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The challenges of remote research in tackling sensitive questions

By AuthorAID Team | June 15, 2020  | Nepal  | Researcher Experience COVID-19

Gitta Shrestha works at the International Water Management Institute in Nepal and her research area is gender and social justice in water resource governance. She shares her experiences of conducting often sensitive gender research during lockdown. This post is part of our COVID-19 research experience series.

The COVID-19 pandemic is increasing at an alarming rate in Nepal. The entire nation has been in lockdown since 24th March 2020. When the lockdown was announced there were only two confirmed cases; however, given the open border and rising COVID-19 cases in India, health experts had warned of the possibility of untraced COVID-19 cases in Nepal. As was speculated by the experts, cases started increasing with Nepali migrants started returning home from India and the gulf countries. To date, Nepal has 5,760 infected cases with 19 deaths.

Work from home become a new normal way of working for us and we had no option other than adjusting our work to the home environment. The biggest disadvantage of working from home was that for many of us, especially for female researchers, the distinction between work and private life became increasingly blurred. Challenges persist with balancing home and research work, slow internet with all members of the family juggling online classes, webinars and meetings, and intermittent electricity supply.

A large chunk of field-work was replaced by desk-based jobs. Meetings and webinars seem endless. In the initial phase of work from home, it was overwhelming, and I even took leave for a week in order to figure out how to keep pace with this fast-changing digital world. While the new normal digital platforms provided many with easy access to information, knowledge exchange and voice, for people without required infrastructure like fast internet, electricity, computers and limited time, it was a challenge even to access and make a choice of what to attend and what not. In my case, I am learning to manage my time prioritising what is compulsory, most relevant and those which involve local voices. As a researcher, when I am not being able to collect data from the field, these digital platforms serve as a data source and to gain knowledge on what is happening in Nepal and all around the world.

While the challenge of conducting field-work remains, my research team is working to adjust and adopt new methods of data collection such as phone interviews, web-based interviews, virtual dialogues and webinars. While it has its own limitations, these methods are proving handy especially in situations like COVID-19. Nevertheless, to make the best use of these methods, long-term relations with local stakeholders and the local community is imperative. Doing qualitative research on gender, I feel is particularly challenging. It is because gender research often covers sensitive and uncomfortable questions. It requires plenty of trust, time and face-to-face informal interactions to collect the required information.

COVID-19 I think also raises a question on the politics of knowledge production. It is time to seriously devote resources to empower and strengthen the capacity of local researchers and promote the idea of participatory citizen science. This will help us to avoid data crunch that we are facing now, build an inclusive – participatory knowledge production cultures and provide an input to an informed and decentralised policy-making process to deal with future pandemics and disasters.

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