By Élise Féron, Anna Quattrone and Cæcilie Svop Jensen
Like in many other fields of science, the current Covid-19 pandemic raises important challenges for diaspora researchers, as it appears difficult to research diasporas without doing some kind of fieldwork. Ethnography as a method of immersion – not just collecting data, but putting information in context – has been traditionally favored by many diaspora scholars. But with the current travel restrictions, lockdowns, and social distanciation measures, doing ethnography in the context of Covid-19 seems almost impossible. How can we bypass these challenges, and conduct fieldwork in the current context? In some universities, researchers have been invited to use fixers or research facilitators, in order to collect data on the ground while the person writing down the research results stays safely in her home or in her office. Besides the obvious fact that such methods are not ethically acceptable because they put those local contacts at risk of Covid-19, they cannot replace direct contact with the field.
Fortunately, alternative methods to do fieldwork safely remain available to creative researchers. The current context has made it almost impossible to conduct participatory observations during public events organised by diasporic communities, or to visit their associations, as the lockdown and restrictions on social gathering have caused the cancellation of cultural festivals, religious ceremonies, and political meetings. Since many public events organised by diasporas are associated with particular recurring events, a possible alternative is to analyse local newspaper articles describing past diasporic initiatives. Often these articles contain detailed descriptions and first-hand testimonies of diaspora participants. A collateral hindrance concerns the possibility of doing on site observation to investigate inter-communal relationships between different diasporas, as many meeting points (e.g. clubs, schools, temples, shops) may remain closed. In these cases, digital resources such as associations’ websites, photographs, cinematography productions, and brief documentaries on diasporic groups can serve the purpose of getting an insight into the daily dynamics and contexts of diasporas. Furthermore, for many researchers the main challenge to conduct fieldwork on diasporas during the Covid-19 pandemic is probably related to the difficulty to conduct face-to-face interviews, an even greater difficulty when the researcher is an outsider and has to establish a first contact with possible gatekeepers. In this situation, a valid substitute for face-to-face interviews -and sometimes a preferred option indeed- is offered by phone interviews. Using the fieldwork conducted by Anna on the Sri Lankan diaspora in Italy as an example, phone interviews proved an effective method to build trust between the researcher and diasporas while collecting useful testimonies. Phone interviews provide a safe virtual environment, easily accessible for every type of participant. And indeed, the diasporans interviewed on the phone by Anna seemed comfortable and free to speak, as the virtual distance protected them from shyness, while the opportunity to flexibly arrange the meeting made them more willing to participate in the research.
Another useful entry point is represented by social platforms where diasporic communities have created intense interaction spaces. It is indeed worth remembering that a lot of diaspora activism happens online. Research has long demonstrated (see for instance Jennifer Brinkerhoff’s work) the wealth and vitality of diaspora online forums, and how diasporas use online tools in multiple ways. Many diasporic individuals, as well as many diaspora organizations, have been proficient users of online tools, and especially of social networks and online sharing platforms, not just to inform themselves, but also to inform others, to launch discussions, and to organize mobilization. In that perspective, online ethnography can offer a partial but perfectly acceptable method of data collection to those who are focusing on online mobilization and discussion. Of course, online ethnography is not suitable for all types of diaspora research. It cannot replace observation in the field, for instance. But it is particularly well suited to study how transnational networks of solidarity are built and maintained, how images and narratives related to “home” travel back and forth, or how home governments try to control and contain dissidence within diasporas, among other issues.
And beyond digital ethnography, even in the context of the current pandemic, a multitude of other ways to collect data are available, especially when it comes to researching diaspora communities. These include the study of blog posts, of biographies, of artistic work, or of youtube channels (see for instance International Alert’s Diaspora Diaries; With A Trace diaspora-led blog; the art project Flowers; local newspapers by diaspora communities). All provide ample opportunity to ‘access’ communities at a distance and are rich in data. The presence of most diaspora organizations on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter only adds to this and makes day-to-day interaction among diaspora communities and members, through for instance comments on posts or discussions in FB-groups, easily accessible as well. Newsletters and press releases from diaspora organizations concerning both host-country as well as home-country matters are available too (see for instance the example, in Danish, of the Kurdish organization in Denmark, FEY-KURD’s publications).
In many ways, the perceived difficulty in dealing with the constraints related to Covid-19 is related to what could be called “interview fetishism” in the social sciences. For most students and researchers in social sciences, conducting face-to-face interviews is the preferred method of data collection, sometimes without a real consideration of other potential methods of data collection. Ethnography is often reduced to doing face-to-face interviews, at the expense of observation, participation, but also collection of other, non verbal, material. In scientific fields such as peace and conflict studies, interviews are also conducted without really reflecting upon their adequacy (Is this really how my “research participants” would like to share information with me? What are the individual and collective consequences of repeated interviews with the same group of “usual suspects”, especially with people living in, or originating from, conflict zones? etc.). Being obsessed with interviews as a method of data collection obscures the fact that there are other, sometimes perhaps better, ways to collect data, especially when working on issues related to peace and conflict. The current context, in that sense, provides us with a good opportunity to reflect upon these alternatives. Covid-19 context aside, alternative methods of doing ethnographic research such as visual ethnography, auto-ethnography, participant action research or, as discussed above, digital ethnography, open up ways to engage with communities without relying on interviews alone.
The current constraints placed upon research activities by the pandemic forces us to rethink the way we are studying diaspora communities, but should not be viewed only as a hindrance to ethnographic research. Embracing alternative methods of data collection, and acknowledging the vitality of diasporic online activity both complement traditional approaches, and help us adapt to situations of limited physical access. Additionally, it might circumvent some of the issues related to ‘interview fetichism’ and accommodate the sensitivity often connected to researching diasporas and conflict.