The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in late 2019 forced humanity to adapt to a new normal characterized by social distancing, regular hand washing, mask mandates, restrictions on movement, virtual convenings, and a new culture of working from home.1Stephanie Marhefka, Elizabeth Lockhart, and DeAnne Turner, “Achieve Research Continuity during Social Distancing by Rapidly Implementing Individual and Group Videoconferencing with Participants: Key Considerations, Best Practices, and Protocols,” AIDS and Behavior 24, no. 7 (2020): 1983–89.
Academia has been particularly impacted, as teaching, learning, and research at higher education institutions have radically changed in the post-pandemic world. These changes include school closures, virtual and hybrid learning initiatives, and the disruption or extension of academic sessions. Research projects, particularly those involving fieldwork or interaction with human subjects, have also been dealt a heavy blow. The pandemic has necessitated the creation of new methodological tools and ethical practices, as well as the adaptation of older practices, to meet the challenges faced by researchers and the researched. Researchers have been confronted with the dilemma of either canceling field research, postponing it indefinitely, or continuing, with the attendant risks to their own health and the health of their informants. This has been a very difficult call to make, as cancellation would lead to the disruption or demise of research projects, especially those that had timelines and reporting protocols. In my case, this affected my African Peacebuilding Network–supported research project on the so-called “illegal” gold miners commonly referred to as zama zamas in South Africa.2See, for instance, Robert Thornton, “Zamazama ‘Illegal’ Artisanal Miners Misrepresented by the South African Press and Government,” The Extractive Industries and Society 1, no. 2 (2004): 127–29; and Nellie Mutemereri and Francis W. Petersen, “Small Scale Mining in South Africa: Past, Present and Future,” Natural Resources Forum 26 (2002): 286–92. The project explores the everyday life and work processes of the zama zamas and argues that, though characterized as illegal, these unregulated mining activities make a significant contribution to the livelihoods of thousands of families in South Africa and the subregion.
Conducting field research during the Covid-19 pandemic was problematic for several reasons. First was the severe curtailment of movement due to the lockdown imposed by the government on the country. Traveling from my base in Bloemfontein to Welkom and Odendaalsrus, a journey of about 175 km, was not an easy task considering the risk of contracting Covid-19. Beyond the problem of traveling and the danger of contracting Covid-19 lay the practical challenge of conducting actual research in the field. It was not safe for me and my informants to sit down and talk because the risk of contagion was high on both sides. Ultimately, I chose to delay the start of my interviews while making arrangements that would guarantee my safety and, more importantly, the safety of my informants.
A total lockdown to curtail the spread of the coronavirus was instituted in South Africa in March 2020, and life changed completely. I was set to commence my field research around August 2020. Like many people, I was operating on the assumption that the situation would improve and the restriction on movement would be lifted or eased soon enough to enable me to commence fieldwork. This did not happen, and the weeks turned into months of waiting. The most important lesson that I drew from the disruption of my research plan was the need to be innovative and flexible. I had to introduce changes into my research plan to cope with the shifts in government policy and the emerging challenges posed by the progression of the pandemic. Although some researchers quickly turned to telephone and online interview techniques when face-to-face interactions became impossible, the nature of my own research did not allow for such flexibility because of the need to protect the privacy of my informants.
Before going to the field, I attended an African Peacebuilding Network (APN) research and methodology workshop, which helped in preparing me for fieldwork. I experienced problems that were peculiar to the nature of my study. My group of informants is usually engaged in cat-and-mouse games with the police and other law enforcement agents due to the illegal nature of their line of work. As a result, they do not usually respond to people who ask them questions related to gold mining. It was therefore difficult for me to establish contact, build rapport, and recruit potential informants. They did not trust me, thinking I was a government agent sent to spy on them. After labeling me as such, they avoided any form of contact based on their concern that I was a threat to their source of livelihood. Given that telephone calls and online methods such as WhatsApp or Zoom calls were not possible for my research, I had to find a way to hold face-to-face interviews with zama zamas or abandon the project completely. This situation was further exacerbated by the informants’ fear of contracting the deadly Covid-19 virus. One of the ways to get them to acquiesce to meeting with me was a firm promise to strictly adhere to social distancing and other Covid-19 regulations. Apart from the writing materials I usually take to the field, I also took protective materials such as face masks, plastic face shields, and hand sanitizers, which I offered to informants. Furthermore, I enlisted the help of a colleague’s relative who was a teacher in Odendaalsrus and was trusted by the zama zamas. When he eventually introduced me to them, they warmed up to me and granted me the interviews.
During the interviews, I realized that having a general talk with a group of informants yielded more information than formal one-on-one interviews. Every time that I sat down with a small group of zama zamas for a general discussion, I gathered more data. I observed that it was during such informal conversations that zama zamas could express themselves freely and discuss more issues. I ended up adopting this method of collecting information for my study. This discovery was serendipitous because it emerged out of my attempt to minimize the number of door-to-door visits for individual interviews. Avoiding door-to-door visits enabled me and my informants to conduct our discussions in an open-air environment and eliminated interaction with informants in the closed confines of their homes. Most of them also welcomed meeting in open spaces as a safe alternative, which enabled us to progress with the interviews. It also helped in saving time spent on face-to-face contact during interviews with informants.
Archival research was also an integral component of my project. I had intended to use the archives in Pretoria and Johannesburg as part of my fieldwork. However, Covid-19 restrictions, particularly the ban on interprovincial travel and the closure of the archives, almost derailed my plans. The eventual relaxation of Covid-19 regulations provided me with a window of opportunity to use the archives. The archives were opened briefly under strict Covid-19 regulations. Instead of going through entire documents while in the archives, I adapted to the situation by making use of my hand-held scanner to capture as many documents as I could find before the archives were closed again. Fortunately, the pandemic did not affect my research budget, and I managed to stick to the budget parameters even though the work schedule kept changing. The greatest lessons I learned were to be effective with my available time, prioritize my safety and the safety of my informants, and provide my informants with maximum confidentiality. I realized that some research topics lend themselves to less methodological flexibility than others and that, as a researcher, it is always important to act in an innovative, responsible, and ethical manner when faced with dilemmas in the field.
Experience has taught me that adequate preparation is crucial before venturing into the field. This preparation should include, among other things, planning for the unexpected and anticipating possible obstacles that a researcher may encounter as well as thinking of possible remedies. My participation at the APN research methods training workshop, where I interacted with peers and mentors, helped me to plan adequately for field research during the pandemic. I received advice and suggestions on how to make my research plan, methodological approach, and timeline flexible. I was able to accomplish my goals and managed to complete my research despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
- 1Stephanie Marhefka, Elizabeth Lockhart, and DeAnne Turner, “Achieve Research Continuity during Social Distancing by Rapidly Implementing Individual and Group Videoconferencing with Participants: Key Considerations, Best Practices, and Protocols,” AIDS and Behavior 24, no. 7 (2020): 1983–89.
- 2See, for instance, Robert Thornton, “Zamazama ‘Illegal’ Artisanal Miners Misrepresented by the South African Press and Government,” The Extractive Industries and Society 1, no. 2 (2004): 127–29; and Nellie Mutemereri and Francis W. Petersen, “Small Scale Mining in South Africa: Past, Present and Future,” Natural Resources Forum 26 (2002): 286–92.