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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.
Over the past week or so, the Thoughts From the Criminology Team has taken part in the #amplifymelanatedvoices initiative started by @blackandembodied and @jessicawilson.msrd over on Instagram. During that time we have re-shared entries from our regular bloggers @treventoursu and @drkukustr8talk as well as entries from our graduates @franbitalo, @wadzanain7, @sineqd, @sallekmusa, @tgomesx, @jazzie9, @chris13418861 and @ifedamilola. In addition, we have new entries from @treventoursu, @drkukustr8talk and @svr2727. Each of these entries has offered a different perspective and each has provided the starting point for further dialogue.
We recognise that taking part in the #amplifymelanatedvoices is a tiny gesture, and that everyone can and should do better in the fight against white supremacy, racist ideology and individual and institutional violences.
Although this particular initiative has come to an end, the Thoughts from the Criminology Team retains its ethos, which is ‘to provide an inclusive space to explore a diversity of subjects, from a diverse range of standpoints’. We hope all of our bloggers continue to write for us for many years, but there is plenty of room for new voices.
Imagine that every professional or semi-professional footballer in the country had the same ability and the same fitness levels. How would it be possible to distinguish between them, how would league tables be established, who would play for the top teams? Nonsense of course because we know that not every football player can have the same ability or fitness levels for that matter. And there is a myriad of reasons why this may be the case. However, there is probably little doubt that those that have been professionally coached, even at the lowest level in the professional game can run rings round most part time amateur players.
Not everyone can be at the top, in the Premier League. If we took a sample of players across the leagues and were to somehow measure ability then the likelihood would be that we would find a normal distribution, a bell curve, with most players having average ability and a few with amazing ability and a few with some but perhaps inconsistent ability. It is probably likely that we would find those with the most ability in the Premier League and those with the least in lower or non-league clubs and these are probably semi-professional or amateurs. Perhaps it would be prudent to reiterate that those with the least ability are still way ahead of those that do not play football or just dabble in it occasionally. This then is not to say that those at the lower end of the skills distribution curve are rubbish at playing football, just that they, for whatever reason, are not as skilled as those on the opposite side of the curve. And those that have average skill i.e., the greatest number of footballers, are very good but not quite as good as the most skilled. Make sense so far, I hope so?
If we apply the logic to the skill of footballers can we not apply the logic elsewhere, in particular to university students. Surely, in terms of academic ability, we would find that there were those at the one end of the curve achieving A and B grades or 1st degrees and then the majority in the middle perhaps achieving C and D grades of course tailing off to those that are achieving perhaps low D and F grades. We would probably hope to find a normal distribution curve of sorts. We could probably say that those with lower grades have far greater academic ability than anyone that hasn’t attended university. We could certainly say that the majority i.e. those getting C and higher D grades are good or very good academically when compared to someone that hasn’t attended university but not quite as good as those achieving A and B grades. The assessment grading criteria seems to confirm this, a D grade is labelled as ‘satisfactory’, a C grade ‘commended’ a B grade ‘of merit’ and an A grade ‘distinguished’. Just to reiterate, achieving a D grade suggests a student has displayed ‘satisfactory’ academic ability and met the requisite ‘learning outcomes’.
Why is it then that degrees at institutional level are measured in terms of ‘good degrees’? These are a ‘1st and 2.1. At programme level we talk of ‘good grades’, ‘A’ grades and ‘B’ grades. The antithesis of ‘good’ is ‘bad’. This logic then, this managerialist measurement, suggests that anything that is not a 1st or a 2.1 or an ‘A’ or ‘B’ grade is in fact a ‘bad’ grade. Extending the logic further and drawing on more managerial madness, targets are set that suggest 80% of students should achieve a ‘good grade’. A skewing of a distribution curve that would defeat even the best statistician and would have Einstein baffled.
Let me revisit the football analogy, using the above language and measurements, a comparison would suggest that any player outside of the Premier League is in fact a ‘bad’ player. Not only that but a target should be set where 80% of players should be in the Premier League. The other leagues then appear to be irrelevant despite the fact that they make up probably 90% of the national game and prop up the Premier League in one form or another.
With such a use of language and a desire to simplify the academic world so that it can be reduced to some form of managerial measurement, it is little wonder that perfectly capable students consider their work to be a failure when they earn anything less than an A or B grade or do not achieve a 1st or 2.1 degree.
It is not the students that are failing but higher education and academic institutions in their inability to devise more sophisticated and meaningful measurements. In the meantime, students become more and more stressed and disheartened because their significant academic achievements fail to be recognised as achievements but are instead seen at an institutional level as failures.