Sophie Gilliat-Ray – Surviving Research in Difficult Times4 June 2020
The Islam-UK Centre at Cardiff University specialises in approaches to research that are qualitative in nature. We flourish from our engagement with experiences, meanings, and ideas, either from the people with whom we do research in-person, or via textual material. Our research methodologies shape our collective modus operandi and our preference for doing things together as a community of scholarship wherever possible.
So, our in-house Symposium at the start of June is an annual highlight bringing together our staff and student body for the sharing of an abundance of stimulating ideas and research updates, as well as delicious food and drink (the cake of 2017 is now legendary 😊)…
But the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to find new ways to operate, and so our 2020 Symposium on 2.6.20 was held online via Zoom. Our theme was: “Surviving Research in Difficult Times”. We focussed our discussions on two main issues. The first was the impact of the Coronavirus on Muslim communities, and the second was on the impact of the virus on research/ers and the context in which we work. Here are some edited highlights of what emerged from our virtual discussions, and many of these insights derived from what each of us is seeing ‘on the ground’ in our particular locations – physical and digital.
Impact on Muslim Communities
- The many countries and towns in which we all live turned out to be crucial for our perceptions, and indeed the trajectory of the virus itself. One of our students lives in Jordan, and the more authoritarian regime there, along with strict curfews during the evenings, and on Fridays, has perhaps contributed to far fewer cases of COVID-19.
- Those of us aware of the pandemic situation ‘online’ or living in more rural areas had very different perceptions compared to those colleagues ‘on-the-ground’ with very direct involvement with, and awareness, of localised responses and projects to support British Muslim communities in very practical ways. So, the virus pandemic has highlighted the many strengths in Muslim communities…especially the generosity of spirit which has led to initiatives such as youth-driven projects to deliver iftar meals to elders.
- Muslims in Britain have often been regarded in the tabloid media and in wider public perception as a ‘problem community’, but during the crisis they have been as responsive and responsible in relation to public health information as the wider general public. It is especially noticeable in some areas that more Muslim women are now wearing niqab and feel more confident and comfortable doing so at a time when face-covering in public is becoming normalised among the wider population.
- The creation of ‘virtual congregations’ seems to have necessarily de-centred the significance of mosques as places of worship for some Muslims in Britain. Domestic homes have now taken on a new importance as places of prayer for families, with some families praying ‘in congregation’ together for the first time! The shift towards more online worship and Islamic education has been transformative for those Muslims in Britain who have sometimes found it difficult to access physical spaces. Muslim women in particular and some disabled groups are finding much improved access to education and worship now than they did prior to COVID-19. These new spaces could be sites for innovative social scientific research!
- The relatively sudden and unprecedented closure of mosques generated considerable fracturing of religious authority in Muslim communities and associated divisions in communities. Which organisation or Islamic scholar should be consulted for advice in this situation? The dissonant voices that could be heard in the days and weeks running up to the enforced closure of mosques suggest considerable internal division within British Muslim communities.
- The pandemic has also revealed some challenges and weaknesses in British Muslim communities. It would seem that the ‘panic-buying’ that went on across the UK in the run up to and immediate aftermath of the national lockdown happened a week later in some more densely populated Muslim communities… suggesting that information transfer was not happening in quite the same way compared to other communities or neighbourhoods. This observation is significant in a context where BAME communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus. It is also significant where it reveals lower levels of digital literacy (especially for some elders lacking access to online information). Similarly, the pandemic has highlighted the difficulties for those households where larger families are trying to home-educate many children simultaneously with limited computer access, potentially compounding other pre-existing educational/socio-economic disadvantage.
Impact on research/ers in British Muslim Studies
- All of us have been affected in one way or another by the crisis. Everything from loss of physical libraries to increased childcare responsibilities, or the abandonment of some research activities entirely, have affected our capacity to work.
- For those who have shifted to online interviews as a means of data collection, we noted that it is much harder to get a sense of people via this means. When we can only view their head and shoulders on a computer screen we lose sight of much of their remaining ‘body language’. A sharp intake of breath (perhaps signalling a wish to interject a comment) may be lost on a video-calling platform. An interview conducted remotely also means that we do not build up an appreciation of a person ‘in context’ in relation to their surroundings and physical spaces.
