Blog post written by Rachel Douglas-Jones, Co-Head of the ETHOS Lab

Fieldwork for ethnographers has changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and continues to shift under our feet. In the spring of this year, PhD students and their supervisors were struggling with the implications. Some remained in the field, willingly or stuck. Others were required to return – to home that was where their University was, to home that was elsewhere. On Twitter, students shared the new and sudden struggles of research that had been interrupted. This image captures the vibe of Research Interrupted, a course created specifically for PhD students struggling with how to think about, access, be in and be with their fieldwork after the pandemic lockdowns of Spring 2020 began.

In June, along with colleagues in the ETHOS Lab, I ran two versions of this course. We will elsewhere document how it came about, some of the challenges and outcomes, but the first version “Course 1” ran synchronously over three days. Given the time-zone, the majority were Europe based. We kept the sessions fairly short (2hrs either side of European lunchtime), and guests joined us in our Zoom Room over the three themed days: Interruption, Expansion, Speculation.

Each of our keynotes shared a pre-recorded talk, which students spent time discussing and finding questions for, before the speaker appeared – time-zones allowing – for the live Q&A. From the US and field sites across South America, Andrea Ballestero coordinated with her students Yesmar Oyarzun, Katie Ulrich and Mel Ford to give a joint keynote on interruption across locales. Marianne Clarke joined us from Australia for a talk on how she adjusted and expanded the methods for her own, ongoing research. Anand Pandian chose a segment from his new book, A Possible Anthropology, and fielded questions on the legacies of the discipline tied up in our methods. And I interviewed Laura Watts on turning writing practices to one’s own ends. Together, these scholars met the PhD students at the point of interruption, we thought expansively about method together, and ended looking towards the future. I am deeply grateful to all of them for giving their time and energy to the course.

Course 2 began the following week, although preparations had been going on continuously, sorting applications, groups and schedules. This asynchronous version of the course used the same structure, but offered the resources (pre-recorded keynotes, recordings of the Q&As, workshops) to small groups of students who met independently, according to their own schedules. From the 147 who were not selected (by lottery) for the synchronous version, we collected up their time-zones (from GMT -8 to +10) and research topics. I sorted them into groups where there would be only a few hours time difference between their locations, and where possible, a resonance in their research topics. The guide to this course contained suggestions on how to split the time if internet connections weren’t so strong, as the course still relied on in-person gatherings for discussion and analysis. Across the world, 19 groups of 4-8 students uploaded reflections on the texts, keynotes, and their own group practices.

In the weeks afterwards, exam submissions rolled in. Participants had been asked to write a speculative essay, looking back on their PhD from the point of its completion and analysing the changes they had made to their approach. The creativity in these essays was really wonderful – graduation ceremonies imagined, letters written to new-starting students, fictional dialogues and plays. It gave me considerable confidence that the cohort whose work has been so interrupted will use this moment to open up their understanding of research, writing, and what ethnography can do in the world. 

Congratulations to all who participated, thank you so much for your enthusiasm and willingness to try a very different kind of PhD Course, and please stay in touch!