduct long, detailed interviews and oral histories with movement participants as SuPWR’s methodology entailed. With no alternatives in sight, ever-changing travel restrictions and the spirit that the work must continue, dependence on technology became the ‘new normal’.

However, in a context like South Asia, we were very aware of the limits of access to technology. The question of access was thus marked and marred by who could be included in the research process. And in this case, it was clear that those who had access to smart phone technology, the expenses to afford the internet, or stable phone connection, would be the only ones who could participate in this research. As researchers, we were already aware and reflective of these limitations. However, the pandemic and the ‘new normal’ has amplified the notions of inclusion and exclusion for us, and technological access became the conduit for it.

Vishwanathan talks about how the language of social science research reflected the managerial-ness similar to the State’s approach to policy and pandemic. With our immediate dependence on technology and the acceptance of the ‘new normal’, we somehow lost the ethic of care and self reflection of a new imagination of social science research. “We have languages to measure scale and quantity of impact but few concepts to understand the nature of suffering” (emphasis ours). Perhaps in that sense, the research methodology and the language of social science research have much to do together. In other words, the question of language – documenting and narrativizing the stories of research participants – had to be thought through the politics of state, pandemic and acknowledging the limits that it posed for us.

Questions around Covid-19 became a part of our interviews. However, our questions were directed at understanding how the pandemic was “managed” by the movement. The violence of the pandemic on the communities seems missing from our conversations. We are exploring how we can bring out such narratives and, at the same time, make space for the myriad of emotions which accompany them.

The question of the (limits to) language also holds for the research at large. SuPWR’s research focuses on backlash and the gains made by the movements, both of which are deeply personal. Weaving a story of this complexity limited by access to only a few senses was difficult. How does one talk to another Zoom body on the other side of the screen, sometimes visible, sometimes frozen, sometimes just an image? How do we make sense of the ‘gaze’ of our own self image, gazing/mirroring back at us? How do we communicate, or express – especially when interviews become difficult – when someone cries over the phone, on the other side? How do we hold on to both the participant and oneself as researchers?

It is as much a question of ethics as it is about reflecting on the limits of language. We still walk with a question while having our conversations with the movement members: what is the new ethics of care in the digital face and phase of research, especially in the pandemic?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Perhaps engaging in different reflective exercises has helped us to at least think about these questions in a way which is not just about finding answers, but also imagining how we tell these stories.

In the hope of hope…

Initially, as we ended our calls, we often said, “hopefully we will get to meet in person soon” – and it looked hopeful until March 2021. There was also a constant desire from the study participants to meet in person. They wanted us to interact not just with one person, but many. The Zoom box could fit a limited number of people and privilege the voice of only a few. We had made our plans for travel in consultation with the movements.

However, the second wave has not been kind to India. Our parting statements have changed with the intensity of the pandemic. From being hopeful, we shifted to uncertainty: “we are not sure when we will meet but let us see”. Now it has just been about “we do not know if we will meet”. The ‘if’ here does not only indicate the extent of travel restrictions, but also the precarity of the lives we are living.

The SuPWR methodology (reflective workshops) asks us to be under one roof and reflect together on how the movement addressed backlash and sustained gains. Hence, we are consciously trying to make space for improvisation in the methodology and keeping the uncertainty alive. We still discuss the possibility of meeting and reassuring each other that “as soon as things settle down, hopefully we will meet” and end with laughs!