Changing research practices in times of Covid – Insights from an international fishbowl

By Basile Boulay | EADI/ISS Blog Series

The closing plenary of the 2021 EADI ISS conference opened the floor to all participants, encouraging them to reflect on their changing research practices in times of Covid through a virtual fishbowl format. How has the pandemic changed our research practice? How do losses and gains balance out? What are the specific challenges faced by researchers in the Global South? Here is what our participants thought:

Rethinking research practice

Reflecting on the effect of the pandemic on producing collaborative research, a participant stressed that the necessity to work online makes it easier to bring researchers from the Global North and the Global South together at an early stage of the research process. This has the potential to constitute a clear break with previous research practices, where researchers based in the Global North would often approach their Global South partners with a pre-established research design. It can as well be seen as an opportunity to rethink the implicit rules about co-authorship in favour of including partners from the Global South more often, whose work is essential for the viability of research projects. In other words, online collaboration can foster joint work and co-authorship from the very beginning, encouraging researchers to share common epistemologies and truly develop a project together.

While this is indeed possible and often desirable, it was also stressed that in resource-constrained countries online meetings and research practices were already common well before the pandemic, thus highlighting inequalities in access to funds for many researchers. In that sense, the pandemic may not have affected their research practices as much as it did for researchers based in resource-rich countries, where funds for travel are usually available.

The complicated case of fieldwork

Fieldwork is an aspect of research that was particularly affected by the pandemic, sometimes in unexpected ways. For example, a participant based in East Africa reported that, although fieldwork was still practiced in the past year and a half, its cost significantly increased. Rural populations often ask for a higher fee to take part in interviews or surveys as a way to compensate for the loss of resources caused by the pandemic and maintain their livelihood. Such practical aspects can often be overlooked by researchers based in the Global North, where the pandemic is seen to have reduced costs of research, mainly due to lower travel costs.

Online conferences: a new blueprint?

The fishbowl was also a chance to gain an overview of the numerous benefits of organising large and international conferences online. Beyond the obvious reduction in carbon footprint through reduced air travel and catering requirements, participants identified many advantages, the most important one being the unprecedented engagement from participants based in the Global South. A participant called the absence of travel costs and visa requirements a ‘blessing in disguise. This, together with the availability of fee waivers for presenters based in the Global South led, to large contingents of participants from sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Latin America at the conference.

Another observed benefit of the online format was that it gives a chance to everyone to step in and talk, especially participants less outspoken in physical events. The ‘radical equality’ of a Zoom screen (same screen size and status for all participants) together with clear guidance from our volunteers on how to run a session encouraged everyone to take part in the debate, which was a much welcome aspect of our online conference.

Taking stock

Because of its specific feature and focus, ‘Development Studies’ finds itself at a crossroad. With ongoing debates on decoloniality, positionality and the colonial origins of the field, at least in terms of the conception of ‘development’, the pandemic has forced us to rethink many issues in the field, from just collaborations with international partners to acknowledging specific structural barriers for researchers in the Global South, especially financial and administrative ones. Organising the 2021 EADI ISS online conference allowed to open up a space for dialogue with an unprecedented number of participants from the Global South with fruitful exchanges and discussion on the future of Development Studies. For or sure, this is only the beginning: in the coming months we will be organising more online events, big and small, in the hope to keep the debate and exchange going, in the friendly and encouraging atmosphere so dear to EADI!

Basile Boulay is Senior Executive at the EADI secretariat and holds a PhD in Development Economics

Image: Phillip Bradshaw under a creative commons licence on flickr

This article is part of a series launched by EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) on topics discussed at the 2021 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. This post will also be published on the ISS Blog