Reflections on Research and Remoteness: What I Learned from a Mixed-Profession Background
Although to many it may seem so, remote fieldwork is by no means a new practice or a novel adaptation to emergencies imposing restrictions on mobility and accessibility. Sectors forced to work remotely as a result of conflict or disaster have been doing remote fieldwork organically and by default for decades. Take the humanitarian organisations who are for a wide range of reasons conducting research and implementing projects from distance as an example. Although in such a sector, terms such as methodology, fieldwork, data collection, and digital ethnography amongst others are not necessarily widely (read wildly) utilised or even needed, ethically sound unlabelled methods used to obtain information online are very much existent.
After having conducted remote fieldwork for three different purposes at three different stages of my life, I decided to document the experience and reflect upon it. Not because I necessarily want to, but because of the covid-19-induced hype surrounding remote fieldwork in some fields of academia and how much this hype is hitting on my nervous system as a whole and not only some of its nerves.
It was while trying to get my head around how to observe the same events happening at the same time in three different countries for my PhD research that I came across the concept of netnography (internet and ethnography combined). The term was coined by Dr. Robert V. Kozinets in the mid 1990s, and back then it pertained mostly to marketing and advertising. Side note: By the time I stumbled upon the term it was around 17 years old! So I decided to use netnography to observe the political mobilisation of Palestinians in the diaspora in three different countries, Belgium, Jordan, and Lebanon. The dominant source of information back then was Facebook, where individuals and groups posted texts, pictures, and videos on the events they organised, or participated in, in remembrance of Palestine. It was surprising how much was out there, produced in the language of and format chosen by those who were mobilising and mobilised. Luckily an Arabic native speaker (luckily because I don’t think I would have ever managed to learn it otherwise), Facebook posts were like a treasure box to my research. I finished the PhD thinking that this must have been the first and last time I needed to resort to this research method because when will I study three cases in parallel ever again? I won’t be in my mind if I ever consider this again!
Little did I know (the usual human condition) …
I later started working at humanitarian organisations responding, remotely, to the Syrian crisis from neighbouring countries. My role was research and analysis focused, and just as project implementation took a remote modality, research and analysis (and what would otherwise be called fieldwork) followed suit. Accessing Syria was both not possible due to border closure, and risky due to conflict dynamics. I thought oh well, seems that I will have to resort to netnography (of conflict) once again. Thank you Kozinets! My colleagues, however, were doing just that without giving it a label or a term. Humbling, I thought. I wished I had known about the way they worked when I was trying to get my head around the Palestinian diaspora events! Facebook was still a strong source of knowledge production and sharing, but Twitter, Telegram channels, YouTube videos, and blogs were not less important. Using a combination of the aforementioned was a solid triangulation tool. No one called it triangulation of course … Not that the humanitarian sector is immune to terms, concepts, and buzzwords. It isn’t at all. Actually many of the current (belated) buzzwords used in academia were at one point, some years ago, buzzwords in the humanitarian sector. That aside, the knowledge and networks I obtained from working with the humanitarian organisations were invaluable. And by knowledge here I am not only referring to knowing about Syria, Syrians, and the Syrian conflict(s), but knowledge on how to conduct remote time-sensitive conflict-related research using un-red taped varieties of tools. Networks here are also not the usual networks established by being part of a sector and connecting with them for potential jobs or interviews, but human relations that were formed with people struggling within the country and people struggling on their way out of it. All built remotely, using instant messaging apps or social media outlets.
By then, I thought ok, seems that this form of acquiring information and knowledge is going to become a constant in my career no matter what I am doing. But again, little did I know that a pandemic will enforce the usage of this modality on me once again.
After using netnography (or whatever it is called nowadays) to study parallel cases and later to comprehend a conflict ridden country, I found myself resorting to the same modality and tools to conduct academic research during a pandemic. There was a lot of talk and chatter on adapting research methods and projects due to restrictions on mobility and access, which is very much fair and very much reflects responsibility. But what was also happening in parallel was a lot of claims of innovation, innovative methodologies, and out-of-the-box thinking … A lot of racing towards saying it out loud first, of self-declaring and self-declared uniqueness, of “this is good for my file and my promotion” greediness.
Generally speaking, not a lot is purely new or purely innovative. A lot exists elsewhere in this not so small world with its many people, experiences, and domains. What could be seen as new to a slice of a sector does not necessarily have to be new and innovative to all others (after all Robert Kozinets’s netnography marked its silver jubilee a couple of years ago).
What one slice recently uncovered is not necessarily an outcome of a discovery, but an outcome of becoming aware of something that exists and existed elsewhere. And although I am aware that I am butchering English here, Uncoveries (yes here) are not discoveries. Yes. Uncoveries are not discoveries.
As Shania Twain once wisely sang
Get a life, get a grip
Get away somewhere, take a trip
Take a break, take control
Take advice from someone you know, oh