Understanding Pandemic As A Disruption To Social Science Research: A Sociologist’s Take On Field Work In Covid Era And Beyond


While there are scores of health lessons to be learnt from the Covid 19 pandemic, there are some serious research lessons on methodological and strategic level as well. Research especially social science research almost fell flat during the pandemic which infers that there is a serious need for shifting strategies, goal posts and aspects specially of the field work based studies/ethnographies or surveys. Social science research needs more innovation in methodology now since the pandemic fear has turned the field more complex than ever before.

 The Covid 19 epidemic not only claimed millions of lives globally, but proved a huge setback to the academic community in many ways. The very functional aspect of research from routine field visits/plans and usual field diaries/notes, face to face interviews/in-depth discussions shifted wholly to digital/online interactions, social media and finally got reduced to to Google forms. 

Covid has turned the field into a conflict field and shaped it from the ‘Hawthorne Effect’ (respondents modifying their behaviour due to researcher’s presence in the field or when they feel they are observed) to what should now be called as a ‘Mutual Hawthorne Effect’ (both researcher and the respondents apprehensive of each other). Prolonged lockdowns led to uncertainty and closure of the educational institutions meant no guidance from supervisors or from research bodies or experts amid no travel, no instructions, no communication, no field work, no fellowships and no field visits affected the whole research plans and proposed field visit schedules.

The worst part that gave a serious blow to research was the crash landing economy and massive shrinking of funds due to Covid care expenses at the national and global level. Researchers suffered a lot out of this. Since Covid made life and survival as a sole preference, it diverted whole attention from innovations due to fear and massive deaths. Therefore this is the opportune time for social scientists and researchers to work and offer methodological insights into the research during the pandemic and suggest how such obstacles’ can be removed for future if such breaching experiments occur again. How can research flourish and sustain in the worst of times has to be chalked out? How and what methodological and administrative innovations are needed to equip and empower researchers so that they can continue their investigations in difficult times? Are students/junior researchers given enough research orientation before entering the field is already a question and without any satisfying answer especially in the south Asian context. How can researchers be made financially independent so that their research and career both doesn’t suffer during the extreme times like the pandemic?

Governments have to realise that if researchers are poor and needy, the  research and innovation will go for a toss and  will never have any quality therefore , what policies should governments adopt to make a robust and rich research environment where researchers feel emancipated, empowered and independent needs to be a top priority? What has Covid taught us as far as the routine research mechanism in the Asian context is concerned; certainly it needs changes along with the serious changes in the academic administrative mechanism and style of working? There are only questions without any immediate answers.

For writing this piece the author spoke to a number of researchers particularly working in the field of social sciences about their fieldwork prospects and research experience during lockdowns. There are only sad stories and not a single researcher felt satisfied with his/her research development especially the ones who were in the field the then or were planning to go to the field felt shattered and there was a sense of deep regret and sense of loss due to the unprecedented shift that had come. Like every other sector research suffered, there were number of students whose research suffered due to the demise of the guide/mentor or someone in the mentor’s family or someone in the student’s family and due to lockdowns and uncertainty they worked without any guidance due to institutional closures which had its own set of implications like working on the these that were not required, etc,.

As universities closed their campuses for students and researchers and library access ended for a long time, lack of access to prestigious journals published by world-class institutions proved yet another blow to researchers’ field work plans. Strict social distancing and closed campuses along with no flowing fellowships/stipends added to the researchers’ woes and challenges. Therefore it can safely be argued that research suffered to a greater extent especially talking of the Indian context, it suffered a lot. Since cases were spreading fast, death per day had increased multi fold, scare and fear was everywhere, every news was a sad or bad news, researcher’s like other human beings were equally apprehensive of their lives which affected innovation, investigation, field observations, reading, draft writing, discussions and interactions, etc,.

Khiram (30), one of the authors’s known researchers lamented on losing her track and focus due to Covid. She said, “I was scheduled to give my pre-submission presentation in 2020 only. But I lost my only parent to Covid which left me with no social, emotional and financial support overnight. The Covid gave me a completely new perspective on established notions and research methods which were proving archaic and useless. Covid created situation almost devastated my whole plan and posed severe challenges. Without any financial support, I was about to quit but years of struggle would have gone astray and I had to continue even when I was not in position to. I am yet to submit my work which could have been otherwise submitted more than a year ago and it may take more time given the prolonged uncertainty, delay in everything and emotional breakdown due to death in family, resourcelessness and disturbed research schedule.” 

There are scores of other cases and stories like her where researchers suffered either due to deaths of close ones, mentors or faced acute financial problems which affected their research. The need of the times is to develop a mechanism of a monthly direct cash transfer to research students to their accounts without any clerical and administrative hassles. Researchers stipends need to be enhanced which makes their living less miserable and affordable. Our libraries need a substantial upgrade and library access countrywide without any extra formalities must be granted to every researcher. Innovation in research methodologies should be a continuous effort of universities. Students need more fellowships and a fair amount of GDP should be spent on research in every country. Researchers need to be respected and deserve dignity at workplace; they suffer at the hands of predators/oppressors in the guise of powerful academics/research guides in universities. Their lives are made hell in many cases when working under a supervisor. Their research period is unnecessarily prolonged. They become victims of lobbying and internal politics too. Such a predatory research needs accountability where student feels freedom to express and in no circumstances is made to work like slaves for their research supervisors. Such a predatory research environment is spreading fast where researchers’ are only at the receiving end. Universities should pay heed to researches woes and address their concerns.

Last word

Needless to mention that Covid has not gone completely and various new strains have appeared now though less severe. Death toll too has come down but uncertainty and economic crunch continues. Therefore research needs more attention now to avert the huge loss. Also the new field is a conflict and challenging field; therefore young researchers need more orientations, field knowledge, university support, good stipends and mentor’s support and confidence to restart the process with a new enthusiasm and vigour. Research everywhere on the globe needs a big boost in terms of rich funding for quality research and path breaking innovations.

Dr. Adfer Shah

Dr. Adfer Shah, (Adfer Rashid Shah, PhD) is a New Delhi-based Sociologist and Social and Political analyst.He writes his columns for various reputed international and national media groups. He has been writing on South Asia's Socio-political realities especially on Kashmir sociology and Conflict Situation at Eurasia Review since 2012, where he is a Special Correspondent for South Asia Affairs and Associate Editor since January 2014. His recent publications include his three books (1)"Kashmir-Yearning for Peace: A Socio-Political history of Uncertainty and Chaos,2016" (ISSN: 978-3-659-55971-6), (2)'Social Science Research in Conflict Zones,2017' (ISBN: 978-620-2-47937- 0) and (3)'Tibetan Refugees in India: Struggle to Survive,2018' ( ISBN 81-8324-919-1)]..

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