Rethinking Participatory Research during COVID-19: Creative Possibilities and Methodological Concerns*
By: Dr. Kanchan K. Malik
Professor, Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad & Faculty Fellow, UNESCO Chair on Community Media, University of Hyderabad
All my research on community media for the last two decades, and more recently, on women and voice capability, is based on participatory research, and engages closely with the stakeholders. Informed by grounded theory, my effort as a researcher has always been to make direct contact with people, situations, and phenomena and to ensure the agency of researched in determining the narratives and interpretations during our interactions. This democratic perspective of research has enriched my work with community voices, and got on board practitioners, activists, and scholars as significant partners in the process of enquiry.
And what has changed because of the COVID-19’s new normal of lockdowns, self-quarantine, and physical distancing? For us as academics and researchers carrying out our work using participatory approaches, the pandemic has led to the unfreedoms to step out, travel; and restricted our taken-for-granted capability of meeting people one-on-one. The confinement of our choices of movement has affected our options of the participatory inquiries and (tentatively) disrupted the accomplishment and outcomes of our projects.
However, my experience of the Coronavirus imposed restrictions has been two-fold: one – of discovering and experiencing the creative possibilities offered by the digital platforms for participation; and second – of acknowledging the limitations of the digital world to be an effective alternative for participatory research.
Indeed, these challenging times have had a positive side for me — of finding, learning, and adapting to the innovative opportunities of teaching, meeting, and networking offered by the online systems. I fully recognise here my privileged location as an academic with access to the technological resources, such as, high-speed internet, that make this possible.
In my observation, the webinars, virtual workshops, and conferences have made knowledge sharing – location-agnostic – and we are certainly saving a lot on unnecessary travel. Such location-agnostic spaces have ‘arguably’ facilitated connecting us to people from across the world. The popular claim is that such spaces work on the principle, that when everyone is remote, no one feels remote. My experience of the Global Dialogues on Community Media series being curated during the lockdown by our UNESCO Chair on Community Media** team, supports this approach, as these conversations are bringing onboard experiences of community radio representatives from South Asia, South-East Asia, Australia, Africa, South and Latin America, North America, and Continental Europe on a common platform. They have, to a large extent, succeeded in breaching the barriers of physical distances and time zones, and proven to be exciting discursive spaces for collective learning and networking.
However, I would be extremely cautious in celebrating the opportunities of ‘inter’-acting offered by the ‘inter’-net and acknowledge here, the exclusions of a whole lot of voices of marginalised groups, because of the existing digital divide in the global south. For those of us working with community media, if participatory research has to be internet dependent, then, availability and sophistication of broadband use by all participating members must be an essential attribute or capacity in order to stay loyal to the principles and practices of the agenda. But, as we are aware, infrastructural, and socio-economic disparities remain, determined by characteristics such as: geographic location, income, education, age, gender, and more. In fact, as countries/communities face the pandemic, there is an acute ethical concern emerging about the vulnerabilities of those on the other side of the digital divide, as it is not simply an issue of who has more or less bandwidth but “who, with which characteristics, connects how to what?” (Hilbert, 2011) Thus, the conundrum that we, as participatory researchers, face in embracing internet-powered participation as an alternative, is that it reinforces the persisting gaps of access and usage, and deepens the foundations of digital inequalities in listening to the voices that matter.
Besides this, my work, where I collaborate with women community media producers to analyse their lived experiences, draws heavily on ethnographic methods such as participant observation and immersive interviewing to access the in situ reflexive aspects of their social realms. Talking to them over the phone is an option, but the complex and subtle meanings of their everyday experience and practices, requires what Kusenbach (2003) calls ‘street phenomenology’ or the go-along (Carpiano, 2009). method to brings about a participatory sensibility to their biographies. Virtual, here, is not a viable recourse.
Thus, as we endeavour to survive the COVID-19 pandemic, and at the same time, engage ourselves in activities that are meaningful academically, and necessary for our flourishing as researchers, it is advisable to make methodological negotiations in our work only to the extent, where they do not affect the core underpinnings of participatory methods and development ethics.
NOTES & REFERENCES
* This write-up is an expanded version of the experience-sharing opening comments by the author (in her capacity as the TG co-coordinator) during the workshop on “Rethinking Participatory Research in the Pandemic Era” organized as a part of the Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA) Webinar – Covid-19 Series by the HDCA Thematic Group (TG) on Participatory Methods on 15th July, 2020.
** The UNESCO Chair on Community Media (https://uccommedia.in/), led by the senior communication professor at the University of Hyderabad, Dr. Vinod Pavarala, is the only one of its kind dedicated to furthering the cause of community-led-and managed media through research, policy advocacy, capacity building, and knowledge dissemination. It has launched a series of online Global Dialogues, in partnership with the UNESCO Regional Office in New Delhi. Please see: (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLWGMgk7rZUdjY6qEums7ODxqF0MfIBg6C).
Hilbert, M. (2011). The end justifies the definition: The manifold outlooks on the digital divide and their practical usefulness for policy-making. Telecommunications Policy, 35(8), 715-736.
Kusenbach, M. (2003). Street phenomenology: The go-along as ethnographic research tool. Ethnography, 4(3), 455–485.
Carpiano, R. M. (2009). Come take a walk with me: The “Go-Along” interview as a novel method for studying the implications of place for health and well-being. Health & Place , 15 (1), 263-272.