‘Social distancing’ in research: Should we worry about it?


In wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers have been forced to remain at a physical distance from the researched given the guidelines on social distancing. However, before the pandemic, throughout my own doctoral research, I felt ‘socially distanced’ from my research participants despite doing fieldwork in a familiar setting. 

Social distancing in research is visible in the relationship that develops between the researcher and the researched. It is an ongoing process that continues throughout the research. It isn’t something bad or to be avoided, rather it needs to be reflected upon for the purpose of the research. However, it needs to be seen differently from physical closeness/distancing in the field. I propose that there is value in reflecting on ‘social distancing’  between the researcher and the researched for the purpose of knowledge production. 

My research engages with the everyday struggles of migrant labourers from the villages of the East Indian state of Bihar working in the building construction industry in the cities. Most of my time during fieldwork was spent frequenting construction sites which accommodate labourers either within the site premises or at labour camps. 

Migrant labourers working at the building sites found me present at the site for reasons they never understood, of course, despite all my efforts in explaining to them as much as possible. Language was not a barrier as I could speak the local dialect having spent early years of my life in the local regions of migrant labourers from Bihar. However, thinking and asking who I was, what was I doing there and its use etc., they made sense of my presence in different ways. For instance, while some saw me doing ‘ time pass’, others perceived me as a potential labour sub-contractor someone working as a government official for inspecting worksites and living conditions of the labour camps.

Their sense-making was expressed through their questions of who I was and what was I doing coupled with intermittent episodes of silence, expressions of disinterest, mockery, encouragement, laughter etc during my conversations with them. Such sense-making, I believe does not emerge only out of the researchers’s ‘presence’ in the field. It is also located within broader social relations and continually shaped by social identities, contextual histories etc. These moments, situations, events, scenarios of repeated encounters, while bringing differing levels of comfort and discomfort kept me ‘socially’ at a distance from the labourers despite being physically close. 

Now, when I sit back and reflect on my time spent in the fieldwork by reading my fieldnotes, I see value in the process of development of the researcher-researched relationship both for the research process in general and knowledge production in particular. 

Reflecting on ‘social distancing’ enables us to outline the ambiguities, tensions, contradictions – if any- within the research process that could possibly have a bearing on the findings and in turn shape the production of knowledge. Apart from this, acknowledging and reflecting on social distanced relationship also aids the knowledge produced by not ‘masking’ or hiding the scenes, moments, situations behind the stories being told and enabling a researcher to be ‘receptive’ of and open to the circumstances, joys and discomforts of doing research. This mutuality of relationship between the researcher and the researched isn’t something that fully develops during the research, rather it is an ongoing process evolving throughout the research and it continues till date for my research. 

Though Covid-19 resulted in disruption of my ongoing fieldwork, I managed to maintain ‘connect’ with key informants using telephone and social media groups such as Facebook, Whatsapp etc. Yet, their making sense of my research continues. As much as a researcher, like me, would not want to be ‘socially distant’ from the researched, it is not entirely in our control and as a researcher, one needs to learn from and engage with this evolving relationship.

Manish Maskara is currently pursuing a PhD in Development Studies at SOAS. He is studying the case of everyday struggles of migrant labourers from the East Indian state of Bihar who circulate between their villages in Bihar and the cities in India to work in the building construction sector. Follow him on Twitter

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