As I identify myself as a socio-spatial, urban researcher I understand that my research has a dimension of spatial temporality. However, I hadn’t really noticed how my own experiences, as an individual, can equally be shaped by spatio-temporality. As I moved from a place to another, I got exposed to academia and scholarship from different angles. I learned and unlearned things and I explored and shied away from materialities around me. I engaged with some subjects and disengaged with others. As I became the embodiment of knowledge at some stage during my research journey, I finally arrived at a destination where I allowed myself to become a mirror of all of my previous endeavours.
In my journey, I started with the purpose that I wanted to write a PhD about urban politics in my case study as a way to express and contribute to the reform of the existing urban and political conditions. I chose to study urban transformation of the built environment in contemporary ‘middle class’ neighbourhoods in Cairo and I wanted to contextualize it within the social, political changes that have erupted in post-revolutionary Cairo. I focused on the urban middle-class ‘collective action’ and/or any other sort of organised action towards improving urban conditions (urban social movements as stipulated by Castells, a primarily anti-hegemonic movement towards the state). As I delved into the research process, I found that I am also subject to urban politics myself and that I am shaping the cities where I live and work, especially as I am based in Germany and my research is in Egypt and I keep swinging between both countries.
A bumpy research journey and a pandemic
At the onset of my research project, I had secured a one-year research grant to pursue my degree. I spent the first year networking and exploring the academic world, bringing in my previous research and professional experiences as a strength to this new venue. Only a year later, Covid-19 appeared and everyone hoped it would remain contained in Wuhan only, or at most China, and that it would be controlled and would gradually subside. However, what happened was the total opposite. The virus exploded all over the globe and nowhere was to be considered safe.
Within my expat/researcher community, questions were raised around accessibility to health services as foreign students studying and residing in the global North. As researchers, we are constantly thinking about issues of positionality and social justice. I found myself contemplating a critical global condition and asking, would I be able to receive faster and better healthcare in a country that I am not a citizen of, or would I be in a better place in my home-country which does not really have a decent healthcare system and everything is literally tied to your purchasing power and social position? A dilemma.
Nevertheless, since the world’s focus was just on staying alive (and healthy), these questions roamed around my head during the early months of 2020. In March 2020, I decided to move from Germany to Egypt, temporarily. I needed to start my fieldwork since I was already getting delayed in my research plan, and it was evident that the Covid-19 situation was not going to get better anytime soon.
Unfortunately, on 11 March 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that this is a global virus outbreak. A few days later a global lockdown began, and everyone was locked in their places. Personally, I had never heard of lockdowns before. I had experienced wars, revolutions, violent conflicts and curfews, but not a global pandemic.
Like many others I got stuck, unable to fly or to move from wherever I was at that moment. I was watching the news regularly, almost non-stop, and I was switching from one source to another to be able to collect as much information as possible about the global situation. This was in order to be able to locate myself, to understand what I can do as a researcher, as a friend, and as a family member and what could be my obligations and my needs during this global crisis. At first there were days of anxiety and panic powered by global ambiguity. Then slowly I started grasping the reality and I started processing the facts with more rationality. Thankfully, with modern technological tools and connections, one could still receive and give support and could rewire one’s brain to respond in a more positive way during extraordinarily difficult times. That led me to slowly understand and believe that some exceptional decisions in the following months would have to be taken and maybe then, I will be able to reposition myself and proceed with my research.
Reflecting on research tools, ethics, and stances
When I started writing, I also started thinking and reflecting. And as I did that, I saw a number of issues that I wanted to tackle. Since I work on the topic of social and spatial justice, I began grasping that these issues could be tackled through a structured format. I also started testing my methodologies to see whether they would work with the new restrictions of the pandemic or not.
First, I recognised that positionality is extremely important in urban research. As researchers we interrogate our identities, potential biases, access to resources, and how all of these contribute to our experiences writing, researching, as well as our end product. In my case, I am an urban researcher who lives between Berlin and Cairo. I identify myself as a Middle Eastern/North African female scholar with a Western education. That statement, although it might seem simplistic, has helped me understand my stance and the reasons why I am doing this research.
Second, research material is almost always overflowing and overshadowing us. We are constantly bombarded with news, articles, personal accounts, and social media. Our ‘subjects’ of the urban world are all around us all the time and it takes a lot of effort to be able to define a scope and narrow down our interests and questions. It took me a while to decide which material I would use and which I would not— sometimes we are exposed to non-useful material, while simultaneously lacking access to the materials that we actually need. While doing fieldwork, it becomes ever more critical to remain as consistent as possible during the data collection process. For example, as I used participant observation on social media (observing Facebook pages of the neighbourhoods and activists’ posts on the neighbourhood conditions), it was sometimes overly stressful to try to follow every page and every post relevant to my case study. Then I made some decisions on what to use and what to ignore. The same thing happened when I did key informant interviews. Not all of the content of the interviews were used in the final analysis, simply because some of the data was irrelevant, some was repetitive, and some exceeded the scope of what I needed in my research at that stage—especially considering that my research schedule had already been delayed for months. Interviews that were supposed to take a month and a half took more than four months.
