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Flexibility and adaptation: shaping research practice during Covid-19

Tom Barker
Senior Health and Nutrition Convenor | Institute of Development Studies

Carrying out research in complex and dynamic socio-political contexts can be difficult. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has deepened, extended, and created new challenges, causing research partners around the world to need to pause, review, and adjust methodological and engagement approaches to navigate changes in circumstances.

Members of the IDRC Covid-19 Responses for Equity (CORE) initiative – 21 projects working across 42 countries – are learning from their experiences of adapting their research methods, approaches, and operations.

On 25 November 2021, CORE members met to share and learn from their peers’ experiences. During the CORE mutual learning clinic session, participants explored how projects are adapting their research; what the key challenges are when conducting research during lockdowns and social distancing measures; whether there have been any advantages or opportunities from new ways of working; and how practices can be improved from what has been learnt so far.

The exchange focused both on specific methods, such as key informant interviews, focus group discussions, and telephone surveys, and wider connected operational matters, including how to reach and sustain engagement with stakeholders.

Challenges to research approaches during Covid-19

Despite participants working in many different contexts on a range of issues, it was clear that many CORE projects have faced similar research challenges during the pandemic. For example:

  • Increased reliance on digital/telephonic/internet-based communication platforms have reinforced problems with inconsistent and inequitable access to reliable online connectivity and devices like mobile telephones.
  • Having to adopt and experiment with new and unfamiliar digital tools for data collection and communication.
  • Different orientations of population groups towards some methods have been evident. For example, phone-based surveys had a higher response rate in South Africa compared with Nigeria due to widespread scepticism about illicit telephone practices.
  • Lockdowns and movement restrictions forced the cancellation or long postponement of face-to-face research and meetings and made it even harder to sustain contact and build trust with participants.
  • Projects working across multiple locations, including over several continents, faced significant uncertainty, and had to monitor and respond to several variations in public health measures.
  • State institutions and other organisations have been less responsive to requests, including for data.
  • Recruitment and capacity strengthening activities have also been affected by the inability to meet in-person.

Making research methods work during Covid-19

Most projects have made several adaptations in reaction to changing social and political circumstances, including by transitioning many activities online. For example:

  • Sampling methods, such snowball sampling via telephone, have been quite effective in reaching large volumes of participants, but less successful in including some population groups, such as single female-headed households, the elderly, and people with disabilities.
  • Working and building relationships with ‘gatekeepers’ in communities and sectors has improved access to target participants, such as informal workers.
  • Several projects have demonstrated flexibility in their approaches. For example, by switching to in-person and remote sampling; testing and adjusting surveys, including open-ended questions; and allowing participants to respond to surveys on more than one visit.
  • Collaboration between CORE project partners has at times benefited from the ‘flattening’ effect of some online tools, such as video teleconferencing software that has made it more possible for a wider range of stakeholders to be part of decision-making processes and knowledge sharing.

The nature of this imposed and purposefully flexibility and adaptations it has generated amongst CORE members is adding up to substantial experiential learning – both during the pandemic to guide ‘real time’ practice and potentially for deeper review and reflection to inform future research design and implementation.

Read the Mutual learning for policy impact: Insights from CORE Learning Guide on Adapting research methods in the context of Covid-19