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The challenges of moving ethnography online: observing children’s services during the Covid-19 pandemic

Author: Dr Carlie Goldsmith

The Innovate Project’s timeline for fieldwork had included two years of embedded ‘institutional ethnography’ during 2021 and 2022, involving six local authorities, charities and interagency partnerships across the UK who were developing new services or interventions (‘innovating’) using Trauma-informed Practice, Transitional Safeguarding, or Contextual Safeguarding as an underpinning framework. Essentially, ethnography means the researcher immersing themselves in the physical and social spaces in which the innovation was taking place. So, we had planned to spend time sitting in on meetings, shadowing practices, and observing what happens in the everyday small tasks and interactions as the innovation was explored, planned and put into action. We wanted to learn about the geographies of our sites, including the physical localities and the political and socio-economic context.  We hoped to see how the innovation affected professionals and practice at all levels from strategic leaders through to operational managers and frontline practitioners. Such events and their underlying dynamics and processes can help uncover how decisions about risk and intervention are made and how power is distributed. Combined with the other data we would be gathering from interviews, case file reviews, documentary analysis, and so on, we hoped to learn more about what was driving the innovation and enabling it to flourish (or not).

Vitally, too, we intended to observe interactions between professionals and young people and their families, and the interventions they were receiving. Amplified by what we learned through interviews with them, we hoped to gain a deeper insight into: how young people and parents were engaged with and related to; how their concerns, and the issues they were experiencing, were understood and responded to; the extent to which they were supported and their needs were met; and whether they were treated as partners in decision-making and planning. Over time, we aimed to learn whether and how the new approaches being developed made a difference to their experience of care within services.

And then, just as we were putting arrangements in place, the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Almost immediately, services went through a process of rapid adaption and transformation. Sites and offices closed, face-to-face contact for all but the most vulnerable children stopped, and professionals and practice moved online. Suddenly, the services and communities we had spent so long planning and imagining ourselves in no longer existed and the young people and parents with whom we had hoped to create trusting relationships over time in physical settings had been evacuated into the altogether less certain and concrete online world, a world that for some already posed significant risk of extra-familial harms.

The repercussions for our project were immediate: we had to decide if and how to proceed, given both ethical and practical considerations. Our decision was to postpone the direct engagement with young people and their parents until face-to-face work could resume, and to immerse ourselves until then in the online world of the services that they have been receiving to see what could still be learned about how innovation is developed. Here are a few issues that have emerged for us.

Usually, researchers doing ethnography can act independently to negotiate and seek access to the spaces, places and people they think are important or relevant, while the people they are hoping to observe can allow access, provide an alternative choice, or choose to withhold. Online, the balance of control has shifted so the researchers have felt like we have had a lesser degree of control. Whilst we still ‘snowball’ from opportunities as they arise, seeking invitations when we learn about a forthcoming meeting, for example, we are more dependent on the professionals in our sites deciding what events to tell us about and sending us links for virtual meeting access. We can’t hang around unobtrusively: they always know where researchers are and can control how long we are there for. So, building trust quickly has been essential, to encourage professionals to invite us to what are often very sensitive meetings and discussions. We haven’t been able to rely on our usual face-to-face strategies, such as being warm and friendly in incidental informal interactions in the tea-room; so building initial relationships through email and being punctual, reliable and discreet in online encounters has taken on a particular importance.

Such online gatekeeping limits immersion and potentially reduces, at least in theory, the risk of a free-range researcher chancing upon the kind of difficult but revealing situations which are central to good ethnography. We wondered initially whether this would result in a ‘thinner’ or more superficial ethnographic experience for us. Online, you are reliant on sight and sound – you cannot ‘smell the coffee’ – and even those senses are restricted, e.g. you cannot view people who leave cameras off or see the nuance of their body language in response to each other, as you would in person.

However, there are also advantages. Ethnographers usually spend time managing their physical presence in offices and meetings and go to great lengths to not be seen to be ‘doing’ research, by limiting note taking, for example. Online, our cameras and microphones have been muted and so we have been largely invisible – and perhaps quickly forgotten. We have not had to worry what or who we look at and for how long, or how extensive our notetaking is. Rather than feeling distanced from the interactions, we have experienced an equally high level of sensitization to the feelings, emotions, and power relationships ‘in the room’.

In meetings where young people’s experiences of risks and harms are discussed, the nature of the material often provokes strong emotions, even triggering feelings of distress and anxiety in all involved, including researchers. In the field there is often the opportunity for immediate informal or follow-up conversations with those being observed, which can offer reassurance to the ethnographer about the safety and welfare of a young person. Online, this has not been possible to the same extent, and researchers have noted more unresolved emotional impacts. Our ‘psychosocial ethos’ means that we consider such emotional responses as inevitable, normative, and informative as part of research data, and we bring our reflections regularly to individual and group supervisions to provide insight into our work, as well as offer and gain emotional support. Nonetheless, the potentially traumatizing impact on researchers of observing encounters which are about children’s trauma, should not be under-estimated.

We have now been conducting online ethnography for eight months. In ethnographic terms this is a relatively long time and yet the curtailment of essential elements of the process, such as building trust, operating choice, and being serendipitously present when important things happen, has perhaps inevitably impacted on the nature of what we have learned about our research site. While we are involved and warmly greeted when we join meetings, we remain relatively unknown guests. Nevertheless, we have been gathering data that is providing essential and sometimes unexpected insights that will be invaluable when we enter our sites in person in the (hopefully!) not too distant future.

Further reading

Devault, M. L. (2006). Introduction: What is Institutional Ethnography? Social Problems, 53(3), 294–298.