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Participatory Action Research during the Covid-19 pandemic: methodological aspects

24 March 2021

Logo reading Agro Ecos

Agroecology-based Solidarity Economy in Bolivia and Brazil (AgroEcos) is a project led by The Open University and the University of Estadual Paulista (UNESP, São Paolo State University). 

In this blog Davis Gruber Sansolo and Giovanna Gross Villani, Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP), and Les Levidow, Open University, describe how the COVID-19 pandemic led them to adjust their research methodology through innovative measures, alongside the agri-food groups participating in the project.

Origin of the project

The idea for this project was developed at a 2019 seminar: Agroecology and Solidarity Economy in the Baixada Santista. It was held at UNESP’s Biosciences Institute for its proximity to the Baixada Santista as a case study in the proposal.

That seminar aimed to promote dialogue for training and strengthening a network of an agroecology-based solidarity economy. Beyond this aim, the seminar generated specific requests for research topics and agricultural extension services, in order to strengthen the relationship between agroecology and solidarity economy in the Litoral Paulista (coastal areas), where many traditional and non-traditional populations are socially marginalised. The event also extended a prior partnership between UNESP and the Fórum de Economia Solidária da Baixada Santista (FESBS) as well as its many component groups.

Seminar participants included: students, teachers, researchers and representatives from various agroecological producers; indigenous villages; women’s organisations; consumer networks; local authorities of several towns; and The Open University’s Strategic Research Area (SRA) on International Development and Inclusive Innovation. 

From the seminar and related sessions, the main request was for participatory research and agri-extension services to strengthen an agroecology-based solidarity economy. The resultant research proposal involved three research teams, each collaborating with community organisations (of peasants, indigenous people and/or women) which promote innovation in three territories: Valle Central around Tarija, Bolívia; the Litoral Norte (northern coast) of São Paulo and Sul Fluminense; and the Baixada Santista. Our proposal gained approval and started in January 2020.

Participatory research: methods adjusted during the pandemic 

The proposal planned participatory action research to support each community partner. This plan aimed to strengthen and spread its capacities to build an agroecology-based solidarity economy, here EcoSol-agroecology for short. On this basis, each community would be able to use more effectively the support measures identified through the project. As a key aim, EcoSol-agroecology initiatives establish circuitos curtos, i.e. short food-supply chains, bringing producers closer to consumers, sometimes called ‘from the field to the table’.

Our research plan defined themes for literature reviews by each team, namely: women’s inequalities and means to overcome them (by UNESP); participatory action research methods (by Jaina, Bolivia); record-keeping methods for a participatory knowledge-exchange (by the Observatório dos Territórios Sustentáveis e Saudáveis da Bocaina or OTSS, Brazil); and  EcoSol-agroecology (by the Open University). The literature reviews were pre-circulated and discussed at our regular online meetings during March-April 2020. 

We had originally planned to organize workshops in each case-study area in order to exchange experiences. This plan aimed to identify and strengthen local capacities of EcoSol-agroecology networks. But by February 2020 the pandemic was spreading in Brazil, so we discussed: ‘Facing an uncertain future scenario of the pandemic, how would we pursue the research?’. By March the Brazilian authorities announced quarantine measures.  

We agreed to continue the research, though not yet knowing how to establish a coherent at-distance methodology for the aims of participatory action research. As the pandemic was confining us to our domestic spaces, various remote means of communication were being developed by EcoSol-agroecology initiatives in the three territories (Baixada Santista, the Bocaina region and the Vale Central in Tarija).  Google Meet, Zoom and other videoconference platforms soon became the communication environment for group activities and thought in many parts of the globe.

To mark the new phase, a visual identity for the AgroEcos project (see logo above) was created by the OTSS communication team. UNESP created a project website to publicise our activities and results as short articles. Likewise a Facebook page for publicising a wider range of relevant events and EcoSol-agroecology initiatives.  Some people posted comments there, though they focused more on Facebook pages of specific initiatives, as described next.

We participated in various virtual events organized by the Fórum de Economia Solidária da Baixada Santista (FESBS), the Comunidad de Estudios Jaina and the OTSS. We decided to adapt our original workshop plan for virtual seminars, to be developed by each partner of the project. For each case-study area, the seminar compared EcoSol-agroecology activities before and during the pandemic.[1] Through this comparison, we could investigate how previous collective capacities were being extended and adapted to the pandemic context.

Through the presentations we found that the three case-study areas had many innovative activities for extending EcoSol-agroecology initiatives. In this process, various groups were strengthened during the pandemic, especially by exchanging knowledge with other groups and reaching a broader range of consumers. Many understood their activities as contributing a larger agenda of food sovereignty. In overcoming obstacles from the pandemic, EcoSol-agroecology initiatives built on previous skills and capacities (see article). 

