Taking Part from a Distance: Doing Participatory Research during Covid-19, an IET literature review 

By Johanna Hall

Covid-19 has had a dramatic impact on how we live, work and do research (Ruppel, 2020), and most significantly when that research involves working closely with those in the field to build trust and co-produce knowledge. Participatory approaches such as Participatory Action Research (PAR) seek to improve social practice through a reflexive process of planning, implementing, observing and reflecting (McTaggart, 1989), and maintaining equity and openness between participants and researchers.  

When social distancing needs to be maintained or travel to fieldwork sites becomes disrupted due to lockdown measures, how can we ensure the equity and openness of participatory approaches are maintained? Furthermore, how can we support participants, especially those in developing countries which may still be experiencing the negative effects of lockdown, through what is, arguably, one of the most stressful global events in recent history? And how can equal-power relationships be maintained between researchers and participants if they are geographically dispersed, sometimes in dramatically different social and economic climates? 

The Institute of Educational Technology (IET) has been examining how these challenges may be addressed by undertaking a literature review detailing how participatory research is being adapted to a distanced context in light of Covid-19 and future pandemics. While still an emerging field, the review revealed a number of key findings such as: 

Unique Ethical Implications 

A main challenge for conducting participatory research during pandemic health crises is the implications of engaging participants in research during a highly stressful and uncertain time (Lupton, 2020a)For example, it may be likely that participants normal routines are disrupted, and they may be experiencing negative effects associated with lockdown such as social isolation and frustration. Furthermore, when research involves marginalised and vulnerable groups, there is the question of whether the researcher can be truly immersed in the research context if they are sitting comfortably at home, while participants may be living in highly chaotic environments still suffering from the pandemic (Ruppel, 2020), and whether this may put the equity the research is built upon at risk. In such instances, it may be wise to ask whether the research could be postponed until more normal circumstances resume, however, for time-sensitive topics this may not be a possibility (Witt & Schnabel, 2020). 

Closure of Venues for Network Access 

Participants in marginalised and rural communities may be reliant on venues such as internet cafes for their network access. Lockdown restrictions in many countries may result in the closure or reduced opening hours of these establishments and, as a result, taking part in participatory research from a distance, or engaging in online learning activities, may become a significant challenge for many participants (Dube, 2020). In such instances, researchers could consider using lower-tech asynchronous and/or analogue methods. Alternatively, community led device buy-ins and deals with data providers could provide cheaper network access from participants’ homes (Buckler et al., 2020). 

Research Native to Covid-19 

The majority of empirical studies identified in the literature review were adaptations of existing participatory research. As such, the transition to a distanced context may have been easier due to pre-existing rapport and trust between researchers and participants. This poses the question of whether the true nature of participatory research can be established and maintained in research projects native to the pandemic context. 

The effects of Covid-19 are still being felt and the length of time until circumstances return to normality is uncertain. As such, it is crucial that current and future research discovers methods of adequately addressing the unique challenges which the pandemic brings, in addition to unpacking how the wider challenges associated with distanced-based participatory approaches may be met. By addressing these challenges we will be more readily prepared for conducting research during future health pandemics, and have a greater understanding of how the collaborative nature of participatory approaches may be maintained in instances where it is impractical or impossible to work with participants and conduct fieldwork in a co-located context. 

To find out more about this research, contact the lead authorJohanna Hall (johanna.hall@open.ac.uk) and the supporting team (mark.gaved@open.ac.uk, Julia.sargent@open.ac.uk)