Data collection in a pandemic: Discovering what’s up with WhatsApp *or any other instant messaging service
Many of our students will be thinking about or preparing for, their dissertations. Ordinarily this is the fun part of a degree. The part where you have the freedom to research a topic of interest. Two or three years ago, none of us could have predicted we would be in the midst of a global pandemic which limits research opportunities, particularly for undergraduates who have practical and ethical limitations. One thing that I would encourage students – or indeed anyone doing research in the pandemic – to do, is to be innovative and think outside of the box when planning research. Here in the UK we are lucky enough that most of us have access to the internet. The way I communicate with friends, family and colleagues most frequently is using instant messaging services and so I incorporated this technology into my own research. In sharing my own experience of using instant messaging as a data collection tool, I hope to offer some hope that where there are obstacles, there are also ways to overcome them.
I conducted my most recent research prior to the pandemic, however I had other barriers to navigate. I was researching the victimisation of asylum seekers, and wanted to understand if, and how, they coped with these experiences. I was lucky enough to undertake two face to face interviews with most of the participants which helped me to gain an understanding of their life histories and the broader aspects of their experiences but I also wanted to understand the day to day stressors and how they coped with these events. I knew that a diary method would be an appropriate approach to elicit the data I required, however there were some limitations with using traditional written journals. All the asylum seekers who participated in my research spoke some English as a second language and some spoke the language but could not read or write proficiently. In addition to this, traditional journal entries can be time consuming and there were additional practical considerations to consider such as how I would retrieve the journals. To overcome these obstacles I decided to use digital technology to collect diary data, in part because electronic methods have been found to increase response rates, but also because most asylum seekers I have come across own a mobile phone. Mobile phones are essential to enable to contact their family in their country of origin as well as maintaining contact with their solicitor and other agencies working with them.
Once I had decided to use mobile technology, I sent weekly messages to each of the people I interviewed, asking them how they were that day and how their week had gone, what were some of the good and bad things that had happened. I did this for 12 weeks before conducting their follow up interviews. For the purpose of my doctoral thesis, the method provided data that would help me understand the day to day stress of being an asylum seeker, often resulting from structural harms perpetrated by the Home Office. This may be the mother feeling guilty after being late to pick her children up from school because she had to catch three buses to report to the Home Office and fulfil the conditions of her immigration bail; or the feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach when a brown envelope came through the door, fearful that this may be what feels like a death warrant from the Home Office ordering her deportation. Events such as these were often not mentioned during interview, when interviewees would often recall the major life events and forget the moments of everyday life. Using mobile technology meant that participants could write in their first language and either them or I could translate it. It also meant that they could quickly send a message in the moment, while a particular event was fresh in their minds.
Using mobile technology to collect data worked well for me as it helped me to stay in contact with participants and inform my follow up interviews as well as providing the information I required to answer the research questions. As anticipated the response rate was good – even those who could not afford credit were often able to access Wi-Fi and send a message from a public space. The use of mobile technology to collect diary entries overcame more barriers than it presented, and the method proved fit for purpose, gaining the data required to get a fuller picture of those I was researching. For students planning dissertations or other research projects that are to be undertaken soon, I urge you to think creatively about your research methods and modes of data collection. Although a large part of our teaching focuses on traditional methods, I encourage you to be independent thinkers and so solve the problem of doing research in a pandemic.
My favourite TV show - This is hard! I love a box set and it depends on my mood but This Is Us for when I need a good cry and Travels With My Father or Idiot Abroad for laughs (combines my love of travel with belly laughs) My favourite place to go - Mum and dad's. Their home and gites at Cousserat (shameless plug) in South West France is the most peaceful place I've ever been. Waking up with a view of the vines, having breakfast with my parents, running for miles and not seeing another car, the beautiful boulangeries and lively night markets. I wish I could travel over more than I do My favourite city - Paris My favourite thing to do in my free time - CrossFit - functional fitness combining cardio, gymnastics and Olympic weightlifting elements. It's super addictive and has a real sense of community so it's my social life as well as my gym My favourite athlete/sports personality - Any of the CrossFit women but Tia-Clair Toomey is an absolutely phenomenal athlete. Her mindset, work ethic and determination is inspiring My favourite actor - Tom Hardy. Needs no further explanation My favourite author - I can't remember the last time I read fiction. We're probably talking about the Jane Austen period it's been that long. If we're talking academia then Vicky Canning. We think alike and she's lovely My favourite drink - Diet Coke but I quit for months at a time because it's addictive. I also love Caribbean Nocco and lemon and ginger tea My favourite food - If I could only eat one food for the rest of my life it would definitely be chicken My favourite place to eat - My own dining room but in terms of restaurants there's so much choice in Manchester I rarely eat in the same place twice! I like people who - help others I don’t like it when people - are racist My favourite book - Gendered Harm and Structural Violence in the British Asylum System by Victoria Canning. It's been my go to during my PhD My favourite book character - Jo from Little Women My favourite film - Bridesmaids My favourite poem - I don't know a single poem. Is that bad? I studied English Literature at Access and I don't recall what I read My favourite artist/band - Emmy the Great has a special place in my heart My favourite song - I can't answer this. It's like choosing your favourite child My favourite art - I was on site during the fieldwork phase of my PhD research at a womens' group for newly arrived migrants. There was one woman who didn't speak a word of English but she loved the art activities. She created a series of tiles over a few weeks. The artwork was beautiful because of what it symbolised. The woman came in withdrawn and closed, wearing her veil tightly like it was an extra layer of protecting from the world. By the time she completed her mosaic tiles she looked taller, younger and she smiled. Her veil loosened, as did her furrowed brow. It was absolutely incredible to see the change in her. Sat with a group of women making mosaic tiles for a few weeks positively influenced her wellbeing. My favourite person from history - I'm a woman from Manchester so it has to be Emmeline Pankhurst. Her legacy continues today in her home which is now home to a range of women's services