UNU-EHS | Field research from a distance?

In a new open access research paper “Crisis-induced disruptions in place-based social-ecological research – an opportunity for redirection” published in GAIA, Dr. Kees van der Geest and Dr. Robert Oakes of UNU-EHS, together with a team of researchers led by Kathleen Hermans at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, describe new ways of doing field research from a distance.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed how place-based research is conducted. This is especially true for social-ecological research that relies on social and physical interaction on site, as it requires deep engagement with stakeholders and a strong familiarity with the local context.

The COVID-19 travel restrictions and limitations to social interactions meant that field research could not be conducted for an extended time period. This created the need to think about creative solutions for conducting participatory research or household surveys – research methods commonly used by UNU-EHS.

While COVID-19 has drawn significant attention to the discussion on how to conduct place-based social-ecological research, it is not the only crisis with the potential to disrupt field work. Natural hazards, terrorist attacks and political conflicts are just some of the examples that prevent researches from being able to travel to the research site.

Van der Geest, Oakes and their co-authors argue that in order to overcome crisis-related restrictions to fieldwork, it is important to learn from experiences in the past. They provide some examples of how researchers dealt with the challenges posed by crises such as the 2015 Nepal Earthquake, bush fires in Australia and political turmoil in Kenya.

A guiding principle must be to design and manage research projects in a way that reduces the impact of disruptions. This requires the recognition of risks and uncertainties and an increase in flexibility and an ability to adapt.

The pandemic has demonstrated that many research methods cannot be applied under conditions of social distancing and travel restrictions. This has created a strong need across academic disciplines to develop innovative ways of collecting data remotely, for example through citizen science and the harnessing of social media data while advancing existing technologies, such as online, phone and SMS surveys.

An interesting finding of the paper is that there can be unexpected benefits when new, remote fieldwork methods are used. For example, the authors found that when researchers conduct interviews by phone, they often stayed in touch with respondents beyond the actual interview. Respondents would send photos, videos or voice messages, which greatly enriched the research. In the authors’ experience, this rarely happened when interviews were conducted in person.

The research paper examines the example of the LOCOMOTION project, which seeks to model transitions to sustainability and for which UNU-EHS is a research partner. One aim of the project is to humanize Integrated Assessment Models which typically emphasize ecology and other natural sciences over the social sciences. As the new paper describes, UNU-EHS asked stakeholders for their opinion on risks to global society under transitions towards a sustainable future. Under COVID-19, it was decided to conduct the stakeholder session virtually. The researchers used a fuzzy cognitive mapping exercise to enable participants to show how they understand the systemic links and causal relations between the identified risks. In conducting these tasks remotely, the research team encouraged stakeholders to digitally model their perspectives and so directly “speak” in the common modeling language of the project. This facilitated the integration of research questions and stakeholder understandings of complex systems into the project.

While the experience in LOCOMOTION and other projects described by the author team were generally positive and led to strong research findings, there are limitations of conducting field research remotely. These include issues of data robustness and confidentiality, questions around the remuneration of respondents, and barriers that may prevent people from participating such as lack of (stable) internet access, experience with technology, and a suitable safe and quiet space to speak. In addition, having established respondent contacts and knowledge of the area is deemed to be essential for conducting effective remote research.

Van der Geest, Oakes and their co-authors recommend the consideration of some key criteria to successfully conduct field research remotely. Independent and equal partners in the research area are a key ingredient and this implies a higher level of engagement with and capacity building of local research partners. Secondly, more flexible funding would help to meaningfully allocate resources to local research partners.

The authors conclude that new developments offer an opportunity for redirection and that further thinking needs to be done on both the limitations and opportunities of doing field research remotely.

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Source: United Nations University, Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), 02.08.2021