by Charlotte Faircloth, Humera Iqbal and Katherine Twamley
13th January 2021

That the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on families and relationships hardly needs reiterating. For the first time in the post-industrialised era, the main institutions of social life (including education, care and work) have largely been pushed into the home, exposing ever further the inequalities (such as gender and generation) around which family life revolves – as well as making clear the huge variation in what the definition of a ‘home’, or indeed a ‘family’, is.

In this short piece, we share some reflections from a project investigating the impact of the pandemic on family life – Families and Community in a Time of Covid – and discuss some of the methodological and ethical quandaries that it has provoked. We start with a small vignette detailing a conversation about recruitment with one of our participants (conducted via text message):

Dear [Jackfruit Mum1], This is Charlotte from the UCL Fact-Covid Study, just double checking to see if our email came through and you’d like to set up a time for interviews soon? Very best wishes, Charlotte.

Unfortunately the incentive is not enough for my partner to participate. Would it still be £40 for my household?

Thank you for getting back to me. Yes, it’s £40 per household – which means at least two people over the age of 12 taking part in two interviews each (one now, one next year). I’m sorry we can’t offer a higher amount, but we have very limited funding! …Would it help if we did the interview with you and your partner together? It’s not something we normally do but would be happy to if that made a difference?

That would help and when would we receive payment?

The first £20 would be within a week or so of completing the interview (via online/email voucher) and likewise the second one next year.

Ok, when would you like to complete the first one?

Jackfruit Mum has heard about our study through one of the advertisements we have posted online. She has filled out the eligibility survey indicating that she is black, 36–49 years old, living with her partner and three children (aged two, nine and ten), and her mother part-time, and that she has a household income of between £16,000–29,000. On the basis of this we have emailed her to arrange an interview by phone.

We are particularly keen to speak with this family, as thus far we have struggled to recruit black families and families in lower-income brackets. This adds an uncomfortable dimension to our recruitment efforts: these are families who are the most vulnerable to COVID-19 and its repercussions, and understandably the least keen to participate.

When Charlotte calls at the agreed time – 5 p.m. on a weekday – the phone rings for a while before being answered. Jackfruit Mum sounds confused, and her children can be heard shouting in the background. She had the meeting down in her head as being the day after. This is “not the best time” because her partner has just fallen asleep. Charlotte offers to call back, but Jackfruit Mum asks “How long will it take?” When told between 30 and 45 minutes, she says she wants to “get it out the way” and would it be ok to do the joint interview with her mother instead? Charlotte agrees, and then hears her explaining to her mother what the study is about, saying in the background “She’s paying and I forgot I said was going to do it … she needs two adults. So just sit down, she won’t be long, only twenty minutes.”

Then she says “Ok Miss, we’re ready.”

The ethics of asking anyone to participate in research – short of that which will directly save lives – are complicated. As a recent blog on the IJSM (International Journal of Social Science Methodology) site asked, is it ethical to ask people to give their time and energy to a research project when that time and energy is already so stretched? Can we really say that a (social science) project will have ‘tangible benefits’ for the people we work with? These are questions which haunt all researchers, all of the time – perhaps particularly those of us who work from qualitative perspectives – but now they seem particularly pressing.

In designing our study – initially unfunded – we were mindful of our participants’ lack of time, and the potentially anxious or even traumatic circumstances in which we would be inserting ourselves into their lives. We were also conscious of our own compressed and stretched work and family lives. Nevertheless, getting our project off the ground quickly after lockdown began meant that we were able to start data collection while the most stringent of measures were still in place – a time of shock and panic for many, but also a time that we felt was important to capture. We needed an approach that was flexible enough to fit into the lives of our participants, but which gave scope for both cursory and more reflexive engagements with our enquiries, which were themselves responsive to fast-changing circumstances.

Working with 38 families (72 individuals) from across the UK, we have tried to capture rich qualitative data about their experiences of the pandemic, specifically as it relates to family life.

To find out more, continue reading the free article, ‘Er, not the best time’: methodological and ethical challenges of researching family life during a pandemic‘ by Charlotte Faircloth, Katherine Twamley and Humera Iqbal in Families, Relationships and Societies.


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