- Conversely, an online interview may enable glimpses of private domestic spaces (in the background) that might have been impossible had an interview taken place in an office space… the private background scenery could be indicative of important dimensions of an individual’s life and circumstances.
- Netnography is going to become increasingly normal, and this may affect the way in which we do research long into the future. But this shift does raise new ethical questions around issues of power and inclusion/exclusion… we must remain aware that those with limited access to technologies will be excluded from research that relies on video-calling software.
- The research domain seems to have accelerated in the last two months. The academic community and funding bodies have created new opportunities for funded research and collaboration… meaning that projects are being conceived and proposals written ‘at speed’.
- We have found new and creative ways to work around some of the challenges presented by the COVID-19 virus, and so here are our ‘top tips’
- Online interviewing is becoming necessarily more ‘normal’ and potential interviewees are more likely to feel comfortable with being interviewed in this way, due to increased familiarity with video calling platforms. Likewise, WhatsApp has become a research space in a new (but potentially very distracting!) way.
- Allow plenty of time for any online data collection, not least because of technical issues.
- The working day may need to become the working night… being flexible in terms of when and how work gets done may be useful.
- It is still possible and necessary to take fieldnotes… just recording what could be seen during the interview and noting how it felt as a data collection exercise brings insights that will enrich your work when you analyse and write up.
- It’s still possible to build rapport by sharing snippets of personal information and trying to find ways to establish a relationship with interviewees online. Meeting online to set up the interview, and then arranging when it will happen (on another occasion) may be helpful, so that the interview happens at the second online meeting.
- Be easy on yourself and your interview participants!
- In a context where libraries are closed – and likely to be so for some while – finding alternate routes to key monographs is a concern. Students are learning what is available online, and it is evident that many more resources are now being posted online and for free, suggesting a more cooperative information-sharing environment. This is especially the case for sources specifically on conducting digital research.
In the second part of our programme, we welcomed Dr Carl Morris from the University of Central Lancashire who gave a short keynote presentation about his career since graduating from the Islam-UK Centre in 2013, as part of the first cohort of Jameel PhD students. He shared some of his experiences of making the long and difficult transition from PhD to a full-time permanent Lectureship. Here are some of his reflections:
- Lack of publications and/or teaching experience acquired during doctoral studies can be a real obstacle to eventual employment (the upshot being the value of getting these during the doctoral programme)!
- Getting into academic employment may be a matter of luck, and having the right opportunities arising at the right time and in the right place (geographically).
- Be prepared for hard graft, outside of one’s comfort zone, and demonstrate a willingness to teach beyond immediate expertise.
- Prior to any job interview/opportunity, thoroughly scope the Department/School, work out what their gaps are, and then make a confident sales pitch for what you can offer.
- Assume you are going to stay in-post, even if the contract is fixed, and find ways to become utterly indispensable. Attend every meeting, contribute wherever possible, show your face everywhere.
- Research may need to be on the backburner for a bit, especially if employed in a teaching-intensive institution…but eventually the opportunities to resume research will emerge, especially if you can be:
- imaginative about workload, and try to frontload teaching to one semester, leaving more time for research in the other;
- creative in the cultivation of your own research culture (even in teaching-intensive institutions) by collaborating within and beyond the immediate Department/School;
- willing to turn off email/phone entirely on the days ring-fenced for research and be prepared to say “no” when necessary.
- A time may come when you want to move on from the area of PhD research and find new things to explore.
Our Symposium took place against the background of the murder by police of the black American, George Floyd, and the mass protests going on in the US as a response to this racist killing. It was noted that our Islam-UK Centre should remain alert to the experiences of Black/Afro-Caribbean Muslims (and indeed, any other ‘minority within a minority’).
For a community of scholarship where in-person relationships are often central to our research methods and our engagement with one another, the hosting of our Symposium on Zoom marked a considerable shift. But somehow it worked, not least because those living abroad or juggling complex circumstances were perhaps more able to carve out a couple of hours for this event, as compared to travelling long distances requiring a day or more of travel. For now, this may be our ‘new normal’, but it does not change our commitment to our field of research and our capacity to be an imaginative, supportive, and collaborative group of scholars who seem to be doing a grand job of ‘surviving research in difficult times’.