Digital research(ers) in the pandemic: An auto-ethnography of mundane academic practice
The Covid-19 pandemic has upended many aspects of social life and work, in the academy as much as anywhere. This moment of crisis and disruption, beyond the significant personal and societal tolls it is taking, acts as a conceptual lens through which the conditions of academic work can be interrogated. If ‘normality’ has been disrupted, what exactly has changed, and what does this tell us about the background conditions of research?
In this paper we use our experiences of the pandemic to explore the ways in which digital tools, platforms, and devices interpellate mundane academic practice, both in and because of the pandemic and in expectations of ‘normal’ academia. We view the digital as material and embodied (Blanchette 2011; Hine 2015) and as practiced (Hepp et al 2017). We therefore seek to explore the diverse contexts and practices through which digital tools and devices are used within academia, from data analysis to Zoom lectures, and how the digital gets entangled with other embodied material practices. Our aim is to start to explore not just the effects of specific aspects of the digital on knowledge production or academic experience, but the ways in which research(ers) as a whole – from knowledge practices to academic identities or the rhythms of everyday life – are now co-produced with the digital.
In presenting a series of auto-ethnographic vignettes taken from a systematic effort to capture the authors’ – a group of STS researchers in different situations with regard to career stage, family status, international mobility, and background – experiences, we analyse moments in which digital practices in the pandemic and academic life are mutually shaped: when we need to cope with the uneven distribution of digital infrastructures; when particular kinds of (physical and virtual) spaces – such as the home or workspaces – are constituted; and when we enact choreographies that manage and coordinate diverse places, platforms, devices, and apps. In closing we reflect on what these might tell us about academic experience and knowledge production in the contemporary academy.
Slow computing, screen fatigue - Academic life and work in the pandemic
Universität Klagenfurt, Österreich
The value creation out of user data by big internet platforms is currently being reflected in terms of its impact on our wellbeing. To experience the benefits of computing, or even joy, Kitchin and Fraser (2020) argue, we need to take back control over our time and data. This act of resistance may become possible if we acknowledge the engineered intimacy of social media sites and that they are in fact boring – in order to free ourselves from them (Lovink 2019). Being careful of our time and data may allow us to avoid the stress created by the value-out-of-data-creators that nudge, prompt, target and remind us. However, with the Covid19 pandemic, another reason for not feeling joyful about computing has become prominent – especially for academics in their various roles as teachers, students, and researchers: the fact that much more time than before is spent in meetings afforded by online video tools, often even leading to less usage of social media and other platforms. The source of stress here is in being required to sit or stand in front of a screen for extended periods of time in an ergonomically non-ideal setting, as doing so seems to be the only way to continue working. Often, the choice of online communication tools seems not guided by a desire to make interactions pleasurable or effective, but rather by the aim to imitate ‘offline’ settings most closely, with human bodies placed in specific ways. People are individually tethered to a screen to simulate being grouped in a classroom. In our contribution we argue that to understand how we have come to accept this way of work organization as the norm we need to go back to understanding how the university, as well as the office, seek to arrange human bodies in space and time (Foucault 1977), so as to establish hierarchies and regimes and, importantly, to afford scalable distribution of knowledge and ideas. The current challenge is to distinguish between different aims of online interactions: What configurations of power do they support? What kinds of knowledge creation? What ways of relating to each other? Disentangling formats, functions, and aims of one year of interactions in various academic settings we explore potential for deviating from intuitive choices. We also aim to find out what platforms may have to offer in terms of careful ways of taking back control over space, as well as time and data.
Institutionalized `ethics´ as obstacle for research
Universidad Central del Ecuador, Equador
In Ecuador, universities and public institutions pushed since April 2020 for Covid-19-related research, opening several funding opportunities – under normal circumstances, something rare in Ecuador. However, the sudden push for research highlighted the institutional obstacles for research in Ecuador. In a teaching-oriented university panorama, a general lack of interest in research is rather common. Combined with an institutionality that actively discourages university professors from researching through a heavy teaching load and complicated processes in order to be allowed to do research, a poor production is unsurprising. Another obstacle for research is the structure of ethics committees and the way, they work. Actually, for several months, almost all research related to Covid-19 had to be approved by the ethics committee of the Ministry of Health producing a situation close to censorship.
