Research methodologies: context and ethical considerations amid COVID-19

1 February 2023

COVID-19 has renewed our focus on the importance of context in research. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a wave of disruptions across a multitude of spectrums, which permeated every aspect of life. For researchers it was no different. COVID-19 presented challenges for planning and undertaking research and encouraged us to consider new modes of operation.  

Conducting our research on the infrastructure and nutrition nexus in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in the context of COVID-19 was daunting. Because of the pandemic, the working-class poor (mainly daily wage workers) were struggling to feed their families. Therefore, COVID-19 encouraged us to rethink our methodologies because we had to focus on the context of our research and its impact.

Contextual challenges in designing our methodologies

COVID-19 and planning

The planning was the hardest part. COVID-19 presented us with so many new and complex considerations. For example, would we be able to go into the field? If not, what contingencies should be in place to ensure that we could meet our timelines? What risks might we pose to the community if we went in during a wave of COVID-19? 

Designing the questions

Our most important consideration was the type of questions that we should ask our interviewees. Much of the existing literature and many of the surveys on food, nutrition and grid access have been conducted in the Global North. Because the context of these questions was so different, they couldn’t be applied in the Global South. E.g., questions such as, “How many times this month have you gone to bed hungry?”, wouldn’t have been ethical in our research, as people were struggling to afford food on such a large scale.

Because people are at the heart of our research, it was imperative that we should document our interviewees’ lived experiences, without making them feel uncomfortable. As food is such a personal and sensitive topic, we needed to reflect this in our methodologies. Consequently, we decided to cover broader questions. For example, we gained an insight into our interviewees’ eating habits by focusing on what they ate and on how often they bought groceries.

Time considerations

The interview questions were one part of our methodology and the other was time. We were reluctant to take up too much of our interviewees’ time because of their other commitments – e.g., work or household duties. We designed our interview questions with this in mind, so that we didn’t take up more than 40 minutes of their day. 

Although, in addition to the interviews, we also had to do follow up visits to help us understand some of the findings. These visits included a group discussion, where we presented our analysis and collectively discussed policy recommendations. 

Compensating our interviewees: ethical considerations

As we were talking about sensitive topics during a time of crisis, we wanted to find a way to give back to our interviewees. But we had to do this in a way that wouldn’t make them feel obliged to do the interview. And we thought that offering compensation to them beforehand could compromise the data collection. 

To mitigate these concerns, we waited until after the interview to offer the compensation: vouchers to spend at a neighbouring supermarket.

This worked well, as it meant that no one felt obliged to talk to us. However, there were still some ethical considerations. E.g., there was asymmetry of information at the start of the interview: we knew that they’d be given compensation, but they didn’t. Perhaps it would’ve been better if we’d disclosed this at the start of the interview. 

With ethical considerations like these, the answers are often not straightforward. Given the context, I believe it was the right thing to do. Whilst not providing any compensation may be acceptable research practice, it would have left us feeling that it was an exploitative relationship – their time for our benefit.  

As we continued to engage with the community, this practice of giving back extended to monetary support during April’s new year celebrations. We also committed to one year of fundraising for a community meal drive.

The importance of context: summing up

In hindsight, events like COVID-19 can provide an opportunity for us to reflect on how we conduct research in an ever-changing environment. As researchers, we rely on people’s cooperation to help us study urban contexts. So, keeping them at the heart of our research is imperative. This includes capturing and reflecting people’s lived experiences accurately, and in a fair and just manner. 

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate context and research in the wake of the new challenges posed by COVID-19. And I don’t think we should. It’s important to incorporate context into our research so that it’s representative. This is true in both how we design our methodologies and in how we conduct and produce our research.