research during covid (part 1): taking care of each other

The following is a guest post by Laura Mauldin.

During COVID19, qualitative researchers are having to improvise and use all kinds of new strategies for doing fieldwork. I’ll focus on some of mechanics of these strategies in part 2 of this series, but this installment is focused on care: It is imperative to care for each other as researchers right now. We need a collective act of care for our fellow qualitative researchers; we are all pressured and stressed and trying to scramble to do the best work we can. We are all learning to adjust to the new realities of fieldwork, but we need to be willing to talk about what adjustments we have made so that we can collectively add to the fund of knowledge about this adjustment. Let’s make it easier for each other by talking about the ways we’ve adjusted, and, when necessary, the ways these adjustments have failed or fallen short.

Like many other researchers, I too had to completely re-imagine my plans for fieldwork. Before the pandemic, I was set to begin intensive and intimate ethnographic fieldwork inside people’s homes. The focus of my observations and interviews was to be spousal caregiving, centering the lives of folks who cared for their ill or disabled partner and inclusive of their ill or disabled spouse as well. I was going to recruit a small number of participants through local spousal caregiver support groups. Obviously, for so many reasons, this was no longer going to happen. And it was devastating. This was my passion project; I was deeply saddened to see my planned fieldwork (already through the IRB) go up in flames. So, I want to emphasize this: If you had a grand vision for your fieldwork, give yourself time to grieve what you had wanted your fieldwork to be. They are part of the larger, seemingly infinite list of things we have lost to the pandemic. Recognize that this is loss and loss hurts. Do not be afraid to care for yourself as you grieve that loss. Take a minute to honor that vision and then figure out what you’re going to do instead. To be honest, I needed about three weeks to be mad, to worry about whether or not I could do any fieldwork, grieve, and be anxious (appropriately so) about what this new pandemic world meant. But after recognizing it as grief and giving myself the time to feel the loss, I was able to be creative and open to what virtual fieldwork offered. 

My re-imagination meant that I ended up posting to online spousal caregiver support groups via Facebook and recruiting a national sample of approximately 50 caregivers across 21 states. This meant the project that ended up coming to fruition over the last 6 months has been very different from the project I originally planned for. And it turns out, on the other side of it, I am pleased with this new and unanticipated project. To do my interviews, I met my participants over video or phone, whichever was doable for them. I interviewed all but 2 of the participants multiple times. (Yes that is more than a hundred interviews!) And as a way to try and mitigate the lack of being in physical space together, I asked them to send me photos of caregiving objects and tools. It could be anything they deemed important to care. I wanted to get creative: how could I see my participants’ worlds without actually entering them? In total, my participants sent nearly 500 photos that included the inside and outside of their homes, their daily care objects, and technologies. One of our interviews was dedicated to the photos; we discussed them at length — how these objects are used, who paid for them, and what they mean for them as they work to make their worlds accessible and livable. I found myself doing fieldwork that was different from anything I could have imagined myself designing prior to the pandemic.  

The rest of this post is focused on taking care of yourself while conducting virtual fieldwork. For me and this particular project, care is both the topic of the research and the guiding ethos of my methodology. What does it mean to be doing research on caregiving, which already may have trauma associated with it, while in the midst of a pandemic? What does it mean to share this trauma with my participants — both the shared trauma of being in a prolonged pandemic and the shared trauma of having been a spousal caregiver for five years to my late partner? It means taking enactments of care for myself and my participants seriously. I would argue that regardless of your topic, making aspects of care central to one’s data collection process is imperative, especially right now. And it’s also especially true if the topic you are researching is particularly meaningful to you in some way. Does this meaning it has for you necessitate you to grapple with your own experiences (especially experiences that are fraught or traumatizing)? How can you institute parameters into the process that take care of you, the researcher?

My quick take away here is: know your limits and prioritize self-care. Since we are now all inevitably living at work/working at home, one of the biggest impacts on your mental health is your interview scheduling rules. Having boundaries around your schedule are crucial and protecting your time before and after an interview essential.

  • Scheduling interviews: How many and when?
    • For me, interviews were limited to one, sometimes two, a day because I found them emotionally exhausting. Know how to pace yourself and to protect your emotional health. Remind yourself that we are all already in a state of anxiety and panic about the pandemic. Decide on the hours/days when you can realistically do interviews and commit to yourself that you will keep them scheduled within that time frame. It was comforting for me to know I had boundaries around my day and when things were scheduled. I only did interviews during the day on a weekday, preferably in the afternoon. Having this boundary made it easier for me to accommodate participant schedules when I needed to, such as for those as far away as Hawaii or California who simply couldn’t fit within that time frame or folks who could only talk while their spouse was sleeping.
    • I always left room for interviews to go very long. In fact, one of my first interviews was one of my longest: 2.5 hours! So I started blocking off 2.5 hours on my calendar for any interview. Most didn’t go that long, but it was a nice open space on the calendar that helped me go slower and it significantly lowered my anxiety.
  • Taking care of yourself before and after interviews:
    • Remember that when we are interviewing people in a pandemic, your participants are stressed as well. This meant for me a lot of “containing” emotions for participants. Many of their stories were deeply affecting and re-traumatizing for me on multiple levels. For example, it was at times surprising for me that when participants discussed pandemic-induced social isolation, that my own social isolation and deep sadness about that crept in. I quickly learned that I needed to take care of myself so that I could enter the interview space with them in a way that was safe and healthy for everyone involved. This requires being deliberate about self-care before and after.
    • Developing a ritual for taking care of yourself prior to the interview is one way to accomplish this self-care. This could be as simple as a making a cup of tea and getting comfortable with pillows or finding a nice place to sit in your house and taking a deep breath. It’s possible, even if that means you’re locked in your bedroom while your toddler runs up and down the hallway, that just taking a minute can make a huge difference. We are all working under duress. You are not alone. Take care of yourself so that you can show up to an interview in the best frame of mind possible.
    • Build in a few minutes after the interview to decompress and perhaps memo immediately after you are finished. After many interviews, I would memo, close my laptop, and often cry. Only then could I open the door and re-enter home life.

My intention with this essay is to give other researchers a sense of how other qualitative researchers are coping, and to be honest about the feelings that arise as we try to collect data while suffering. We minimize or ignore the effects of the stress of the pandemic on our research at our peril. The best thing we can do is be honest about the struggles, share our strategies for making it work, and assist each other in developing better systems of care as we work. All of us can benefit from talking plainly about care during research as we shift to doing virtual fieldwork.

Laura Mauldin is Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies and Human Development/Family Studies at UConn.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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