Conducting fieldwork during the COVID-19 pandemic
Lebanon in fall 2020 and spring 2021
Conducting field research during the pandemic is comparable to conducting research in wartime. The war metaphor is a long-standing one in the history of disease discourse. It has reappeared in media and political discourses in 2020 and is intended to convey the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic in all its intensity. The media have described the virus as an ‘unknown and dangerous enemy’, the fight against it as a ‘long war’, and health workers as a ‘white-clad army’. Doctors in contact with patients are ‘soldiers on the front line’, and face coverings are ‘weapons’. Recovery is described as a victory for the patient and a defeat for the disease, citizens have been transformed into ‘soldiers’, and powerful nations have worked to ‘evacuate’ them from the ‘attack’ zones of the disease. The PAVE project kick-off event took place in Berlin in February 2020 just before the start of the pandemic. We came from 13 different institutions to meet and talk face to face, not knowing that this was not only the first time we would meet but that it might also be the last. Since then, eighteen months on, we have only ever met online. All our planned meetings and workshops are held in the virtual space and we are forced to adapt to this impersonal world without human warmth.
For my planned field research in Lebanon in 2021, I did not want to content myself with meetings on Zoom or Teams or WhatsApp or rely on all the other software applications that bring us closer on-screen. In fall 2020, I decided to cross the Mediterranean, to overcome my fear, to take the risk but also to take precautions and go to Lebanon in order to investigate the possibility of doing field research in ‘Covidtime’ face to face.
As any researcher knows, in-depth knowledge of the case study country, its history and its crises, and the insider knowledge that comes from living there, is an asset during crises and war. I have these advantages and when I went to Lebanon to prepare and conduct my fieldwork, I had three challenges to face. Like the wartime challenge, they translate into limitations and constraints: the physical interaction, the time factor and the political, security and health risks.
During conflict, but also during a pandemic, a face-to-face interview is no longer appropriate in all cases. When mistrust and fear are palpable, as in countries torn by armed conflicts, wars and political crises, asking for a face-to-face meeting has become a sensitive subject and runs the risk of offending or frightening the interlocutor. Emails or phone calls with a potential interview partner in order to set up an appointment therefore always start with two questions. Is it possible to meet? And if so, how do you prefer to meet? It has become the deciding factor: if the answer was that Zoom was the preferred option, I postponed the appointment until my return to France and focused on interviews with respondents who were willing to meet in person. These meetings in person then took place secretly in a restaurant which opened illegally during a complete lockdown, or were held at the interlocutor’s home. For the first option, once inside the restaurant, the atmosphere was relaxed, just like in peacetime. The second option opens the private and family space to me and allows me to get to know my interlocutor in a more friendly environment. This occasionally happened before the pandemic, but it is not usual. It is a sign of trust from my interlocutor, as ours is a formal relationship and it is not customary to meet in a private space. Being invited into the home means entering the family space, speaking with family members, being offered coffee, fruit or refreshments. Sometimes, I was invited for lunch with all the family before starting the interview.
b) The time factor
How did the pandemic affect the field research in terms of time? Challenges that I encountered which fall into this category were about avoiding haste, agitation, frustration and impatience. How could I ensure that I was patient and careful in building a relationship of trust with the interviewees, understanding that (enforced) timeout was necessary? On the one hand, the pandemic slowed things down, yet I had (and have) to meet the project deadlines. Although I started the fieldwork preparation as early as March 2020, the political and health situation in Lebanon made access to the field complicated but feasible. Indeed, I realised early on that the field would impose itself on me and not the other way around. As Marc Bordigoni (2001) says about his fieldwork among Gypsies, an important aspect of research work (…) is the researcher’s ability to accept that she/he is not the “master of the field”, to admit that, on the contrary, the work will only be possible when the field assures its part in the exchange. I know my field, but I have taken the time to get to know it well and understand the restrictions imposed by COVID. I accepted that it would take longer. When we are researchers and have deadlines to meet, the idea of waiting and lingering in the field is difficult and we try to get things done because we have to finish. We find ourselves driven by haste, restlessness, frustration and impatience. I needed time; I also needed to be patient and cautious to build a relationship of trust with my interlocutors. It sometimes took me several meetings before being able to start an interview, to establish my status as a ‘researcher’, a status that was difficult to understand and adjust to for some interviewees, and finally to accept. Time was the means by which I reduced the distance with the respondents and initiated communication: “(…) You have to have lost time, a lot of time, an enormous amount of time, in the field, to understand that these dead times were necessary times,” explains De Sardan.
c) Political, security and health challenges
Several risks must be predicted and managed in Lebanon, a politically and economically unstable country even without the added health crisis linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. The safety and/or security situation, the fragile self-control due to fear and the uncertain political and economic situation could not prevent the planned activities from taking place. However, these factors delayed them and made working conditions more difficult: roads cut off by demonstrators and popular mobilisations, uncertainty around planning as the numbers of cases rose and fell, violence and a deterioration of the security situation: all these are factors that cannot be fully predicted and countered. Finally, the health crisis in addition to the manifold other forms of crisis that Lebanon faces would surely have restricted access to fieldwork for an outsider researcher. I am convinced that my connections and personal access, as well as my deep knowledge of the field and my ability to make a sound risk assessment, helped me adopt mitigation measures which other researchers may not have had the tools or the time to develop.
Author: Marie Kortam holds her PhD in Sociology from the University of Paris-Diderot. She is an Associate Researcher at the French Institute of the Near-East (IFPO - Beirut), an active member of Arab council for Social Sciences and a scientific coordinator in the European project PAVE (Preventing and Addressing Violent Extremism through Community Resilience in the Balkans and MENA- H2020) at Fondation Maison des Siences de l’Homme.