Field research in lockdown; revisiting slow science in the time of CoVid-19

By Zahra Hussain


Credits: logan-weaver-gTyj_tABGsQ-unsplash

“Of importance is the fact that the eventual becoming will be the researchers own becoming; it is in that respect that it will be an event and that what I call cosmos can be name”

Isabelle Stengers, (2011)


Many projects have to come to halt with the lockdown imposed amidst the global pandemic of CoVid-19.  The world now presents a case of inaccessible fields, making us think about the field in isolation, the field in lock down. It also reminds us about borders, barriers and fields that were always inaccessible due to conflicts or remote geographic locations.  The border or barrier is more pronounced now that the researchers themselves are under lockdown and unable to move. How does one re-think the field in times when the researcher as well as the researched/researched-with are cut off, physically distanced, and under lock down. In certain cases, where field itself is digitally available and present (such as archives), the lockdown doesn’t change much perhaps. But for those of us, for whom being in the field in order to physically and emotively experience the field (to meet with communities, listen to their stories, walk in their environments and be with them), the field remains crucially relevant. I am reminded of the ‘everywhereness’ and being ‘always’ in the field that Katz (1994) discussed with reference to how the field never begins or ends but always remains with us. But this ‘remainder’ is proceeded by actual fieldwork.  When such an experience with the field is not possible, how might we train our senses to imagine the field and access it in different ways? How could we connect and engage with a field far away? Or perhaps, we could revisit our direct connection with the field which is central to our research endeavours and rightly so. Here, we are invited to think about a ‘remote’ field by building meaningful connections and revisiting our research partnerships with those on the ground, in the field.

As the lockdown continues, and the world as we know it, has changed, it is hard to say that we can take a break and pick up from where we left when the world supposedly reopens again. This break, or rupture demands that we revisit, rethink and re-articulate our forms of knowledge production. That we as researchers, re-think our modes of conducting research, reassess our partnerships and revisit how we frame the world through our research inquiries. Now more than ever, participatory research and equitable partnerships comes to the fore where we are to imagine and visit the field through the eyes/minds of those that have direct access to it. Central to these questions is the position of the ‘researcher’, how does she access, imagine, relate, connect, engage with this remote field? What are the apprehensions, anticipations, hurdles and challenges involved, and how do they allow re-thinking our engagement with our fields of research?

Within this uncertainty posed by the CoVid-19, I look to Isabelle Stengers and her ‘slow science’ which she discussed in her proposal for ‘cosmopolitics’ in order to ‘create an opportunity to arouse a slightly different awareness of the problems and situations mobilizing us’ (Stengers 2005, 994). (2005). Here, slowing down of practices, reasoning, thinking, and declarations within our research inquiries is required. While one would be intrigued to ascertain what slowing down in our research inquiries would mean, the current pandemic and the lockdown presents a case which slow science obligates. It calls for unsettling the stable typologies drawn from structures of theory and knowledge we are trained in and serve as guiding markers, in order to enter the unknown territories; in this case, the distant field. Cosmopolitics has more to do with ‘passing fright that scares self-assurance’, which indeed we as researchers are facing not knowing how the situation will unfold, how our research objects, field and subjects will become accessible or remain relevant etc. This lack of self-assurance and increasing uncertainty lends us space to imagine and engage with the possible and divergent becomings of our position as researchers as well as the tools and methodologies we employ. Within the current pandemic, which effectively presents a situation that ‘is vague, diffuse or unspecific, slippery, emotional, ephemeral, elusive or indistinct, changes like a kaleidoscope, or doesn’t really have a pattern at all’ John Law’s critique of traditional social science methods becomes relevant (2004, p. 2). It invites us to rethink and re-imagine our ways of doing, engaging and knowing our fields, subjects and objects alike.

We must remain in touch with our constrained position (as researchers who could travel to and be in the field) and draw lessons from resilience, where one actively and progressively adapt their actions in response to situations of crisis. This is a project of ‘self-regulation’; of researchers asking themselves, what is required and needed not only in terms of our modes of engagement but also the boundaries of our research. We must ask ourselves, how can we make meaningful relations between different entities that may not directly speak to our research but are telling of how our field sites are morphing and changing in response to the pandemic. We must re-think our desire for stable topologies (the thought that all of this will go back to normal and we shall resume from there on) and think about the divergent and possible ways in which futures might be woven. We must inhabit this uncertain space in order to draw a relevant typology for how we engage and connect with the field and how we proceed with our forms of knowledge production. How might we need to adapt our modes of engagement with our field sites and folks, how do they feature within this research and how can we establish meaningful correspondence with them? Law doesn’t support the idea that methods are set of procedures that report or represent a given reality, but that they are performative and help to produce realities (Law, 2003, p. 143). Rethinking our engagement with the world requires exploring forms of knowledge production that respond to the context in creative and interesting ways. This may include employing available channels for establishing connection with the field, whilst also considering what these channels offer to the research itself, how is the conduct of research transformed (what takes centre stage, who becomes the gate keeper) or threatened (sensitive information) when we employ these modes of knowledge production? We must employ the work of ‘care’ within these renewed modes of engagement in order to surface a more engaged version of reality, one that speaks to the relations and connections that form and maintain the worlds we engage with (Bellacasa, 2012). An awareness of how the situation is unfolding for different actors and entities, and how they continue to get affected is crucial to proceed with caution and care.

