The Art of Online Research

Written by: Sigrid Roman

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world in early March of this year, Canada seems to be holding its breath in eager anticipation of its release from social (and physical) distancing restrictions that have confined most Canadians indoors. It turns out, ‘man’ is indeed a social animal and staying home in isolation is harder than most of us expected. 

As a researcher, I too found the ensuing switch to an exclusively online environment posed some interesting challenges for conducting participatory research. The social dynamics of an online participatory process are different in many ways from the way roles and responsibilities are handled in a face to face environment because. Among other things, the online environment comes with its own set of socio-cultural rules and limitations.  

To give you some context on a particular example, the class I was a teacher assistant for, had to conduct focus group interviews for a community-based partner. Initially, this was all to be done in person, with the customary social lunch and good will in tow. The structure was clear, the ethics perfectly embedded. COVID-19 took us all by surprise. In the span of one week, we had to switch everything we had planned with our research participants and the community partner online. 

Time-constraints aside, ‘horizontal’ participation as a right in research development became more difficult (though not impossible) to enact in an online environment and we too had to adapt to this new tension. Maintaining an entire classroom of undergraduate researchers, a large group of research participants, as well as keeping the community-based partner informed and equitably engaged with the research process online is complicated stuff. 

I learned that this transition is much more complex than simply switching what you would do in person to an online environment without any adjustment. Many things stayed the same, true, but some social aspects needed some adjustment. Here is what I learned, as briefly as I can put it,

It is hard in a chaotic and rapidly changing situation like what we have been facing with COVID-19 to remain participatory in the true sense of the word, if for no other reason than most of us have been inculcated with the idea of having outputs and the tendency of a (or self-) designated leader to assume managerial responsibility. That said, it is important to retain the active notion of what I call a ‘horizontal participatory hierarchy’ and all that the concept implies.

The practices of research-doing and how we, researchers, conduct ourselves with our partners is key. Though we can never really get rid of power relations, making sure no one overtakes the research process is vital for being participatory from the get-go to the end. At this point I found it is important to consider who participates, who frames that participation, who speaks, who keeps silent and whose voices are heard while interacting online. Indeed, we must consider what practices offset power imbalances so that we might eliminate them (or at the very least, try to mitigate their effects). 

Our class can definitely count itself lucky, I think, because we had some time with each other in person and we could establish a close relationship with everyone involved in the research process. We had frequent check-ins, decision making forums, and open conversations about the complex relationship between prescribed ways of doing research on paper and the reality on the ‘ground level’. We shared our fears, hopes, and slowly became a tiny community. Therefore, when we switched to an online environment, we made it work because we already had that foundation of trust. Though in theory this can be done in an online environment as well, I keep wondering if the end result would have been the same if we did not have that face to face period beforehand. 

The same in person processes described above, for instance, took infinitely longer and were more ‘condensed’ once online. It was a subtle shift, but it was there, nonetheless. People now spoke in a more structured way, eager to be done and refrained from the ‘naturalness’ of face-to-face conversations which includes humour and story-telling. 

The moment we switched to online platforms for communication, we also immediately agreed not to have any meetings that went over one hour because the level of attention required was higher and therefore, far more exhausting. Eye contact, for example, had to be retained at all times or one would risk rudeness. You could no longer get up or have related side conversations, often natural reprieves from total overwhelming focus. I could no longer doodle even though that makes me concentrate. In other words, our behaviour was more uniform and to the point. 

Taking the time to build relationships—a possible solution?

This challenge translated to our interactions with focus group interviewees as well. It will not come as a surprise by now that knowing how to conduct yourself with other people (other than just fellow researchers) is an inherent key element of research doing, online or otherwise. Anyone who has ever engaged in a research project, knows being a researcher means, at least to some extent, being a people person. 

Taking the time to build relationships is absolutely vital, especially if you do not have an already established relationship and, in addition, you must interact through (or on) online platforms. This was absolutely the case with our participants. When we broke off in each of the agreed upon focus groups, some student researchers, by their own accord, felt some groups were more successful than others in collecting data and getting the participants to “open up” because some student researchers took the simple initiative of interacting more without an explicit research-goal in mind. This is reminiscent of face to face interactions where inevitably, parts of yourself unrelated to research come up. 

Being themselves, therefore, actually made their participants feel more comfortable and moved things over into that sweet spot of trust and comfort that is so vital to participatory research. Participants were also far more forgiving with the time frames allotted for the interviews (and not following them) when they felt a more informal atmosphere, where researcher students shared their own experiences, as can be gathered in the difference between how rapidly some interviews were done (20 minutes), while others happily lingered on (45 minutes-1hour). 

I must put the disclaimer at this point, before I finish, that I do not believe online environments are by default worse. Though, I personally do not prefer it when it comes to conducting research because I believe in its current state, it is not a proper replacement for the face-to-face equivalent. Without a doubt, something is distinctly lost when interacting in a strictly online environment. The question is then, how can we (if we even can) rectify this and if we eventually do, we must question whether we should have tried to do so in the first place.

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