Experimenting with research methods from afar: The “digital (video) mobility map” in times of COVID-19
The year 2020 and 2021 will remain in our heads for a long time, given the global aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak. All over the world, people had to adapt to the situation and find new ways to manage their social life. But also, researchers across disciplines faced far-reaching obstacles of doing research and encountered difficulties to find ways of interacting with their research participants. In particular, researchers usually working beyond national boundaries had to find new ways for both empirical research as well as knowledge transfer. The pandemic has not only disrupted the teaching at most universities but also brought many research projects to a halt due to unprecedented travel restrictions. One important way forward in advancing research during these times and to adjust research methods to these challenges has been the digitisation. Digital platforms of all kinds have proven their value in the last years and on the other hand have illustrated the growing dependency thereof.
In the wake of restricted options for doing research and prompted by a seminar on participatory methods (PR) which I attended last semester, I have taken up this challenge and tried to transfer the mobility mapping – a method which is often used in migration research – to the digital age. By combining different methodological approaches of participatory research and digital ethnography, I have implemented a so called “digital (video) mobility map” which can be used in cases of geographical separation or as a method of remote research. This methodological experiment can be considered as a contribution towards an already flourishing debate on the digitalisation of participatory methods. In this exemplary case, I use the example of tourism mobilities in Arusha (Tanzania) from the standpoint of a local tour guide, whose day-to-day mobility patterns in an urban environment are heavily tied to the presence of tourists.
In times of the global pandemic, however, the challenge emerged on how to conduct participatory research which obviously requires participation and interaction. The value of participatory research entails that the lines between the researcher and “the researched” become increasingly blurred and it is hence based on the assumption that a lot of valuable – and in conventional research methods often hidden – information can be gained through a process of mutual involvement. Participatory research calls for problem-oriented, hands-on and non-hierarchical research practices with the main objective of creating knowledge on the ground and in-situ with the help of the people that are the real experts of their respective locality. In contrast to conventional (social) research, participatory approaches include the perspectives, wishes, and desires but also interpretations of the research participants directly (Chambers 1994). Participatory research can thus be described best as an ongoing process of knowledge exchange and creation which is characterized through a high level of flexibility and adaptability to current circumstances.
Adaptability and flexibility are also fundamental virtues in the times of COVID-19. Hence, I tried to expand the scope of participatory methods into the digital world and thus adapted to a situation, where the researcher cannot be on site and cannot communicate with participants face-to-face.
The digital mobility map is an attempt to link the existing participatory method of (a) the mobility map, where participants are asked to draw and indicate their mobility patterns concerning a respective topic (e.g. migration or quotidian mobilities), with (b) participatory videography, where participants are filmed whilst explaining a certain topic. The digital mobility map goes one step further and basically hands the camera to the participants whilst the researcher is miles afar at home, wondering what the participant will come up with. This experimental method did not evolve from scratch and draws some interesting insights from other approaches, such as the technique of “peripatetic interviewing”, where participants, whilst being “on the move”, decide themselves, which places they want to show the researcher concerning the respective topic (Wiederhold 2014) or where the participants were asked to film themselves throughout a whole week to explore their work-life balance, which provided exhaustive material for the researchers (Whiting et. al 2018). Additionally, the theoretical idea of “knowing by walking” – in an actual and metaphorical sense – is adhered to as well (Ingold 2010). In the digital mobility map, even more responsibility was handed to the participants and a physical presence of the researcher was completely omitted.
The main idea is that the major information created through the design of a “normal” mobility map is performed in space and transferred to the digital through a camera and thus offers an alternative. In this vein I asked my participant to make little videos “along the way” or directly at the places that they select for their mobility map. The major advantage of this research set-up is the visual aspects as the videos show real life mobilities and thus also capture the surroundings and circumstances, the modes of transport, the conditions of the roads, the fellow passengers, and the like. It can thus produce a much more vivid, informative, and accurate display of people’s mobility. At the end, the researcher accumulates a mosaic or a collage of diverse mobility patterns through the videos and can analyse them accordingly. For this method experiment, I limited my research to one participant, but nonetheless merited interesting results for further immersion. The participant Jonny is a 25-year-old man from Tanzanian who works as freelancer for various local touristic companies and attempts to convince tourists on the street to join his tours or the ones of his agencies. However, tourists are not equally distributed throughout the city, which is why certain mobility patterns emerge. Jonny was given a free pass to film what he deemed to fit best regarding the topic, illustrating his very own thoughts.
The videos Jonny sent to me showed vividly his daily mobilities and left me with a lot to learn and consider from this research experiment. For example, time was a crucial issue, and the taping and transfer of the videos took almost three months. Various reasons contributed to this delay such as monetary issues, a long period of absence from Arusha or the dependency on a friend with the respective technology (smartphone with a camera). The latter is quite important in my view, as the distribution of and access to technology is not equal across societies (digital divide) and implies the existence of power relations, which have to be considered carefully. Moreover, Jonny used the videos and the creative freedom to make implicit advertisement for Arusha by constantly emphasizing why tourists come here and how lovely these presented places are. Even though he did not do it on purpose, he directed the video content in a direction which sometimes deviates from the original aim of mobility pathways and steered the video content towards promotion and presentation. Thus, for me the question arose on how to find the right balance between giving someone plenty of rope to be creative and restricting the research more tightly to the topic at stake. During this experiment and after watching the first videos Jonny sent to me, I sometimes intervened and mentioned the importance of following the task. Although I was not always fully satisfied with the results which sometimes deviated from the expected, I let the process run for the most part, given that this is the core element of participatory research. In any research set-up however, it is crucial to evaluate with how much rigor the process is guided.
It is clear that this methodological experiment was quite limited, and I was facing quite some challenges due to the lack of face-to-face contact. However, I would draw a few preliminary conclusions regarding the benefits of digital mobility mapping:
- With some effort and time, it is possible to conduct – at least to some extent -participatory research even in times of global travel restrictions.
- Therein lays an untapped potential to make future research less climate-damaging by reducing unnecessary travels.
- This type of remote research could also be used for longitudinal and follow-up research when we want to look at a research topic over longer periods of time.
This blog post should thus be understood as encouragement for other researchers to try out new ways of knowledge production with the help of digital means.
References cited in the blog:
Chambers, R. (1994). The origins and practice of participatory rural appraisal. World development, 22(7), 953-969.
Ingold, T. (2010). Footprints through the weather‐world: walking, breathing, knowing. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 16(1), 121-139.
Whiting, R., Symon, G., Roby, H., & Chamakiotis, P. (2018). Who’s behind the lens? A reflexive analysis of roles in participatory video research. Organizational Research Methods, 21(2), 316-340.
Wiederhold, A. (2015). Conducting fieldwork at and away from home: Shifting researcher positionality with mobile interviewing methods. Qualitative Research, 15(5), 600-615.
Jan Niklas Janoth is currently studying for his Masters Degree for Geography and the Bachelor of Arts for African Studies at the University of Vienna. He is also associated with the German Development Institute (DIE) in Bonn and works as a research assistant. His major fields of interest concern the interplay of environmental change, migration and resource contestation with a regional and thematic focus on Africa. He already implemented participatory methods in an exploratory field research in Thailand and attempts to do so in Ghana for his Master’s thesis as well.
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