20 March 2020
The Coronavirus outbreak is impacting all of us bringing uncertainty even to the best laid plans, and has required many of you to suddenly leave your research areas and secondments. We recognise that this is causing a lot of upheaval and uncertainty. Please be assured that this does not signal ruin for your PhD nor will it undermine the WEGO network. Right now, the most important thing is that everyone feels safe, supported and stay healthy and that we work out ways to stay in touch and support each other. All the mentors have been in touch with each of you. We respect the decisions you are making in terms of where you want to be at this moment. We have also checked the EU funding requirements which have been adjusted to allow for this situation. We feel it is important to put in place ways to keep the community together to bring you care and support and continued engagement with current global issues from an FPE perspective.
This message is two-fold. The first is to help you think through how to cope with uncertainty and the unexpected for your PhD project.
The second is to share with you some ideas of how we can come together as a network at this unexpected and difficult time by building community together and by learning from other on-line communities of practice.
I Ways to deal with uncertainty, health, planning in your research including revisioning for unanticipated changes and contingencies
Once the situation becomes clearer, you will need to set out some new schedules and goals for your PhD work. In many respects, the virus outbreak could be likened to the difficulties some of us faced in our ‘fieldwork’. It is more severe because it is affecting all of us, but in principle, you can find ways through and build contingency plans for your projects. Fieldwork does not make a PhD. The weaving together of ideas from the literature, data, and your analysis of them is what makes a PhD. If your primary data is limited, then think about what kind of secondary sources are available that you can use to fill out your PhD story. You might also eventually think about contributing to the broader scholarship on methods as part of your PhD, especially if the current situation has inspired you to think about how this literature failed to capture some of your experiences during your research.
Evaluate the “risks”to your project before you start. Re-evaluate as you go along and particularly as circumstances change. Note as FPE scholars, we should use the term ‘risk’ with caution – there are many feminist STS critiques of risk, risk assessment, and risk management (including Foucault’s critique of biopower), and the governmentality and structures of monitoring, surveillance, populationism, social control, pathologization, etc that assume the ‘expert classes’ will manage these various risks to protect the normative order of things. We have to be careful that the language of ‘risk,’ and how it has been historically and is currently being deployed in the current moment resonates too closely with the imperial, surveillance, and carceral state imaginaries. We need to continue to interrogate the colonialist underpinnings of academic research that sends people to the ‘field’ to ‘uncover’ knowledge that is then brought back to the metropolitan universities. We can be mindful of Haraway’s expose in Primate Visions in her analyses of the brave white researcher leaving their comfortable lives and families and facing all manner of threats to uncover scientific knowledge about non-human primates. We need to continue to examine deeply how we understand our WEGO research from an intersectional perspective which situates ourselves and the current uncertain situation. This why we are using the term: “creative planning and revisioning for unanticipated changes or contingencies”.
Our issue now is how to move forward and to adjust. As you do so be aware of:
- Health—infectious disease, accessibility to health care / evacuation provisions, your own health status before going
- Mental health—isolation, culture shock, communication, mobility, exercise facilities
- Security situation—history of communitarian politics, conflict, economic stability, local superstitions (Ingrid’s story), timing of elections
- Transportation—forms of transportation and their risks (small flights, helicopters, trails, roads). Road accidents are the number 1 risk of fieldwork in many places!!
- Unavailable data—this can sometimes be because a data source (statistics or aerial photos, etc) is not released to you, or because you have to leave your field site, or because people you expected to talk to are not around.
- Socialization: any culture has a different way to socialize interpersonal relationships, socialize problems and solutions, to speak about something is an art and it happens differently in different cultures. It is important to take care about how you socialize in what way and when in order to avoid negative reactions unintentionally. Pay attention be careful what questions you ask in relation to cultural or personal habits
- Gender Based Violence: remember to take care and be aware of the possibility for psychological, verbal, physical and sexual violence as well as being stalked online and by phone. Be aware you may have to overcome difficulties be sure you know your rights, have access to information, and organizations and networks who fight GBV as well as access to legal and health services.
Planning the ‘risks’ connected to your research.
All ‘fieldwork’ carries a variety of objective ‘risks’ as above. You will not be able to deal with all of them. You may well need to think of new plans and change your research due to the virus. Some things to keep in mind if you are not in your own country or going to remote areas to do research.
