Research, Covid-19 and the science. Why I am more than a number.
By Clare Keys, Senior Lecturer in Special Educational Needs and Primary Education
A consequence of the global pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus has been the recognition that human lived experiences, both during this time of fear and lockdown, and the subsequent hopes and desire for a return to a form of social ‘normality,’ are essential to understanding the individual and sociological impact of this phenomenon. Reports of loneliness, separation, loss, and increased mental health challenges and suspected increased levels of domestic abuse have sat alongside appreciation for greater family time, improved pollution levels, examples of bravery, generosity and accepted flexible working methods. This has been apparent in news reports since March 2020, but much of the research and reports created have been quantitative data led. Although journalism highlights lived social experience it relies on sensationalism and responds to political balance of the time, so instead should there not be an ethically reviewed, critically balanced and delicately executed qualitative alternative to sit alongside and form a bridge between the sensationalism and the quantitative data?
In an intense period of 16 weeks, humans have clarified their role as the living participants of phenomena, responding to events in ways that reflect their conscience, lived experience, belief systems and sense of community. It is as if a magnifying glass has been laid across the globe, clarifying the impact of community connectedness, social diversity, intersectionality, and vulnerability of social groups and individuals. This, in turn has resulted in social and personal introspection, communication and reflection. All these elements could be collated as evidence of how society was, is and can be.
Environmental and social challenges accompanying this pandemic, such as the revised relationship of teacher and parent as co-creators of child’s education; the inequality of number of fatalities from Covid-19 experienced by the BAME community; the isolation of the elderly; increased dialogue of racial inequality supported by demonstrations by ‘Black Lives Matter’; fatal earthquakes worldwide, where emergency reaction was affected negatively by the Covid-19 response; these issues and more have magnified the need for a human lens to be used in comprehending the social impact through reflection on these times.
Therefore, at this time of social distancing, when face to face research methods are hampered and travel required for international support and data collection is prohibited, surely creative qualitative approaches to research design could and should be embraced. Feminist, phenomenological and narrative interpretive methodologies to name a few, previously seen by a select population within research academia as the ‘lesser’, more fantastical approaches, could now be the key to carving a new research path. These qualitative approaches can be reactive to these human experiences and the need to understand differing emotional and physical reactions to events that occur. These approaches could begin to clarify the need for research that shows, not just swaths of numerical data, but impassioned, multi layered reality from a few, regarding their lived experience. These few but highly detailed accounts cannot be manipulated like numerical data can, cannot be played with in clever ways that illustrate a point desired by the researcher or user. Instead honest accounts of the impact of an event or experience can, and I argue should, be used alongside researcher reflexivity to illustrate truths to those in power in a way that numerical data alone cannot. Clear impact statements showing differing accounts but with core reactive experience show those in positions of authority or those able to implement change that human experience is what drives individuals and thus society as a whole, whether that be in a positive or destructive direction.
As importantly, these narratives are a form of empowerment, they belong to the participant, it is dialogue that cannot be discarded as they are owned by those who share them, not by the researcher who merely helps to translate them. Lived experience accounts are not nameless and faceless data, but excerpts from human experience and the power and significance of that, alongside the dialogue of societal challenge in 2020, may be the beginning of a new appreciation for these less definable, more challenging research methodologies. This, in turn may result in a less ‘them and us’ stance taken by publications to those exploring qualitative ways to express the world during and after such social and environmental challenge.
Therefore, we must consider how research can and will be reflexive to this global, social journey. Surely, we can embrace this time of vulnerability and expression through the value researchers place on lived experience, creative narratives, and their ability to illustrate social response to phenomena. If collected ethically, with care and sensitivity, these dialogues can help support and empower those sharing their stories. These lived experiences, these dialogues, illustrate personal perspectives of those living at this time and can help positive responses to lead us forward towards an increased social empathy. Numerical data can be vital in highlighting an issue, but it is qualitative data that holds a mirror up to the impact of that reality, a lived reality that reflects a how phenomenon causes ripples throughout the globe. In short this qualitative research can balance the sensationalism, give a name to the numerical data, and create a voice for those who need one. Individual narratives of lived experience relating to these events can be brought together to illustrate the long-term influence of these phenomenon, mentally, physically and socially, and be used to try to advance and support the hope that this level of crisis will not be seen again, that people can be empowered and that branches of positive social change are possible from the roots of initial devastation.