Coping with Corona: pushing ethnographic fieldwork in times of pandemic

This blog was co-authored by BA (Hons) Anthropology students Gabriella Graham, Lewis Kerr, Stephanie Burns, Freya Bashford, Molly Whittock, Imogen Thorpe, Gregor Sims, Ryan Collins and Joel Barril.

In springtime, I have the habit of kicking my anthropology students out of the classroom and into the world to study. I send my undergrads out to study Plymouthian society and culture. 

I do this for three main reasons:

My first objective is to give students a real opportunity to practice and hone the research skills that make anthropologists such sensitive observers of daily life. Needlessly said, these are the skills they will take with them to their future careers. 

Secondly, by engaging in real research, my students contribute to an ambitious project to offer a holistic, ethnographic portrait of 21st century Plymouth. Over the past decade, British anthropologists have become increasingly interested in doing research at (and of) home. Rising ethnic tensions, intensifying neoliberalism and social-inequality, and growing nationalist populism have made Britain a particularly puzzling place for anthropologists. But while the bustling, cosmopolitan streets of London and the declining industrial towns of the North have garnered much ethnographic attention, the South West remains inexplicably ignored.

Thirdly, and most crucially, I send my students out to do fieldwork because I want them to learn that ordinary people are, actually, quite extraordinary.

As an anthropologist, I make a living engaging with common folk. I document their lives, struggles, troubles and aspirations. Wherever I go – be it the poor neighbourhoods of the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, the Maltese countryside during the hunting seasons, or the coastal towns of the United Kingdom – what I see is people coping with, adapting to, and overcoming all sorts of challenges and limitations. People’s ability to constantly surprise me with their creativity and resourcefulness, with the way they are able to place moral obligations on other people (and avoid such obligations!) is what made me fall in love with anthropology.

This year, it was my students’ turn to surprise me. Anthropology is famous for its study of small face-to-face communities. When COVID-19 stormed British shores and sent us into lockdown, it also swept away our best-laid plans for research. How can you study notions of discipline in hockey teams, or ideas of femininity in dance groups, or artisanship amongst historical re-enactors, or pub etiquette, or gender relations in gyms, or the personification of zoo animals if these sites no longer physically exist?

Instead of throwing in the towel and calling it a day, Plymouth’s undergraduate students responded to the seismic changes transforming their research environment by engaging in “netnography”. The groups our budding anthropologists wanted to study attempted to shift their activities online in a bid to survive. Our students followed them, and thus gained first-hand experience of the internet as a research tool, as a field-site, and as a phenomenon that needs theoretical explanation.

As a result, our undergrads have done three remarkable things:

  • First, they have developed projects that show that “netnography” is not only possible but also a viable, effective, and productive way of doing ethnography. Many anthropologists believe online participant observation is but a poor substitute for “real” face-to-face engagement. Our students are leading the charge in understanding that cyberspace and cyber-relations are actually very “real” spaces where relationships and groups can be made, maintained, transformed, or even destroyed. Places need not be physical ones. Dealing with online worlds is not so different from studying an alien or exotic culture: it simply requires the ethnographer to learn the language, etiquette, and infrastructure of particular forms of communicating. 

  • Netnography is especially viable because studying people’s way of coping with the pandemic has allowed our anthropologists to illustrate people’s creativity, versatility, and problem-solving skills in times of crisis. In giving us precious case-studies of Plymouth under pandemic, these anthropologists have provided a valuable contribution to the anthropology of Britain. They have also aided future generations of historians, because the ethnography of today is, effectively, the archive of tomorrow.
  • Lastly, these mini-ethnographic projects have paid dividends because life in lockdown raises questions that cut into the very building blocks of our society. As expert observers, we have been forced to re-think the basis of gender, ritual, solidarity, religious belief, and environmental activism amongst other things.

Our student research includes:

Gabriella Graham and Lewis Kerr are examining how Evangelical Christians and Mormon groups are dealing with disruption to their ritual and belief systems. 

Gabriella is studying a church that has been successful in running most of its activities through the internet. While certain sacred rituals (e.g. communion) cannot be held, the church remains a tightly-knit community because it has been good in replicating the social, communal, and sharing aspects of its weekly rites. She argues that adherence to a church is primarily about believers maintaining 'sense of control and order' over hectic and uncertain lives, something which COVID-19 has contributed to. This is a key reason why membership is so important for many believers.

Lewis is interested in how people drop out of religion (typically by not going physically to religious meetings). He is researching the way lockdown (and online ritual) is affecting the reach and authority of religious specialists and dogmatic teaching on believers.

Stephanie Burns and Freya Bashford are examining the effect of COVID-19 on local environmental activism. 

Stephanie has been conducting research with Plymouth Extinction Rebellion, and has been keeping track with how the organisation remains active and relevant during the pandemic. She is also observing how this organisation can use the lifestyle changes (e.g. reduced emission, travel) brought by the pandemic to further argue its environmental cause. 

By contrast Freya has been studying zero-waste lifestyles. She notes that increased financial stress and reduced shopping options are dissuading people from continuing their zero-waste lifestyle or working for companies that do their utmost to reduce their environmental footprint. 

In contrast to public discourses celebrating the pandemic as a breathing space for the natural environment, research by both students implies that limiting human activity can distract from, and negatively impact, environmental activism.

Molly Whittock’s project involved the study of how the male gaze affects women’s behaviour in the gyms of Plymouth. In many cases, her informants report a sense of being surveyed, harassed, intimidated and belittled by men observing them in such spaces. 

She has found that many women now increasingly exercise at home. While the domestic space has often been linked to the control of women, it does seem that it also frees them of the male gaze and allows them to exercise more freely. Since most follow online gym instructors, Molly cleverly observes that transforming the home into a work-out space can also reverse the gaze: online instructors are highly admired and even sexualised, and their clips can be freely played, repeated, paused at one’s convenience. Clearly, not every aspects of life has been demolished by COVID-19, and some have found not only a silver lining, but real political opportunity in the current crisis.

Imogen Thorpe and Gregor Sims were working with University of Plymouth dance clubs and hockey teams respectively. Gregor in particular became very interested in how sportsmen cope with their inability to practice sports and remain at the top of their game. He notes how teams co-ordinate individual exercises, and even encourage their members to take part in charity runs as a way of staying fit while also contributing productively to the crisis.

Ryan Collins and Joel Barril have been working with Supermarket employees and zero-hour workers for the gig economy respectively. Their research, not yet complete, is looking at how these “front-line heroes” have been coping with the stresses and risks of lockdown and pandemic. They trace how staff manage the increased work-opportunity with the risk of contracting the virus. 

Other students have been studying the ethnography of the home: we have interesting observations about changes in inter-generational relations (e.g. children – parents – grandparents); how people have transformed domestic space into a place of work and recreation; on work-life balance; on the study of boredom and rationing and even changing relationships with household pets and animals.