- Contact your embassy, (not all countries have embassies in Nepal, for example) If no, ask in advance which embassy your country relies on for any documentation or where the nearest embassy is. Notify your embassy in advance about your research period. This could be useful in case of any crisis and if you are lost and without money they can assist you. In Nepal, for example, they will not send a rescue team unless they have your information.
- Make sure someone you trust (better two people) know where you are at all times, both locally and externally. If mobile phones and social media go down, how will you communicate? If there is a major problem, who is your first point of contact and do they know how to reach others in your network, can they mobilise rescue services? Always carry phone numbers for your embassy, evacuation services and your health
- Gather information. Pay close attention to the overall local situation and also to the research issue you are working on. Make relationships, ask how things are daily. It can be useful for your research but is also important in terms of understanding when the security situation might change.
- When the different ‘risks’ come together, small problems can become big ones. An infection from a leech bite is annoying unless you find that you need to walk for several days to evacuate your field site, or you get another problem (stomach bug). Then the infection can be life threatening. Your immune system can drop quickly when exposed to multiple pressures. Mitigation: be vigilant with hygiene, treat all problems seriously and avoid putting too much pressure on yourself on a day-to-day basis.
- Transportationis often significantly safer if you spend more money or travel with others. Consider what options you have and balance that with the impression you give local respondents. Don’t be afraid to ask drivers to slow down or get out and find another mode of transportation if possible. Drivers and others sharing a bus/taxi with you have their own social lives and political connections, which can affect your work, safety and how others see your political positioning (see Ingrid’s article in Area about this).
- Be transparent with your research goals. Let local people who are not necessarily participants know what you are doing. Make sure you have a solid and reliable network of people who believe in what you are doing. This can help if things suddenly shift and you find yourself subject to suspicion.
- Always leave yourself amarginto cope with the unexpected! Whether that is the timing of leaving field sites, the number of hours you work a day (avoid exhaustion), back-ups of your data, extra chargers for your phone, extra pair of eye glasses (!), extra medicines you do not expect to use.
- Bring what you need. Music, a diary, a yoga mat, chocolate, a sleeping bag, a large towel, or extra phone credit to call abroad/surf the net are all good examples of things that can help keep your mental and physical health strong. Do not be afraid to have a few ‘home comforts’ with you.
- Think through alternatives to your ‘dream’ project. If you cannot get the data you need, what other questions or data sources are available?
Most research projects have to be changed or redesigned because of unexpected events. This could be what you are facing now. This should not be cause for panic. Rather, this is the moment when you revisit your research goals, theoretical interests, and think creatively about what you have and how to fill data gaps. This is one reason why a good research design to begin with is so important. It is the foundation from which you can rethink the project as needed and the initial process teaches you how to do so. If you do not have a good research design now, or if your project has changed dramatically due to the coronavirus, then take this opportunity to draft one.
- Think through your research goals, which ones need to be dropped? Does dropping them make the work too ‘thin’? If so, can you add new goals that do not require your presence in a field site? (see c.)
- Take stock of what data you have gathered. What story is emerging? Are there obvious gaps? How can you fill them?
- What can you find out remotely? Can you ask go on-line is it possible someone locally is in the position to collect data for you? Can you use archives? Do you need to ask a historically or policy driven question in order to fill out an ethnographic study that was cut short?
- Can you write down some of your experiences and lessons learned thus far in terms of ‘the conduct of research’ (methods)? Might you have a compelling story that could turn into an article or chapter that would be useful to others?
Another interesting resource on fieldwork in pandemics from Deborah Lupton can be found here:
At the end of the document we share stories of how some of the WEGO mentors have approached their research and how they faced the unexpected
II Building a WEGO on-line community practice – towards post Corona times
No doubt many of you belong to networks that are circulating inspiring ideas and stories of how people are coming together in solidarity to share, comfort and work together in these difficult times. We would like to encourage such inspiring sharing among WEGO as well, creating a collaborative WEGO space.
In this space we can share how COVID-19 is impacting our different worlds and help build an intersectional ‘FPE’ response linked to other conversations in which we are participating. The mentors group on Whats App has been sharing YouTube clips on teachers surviving doing on-line classes, poetry and our concerns about how to build practices of care among students and teachers among WEGO.
While we have our two WhatsApp groups, and our somewhat clumsy Mycelium space, it seems important at this moment to create one shared space where we can exchange insights and reflections and build up our responses and ways of coping.
