Posted on 19 May 2020 by Billy Jones.
This piece started as a post in my research journal. I’ve turned it into a blog in the humble hope that it offers solace to other researchers who are struggling to stay afloat in the current pandemic.
I normally write in my research journal on a daily basis, using it as an opportunity to gather my thoughts and track the progress of my research. Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold of the world though, I have avoided my journal entirely, not writing a single entry. And I’ve been accompanied by a constant niggle at the back of my mind that “as a researcher, I should really be recording this shit”.
Gradually this niggle grew and started disrupting my sleep until, one day in the small hours of the morning before the world woke up, I confronted my journal. What started as an apology for my neglect gradually turned into a cathartic reflection on my circumstances.
It’s been a while since I last made a journal input. Sorry. The coronavirus pandemic has really disrupted my research process and thrown me completely off kilter. When the pandemic first started to affect us in Sweden 2 months ago I had to take a lot of time off to look after Louie (my 18 month old). He had a cold and a fever so had to stay away from nursery as a precautionary measure. This coincided with my fieldwork being disrupted and ultimately cancelled. The disruptions were compounded by an inability to work effectively, trying to balance full-time childcare with crisis management of a PhD project that was falling apart before it had really begun.
Since the beginning of my PhD last year, everything was working towards my first fieldtrip to Kenya in April. I had planned the whole thing beautifully, seamlessly orchestrating the innumerable moving parts to come together under one (admittedly ambitious) fieldtrip. This was to be the foundation of my research upon which subsequent fieldtrips would build.
And then came a pandemic.
When it became clear that this fieldtrip was impossible (Kenya closed their borders on 15th March), I set about trying to re-orient and re-think my entire PhD project. This included multiple plans based on different scenarios. Throughout this, I was also reading for a new course, writing funding applications and preparing to teach online. For 8 weeks or so I was juggling parenting, numerous sweeping project reforms, human rights literature, funding applications, endless zoom meetings and an ever-present worry for my family in lockdown in UK.
Looking back, it really was a disabling process; I was barely able to manage from day-to-day, let alone reform my entire PhD project. Developing my original PhD project took months of planning, innumerable conversations with supervisors and, crucially, a lot of deep thought. Not only did I lack time, I just did not have the intellectual space for such a task. I was drowning in a proverbial pool of daily life and all my energy went into to staying afloat. My mind was dominated by trying to rationalise to an 18 month old that it is his duty as a global citizen not to play on the swings. As Malmö University PhD students succinctly put it in an open letter: “We are not working from home, we’re at home during a crisis trying to work”.
Eventually, I came out of this crisis mode with a short-term plan to write a historical account of the region I am studying in Northern Kenya. This plan would get me through the spring term and seemed like the most feasible plan considering all the uncertainty.
Still, I find that urge to “record this shit” present at the back of my mind. I would like to document the effects of the pandemic in Northern Kenya but, realistically, any documentation from abroad is going to be extremely limited. Poor network coverage, limited technological literacy among my informants, and restricted movement for research assistants make it extremely difficult to get quality data on the situation. The best I can do is keep in touch with a few close contacts I have in the area and follow the local news coverage.
So, I have started reading and taking notes for my historical account. Having a single focus has really helped me get back on track. Of course, it feels odd – and disappointing – not being able to cover this pandemic in-depth, or go to Kenya and submerge myself in the ethnographic experience. But, what can I do!?
At the beginning of the lockdown, my brother gave me some advice in a manner only a big brother can: “it’s okay not to be productive in a fucking global pandemic. Chill out.”
I think I’m only just starting to understand what he was saying. Realistically, keeping a narrow focus in my research is the best I can hope for just now. Once the world starts opening up again and some semblance of normality resumes, I can dive back into my fieldwork and explore this brave new world of ours.