New problems trigger new creative responses. The effects of the pandemic on our research

In February 2020, nobody could possibly imagine how much our lives would change from that point onwards, and in how many different ways. At that time we were travelling to our Horizon2020 CICERONE consortium meeting in Barcelona to meet with our project partners from all over Europe. We were planning fieldwork, exchanging opinions about various aspects of the project and had fruitful conversations on our upcoming work. We were reading about the first cases of the COVID-19 virus and words such as quarantine started to appear in the news. It still felt so unreal and so far away. Nobody could have known that this would have been our last face-to-face meeting and our last plane trip for a very long time. One year later, in April 2021, we are still experiencing what is the biggest shift in our work, personal and leisure routines and habits, which inspires us to write this blogpost to mark some of the changes that have taken place since the beginning of the pandemic last year.

Fieldwork becomes screenwork 

One of the main issues we had to face since early on was that our project schedule needed to be revised and newly structured in order to meet the new circumstances. Face-to-face meetings, interviews, conferences and travelling were definitely not under discussion. Apart from these pragmatic issues we needed to consider new problems in the cultural and creative Industries, undisputable one of the sectors suffering the most from the COVID-19 crisis.

One of our most serious issues was conducting fieldwork without, well, being in the field- we were planning to start doing interviews exactly when the lockdown started. The situation appeared in a way unfair, as fieldwork is probably the most exciting part of a researcher’s life. Fieldwork is normally the moment when we stop staring into books and screens, when we leave our offices, visit new places, meet people that will provide us with their views and perspectives and with data that will inform our research- a stage that one would say is a high point for researchers. How could an online interview substitute a face-to-face meeting? We were wondering how we can conduct in-depth interviews while staring at a screen. Do our interviewees have the digital infrastructure, or knowledge and experience of online tools? And how would they react to be asked to be interviewed online? By now, we know that online interviews are doable, though shorter since concentrating on a screen is not comfortable for a long time. Online interviews allow us to have a limited view of the context in which our interviewees operate.  We see them only on a screen, whereas otherwise we would have travelled to their place, would be able to look around and also have more casual conversation, which might seem to only serve the purpose of breaking the ice and from a substantive point of view seem even superfluous or irrelevant, but could contain important snippets of information itself or open up to other relevant topics for the interview. They still nevertheless remain immensely interesting.

New sensitivity

Not only did the COVID-19 crisis affect ourselves and our work, but it also made us even more sensitive to the current circumstances. As social scientists specialised in various aspects of culture, we became even more sensitive to the new developments in the sector that surfaced from the violent changes the pandemic brought forward. Although culture provided the means to help people cope with the unprecedented circumstances, culture professionals were severely hit on many levels by this shift, which triggered disruptions and transformations on their work routines as well as a series of issues that profoundly affect their artistic and professional practices. This inspired the inclusion of new directions and aspects in our research project as well.

New solutions and new opportunities

We tried to develop ways to communicate that create some sort of routine. What is most important though, and what has kept- and still keeps- our motivation and spirit up, even during the times of the first lockdown, is creativity. We invented many new ways of handling this situation in our project, we introduced online jour-fixe meetings to collaborate with our project partners and even started this online blog themed around the consequences of the pandemic, where we invite international colleagues to reflect on the current situation.

It seems as if our new working routines with apps such as zoom or MS Teams have shown us new ways of cooperating and communicating in a digital age – at least much more than before the pandemic. These new habits can reinforce international teamwork and save time and costs of travelling.

The bright side of pandemic life

The new conditions and restrictions of the pandemic of course had negative effects, such as for example the lower threshold for meetings in many cases, but also worked in a positive way for us. They gave us the opportunity to reconsider our plans and routines and find alternative ones, but most of all they offered us the possibility to rethink our work and adapt accordingly to capture the new conditions.

There is a striking oxymoron in COVID-19: that danger comes from those closer to you. We may have to still work from a physical distance, but we have developed ways to keep virtually close which not only enabled us to continue working together as a team with no major disruptions and problems, but also revitalized our working culture and offered our research new, timely and interesting perspectives.

Written by Raffaela Gmeiner, Olga Kolokytha (both from the University of Vienna) and Robert C. Kloosterman (University of Amsterdam)

© Photo: Raffaela Gmeiner

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