Social analysis while social distancing
The COVID-19 crisis requires innovative thinking in conducting social analysis and assessments for development projects
COVID-19 is not just a medical problem. It is a public health issue that has disrupted social order, relations, norms, and values around the world. Uncertainty about the pandemic and its social, economic, and political consequences has affected the way that we work and interact. Therefore, the pandemic and related social distancing and public health measures may also affect the way development projects are prepared, including conducting diagnostic assessments, research, and analysis.
Development projects are designed to improve the lives of people in need in a variety of ways, including improving their livelihood, enhancing their access to basic infrastructure, social and economic services, and myriad other critical aspects of life. Designing and preparing these projects correctly is crucial to their success. COVID-19 makes this process even more challenging.
Social surveys and analysis are carried out from project conceptualization to project completion. Broadly, their role is to make sure that the needs and concerns of the people in need, especially those who are most vulnerable, are addressed by the project’s inclusive design. The idea is to “maximize the social benefits for them and avoid or minimize the social risks.” Social analysis is also an essential component of what development organizations call “social safeguards policies,” which covers involuntary resettlement and indigenous peoples’ safeguards.
The conventional way of conducting social analysis is to apply face-to-face quantitative and qualitative data collection methods among a carefully chosen group of those affected by the project. With the social distancing requirements and other effects of COVID-19, a totally different approach will be required.
What should be the new protocols and quality assessment criteria for conducting social research? Would it be possible to conduct field research while social distancing? What kinds of selection biases and inequalities might these new practices create, and how do we mitigate them? In addition to these questions, researchers will also have to be aware of changing local policies and practices. Data collection methods should be carefully chosen to fit local public health requirements and social regulations.
One solution is to move from in-person data collection to virtual. This could be done through remote and online surveys. Digital tools, such as online/web platforms, mobile apps, email, and social media could be used for conducting interviews and consultations. This way, we will continue to relate to our clients and beneficiaries.
The pandemic is likely to change field research practice for the near future and probably long-term.
Starting a new project in this time of pandemic is challenging because one must first build strong working relationships in the field at the project site to be able to conduct the diagnostic assessments remotely and online. This creates a number of challenges. They include:
- Representative sample and findings: It will be difficult to conduct a representative survey as the sample will mainly include those who will have a good access to digital tools, such as online/web platforms and mobile apps, and will be willing to participate in the survey. This raises a question about how representative the findings are.
- Social context: An important source of information in social research, particularly in qualitative research, is social context. Unfortunately, remote and online research will never replace being there in person since that allows the researcher to get information on the social situation and livelihood systems around the project beneficiaries.
- Quality of data: The question of accuracy, reliability, and validity of data will not be possible to check using the methods and approaches applicable to conventional face-to-face social research and analysis. Therefore, there should be some new principles and procedures to ensure the quality of collected data.
- Reaching out vulnerable people: Vulnerability analysis and vulnerable beneficiaries have always been the focus of social analysis. There should be a careful assessment as to whether the applied new data collection approach will exclude any participants and think about how to mitigate the access issue. We should be aware also that it is more likely that the most vulnerable people will not have access to the Internet and mobile resources.
- Data collection, ethics, and logistics: Doing things online means modifying the entire research process and related procedures, including methodologies and tools. The survey plan and timeline, including ethical and logistical considerations, will have to be sensitive to local context and well informed by public health conditions.
- Respondents’ willingness to participate: Remote and online data collection could also use different channels including text-based instant messaging. Respondents’ willingness to participate is critical because the process will be more complex and time consuming than before COVID-19.
- Trust, confidentiality, and anonymity: Trust of respondents is important in any social research. To gain trust, there should be solid procedures in place to ensure that the data cannot be traced back to respondents or disseminated.
- Digital literacy: Not only access to digital technologies, but also digital literacy has become critical during this time of pandemic. This would be a problem not only for the research participants but also for organizers.
The new approaches potentially could offer certain advantages compared to conventional methods. They could be more cost- and time-effective if planned properly, and they could be less constrained by the geographic location and size of the beneficiary population. They could also serve as a consultation and participation tool and a feedback platform to improve project performance. However, a number of critical issues will need to be addressed such as quality and general usability of data, inclusiveness, and ethics.
The pandemic is likely to change field research practice for the near future and probably long-term. Despite the challenges caused by this pandemic, it also creates new opportunities to think about the advantages and constraints of digital-based data collection approaches.