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Miombo matters

Miombo matters

Notes and queries about land system science, with a bias towards the southern African woodlands. This is the blog for Casey Ryan and the LANDteam research group at the University of Edinburgh

Ethical and methodological metamorphoses during Covid-19: Experiences of the CwC project 

CwC materials

Materials being delivered to the CwC study communities in southern Mozambique. The sewing machines and capalanas are for making masks. Photo © Luis Artur, 2020.

By the CwC team

Resumo em português abaixo

As we reported in our first project blog post, we have been setting up the first phase of our research project on ‘Livelihood impacts of Coping with Covid-19 in rural Africa’ (CwC). We have been following principles including building on established partnerships, co-creating knowledge based on equity, engaging in open, constructive dialogue, and trying our best, but accepting errors are inevitable in these testing times.

But what does all that mean in practice, in implementation? As promised, we try to unpack some of our project’s Covid-related ethical and methodological metamorphoses here.

As we previously explored, our research is a collaboration between the Universities of Edinburgh, Eduardo Mondlane, Sheffield, Manchester and the MICAIA foundation.  We aim to co-create knowledge around the livelihood impacts of the Covid-19 lockdown, and the coping strategies employed in contexts of diverse vulnerabilities. Given our desire to co-create research and knowledge with members of local communities in southern Africa, we had to find ways to conduct equitable, qualitative research which minimise infection risk, both perceived and real.

Covid brings the additional danger of silencing and invisibilising people whose voices need to be heard. We seek to challenge that, and have tried to adopt methodologies that can include some of the most marginalised voices in rural society. Consequently, in terms of methods, the project is centred around weekly phone interviews with participants, rather than in-person interviews.

Who to speak to?

Building on past work (Smith et al. 2019; Pritchard et al. 2020), we discussed which social groups would allow us to investigate the livelihood impacts of Covid-19, bearing in mind diverse axes of vulnerability in terms of gender, precarity of income, but also specific Covid risks for e.g. traders or shop owners. We also wanted to capture a wide range of information about how people have coped with epidemics in the past, as well as what is happening now. Consequently, we identified five broad groups to be represented at each site: smallholders, micro-businesses, traditional leaders, modern leaders, and vulnerable groups, including women-headed households, widows or the elderly. Our research leads proceeded to negotiate which 10 panel members per community would be most suitable, balancing analytical and scientific rigour with local preferences to be personally involved. There has been a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing about the selection of the panels. We wanted to be flexible and to respond to the local context (and keep politically important people on board), but we also wanted to focus on often-marginalised voices and keep some consistency between sites.

It’s good to talk…

We aim to keep in touch with the panel members on a regular basis – weekly at first, as we get to know more about their livelihoods, the impact of Covid, and the changes underway. To do so, we will conduct phone interviews, which seem like the obvious way of doing research during a pandemic. However, setting things up has been a major challenge, and it is not possible to do all of this remotely.

Firstly, we needed to visit the study communities to distribute the phones and solar chargers. (we had thought about doing this via local shops, but many of these have closed due to Covid). This material is being distributed in different ways, depending on the preferences of the respondents and the politics of each community. We are also providing materials and equipment to reduce the risks of transmission in the communities where we work. This includes disinfectant, and in some places, the materials to make masks (sewing machines and textiles). This provides access to masks for people who might otherwise not be able to obtain them.

We think that the restrictions on travel and large meetings will get stricter in Mozambique over the next few months, so we have tried to set things up while movement is still possible and then will be able to use phone-only methods for the rest of the project. This has led to a bit of a rush to get everything in place! Social distancing and other best practices around hygiene have been observed throughout, as well as all government regulations, e.g. restricting meetings to a maximum of 10 individuals at a time.

There were also more substantive reasons to conduct some face-to-face work. Even with a long history of working with these communities, we did not feel free, prior and informed consent for a new research project could be obtained remotely. This is especially true for a project that invites significant input from participants into research design and asks about sensitive livelihood issues. Thus the research leads at each site needed to have initial meetings with participants and local administrators, both in order to obtain feedback on research design and people’s willingness to participate, but also to ensure that we selected suitable panel members in each site to provide some measure of comparability across our different sites. To minimise any additional risks from the research, wherever possible we have ‘tagged-along’ on existing interactions occurring anyway between research leads and communities, rather than adding new interactions.

Questions, questions

In terms of what to ask our panel members, we produced many iterations of our proposed interview questions. We needed to ensure that the translations from English and Portuguese into several local languages reflected the spirit of the questions. Early trials showed that  our Week 1 questions, which are to establish baselines e.g. around livelihoods pursued and knowledge about the risks of Covid, were too numerous. We thus decided to split these initial questions across two weeks if necessary. The current draft of our interview questions can be found here; this document is being updated as we conduct further rounds of interviews responding to emerging findings.

As we knew all questions would have to be asked through phone interviews, we aimed to build in some initial questions which would be more straightforward to answer, and would help the respondents “warm up”. On this basis, we aim to ask more open questions in subsequent weeks once participants are more familiar with this way of doing research.

To wrap up, there are still some unresolved practical and ethical questions. One key unknown is whether some of the more vulnerable groups are unfamiliar with phones and will find the whole thing too discombobulating. Given our emphasis on giving a voice to diverse social groups and otherwise unheard groups, we will continue working on these and other challenges.

As we progress through this unusual research project, we will continue sharing our tentative answers to these complex questions. We hope that learning from each other helps us to co-create genuinely useful knowledge amid this global pandemic.

Update: the final set of questions used in this work is available here.

Resumo em português

Metamorfoses éticas e metodológicas no tempo de Covid: o nosso projecto CwC

Como relatámos no nosso primeiro post, temos vindo a estabelecer a primeira fase do nosso projecto de investigação sobre “Impactos nos meios de subsistência de lidar com Covid-19 na África rural” (CwC). Tentamos desembalar aqui algumas das metamorfoses éticas e metodológicas do nosso projecto relacionadas com Covid.

A nossa investigação é uma colaboração entre as Universidades de Edimburgo, Eduardo Mondlane, Sheffield, Manchester e a fundação MICAIA.  O nosso objectivo é co-criar conhecimento sobre os impactos do Covid-19, e das estratégias de sobrevivência empregadas em contextos de diversas vulnerabilidades.

Com base em trabalhos anteriores, discutimos quais grupos sociais a incluir para investigar os impactos nos meios de subsistência, tendo em mente diversos eixos de vulnerabilidade em termos de género, precariedade do rendimento, mas também riscos específicos do Covid para, por exemplo, comerciantes ou proprietários de lojas.

O nosso objectivo é manter um contacto regular com os membros do nosso painel – semanalmente no início, à medida que vamos conhecendo mais sobre os seus meios de subsistência, o impacto da Covid, e as mudanças em curso. Para tal, iremos realizar entrevistas telefónicas, que parecem ser a forma óbvia de fazer investigação durante uma pandemia. Não é possível fazer tudo isto remotamente.

Em termos do que perguntar aos nossos membros do painel, produzimos muitas iterações das nossas propostas de perguntas para entrevistas. Precisávamos de assegurar que as traduções de inglês e português para várias línguas locais reflectissem o espírito das perguntas.

À medida que avançamos neste projecto de investigação invulgar, continuaremos a partilhar as nossas tentativas de resposta a perguntas complexas. Esperamos que a aprendizagem recíproca nos ajude a co-criar conhecimentos genuinamente úteis no meio desta pandemia global.


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