Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Navigating 2020 as a Social Researcher

22 Jan 2021

Gill Reeve charts some of the new challenges, unavoidable losses and unexpected opportunities of 2020, drawing out lessons that are relevant for us all.

Starting my PhD in September 2018, I anticipated many of the challenges ahead: time pressure, difficulty finding focus, searching for the research gap, writer’s block… to name but a few.

But in March 2020, as I was writing my methodology chapter, a global pandemic was one scenario that had certainly not entered my head! I was all set for an ethnographic research project on the values that underpin collaborative, socio-ecological place-shaping. Participant observation was central to the deeply embedded research design. But, as the pandemic took hold globally, it felt as if the words of my research portfolio lifted off the pages and disappeared into the atmosphere. Not only was my field research now out of reach, but there was also a growing realisation of the seismic shift occurring in the world. Locating socio-ecological research at such a time of enormous flux and instability took on a new level of complexity.

Gradual despondency caused me to consider my options. I could suspend my studies; give up; start again on a different topic. But, over time, I began to realise that my current research was more important than ever. The values that underpin socio-ecological place-shaping are under-researched, and yet, in the sustainability literature there is increasing recognition that these values may provide deep leverage for change. COVID-19 has brought immense pressures to cities such as Liverpool, the context for my research, that, even in pre-COVID times, had extremely high levels of social deprivation. And whilst the government recently expressed a commitment to a ‘levelling up’ agenda, it is difficult to be hopeful about this. Historically, regeneration agendas in Liverpool have depended on high levels of pump-priming from central government and the EU. Given the national economic impacts of the pandemic and the new relationship with the EU, it seems implausible that any levelling up is possible without a radical re-think. The great danger is a repeat of the same: more top-down approaches that imposes new structures and bring short-term initiatives that are poorly integrated with existing community work and lack sustainability.

In April 2020 I started to revise my methodology, searching for creative new ways that would still bring depth to the research and capture insights that could inform future policy and practice. I started to re-engage with the New Materialisms through the work of Rosa Braidotti on the post-human and Jane Bennett on Vibrant Matter. Re-reading their work in a COVID-19 world gave it new potency and resonance. Bennett stretches our worldview towards a new way of seeing:

“… the recognition of human participation in a shared, vital materiality. We are vital materiality, and we are surrounded by it, though we do not always see it that way. The ethical task at hand here is to cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality, to become perceptually open to it.”

(Vibrant Matter, p.14)

Bennett argues against the dominant anthropocentric worldview that focusses on human uniqueness and thereby upholds a moral argument that ‘privileges man over germ’ (p.12). Reading this statement again, in the midst of the pandemic, there was a palpable sense of the folly and arrogance of such a worldview. A tiny virus has floored humans globally in ways that we could not have imagined a year ago and the physical impacts of the climate emergency around the world are in plain sight. Our inter-dependency with the natural world and the fragility of humanity has surely been laid bare in 2020.

I was also increasingly drawn to creative arts methodologies as a way of delving deeper into the hidden values that underpin socio-ecological place-shaping. Creative arts provide a rich reservoir for re-imagining, enabling engagement with hitherto hidden and nuanced perspectives. Imagery, metaphor, and storytelling have become central in my research methods, enabling the exploration of the untapped imaginations of those working at local, community-based place-shaping. Many of my participants, interviewed on Zoom, have had decades of experience in local community projects and as I speak with them, I sense that I am mining the treasure that has been almost imperceptibly gathered over the years. Such is the nature of the embedded values that shape practice: they are illusive and often hidden actants in material assemblages. But perhaps their invisibility is more to do with the limits of our dominant worldview that priorities the concrete, visible aspects of the material world and has become incapable of perceiving what is hidden in plain sight. Values are woven into the intricate narratives and intriguing metaphors that my research participants tell, but we need Braidotti’s ‘post-human’ perspective to unravel such nuances and to see the multiplicity of actants in this complex web of materiality.

Researching in 2020 alongside COVID-19 has been exhausting! One of the hardest things has been coping with a lack of energy and concentration, arising from a more stressful working environment, months of social distancing and the anxieties that the pandemic brings. But it has not all been about losses. The pandemic has pushed me to embrace a more creative research approach that I might previously have felt was too risky, too out of my comfort-zone. But now, I am finding this creativity increasingly thought-provoking, life-giving, and intriguing.

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