Research methods in Covid-19: useful evidence and supportive communities

NCRM news
Robert Meckin, Andy Coverdale and Melanie Nind
Young people wearing face masksYoung people wearing face masks

Social researchers are adapting, switching and experimenting with methods in the pandemic. We devised a small project to synthesise the emerging evidence about methodological adaptations and engage researchers in knowledge exchange about the methods in the pandemic. This was funded by ESRC through additional monies to NCRM. We ran eight workshops with researchers, most of whom had been adapting methods in the pandemic. Our participants were generous with their ideas and candid about their experiences. We conducted a rapid evidence review of published literature and we reviewed blogs, websites, Twitter discussions and other grey literature. The research community has been very active in sharing knowledge about methods. We have produced resources that include two project reports, wayfinder guides, reading and reference lists on particular issues and methods, and a series of videos.

What can we say about methods in the pandemic? We found that it wasn’t just a practical or technical question of keeping research going through the disruptions and uncertainties. Researchers are finding ways to make research happen and, crucially, continuing to make research ethical and trustworthy. The published evidence in 2020 was somewhat dominated by two methods in particular – adapting surveys and using autoethnography, partly because they were the focus of special issues in Survey Research Methods and Qualitative Inquiry. Survey researchers need to deal with mode switches within and between waves in longitudinal studies as well as the confounding context of the pandemic, so accounting for these changes is important. Autoethnography, on the other hand, appears well-suited to physical distancing and crisis, with its emphasis on relating personal experience with wider social and cultural phenomena. Other publications show further methods being adapted, and we expect to see a wider range of evidence in publications through 2021. 

There are solvable methodological problems 
Researchers talked of many inventive solutions to methods challenges. They were able to keep socially distanced by establishing letter communications with participants and by doing survey interviews on doorsteps. Researchers moved many aspects of research online. The In-Touch team at UCL have been able to continue exploring touch (of all things) in the pandemic. Researchers have worked with the technical difficulties and ethical challenges, especially with regard to the innovations in teleconferencing platforms. They have also reflected on the apparent changes in sociality with their participant communities, the ways people are interacting – more local, more online. In many cases, this opens up continued, but different, participation in research. But… 

Some problems are intractable in their current form
The pandemic is exacerbating existing inequalities and raising new ethical issues in research, especially in regard to care and digital access and security. Some projects could not continue in their current form. Access to some specific groups changed in ways that was impossible, at least for a time, to continue to research with them, including care home residents, the police and participants in prisons. Some researchers have reorganised their projects and modified research questions or approached other participant groups. We have also seen researchers accessing secondary data and generating knowledge through accounts in online interviews and participant podcasts and diaries. We found such adaptations can be made at different levels and phases of research projects. 

It’s not just about methods, it’s about research relationships too 
We found widespread acknowledgement of, and sensitivity towards, the changes in what could be called the affective landscape of the research community, including researchers and participants. The pandemic is affecting the community, some individuals more than others. Overall, there’s a sense of increased anxiety, concerns about loneliness and mental health, as well as grief and sadness. Amid this, though, we noted solidarity in our workshops and in some, a collective voice of optimism and possibility. Research relationships were a significant topic of conversation, with our colleagues talking about supporting one another, maintaining ethical relationships with participants, and ensuring the wider ecology of social research was considered with the invaluable help from research support and professional services in research institutions. 

It has been a difficult year for social research. However, more and more useful evidence is emerging and there are supportive networks and communities in the making. Researchers are not alone and there are many useful resources and places to find technical and methodological support. All the reports and resources are available here and we will keep updating the page as the project is continuing for at least the next six months. 

Robert Meckin, Andy Coverdale and Melanie Nind work with the National Centre for Research Methods and recently completed a short project: Changing Research Practice: Undertaking social science research in the context of Covid-19.