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Webinar Recap: COVID-19 and Virtual Qualitative Fieldwork

Written by Stacy Penna, Ed. D.
April 08, 2020
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During our recent webinar on COVID-19 and Virtual Qualitative Fieldwork, Dr. Deborah Lupton, Professor at the Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, described multiple modes for conducting qualitative fieldwork during these challenging times.

Researchers Need To Reinvent Methods

Due to the isolation measures in place to contain the spread of COVID-19, social researchers who conduct face-to-face fieldwork (interviews, focus groups, participant observation, ethnographies etc.) are now dealing with the challenge of either delaying or reinventing their methods so that they can continue their research until these restrictions are relaxed. 

Reshaping Home Visits

Dr. Lupton described the research she is conducting which caused her to start thinking about alternative qualitative fieldwork methods. Her current project involves visiting people in their homes in Sydney, Australia and videoing them on home tours. Her team was interested in the digital devices that they and their family members were using in their home setting.

The research team had been using a video camera to walk around participants’ homes and take video of the devices the participants pointed to and described. Being in the home allowed the research team to gain some interesting and situated insights.

Crowdsourcing Digital Methods

Everything changed with the COVID-19 outbreak To continue her work, her team needed to change how they conducted their fieldwork. This is when she decided to create the Google Doc Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic. She used Twitter to invite other researchers to contribute to the Google Doc, which is now over 30 pages long and includes many helpful resources and interesting methods. 

Two Primary Methods For Virtual Fieldwork

Dr. Lupton says the problem many researchers are facing is that they were planning on conducting fieldwork with traditional face-to-face methods, but COVID-19 disrupted their plans. To assist researchers with this challenge, Dr. Lupton talked about two main types of methods qualitative researchers can use for virtual fieldwork.

First, traditionally face-to-face approaches transforming into ‘distance’ methods. The researcher adapts traditional methods like interviews or focus groups to a digital platform.  

Second, ‘born digital’ content – or already ‘distance’ methods. This is data that is already in a digital format and is generated online by people using social media, discussion forms, or comments on news articles.

It’s Not All About Digital

She stressed that it’s not all about digital, you can also ask participants to complete activities like paper diaries, drawings, handwritten creative responses, mapping exercises, collages, letters, and cultural probes. Participants can send and return these activities by snail mail or use email to send photos of the artifacts. Then you can follow up with a phone or online discussion.

Ethics And Compliance Are Not To Be Forgotten

Researchers also need to consider the ethical implications. For example, researchers should think about privacy issues when conducting fieldwork in shared household spaces, and consider digital data privacy issues like GDPR and other regulations – which will depend on the country. Researchers might have to revise ethics applications and the modifications to protocols will need to be approved.

Based on the response we received from this webinar and the level of research collaboration on Dr. Lupton’s Google Doc, it is clear that the qualitative research community is coming together to find ways to continue their important research during these challenging times.


Stacy Penna, Ed.D

Stacy, the NVivo Community Director, has combined her educational and research experience with her work in the software industry and is delighted to be supporting and building a wider research community. Stacy earned a doctorate in education using NVivo for both her literature review and qualitative research. She has worked at QSR International for 10 years and is committed to progressing qualitative research.

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