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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.
2020 was a year of many firsts for myself, and therefore in spite of the global pandemic (which brought with it the destruction of lives both figuratively and literally) it was actually quite an interesting personal year. I am exceptionally fortunate to be able to say I still have my health (physical, cannot claim with as much certainty about my mental health), a job, a roof over my head and have not suffered direct loss of loved ones due to COVID. Therefore, I feel a content warning is required: this blog does not look to boast or minimalize all the loss, hardship and destruction that was experienced in 2020. But taking a leaf out of my colleagues’ book, I would like to try and reflect upon 2020 positively where possible: and in all honesty I experienced some really beautiful firsts in 2020.
January 2020 saw the most magical ‘first’ I have experienced in my life: the first (and I am very hopeful my only) day as a bride! The day was filled with so much love, joy, food and laughter: where memories where created which cause me to smile on even my darkest days! And with this magical day came a wonderful honeymoon where my first experiences as a newly-wed were not too shabby at all! The Dominican Republic was beautiful in scenery, activities and people! Again, memories which fill me with warmth.
January also saw me graduate with my first masters, although I did not attend the graduation as was sunning it up with cocktails and novels in the DR!
During the first lockdown, my partner and I moved. This brought with it my first experience of living without a washing machine, along with my first experience of purchasing a washing machine (not that fun and quite expensive!). It was also my first experience of living in a house with my partner, with more than 3 rooms! Which, during a lockdown, proved to be essential in many ways: a luxury I know many could not afford.
The Criminology book club began in lockdown (not my first book club: sorry guys), but it was my first virtual book club which is something! Along with this came the delivery of workshops online, another first, and later in the year the delivery of lectures online, again another first! I also experienced my first online interview (panel, presentation the whole works) which was joyous. And received my first offer of full-time employment.
The holiday season brought with it the odd few firsts as well. It was the first holiday season my partner did not work in all the years I have known them (not through choice unfortunately), it was the first time we both drank on Christmas day (partner is usually driving or conscious of work on Boxing day). And it was the first time I did not feel the ‘lull’ in between Christmas and New Years, which was more scary than anything else.
2020 started out with such promise and hope, and threw some serious ‘end of the world’ vibes at us, and for some these were more than just vibes. It has been hard for all and catastrophic for many, but there have been glimmers throughout the year which have kept us going when it did not seem possible. For me 2020 will always be the year of destruction but also a year of firsts: some of which are currently up there as the best days, experiences and moments of my life 😊
Damilola is a 2017 graduate having read BA Criminology with Sociology. Her blog entry reflects on the way in which personal experience can inform and be informed by research. Her dissertation is entitled Life in the UK: The individual narratives of Nigerians living in the United Kingdom and the different problems they faced during their integration into the UK
During my research on the topic of migration and integration, it was important to me, to make the individuals the focal point. This is because the majority of research in this area, depicts a holistic perspective. Therefore, understanding each individual story was vital during my research. It enabled an insight into the different coping mechanisms the Nigerian migrants used, to compensate for the sense of othering they often felt.
One of the most eye opening stories was that of a woman who had bleached her skin to become lighter. She felt this would encourage others to accept her and also, make her more appealing to prospective employers in the UK. Nigerian women bleaching their skin is not a new phenomena. According to the World Health Organisation, Nigerian women are the largest consumers of bleaching creams. This was a very important aspect because it highlighted that, Nigerian women both home and abroad often feel inferior because of the colour of their skin. These bleaching creams can cause serious damages to the skin, however these women and others alike are still willing to compromise their health because, they believe it will increase their likelihood of success.
Here is a blog post that goes into further details about the side effects of bleaching:
When migration is spoken about, it is almost always portrayed as an ‘issue’, something negative that needs to be dealt with. This is particularly evident with the campaigns during BREXIT of 2016. A lot of times, this encourages a negative stigma of migrants, both internationally and those from neighbouring European countries. This is not only damaging to the potential relationship between countries, it also creates a divide, a sense of ‘us against them’. Amidst of it all, are the most sensitive victims, the children of these migrants. A Participant during my research mentioned her children learning slangs such as “init” to fit in with the other kids at school. She also made mention of shortening the names of her children to accommodate the English tongue of their peers and teachers. For her the mental wellbeing of her children was more important, than a proper vocabulary or the right pronunciation of their names.
Moreover this also leads to another misconception about migrants. The common viewpoint proposed by earlier research is that the lack of understanding of the English language is the barrier that most migrants face. However the results from my research propose a different argument. I found that, it was the foreign African accent that most participants felt others had an issue with. For most participants their accent was the most difficult thing to loose. This often proved to be a problem. This is because it made them stand out and, was a universal stamp that highlighted “I AM NOT FROM HERE” in a country that encourages everyone to blend in.
Once again, this illustrates the real issue with migration, for many migrants the sense of belonging is never present. As a participant pointed out “even after getting my British passport, I am still not like them. I will always be Nigerian, I know that now”.
In relation to the interviewing of the participants, this proved to be the most difficult part of my research. This is because the women often drifted away from questions being asked and told tales of people who had similar experiences to them. Nonetheless it was also the most rewarding experience because these different tales were embedded with deeper meanings. The meanings that would later encourage a better understanding, of the way the women coped with integrating into a new country. Moreover, as a migrant myself it was interesting to see the changes that had occurred over time and, also a lot of what has remained the same. This is because despite coming to the country at a young age, I was able to relate to some of the coping mechanisms, such as the shortening of my name to accommodate the English tongue.
As a recent criminology graduate, my dissertation on migration and integration was one of the most eyeopening experiences of my life. I have learnt so much through this process, not only about the topic but also about myself. I am grateful for this experience because it has prepared me for what to expect for my postgraduate degree. A friendly advice from me, to anyone writing their dissertation would be to START EARLY!! It may seem impossible to start with but it will all be worth it in the end.
GOOD LUCK !!