research during covid (part 2): centering care in/with the mechanics of virtual fieldwork

The following is a guest post by Laura Mauldin. Part 1 is available here.

In the previous post I talked about care for ourselves as we embark on fieldwork during a pandemic, care for each other as fellow academics also trying to figure it out, and care for our participants too. To continue the conversation about how to best care for ourselves, each other, and our participants, this installment focuses on logistics. There have been a variety resources posted about what it means to strategize fieldwork and to be “in the field” during a pandemic. Deborah Lupton’s crowdsourced document has been a fantastic resource for students and faculty alike trying to re-define field work during COVID19, anthropologist Pam Block wrote about bearing witness for the Wenner-Gren Blog, and a post by Sharon Ravitch for Social Science Space emphasized trauma-informed methods and chronic illness methodology (both of which I engage in my own work).

While there’s been lots of talk of how to work through re-visioning our fieldwork, there’s been less discussion about the actual mechanics of implementing new virtual strategies. In the course of my own virtual fieldwork, which was a first for me, I found there to be quite a few differences in terms of process and logistics. Namely, there is an unbelievable deluge of data that happens nearly instantaneously after a participant interview. In non-pandemic times, you might physically go somewhere, go over the consent forms on paper and get it signed, take handwritten notes and then go back home and type them up later. With virtual field work, participants are consented prior and after that, everything happens nearly immediately. When you meet for the interview online, it is recorded and perhaps transcribed within hours if it auto-transcribes. You probably also typed notes during the interview, so again you’re generating data logs or fieldnotes instantly. In this way, virtual methods may generate data in forms that you may not be used to, and it happens really quickly. Logistically speaking, this requires its own sort of project management. I share these insights out of a sense of care for my fellow academics – here are some tips and observations on how to manage this new terrain:

  • The spreadsheet
    • Every single day I consulted my spreadsheet multiple times a day. This was my master list of participants names, contact information, participant number, status of contact (Interview 1 scheduled or Interview 2 scheduled on x date, etc), status of their gift card (sent?), the number of minutes each of their interviews lasted, and if the transcript file had been downloaded and saved, etc.
    • Use this spreadsheet to centralize that status of your project and all the participants. I was updating mine multiple times a day with developments–emails would come in, consent forms arrived in the mail, an interview scheduled or confirmed. Keep it up to date and this way you have a note of where you are with participants and can sync this with your calendar.
  • Develop a streamlined calendaring system
    • Figure out what kinds of information needs to be included in each calendar entry and standardize it so you can look at it quickly and not get lost in the sea of confusing appointments, times, and subject numbers.
    • If you’re scheduling interviews with Webex or Zoom or some other platform, save yourself the trouble and put the participant number and the interview number in the title of the meeting (if you’re doing multiple interviews with participants like I am). I was writing mine like “P43 Interv 2” but pick something that works for you and make it standard across all your file names. That way when it shows up as a reminder from the platform for the interview, that title is in alignment with your calendar, and your file system. Furthermore, in my folder of “Interview recordings” if the file names are all “P(# of participant) and Interv (# of interview)” then it lists the file names in numerical order by participant and they’re easy to find. 
    • If virtual fieldwork has opened up a national sample for you, you will now have to deal with time zones. Coordinating time zones, especially for participants in Hawaii or Arizona (states that don’t participate in daylight savings) can be tricky! It’s best to have a chart with time zones on it so you can quickly refer to it and then to put the time zone next to the participant’s subject number, and to include this in your calendar entry or interview invitation details. Be clear on the time for the participant and for you – clarity is care.
    • Cross check your calendar every week with your spreadsheet of participants. My spreadsheet includes the set date and time for our interview. I could quickly look and see that we scheduled our next interview on x date. Then I would go to the calendar and check to make sure that information is there in the form of an interview invite/schedule. I used lots of different colored fonts in my spreadsheet and dedicated every Friday afternoon to data management time.   
  • Develop a communication strategy: 
    • I discovered doing everything virtually means you have to send a lot of form emails. These emails may be consent form related or instructions for joining the video call or phone call. It’s best to develop a very clear template you can copy and paste so you don’t have to generate a new email every time. But make sure it is extremely clear with regard to the steps on how to get consent forms back to you, or how to join an interview call. Take care of your participants by leaving no room for them to be stressed out by your requests; they are already stressed. We all are. And know your audience. Many of my participants are elderly (my oldest participant is 87!) and less familiar with technology. Care for them by making it easy.
    • Maintain lots of open lines of communication with your participants. Many of my participants were very willing to text with me, which can reduce emails and resolve any scheduling issues almost immediately. (Go update that spreadsheet!)
  • Devise a well thought out data management strategy for storing files.
    • I suggest imagining all the steps of data collection you’ll to take, what kinds of files each subject will generate and then devise a file structure that makes sense for you. Update your electronic files daily — add in transcripts, interview recordings and so on, as you get them. Label everything uniformly and back up your files in multiple places. Remember: the key difference for virtual fieldwork is the speed at which you generate data and data-related files. Unlike in-person fieldwork, everything is generated almost immediately and you’ll quickly be under water if you don’t stay on top of it.
    • Map out the “life of a participant” in terms of the files they will generate. Then you can figure out very early on, say after an interview or two, how to store these files from the start. I enjoyed developing these innovations to adjust to virtual fieldwork, which could definitely be the topic of a whole other conversation

Another thing I will say is to be prepared for perhaps a greater response to interview requests than you might think. Even though my participants are under an enormous amount of stress, I found two unexpected plus sides to pandemic field work:

  • Everyone was home all the time! This meant the flexibility of scheduling was far easier than any other prior project I had done pre-pandemic.
  • Most people were starved for social interaction. This meant that our interviews were a welcome reprieve for many of my participants from being alone. It’s a well-established fact that caregivers deal with isolation in non-pandemic times. These days, the isolation has been more extreme and more relentless. Participating in an interview and having someone there whose purpose was solely to listen to their story was far more welcomed and appreciated than I could have imagined. The majority of my interviews ended with some tears and gratitude. I was grateful they shared their lives with me, and they were grateful someone wanted to listen.

There many other ways to make this new kind of fieldwork more efficient. I encourage you to think through how you’re going to manage your data and keep it organized; this is definitely a way to care for yourself as you move into data analysis stage. And of course, this post is just a start for thinking about data management. Hopefully it will alert other qualitative researchers to the kind of logistics we all need to consider as we do new forms of fieldwork. Take care of yourselves and each other out there!

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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