For example, the CERN listserv has been sharing many interesting ideas and articles on community ways of coping and learning to care differently in these dark times. Some readings (a few have been shared already on the What’s App):
Many of these writings centre around thinking positively about these times of uncertainty asking questions about “To what kind of world is going to emerge from this crisis? How will we have changed, individually and collectively?” Crisis creates change, and so this is an extraordinary time for imagining and advocating for socio-economic and ecological change. WEGO can help make the links between the Corona crisis and broader socio, environmental and political-economic situation and how to turn this time into one where we can apply our intersectional analysis in ways that can work for positive, sustainable and equitable change. For example, how to can we radically degrow; put systems in place that address economic distribution; regenerative agriculture; change in consumption and travel; how to move towards governance that can prevent and deal with shocks and pandemics, etc.
It is important (and inspiring) to discuss these bigger political questions around justice and equality, care and commoning, and embodied political ecologies that interest many of us at a deep level. It will could be that you can build from this discussion, how your topic of research is affected by the crisis, and how you find insights in FPE that can produce a caring and ecologically just response could transform the situation. Making the current crisis part of their research can help you to deal with it.
In order to set up the space to do this, we will explore (again) how to set up a listserv perhaps using a gmail account so we can share our ideas there as well as the more spontaneous Whats App groups and our weekly zoom meeting.
We will set up a regular weekly Zoom on Thursdays (making sure it can work in all time zones) where anyone (hopefully many of us) from the WEGO network can join in for a quick catch up. We want this space to be somewhere to share concerns, express anxieties and difficulties, while also discuss plan B for your research, and reflect on the situation more broadly, building on our intellectual strengths.
Be reassured that delays and adjustments to the research plans are understandable, and that at this point of the epidemic we are all “digesting” what is happening and try to adapt to it in different temporalities. You can and should put your health, security and well being as a priority. This will mean you will work less intensely while you are taking care of yourself and others. While we are all living in different circumstances we hope WEGO will continue to build a community where we can listen, share and support each other.
The Mentors – including Sharmini – will all be working in this period as best we can – we are privileged that most of us have salaried jobs – let us make the most of it! We hope you found this useful and we look forward to continuing the conversation.
III The principles guiding the changes to WEGO PhD projects
- WEGO’s priority is that all the students are safe and well and feel secure.
- WEGO will go slow mindful of the collective grief and emotions we are all feeling.
- Changes to the PhD project will come through a series of consultations among PhDs, mentors and partners involved in each of the 15 projects.
- WEGO will aim to build a community of care and support through weekly meetings and on-line training lab in June in 2020.
- WEGO has appointed an ombudsperson Dr Ana Agostino who is available for consultation for all members of the WEGO project providing advice in relation to complications and conflicts that might occur with mentor(s), supervision, personal conflict, etc.
IV How Mentors have experienced uncertainty and change in their field work:
I was definitely feeling anxiety during my PhD when my field site ended up being a focal point of a regional cholera epidemic in 2010. I had wonderful hosts in Mozambique keeping an eye on me and ensuring my safety…but about half the village insisted I was purposely giving them cholera with a white powder (these kinds of rumors have a long history in Mozambique and beyond…there are several books and articles about this, which have offered political and class-based analyses among others…I’m writing about more place-based aspects). The situation in rural Mozambique became so serious that several local leaders were lynched (burning tires around their necks). A local friend escorted me out of the village on our motorcycles just a few hours before a group of people had intended the same for me…these situations are rare, but they do happen. Thankfully, before I arrived in my research sites, I had read about the long history of rumors tied to health and development interventions and to the legacy of colonial upheaval of local lives in this specific region. These readings informed my contingency planning and communications with local support offices and the local hospital staff during the epidemic. These connections were helpful for keeping communication open and finding different ways to bridge the mistrust between local residents and health workers who were also being attacked in other areas. I also have some reflections on the social connections of drivers in rural areas and other field notes in an article in Area (2013). Area has some really interesting articles on fieldwork, power and transforming our practices. I especially recommend work by Martina Caretta and her colleagues https://martinaangelacarettaphd.com/publications/) and Sofia Zaragocin (see her on Twitter here and check out her Google Scholar profile: https://twitter.com/sofiazaragocin?lang=en).
During my PhD work in rural Nepal I was ill about 50% of the time with colds, flu and stomach problems. It radically curtailed my energy for the fieldwork I had planned. I coped with the situation by hiring some young students in the village to conduct a survey for me. Then I did not have to run around to every house. My ex-husband was with me and he led the forest vegetation survey. I tried to ensure I participated in 10% of the plots, but I would have had to abandon that part of the work if he had not been there.
