IN THEIR BEST INTEREST: IS RESEARCH INTO INFORMAL COMMUNITIES NOW TOO RISKY?
Lecturer, Department of Estate Management, University of Lagos
The way we used to research
When researching issues relating to informal communities (and also slum communities), direct contact with residents is generally a significant component. The ability to go into the communities to ‘see’ the situation and talk to those affected is a norm. Data collection is typically done in the participants’ settings[i] using techniques such as face to face in-depth interviews, focus group discussion, community walks and so on. Researchers would observe the situation when they sit, live and interact with community members, noting body languages of participants, the flow of group dynamics in community meetings as residents interact with one and another.
Seeing communities as participants rather than subjects, researchers also cultivate on some depth of social interaction during research meetings with community members and stakeholders: shared conversations during tea-breaks are both ice-breakers and what used to be called ‘powerful networking opportunities’. All of these are about to change (or have changed already) with the COVID-19 Pandemic.
More threats than opportunities?
The risk of spreading infection has led to the institution of social and physical distancing at all levels of interaction. In cities like Lagos, where the proliferation of slum and informal communities has attracted global research attention, it appears COVID-19 is putting a stop to working for research in these parts for the foreseeable future.
However, work in these communities has to go on because existing basic amenities: water, energy, drainage and health care are usually unavailable and if there, are expensive. Before the pandemic, residents were disproportionately at risk in periods of health emergencies and constantly suffer local bouts of epidemics[ii]. Where researchers work not only as academics but as advocates; seeking evidence to pressure government into making communities more accessible, safer, resilient and inclusive is an undertaking that cannot be negotiated.
However, researchers cannot work in an environment of high risk to themselves and their participants. In a new wave of research funding opportunities, funders are making it a condition (and rightfully so) that researchers do not put themselves and their subjects at risk of infection. They require strict safeguards against physical contact. They also provide budget templates with prominent instructions against physical meetings and events. With COVID-19, researchers can no longer take accessibility into communities for granted. They now must investigate risk levels for infectious diseases before undertaking any physical visits. In essence, researchers have to deeply re-think how to carry out the bulk of their data gathering in a manner that is both rigorous and safe.
New ways of working for new research
Researchers are now urged to embrace digital research techniques: on-line meetings, webinars and telephone interviews. Secondary data collection is encouraged. For new researchers – undergraduate students, Msc and Phd students – caught in the midst of the pandemic, the whole implication of these dynamics are being grappled with, as supervisors await directives from Academic Boards. Academic Boards await directives from Governments who look up to Ministries of Health for guidance! Advice on qualitative research design in textbooks now require another look to address research not only in pandemic situations but in infectious disease outbreak contexts.
Making informal communities more inaccessible?
The dilemma is that these methods are not enough to study the complexities inherent in informal communities. In deciding on a focus of research study, researchers have to be careful to understand the peculiarity of each likely community and have to show risk levels empirically. In observing community meetings and interactions, the researcher would have to insist on observing the physical distancing rules. If this is not likely to work, proceedings of the meeting have to be recorded after consent, to be viewed later. Without being present in the meetings, the researcher would miss the opportunity to ask on-the-spot questions which would add to new knowledge about the subject being studied.
Telephone interviews are quite impersonal and at best rely on a good service network in any case as well as good battery life, plus significant patience on either side, being prone to interruptions when network service fails and other varieties of reasons. The trust, empathy and sometimes, deeper relations that are passed between researcher and participant as they share lived experiences can be lost as interactions become more impersonal.
Webinars and digital meetings with community members would work very well where they have access to digital phones and are capable of navigating the connection procedure to join the meeting. Importantly, access could be denied to hard to reach participants: women, young people, elderly people, people living with disabilities and just about anyone who is not tech-savvy. Reliance on secondary data collection is only as good as the data availability.
Nevertheless, researchers of all kinds still need to be able to identify less risky avenues for working with communities that are in line with ethical considerations. In a pandemic situation, there can be no way to predict who is going to be infected and so there seems to be no end to how researchers can get around this issue.
Working with the old: an interim agenda
In the interim, researchers can work with the data that has already been gathered, and amplify advocacy activities. Bringing their work to the front of the discussion table, making governments see the need for urgent interventions in improving livelihoods and living conditions in these communities may not necessarily rely on new data.
The current situation also brings opportunities for working with residents on the ‘front-line’, who as community champions have already established safety protocols for their work in their own community. Researchers should identify them, bring them to the digital talk space, and through their research engagement, widen the pool of participants. Research funding should also now enable researchers to support community members in developing digital communication capacities across gender, age and socio-economic divides. These are impact areas of research, where science meets policy, often neglected, but that can be activated at this time. In the meantime, researchers must adhere to safety regulations in their fieldwork, in the interest of their wellbeing and the welfare of the community they work with.
[i] Creswell, J.W. (2009). Research design: qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.
[ii] The Lagos State Government (2019): The Lagos Resilience Strategy. Alausa: Lagos State Government
No 4 – This blog article is written under the auspices of the British Academy supported Critical Thinking and Writing Workshop for Urban Studies Researchers in Nigeria.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development or the University of Lagos, Nigeria.