Qualitative research in the social sciences has relied heavily on the act of conducting fieldwork to collect information, as well as to establish and legitimize itself (Berger, 1993). Fieldwork acts as the groundwork through which to “do” social science, creating a body of data and information through which to understand and analyse the world around us, such that the act of “conducting” fieldwork has been the backbone of sociology throughout its long and complex history.
Fieldwork, of course, has been deeply and indefinitely impacted by the onset of COVID-19, which has brought about a sudden shift in our relationships with the world, with the internet, and with one another. Immense global transformations have occurred in a short period, and life and research as we once knew them have been confronted with new and unforeseen challenges, the aftermath of which we have yet to truly understand. Following an eighth consecutive month indoors (in India, at least) and second waves taking the world by storm, we are faced with the reality that there is nowhere to go but inwards.
With movement restrictions in place indefinitely, there has been a shift towards understanding the consequences of the pandemic on traditional qualitative research methodology, on its impact on the possibilities of traditional “thick description” of the world, and on myriad interpersonal interactions and situational cues. The “socially distanced” world has provided us with a new and bewildering landscape within which to situate our research and, in fact, to rethink our older work. In these months, researchers have begun documenting various individual and group auto-ethnographic accounts of the pandemic and its extraordinary social, emotional and economic consequences. As researchers, we might consider ourselves at the threshold of a unique and complex process of unravelling our post-COVID lives, each moment rife with potential understanding of the transformations we are undergoing in real time.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, auto-ethnography has emerged as a makeshift methodological mid-point of sorts, with accounts of quarantine, the experiences of medical workers at the frontlines, and students stranded away from home being documented across the globe (Roy and Uekusa, 2020; Peters et al., 2020). With traditional ‘fieldwork’ on pause for the foreseeable future, efforts have shifted towards documenting the myriad changes we ourselves are experiencing. In my case, watching the collapse of “normal” life as we had once known it has made for an interesting analysis of the self—as a social scientist and as an individual facing extreme and unprecedented global events.
The jarring reality of COVID-19 has been that healthcare and public welfare systems have never been equipped to handle such a crisis, and that, so many months on, there isn’t an end in sight. This knowledge has also brought with it a deep emotional toll, of mourning the lives lost, of navigating systems that have failed us, and of the sheer human cost that these months have exacted. As ethnographers, it feels almost unsurprising that we continue to hold a torch to our experiences of the lockdown, noting each shift and oscillation of staying indoors, of being with ourselves, being trapped with or without our loved ones, and of watching the world around us very literally shut down while time keeps moving forward.
How, then, do we as researchers decide what to care about? There are infinite questions and very, very few answers. There is, of course, immense value in doing this ethnography of our selves, analysing our own everyday lives – these days are critical to understanding where we as a people will go from here – but it feels impossible to simultaneously live and somehow document the ethnography of events that are so boundless, that have so starkly redefined the realities of our present and foreseeable future.
Each moment since India was locked down in March has brought with it new and unique uncertainties: were we ever equipped to process human suffering and loss at such a scale? Can we ever truly comprehend the toll of being at the frontlines or suffering from the long-term effects of COVID? Will life ever go back to normal? Being somehow within the thick of this pandemic and still all alone in our homes begs the question of whether there is enough reflexivity to ever truly step away from oneself to bring fresh and uninhibited eyes to the ‘data’ of the last eight months.
The quarantine has brought with it a sense of disconnect from the carefully constructed social realities we have otherwise inhabited for so long. This sense of detachment from the very foundational elements of our lives has shaken up the ways in which we make meaning of the extraordinary, the mundane and everything in between. Where, then, do we situate our auto-ethnographies? We cannot make sense of the world with the lens of the past, because that world no longer exists. The future is even more fragile, taking a new and alarming turn with each passing day and dystopian news update.
An analysis of the self hinges closely on the documentation of one’s introspections and emotions and affective experiences. To bring these moments into focus, then, feels almost bewildering, knowing the ways in which the auto-ethnographic data will reveal us, uncovering the realities and performativities of living life through a global pandemic. To be both the observer and the vessel for this array of emotions, therefore, is as much a lesson in learning about oneself as it is in understanding the role of boundaries in auto-ethnography.
The hypervigilance of documenting each passing day is likely to bring with it its own set of challenges for those diligently penning down their thoughts for future ethnographic research. The continued liminality of remaining in the present—in this present, specifically—will shape the way we read these words, bringing to light different meanings with each analysis. One Covid-19 auto-ethnography asked a question that, in this context, feels so stark: “What is the truthful way to tell a story?” (Peters et al., 2020)
The truth we are looking for, I believe, lies in the ethnography of the moments in which we are honest about our struggle to keep up with how fast the world is turning. It lies in the quiet moments that catch us reflecting on our mortality and on human suffering and resilience, and in the small kindnesses we are learning to show ourselves and one another. The future of auto-ethnography is likely to be forever changed, but it is my hope that it will give way to an ethnography shaped by empathy and patience, the likes of which will hold immense value for generations to come.
Berger, R. A. (1993). From text to (field) work and back again: Theorizing a post (modern)-ethnography. Anthropological quarterly, 174-186. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.2307/3318060
Peters, M. A., Wang, H., Ogunniran, M. O., Huang, Y., Green, B., Chunga, J. O., Quainoo, E. A., Ren, Z., Hollings, S., Mou, C., Khomera, S. W., Zhang, M., Zhou, S., Laimeche, A., Zheng, W., Xu, R., Jackson, L., & Hayes, S. (2020). China’s Internationalized Higher Education During Covid-19: Collective Student Autoethnography. Postdigital Science and Education, 1–21. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-020-00128-1
Roy, R., & Uekusa, S. (2020). Collaborative autoethnography:“self-reflection” as a timely alternative research approach during the global pandemic. Qualitative Research Journal. Vol. 20 No. 4, 383-392. https://doi.org/10.1108/QRJ-06-2020-0054
Sucharita Iyer is an anthropologist and researcher from Mumbai, India. She works as a researcher and writer at a not-for-profit, and is passionate about adolescent health, gender issues, and anthropological dilemmas. She holds a Master’s degree in socio-cultural anthropology from the University of Amsterdam, where she studied the migration of Indian women to the Netherlands and their experience of navigating gender roles and care practices. She has also co-founded Thrifty Ideas India, a community focused on promoting sustainable and mindful living. She can be found at @sucheeese on Instagram and @sucharitaiyer on Twitter