I also regularly face dangers with transportation. Road travel in Nepal is very dangerous so a huge part of our fieldwork budget is travel. We walk, use private jeeps, planes and helicopters. Some times of the year we cannot travel to our fieldsites because the risks are too great. When I was younger, I used to walk alone for 2 days into my field site. That now seems suicidal. Even if you don’t need a local assistant, hire one anyway for companionship and to avoid travelling alone. If you do not have funds to pay someone, you can often find a Masters student who is keen to get some training and experience. Treat it as an exchange. Offer to help them with their English, etc.
My recent work has been on conflict and political transition. This has required constant adjustment. We have struggled with how to ask the right kinds of questions that do not change every time the political situation shifted (which it did between each of our field work periods). We had to change field locations several times due to the security situation. It was important that we theorised carefully what we were interested in so that the change in the empirical situation actually provided data for those questions rather than making us feel we were doing the wrong kind of project. For example, initially we asked what people thought ‘new Nepal’ was, but when the hope and possibilities of the revolution very quickly wore off, we had to rethink what we thought was important about political change. When we began framing our questions around the relationships between authority and political subjectivities, then the shifts from ‘new Nepal’ to ‘corrupt Nepal’ helped us to better understand that relationship.
It feels like a lifetime ago but I was doing PhD research in a difficult-to-reach rural area of Lampung, Indonesia. Roads were poor and I was reliant on public transport. On the way back to the field after a break with friends I was badly injured in a road accident. I had made various arrangements through my risk assessment about what would happen in that eventuality and was really glad to have done that – it meant I had a clear plan in place that just meant making some calls. A good local support network is vital. Even as I was lying in hospital, my main worry was my data (or lack of it). Looking back, that seems very upside down, but I’m sure this is quite common. I was even thinking about how a plaster cast would hold up in the rainy season! It was clear that I was going to have to completely change my research design and approach. The abrupt change to my plans were unsettling but it also meant I dug into some secondary data that I hadn’t even considered before, and ironically, this began my journey into political ecology when I saw the disconnect between peoples’ experiences and the development planning documents, not to mention highhanded statements in policy documentation and iterations from the powerful in newsmedia discourses. This became a major part of my study, and the limited fieldwork I had done could be woven into a new pattern of understanding. Time alone knitting (I found it hard to concentrate on academic articles for a while) actually became deep thought time and gave me tools for reflexive theory building afterwards, some of which I’ve tried to hold onto over the years.
Doing research in rural Mekong Delta, Vietnam for my PhD proved more challenging than I thought it would be. I had to submit a complete research plan (who to interview with what questions) to the Vietnamese authorities, before I even entered the field. The extreme bureaucracy and state control of any communications with researchers (and especially foreigners) forced me to put together very rigid research plans. Despite the obvious limitations of this (not allowing a more open project together with local organizations and networks), it helped me break down my work in phases (having to ask for new permissions every 3 months) and re-evaluate while planning each phase what is it I know and what I still need to find out in order to answer as best as possible my research questions. Think of disruptions in your research as breaks to evaluate this.
I did fieldwork in Spain for my PhD, so no imminent particular ‘risks’, but maybe for that reason, lots of inefficiencies. I drove around the region of Aragon for several weeks interviewing people from 50 different villages. Each new piece of information raised new questions and questioned previous assumptions. Instead of going with it and focus on the story I wanted to tell, and tried to fill gaps as they emerged and that was endless. I never used 100% of the data I collected. In Northern Mexico, Yaqui community, it was the opposite situation. It was a bad time for me to be there for a number of reasons (conflicts with the government) so I had to revise my data collection plans. The traditional authorities would talk to me 1 out of every 3 appointments (I guess they wanted to test on which side I was) and I had a very short window of time to interview community members (always with “Pancho” the local escort I was assigned). No chance of ethnographic work. This forced me to be very efficient in the questions I wanted to ask. In the end I mostly filled gaps of understanding to have a good storyline. I filled details, explored alternative hypotheses and dressed the story line later, with secondary data and previous studies. The paper was not perfect but good enough. A good (published!) start.
In my own environmental justice work, I am always forced (called in/called out) to face my own research practices as a privileged white woman working together with marginalized communities of color. I have been profoundly influenced by my own mentor, Donna Haraway, in terms of how we engage with particular languages, knowledges, theories, stories. As Donna puts it, “It matters what stories tell stories; it matters whose stories tell stories.”