New Challenges to Ethnography in the Wake of Covid-19 Reality: Through the Eyes of an Overseas Doctoral Researcher

About the Author

Ritabrata Roy

Mr. Ritabrata Roy is a 1st year Research Student in the University of Sussex, Law School. His research interests include: human rights, gender studies, queer politics and so on. He is a proud alumnus of George Washington University and University of Manchester and has worked as an Assistant Professor for two years at Lloyd Law College, India.

The Context…

Among many other important questions which are constantly igniting various academic and non-academic discourses worldwide, the theme of anxiety to know the transformed scheme of behavioral transactions in the post-pandemic world is substantially prominent. During these disquieting times, logic has ‘naturally’ lost its way among the proposed plethora of mystifying opinionative solutions. However, one of the few voices of reason, comes from the eminent author Arundhati Roy, who termed Coronavirus as a portal to the future world, by forcing the entire human race to break from the past and reboot their thinking towards a new virtual reality. Our experiences over the past five months or so, with the influx of digital framework for all our daily transactions, have firmly reinforced Roy’s somewhat prophetic soothsaying. Here, I do not intend to evaluate the outcome of treading into such relatively unknown world, particularly for a vastly socio-economically diverse nation such as India. However, as a research scholar, I am rather interested to explore the future of ethnography with regards to this unprecedented ‘virtual reality’. Let me briefly narrate my experiences, as an overseas doctoral researcher in the last four months to contextualize this discussion.

How it began …

For any researcher, the foundation year is always the trickiest in terms of managing logistics and shaping a robust framework for the doctoral journey ahead. Additionally, if the subject is inter-disciplinary in nature, it normally presents some unique challenges towards making arrangements for the pre-requisites for conducting a robust ethnography. Indeed, it is the richness of an ethnographic framework, which mostly shapes the final outcome of your research. Formulating a good fieldwork proposal often requires, chalking out a viable comprehensive plan, clearly indicating a proper estimation of the numbers and types of subjects to be interviewed, determining the prospective places of interview, disclosing the details of travelling and other logistics and finally presenting a detailed estimation of the prospective expenses during the proposed fieldwork. Then comes the trickier aspect of getting double approvals from the supervisors as well as the ethics review committee respectively. Though, these appear to be really daunting tasks, systematic efforts and clinical supervision support normally helps a researcher sail through.

My initial days at the university started at an extremely optimistic note. I still remember my first official meeting with my supervisors Dr. Maria Moscati and Dr. Nuno Ferreira at Maria’s office. During that meeting, among all other aspects of the research proposal, the highlight of our discussion mainly was focused on the section of ‘Research Methodology’. Owing to the nature of my research are vis-à-vis ‘male victims of honour crimes’, I was highly encouraged to conduct a detailed ethnography including methods such as participant observation, individual interviews and focus groups. Both my supervisors asked me to enroll for lectures on ‘Qualitative Research Methodology’ that covered the theoretical aspects of all those methods.

The lectures indeed provided me comprehensive insights regarding different individual methods which proved immensely helpful for enriching my prospective ethnography plan. I was introduced to various intrinsic details about the specific types of personal interviews such as ‘Elite Interviews’ and the differences in the power dynamics while conducting the same. Among many interesting readings on the subject, it was Denzin Norman’s works on ethnographic research, which is indeed a must-read for all prospective ethnographers!

Everything was going according to plans until the early weeks of March. Coronavirus, though not unknown by then in United Kingdom, was yet to become a thing with Boris Johnson, still contemplating on the question of going for a lockdown. The university was also dwindling with their reluctant attitude towards social distancing, leading to widespread increase in uncertainty among the students and staff members alike. However, with a rapid surge in the numbers of infected throughout the country, the government went for a complete lockdown in the last week of March. The decision invariably caused a sudden disruption in our daily routine, with everyone trying to adjust to the new normal. This was the time when all of us were somehow figuring out a way to cope with the newfound ‘e’ tag.

The sudden shift in status quo …

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As regards to my research, things initially appeared to be stable enough to complete my thesis chapter that I was then working on. Credit for the same has to be given to the university library staffs who relentlessly worked to make each and every resource electronically available. However, things gradually went downhill once I started working on the ethics approval draft which every research scholar has to submit to the university’s ethics committee, prior to commencement of the fieldwork. Majority of the questions in the application form concerns crucial technicalities of the proposed fieldwork. This includes the method of contacting prospective participants, mode of conducting the actual focus group discussions, personal interviews and so on. The supplementary part of the form focusses on different aspects of privacy, data storage and data protection clauses with relation to both interviewer and the interviewee. The form contains a blanket disclaimer that notwithstanding any changes in scenarios, there shall be strict adherence to European Union data protection standards.

Contemplating the difficulties and the way ahead ….

Even during the old normal, answering these questions were extremely tricky for any researcher. The sheer enormity and diversity involved in any ethnographic study makes it really difficult for any researcher to tick all the right boxes in advance. Additionally, subjective participant-oriented nuances involved in any ethnographic research escalates the level of uncertainty.

More difficulties seem to have piled up in this alternate reality. At present, the very essence of a robust ethnography seems to have been overshadowed by a cloud of doubt. Ethnography begins with the researcher visiting the site of study and observing the participants in their ‘natural setting’ for a considerable period of time. During such observation, the researcher indulges in various supplementary methods such as focus group discussions and individual interviews to get a comprehensive view on the issue at hand. In the context of my research, I originally intended to do a comparative analysis of the issue concerning treatment of male victims of honour crimes between India and United Kingdom. However, under the present circumstances, where the entire world is forced to hit the pause button, it seems rather unlikely that I will even have the slightest chance of visiting the places of my research.

So, what’s the alternative?

According to my supervisors, I should consider replicating my entire ethnography into the virtual world in its totality. In Arundhati Roy’s words, I will have to log into this portal to recreate the alternate reality! On papers, this appears to be a possibility. But only a bleak one, primarily based on a bubble of optimism. Despite the political rhetoric of ‘Digital India’, levels of digital literacy in the country is still a distant dream. This is more challenging in the remote villages, which are the prime locations of my research. Even if hypothetically I manage to convince my participants for individual interviews, the possibility of conducting participant observations and focus groups are effectively nullified. Though Indian Government has relaxed the lockdown significantly, yet asking people to come in close proximity of each other for the purpose of my research will certainly raise some serious ethical concerns. Further, even within its limited scope, the project can still attract doubts on issue of confidentiality. Indeed, this shift from real to virtual has thrown open a window of questions primarily on the issue of confidentiality and data protection. To what extent does the phrase ‘end-to-end encryption’ really work as a shield of protection of sensitive information? How does one ensure that, despite all virtual precautionary measures, any out of frame third person is not overhearing a private video conversation during the individual interviews? Additionally, obtaining free consent of the vulnerable participants has indeed become a daunting task in the present scenario, prone to yielding extremely paradoxical results.

In a nutshell, Arundhati Roy’s idea of a post-pandemic world leading to an online gateway to a digital alternate reality, is rather a manifestation of Eurocentric optimism which seems to be oblivious to the difficulties encountered by the postcolonial researchers like me. For now, qualitative ethnography has to play the waiting game because its old-school character requires the playground of a ‘natural setting’. Therefore, in this virtual reality, for ethnographers, the wait is the only ‘real’ constant.

— Ritabrata Roy


 

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