Third, technological advancements and accessibility play a massive role in contemporary social research. Throughout the pandemic we have all experienced a surge of video-conferencing software and the like. We also coped with the new medium with self-learning techniques and we did our part in catching up. Although it was not that new to me, using video-conferencing so heavily and dependently meant that I had to learn new timekeeping techniques and learn how to use the video calls to my benefit. I was aided in this by attending several webinars to strengthen my methods, skills, and overall knowledge about urban research. Traditional phone calls still exist, but for visualised experiences, we as researchers all learned to be Zooming in/out all day, until we became aware of ‘Zoom Fatigue’ in early 2021.
Fourth, urban space is as always, a contested realm. We saw many reports about the use of public space for leisure and entertainment especially due to social distancing rules. I had firsthand experience of this, using the nearby public park for walks and relaxation every time I got nervously stuck at home. The importance of good quality public spaces arose sharply to our attention. As I wrote about tree-felling and the loss of historic green-scapes in my specific case study, I became extra-conscious about the value of public space and greenery to overall social and urban well-being. I had been previously working across Arab states on promoting green and public spaces as part of my professional work portfolio. Accordingly, the issue of the quality of urban life was a crucial issue for me and constituted part of my critical take on my case study.
Fifth, social ties and networks proved again to be so essential for healthy human life during the pandemic. Faced with the isolation of the pandemic, I also wrestled with fundamental questions about the meaning of life if I’m not able to connect with my dear and loved ones, juxtaposed with the sharp rise in emphasis of capitalistic knowledge about the value of productivity. Are we as humans just vehicles for creating material value through everyday employment and work schemes? Such questions, formed the basis of many virtual talks that started to be organised as a flow of conversations took place as the global lockdown pinned down everyone to their places. Such questions also touched upon the meaning of urbanity and of human life in cities and beyond. For me, it meant that I needed to re-establish my virtual circle and make sure I don’t feel isolated.
Mending the mental
Although my research subject was not affected by the pandemic, I struggled with pursuing it actively. At the back of my mind, I kept reminding myself that I am still a PhD researcher. I am supposed to read, write, and then readjust my delayed field work schedule. In April 2020, I had shifted my normal daily routine due to the month of Ramadan. That made the night times more pleasant to eat, drink, exercise and work more effectively. So, as I started taking my night strolls and my head started to clear up, I realized that since I cannot control any of the external circumstances, perhaps then I can only control the ones that I own.
First, I wrote an idea, which developed into a little abstract. Then I wrote more, and then more ideas developed and I started with documenting my experiences during these extraordinary times. The writing brought in reading, and the reading brought in more reflections and structured thinking. Then the dots started to connect. As I work on socio-spatial justice, I figured that I myself am part of (co) producing justice or lack thereof. Not only through my professional practice of managing projects in urban upgrading and the like, but more crucially, as a researcher aiming to push the edge of knowledge in the field.
Additionally, as I moved between Europe and the Middle East/North Africa, I became involved in issues that do not directly touch upon my pursuit of socio-spatial justice but certainly touch upon my humanity and morality. Over the past year, I got involved in Black Lives Matter, in the US presidential race, in housing issues, in racial and gender inequality discourses. What’s more, I was following the debates on these matters both on traditional media and on social media and I even became part of it. All of these issues triggered my attention to read more and educate myself about their meanings and implications. Surprisingly, even though these issues don’t directly relate to my research, they inspired in me a stronger motive to tackle the issues of my own research with a sharper eye and a greater critique. Hence, I am no longer just an urban researcher. I somehow became a researcher dedicated to advancing social and spatial justice through my writings on space, the city, and issues of citizenry and rights.
For the research yet to come
These experiences made me rethink my role, ambition, and aspirations as a researcher, but also as a person. Life has not ended, nor will it end that soon. But certain qualities have changed, perhaps forever, and we will learn to survive again. I have come to the conclusion that research is worthwhile. When I teach, it is still a very rewarding experience to open up the horizon for others (particularly younger colleagues) and to debate complex subjects, especially in the field that I am most passionate about: urban and social research.
That lonesome lockdown experience has helped me focus on my work, even with coercion. Yet, that mode of work was also difficult and has made me struggle. The pros and cons are many and I will refrain from discussing them here. But one thing that remains certain is that humans are capable of adapting and of creating spaces for the possible.
Safa H. Ashoub (Twitter) is an interdisciplinary researcher; a political scientist, and an urbanist. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Chair for Urban Design and Urbanization, Technische Universität Berlin.
All essays on Becoming an Urban Researcher During a Pandemic
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“Stay at Home”: Navigating Urban Research and Fieldwork During a Pandemic
The Complex Production of Urban Research During the Covid-19 Pandemic
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The Hammer and the Dance of Urban Research During a Pandemic: Waves of Despair and Hope (A PhD’s diary)
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