During the pandemic, all relevant stakeholder groups expanded their use of social media. They participated in regular online discussions, some in AgroEcos seminars. These were held on Google Meet, which could be accessed by anyone with a mobile phone. Each recording was archived in the video folder of the project’s Google Drive for future reference. The AgroEcos public seminars were uploaded to our Youtube channel and were widely publicised. 

Analytical questions

From various documents including webinar transcripts, we reformulated and expanded our original analytical questions to include the following: 

1.    How do EcoSol-agroecology networks promote territorial identities and common objectives? 

2.    How do EcoSol-agroecology networks develop collective capacities? 

3.    What processes and methodologies are being used to spread collective capacities throughout a territory, beyond specific initiatives or networks?  

4.    EcoSol-agroecology networks develop what relationships with public policies? 

5.    How do EcoSol-agroecology networks encounter gender, racial and socio-economic inequalities?  

6.    How do these processes (initiatives, methodologies) construct women’s emancipation? e.g. visibility of their labour, empowerment, etc.?

These questions were oriented towards constructing an analytical matrix of themes, concepts and questions. This was inspired by a matrix which the OTSS had used to monitor and evaluate its activities in its own territory, the Bocaina. Our project devised a new matrix especially for the theme EcoSol-agroecology.

NVivo: clarifying interview questions

Throughout our discussions on new methodological possibilities, the research teams sought to make the best use of online opportunities. We decided to use NVivo Version 1.3 to supplement the analysis of documents generated from the three territories.  NVivo provided an instrument to analyse diverse document types such as reports, newspaper articles, webinar videos, social media posts, website news, etc.  (Such texts were simpler than from in-person workshops.) From pre-defined criteria, the software helped to identify relevant parts for analysis afterwards. 

NVivo offers various tools to facilitate analytical processes. It generates visual results such as word clouds, word frequencies, graphics, word trees, mental maps, diagrams, structural matrices  and other possibilities to be explored. We organised online workshops, each with two or three team members, to structure an analytical matrix within the software’s logic. We converted the ‘analytical dimensions’ and ‘parameters’ into codes and sub-codes, for example, structures to store coded information and text fragments, respectively. 

Finally we organized the more specific questions in an Excel file so that we could elaborate a script to be applied in virtual interviews with EcoSol-agroecology initiatives. These would seek to deepen the discussion with groups in the case-study areas.

Interviews are being done firstly with EcoSol-agroecology groups which had already come together in the FESBS webinars. The interviews are being done via Google Meet, as a basis to analyse the transcripts through the research questions of the project. If the pandemic subsides in time, the research teams may visit these groups in person, as in the original plan of the project. 

Conclusion                                                                                           

With its hygiene requirements and other physical restrictions, the Covid-19 pandemic forced our project into a virtual realm that was new to many stakeholders in EcoSol-agroecology networks. By online means the project has been taking forward a participatory action research (PAR) method with those stakeholders. Through public webinars (and other sources), the project obtained texts expressing their aims and strategies, especially new ways of building circuitos curtos. On this basis we can better investigate and stimulate the collective capacities of those networks, initially through online interviews. 

English-language analyses 

Pandemic context

AgroEcos Boletim no.1(trilingual bulletin) December 2020  

‘Return to normal’ from the COVID-19 crisis? (07.05.2020)

Pre-pandemic context

Agroecological innovation constructing socionatural order:  Two case studies in Brazil,  Tapuya: Latin American Science, Technology and Society4(1): 1-29

Socio-environmental justice: traditional communities renewing musical cultures in the Bocaina, Brazil  

Notes

[1] From the Baixada Santista case study, see an English-language article here, https://projetoagroecos.wixsite.com/meusite/post/return-to-normal-from-the-covid-19-crisis?

[2]Free browser extension (on Chrome and Internet Explorer) which helps to import web content into  Nvivo.

[3]Programa de Aquisição de Alimentos (PAA), Food Acquisition Programme, whereby small-scale producers have gained training to organise collective marketing.   Programa Nacional de Alimentação Escolar (PNAE,National Programme of School Meals, which has given a premium price  to agroecological and organic products. 

Acknowledgements

This article was originally written in Portuguese, including an analytical matrix: 
Pesquisa-ação-participativa na pandemia: aspectos metodológicos, 15.02.2021 

‘Research Partnership for an Agroecology-Based Solidarity Economy in Bolivia and Brazil’ (‘Economia Solidária baseada na Agroecologia na Bolívia e Brasil’) is funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC),  Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF),  during 2020-2021, project no. AH/T004274/1,  https://projetoagroecos.wixsite.com/meusite  

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