Researchers in an online era: “COVID-19 has taught us how to study people in a new way”

Health and Wellness 8. feb 2022 4 min Postdoctoral Fellow Ea Høg Utoft, PhD fellow Mie Kusk Søndergaard +1 Written by Morten Busch

When people meet, relationships and situations emerge that are essential for creating collaborations and results. In 2020, a group of ethnographers began studying meetings between young aspiring entrepreneurs, but the COVID-19 pandemic knocked the process back to square one: how can researchers study misunderstandings, emotions and doubts on Zoom? Now the researchers are taking stock, and even though they miss on-site fieldwork with in-person encounters, the online world has taught them to observe and study people in a whole new way.

“It is Monday morning; I have logged onto Zoom to join an all-day seminar. I start checking out the Zoom screen in grid view to see all the faces of fellows and staff. Wow, it is hard to describe what I see. People look tired but most of them also focused. I am wondering whether there is an ‘atmosphere’ in the Zoom room? Very difficult to sense and tell!”

This is what ethnographer Ea Høg Utoft, Postdoctoral Fellow, Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy, Aarhus University wrote on 1 March 2021 in her field notes. Shortly before, COVID-19 lockdowns had again been imposed in societies around the world. This included the innovation programme Ea and her colleagues were studying. Like many other research projects, the pandemic made their study challenging.

“Our research is normally based on studying the physical encounters between people: emotions and body language, misunderstandings and the small hidden interpersonal negotiations that happen, for example, during coffee breaks. All that was lost online. Or we thought so at first, but over time we realised that all this wonderful human mess was still there, just in new ways, because Zoom shapes the interactions,” explains Ea Høg Utoft, who adds:

Online technologies enable us to better observe everyone at once, and because deciphering body language is more difficult, our focus on words and meaning increased. So, we have learned much that we can carry forward when the world reopens soon.

May I take up some of your time?

The new article is based on a research project in which the ethnographers were to interview and observe the participants of the BioMedical Design Novo Nordisk Foundation Fellowship Programme. However, the process became a study in itself because the pandemic challenged the prevailing methods. The new study provides remarkable insight into what online encounters can say about human interaction.

“We were planning to do participant observations, which means being present together with the people we observe. And then the pandemic hit. Suddenly there were some completely different conditions, because the Programme changed and everything had to take place through Zoom, with this screen between us. So we also had to recalibrate from one day to the next, and none of us had experience with this at the time,” says Ea Høg Utoft.

One major challenge was being allowed to attend the right events.

“When you meet through Zoom, the meeting starts at a specific time and you have to achieve certain things, but being invited to all the less formal online encounters between the meetings was difficult. So we had to find new ways of negotiating ongoing access, which comes very naturally when you are present and talking to people. And we needed to learn to be extremely persistent: ‘May I take up some of your time?’” adds Ea Høg Utoft.

Still sweaty palms

When the researchers were then invited to join sessions on Zoom, they also had to decide how they should blend in with the Programme’s participants – with their cameras and microphones off – or whether they should be visible and present. They usually chose to be visible for ethical reasons. Their greatest worry in observing differently via Zoom was that it would deprive them of their most important tool as ethnographers: the human body.

“Everyone exists in the world through a body, and biologists might use a microscope as a research tool, but we use the body in our observations to collect data. People sense things like atmosphere, temperature, sounds and smells. Sitting in a room that smells like sewage is really distracting. Suddenly, because there was a screen between people, we could not sense each participant’s surroundings,” explains Mie Kusk Søndergaard, PhD fellow, Institute for Public Health – General Practice, University of Southern Denmark, Odense.

Although the researchers thus missed many sensory impressions, they still found that the more experienced they became at observing through a screen, the more they realised that the body reacts in the same ways as in on-site fieldwork. When an awkward atmosphere arises, people still get sweaty palms, and when emotionally intense situations arise, they still have to digest the experiences.

“We discovered that the same things happened, but a little more effort is required to really feel them, because we had to learn to abstract ourselves from the fact that we were located remotely. But I think that it is easier to be in an awkward situation in face-to-face life, in which you might be able to look down at your notepad, than online, where you have this camera right in your face. None of us are used to being able to look so many people in the eyes at the same time, and you also become strangely self-conscious about how you appear,” says Mie Kusk Søndergaard.

Ethnographic embodiment

Another very important point in the study was that traditional participant observations usually focus on what people do, but the lack of visible actions on Zoom has created a different focus among the researchers.

“In face-to-face meetings, you can forget to listen because you become preoccupied with what people are doing and how they are interacting, also non-verbally. What happened to me pretty quickly in the Zoom sessions was that I could not see what people were doing and therefore focused very much on what they were saying: how they talked to each other and listened to what others were saying. So, you have to listen in a different way because you cannot just look at what people are doing,” explains Anna-Kathrine Bendtsen, Research Assistant, Department of Political Science, Aarhus University.

“Starting to do everything through Zoom was also somewhat amazing. We could actually get more observations right there from our living rooms at home, and that was fantastic. But one of the most important things we learned was that you must remember to take care of yourself and be selective, so that you do not end up sitting like a zombie writing down everything, including stuff that may not be useful. You cannot sit and observe for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week and absorb all those impressions as you do in participant observations. You have to be selective,” conclude the three researchers.

The three ethnographers initially feared that the lack of physical and bodily presence, called embodiment in ethnography, but their fears were partly unfounded. With the right senses sharpened, misunderstandings, feelings and subtle negotiations between people can be sensed online – sometimes maybe even to a larger extent than is advisable.

A lack of mess? Advice on undertaking video-mediated participant observations” has been published in the Journal of Organizational Ethnography. The Novo Nordisk Foundation awarded a grant for the research in 2018 and also supports the BioMedical Design Novo Nordisk Foundation Fellowship Programme.

Ea Høg Utoft is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Danish Center for Studies in Research and Research Policy at Aarhus University, Denmark. She has a ba...

Mie Kusk Søndergaard is a PhD fellow at the Institute for Public Health – General Practice, University of Southern Denmark, where she is currently stu...

Anna-Kathrine Bendtsen was at the time of writing a research assistant at the Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy at Aarhus Univ...

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