My research has for most part been engaged with questions around cultural landscapes; at-risk heritages, practices and patterns of everyday life and habitat in the somewhat remote mountain communities. I have been leading an interdisciplinary and challenge-led program called the ‘Laajverd Visiting School’ that provides a platform for experts, academics and local communities to engage with questions around culture, power and development. This work entails spending two-weeks in the field with the local communities, observing and experiencing their habitat and forms of knowing and being in the world. Being in the field is crucial for anyone participating in the LVS as it seeks to explore the multiple layers and interrelations between entities to understand how landscapes are formed and maintained. Constant engagement with local communities, listening to their stories, walking in their fields, being hosted in their vernacular homes contribute to production of knowledge in the program. Previously, I could enter the field with my participants and directly engage with the local communities and landscapes. This is not possible anymore. Rethinking engagement with the field in the current lock down, in the first instance means knowing the current situation in the field by establishing contact with the local people we know and those who we could come to know. And once these connections are established and strengthened, one could engage relevant folks in conducting the research with us. In the mountain areas of Northern Pakistan, where lockdown means a lot of local people will be unemployed due to absence of tourism causing further fragility in the already remote mountain valleys. My ethical engagement calls for re-thinking engagement with reference to how local community may be employed as partners in the project to establish connection and engagement in the field by establishing chains of connections and contacts on the ground who can relay their observations. Where previously they would have participated in on-site workshops and carried out research with us in the field, they will now be leading the field research as our only direct connection with the field. Moreover, it becomes relevant to ask, who all take part in this research and lead the activities on the field. With reference mapping cultural landscapes, young tour guides come to mind. Due to the lockdown, these tour guides will not have any activity in this season and since people within the valley/village can move freely under lockdown, they can conduct tours within the locality to collect information and stories about the cultural landscape. This of course requires building their capacity to conduct research and carry out documentation, however they already possess the required skillset as tour guides i.e. engaging audience, knowing and telling the landscape and stories, taking photographs and keeping a log of their visitors.

This will significantly slow-down our process of research where each and every step will be revisited and organised in order to impart the necessary training for field research. No doubt this method comes without many guarantees, and some could say much is ‘lost in translation’ but this presents to us a way of working with partners and lending more power to them than we usually do. Moreover, this does significantly slow down the process of conducting research and generating research materials. Additionally, our attention that would earlier be granted to the field directly, is now to be channelled through a chain of actors and agents, requiring the researcher to think with care; what do we want our collaborators to observe, recognise and share with us from the field. This also means the power of knowing the field directly is taken away from us and the privilege of experiencing the field first-hand is also lost. We rely on our collaborators, to see the field through their eyes, their narrations, their photographs. The possibility of divergent becomings potentially comes to life here when multiple orderings of the field will be constructed through the materials generated and reported from the field.

The field is not a passive entity that is waiting to be read and discerned by the researcher, rather it has the power to effect what materials we are able to generate from the field (Whatmore, 2003). Therfore, the research questions and objectives will have to be revised in order to make these relevant for what is faced by and troubles the communities in these uncertain times. In order to draw up a ‘relevant typology to surface engaged versions of reality’ – I am bound to explore how my current research endeavours are relevant for the field (communities and landscapes). At such a time, ‘cultural landscapes’ hold little or no traction for communities who face the immense fright of the CoVid-19 pandemic, hence together with Fatima Hussain, I ran a survey to understand mountain communities response to CoVid-19 by exploring their indigenous practices of maintaining health and hygiene (in the absence of hand sanitizers) which they have employed in response to the pandemic. Engaging with the cultural landscape from afar also requires prioritising how research frameworks are arranged and information is sought. For these mountain communities, who are used to being ‘snowed in’ their houses throughout winter, it becomes interesting to understand the various meanings of ‘isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ in the context of their cultural landscapes. Moreover, it is also important to revisit and prioritise focus groups in terms of the current situation. Our research on cultural landscape, histories and folklores, requires engagement with the most vulnerable (in current CoVid-19) such as the elderly who are custodians of indigenous knowledge, whilst engagement with them should be prioritised, one must also take the necessary precautionary measures when documenting their stories, knowledge and practices.

In essence, re-articulation of research frameworks and priorities is required from the researcher, and whilst these may not match the objectives set out initially, we must recognise our obligation towards the field and attempt to rethink our modes of engagement in an attempt to imagine-with the marginalised, ignored and underpriviledged, other possible futures.

Zahra Hussain is the Founder and Director of Laajverd, leads the Laajverd Visiting School program and is a Post Doctoral Fellow on the GCRF Gender Justice and Security Hub.

Acknowledgements: Conversations with Fatima Hussain, Nishat Awan, and Abdullah Aslam about research in times of CoViD-19 have helped shape ideas for this piece. Special thanks to Connie Kwong for reviewing this.


Bellacasa, M.P. de la, 2012. ‘Nothing Comes Without Its World’: Thinking with Care: The Sociological Review.

Katz, C., 1994. Playing the Field: Questions of Fieldwork in Geography. The Professional Geographer 46, 67–72.

Law, J., 2004. After method: Mess in social science research. Routledge.

Law, J., 2003. Making a mess with method. Lancaster University Centre for Science Studies.

Stengers, I., 2011. Cosmopolitics II. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Stengers, I., 2005. The cosmopolitical proposal. Making things public: Atmospheres of democracy 994, 994.

Whatmore, S., 2003. Generating materials. Using social theory: Thinking through research 89–104.