This presentation will analyze different obstacles for research in this concrete moment and place. While the institutional problems are persistent and already have been researched, they become more pressing in the research on an emergent topic, for instance, due to short deadlines. The problems produced by the institionalization of `ethics´ of research for actual research during the Covid-19-crisis in Ecuador are something new and different. Suddenly, all research focused on human beings had to pass through a complex system of approval that -at least during a certain time- was centralized in an institution that did not represent the diversity of the research projects and lacked the necessary expertise. The result was a considerable delay in already accepted research projects, in some cases, of several months, and a social pressure within the academic community to include ethical aspects in their publications and presentations – even if “ethics” has no clear definition in this context. The presentation is based on the experiences of several important researchers that tried or achieved to research different aspects of the virus, the disease, and its social, psychological, emotional effects.
Quick Fixes or Fundamental Changes? The Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Empirical Research in the Social Sciences
Helmholtz-Zentrum für Umweltforschung UFZ, Deutschland
What happens to empirical research in the social sciences during the pandemic? Most papers that addressed this question have so far considered how research methods can be adapted to the restrictions and regulations related to COVID-19. While we certainly agree that studying and overcoming these challenges is highly important we aim to go beyond quick fixes for methods and raise more fundamental issues in this contribution. We argue that changes in empirical research practices drastically effect the way social worlds are perceived through a methodical lens. Furthermore, this has crucial implications for research organisation, social justice and the (critical) self-positioning of social scientists. We aim to reflect the challenges to empirical research from three perspectives. We discuss:
1. evidence for changes of method priority and adaptation of methods based on recent studies
2. the effects on the “sociological imagination” (Mills 1969) caused by said changes and by the intensification of COVID-19 related research as well as the interruption of research topics not related to the pandemic
3. how COVID-19 puts pressure on research organisation by creating new or highlighting pre-existing pressures and inequalities (e.g. by increasing precarity for researchers on temporary contracts, stressing gender inequality related – amongst others – to care work or limiting young researchers in establishing professional networks).
We combine these perspectives to outline how the pandemic does not only cause (seemingly manageable) methodical challenges for conducting research but much more poses questions of social justice that are ingrained in social research practice. How do we plan, organize and conduct research in order to address the different exposures and affectedness among the population and among scientists in a responsible way? How can the opinions and concerns of vulnerable and marginalized groups be captured in studies on the framing of current problems and post-COVID futures? How do we reflect if empirical social research during the pandemic is a source of problem solutions instead of being a source of problem causes (Beck 1982)? As this topic is highly important for the sociological community this contribution is seen as a call for a continued dialogue that reflects the self-positioning of social scientists and the discipline.
Careers in and during crisis: The impact of disturbed research conditions on the achievement of set research and career goals
TU Berlin, Deutschland
The onset of the pandemic enforced a sudden deviation from the taken-for-granted ways of conducting research. Research teams had to re-organise abruptly and adapt to the new circumstances. Whenever possible, procedures were restructured to meet the set research objectives, for instance teleworking, video conferencing, or working in shifts to maintain labs and continue experiments. New workflows were developed, some of which were even experienced as more effective. Nevertheless, some of the drastic constraints cannot be compensated. These include a lack of informal communication during experimentation due to contact restraints, the lack of access to off-site research objects due to travel restrictions, postponements of hiring, limited opportunities to train newly hired researchers, or reduced opportunities to learn new methods.
These situations are similar to those of researchers who try to continue their work during a period of unemployment. Many researchers who become unemployed due to the expiry of temporary contracts continue research work while unemployed to ensure re-entry into the academic labour market. However, they face limits such as loss of contact with peers and limited access to objects or instruments due to the formal exclusion from their previous research organisation.
This raises the question of how the modifications of conditions of research caused by spontaneous pandemic-induced restrictions or unemployment influence researchers’ careers. It can be assumed that a change in research conditions can lead to a change of research content: Research objectives may be adapted or abandoned. The diminished or delayed production of publishable results may translate into a limited ability to publish and a declining recognition of researchers by their scientific community. The attainment of further organisational positions, which are important for one's career, may be at risk.
In this talk we will contribute to answering this question in comparing the results of two preliminary studies – one including junior group leaders in biomedicine affected by the pandemic, and the other including unemployed researchers in the social sciences. We will juxtapose empirical findings from qualitative interviews with researchers, whose research conditions and research practices were changed, and connect this to their assessment of the ability to continue their research.