OPINION5 January 2021

New year and new priorities

Covid-19 Innovations Opinion Trends UK

2020 was the year of longitudinal research. Restarting ethnography is the challenge for 2021, writes Tom Brookes.

Traditional Georgian terraced house with red front door

In February 2020 I was conducting an ethnographic interview with a single father on a low income. We had discussed social mobility, a concept which he treated with a degree of scepticism. Yet it was only after the interview finished, when he gave me a lift back to the station, that I felt I could better understand where his scepticism was coming from, and that the value of the ethnographic aspect of the research had been realised.

“There’s some social mobility for you,” he said, pointing through the windscreen as we drove through a particularly plush neighbourhood. A few minutes later, on the right, a Waitrose. “Social mobility,” he said.

Not long after, lockdown halted this way of doing research, of meeting the public in their homes and hotel conference rooms. Research pivoted online, with focus groups and interviews, like much of life itself, taking place over Zoom. The unpredictability of the coronavirus crisis, and the importance of public consent to the government’s response, however, meant that there was a continued premium on understanding public opinion.

At the same time, public attitudes became more mutable than usual, with changes reflecting the fast-evolving nature of the crisis. 2020 therefore became the year of longitudinal research, with the value of tracking the public mood over time demonstrated again and again.

Yet there have been aspects of the public’s reaction to the crisis that have been difficult to capture remotely. In our polling in June, 72% of the public said they had followed the rules more closely than the average person. They couldn’t have all been right.

There has emerged, therefore, a gap between what many of the public say and what they do. This is a gap typically best explored by ethnography, a research method in which the researcher spends time immersed in a situation, observing behaviour over a period of time.

As sociologists Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan argue, ethnography is best-placed to investigate these ‘say-do gaps’ because ‘talk is cheap’: what people say is often a poor predictor of what they do. Self-reporting by participants in interviews should not necessarily be taken as an accurate reflection of behaviour.

It is ethnography, of all research methods, however, which has been most constrained by coronavirus restrictions. If 2020 was the year of longitudinal research, therefore, then how to restart ethnography in a remote and digital context is the key challenge facing researchers in 2021.

There are three ways in which we can do this, assuming that coronavirus restrictions are here to stay for the meanwhile. First, using video technology. Platforms and apps can be used to allow participants to record footage remotely, giving tours of their homes or neighbourhoods using smartphones.

Second, enabling participant-led ethnography. Ethnography usually prizes researchers’ observations above others’. It doesn’t have to. A participatory model of ethnography could involve diary-style tasks – ‘keep a tally every time you eat a chocolate bar’, for instance – or encourage participants to generate their own insights by recording observations of their own behaviour.

Third, moving from participant-based to place-based insights. Gathering situational insight need not rely on human participants. There may be value in researchers immersing themselves in their participants’ local areas, for instance, even if face-to-face contact with participants at the time continues to be untenable.

Indeed, there are changes resulting from the pandemic which may benefit from observational insights that rely more on an improved understanding of place than on participant interaction. Place-based ethnography could improve understanding of how the pandemic has changed our interactions in public space, and its impact on our built environment, with the high street likely to be the first of many places to feel different in future.

The start of the new year and the beginning of the vaccine rollout brings reasonable hope that the second half of 2021 may look more like life as usual. But it is unlikely that research methods will instantly revert to the old ways of doing things by default. The upsides of pivoting to online-only research will remain.

The same should be true of ethnography. Those observational insights which proved illuminating in February 2020 are harder to come by now. But by re-energising ethnography in 2021, they should not be out of reach. Expanding ethnography means that crucial gap between what people say and do can be explored now, and may yet mean that from these constraints emerge new, better ways of doing research in future.

Tom Brookes is a research lead at BritainThinks.