It is an understatement to say that research on cities and urban communities has looked different this year — particularly the kind of in-depth, typically qualitative approaches employed by most members of the IJURR community. Over the past year, many of us have had to delay research trips and suspend data collection efforts until travel resumes and urban life returns to some semblance of normal. But our PhD students and junior colleagues have had less opportunity to pause, as their funding clocks, fellowship awards, and program timelines have kept ticking, even as the virus has raged, lockdowns have been enacted, and communities have struggled.
This Spotlight On collection brings together nine essays written by ten emerging urban scholars, reflecting on the unique challenges of doing (or attempting to do) PhD research during a global, but geographically uneven, pandemic. The authors were all participants in the RC-21/IJURR comparative urban studies field school in Delhi in September 2019, where they spent ten days together refining their research proposals and outlining the methods they’d use in the field. Just three months after we said our goodbyes in Delhi, the first cases of COVID-19 were reported and, after another three months, nearly all cities were locked down and the prospects of conducting field research looked bleak. As a coordinator of the Delhi field school, I had the opportunity to hear from the students on our WhatsApp group. I was able to inquire about their local experiences of the pandemic and hear about their revised research plans. Recognizing the distinct ways these urban researchers based in China, Austria, Argentina, India, Serbia, and elsewhere were grappling with a similar set of challenges compelled us to organize this collection and share their experiences and insights with the wider IJURR community.
The seemingly simple issue of “working from home” is far more complicated for PhD students, as work and home are often spread across multiple locations: from family homes to university campuses to field sites. Like most PhD students, our authors grappled with the complexities of constrained mobility, as they weighed family needs, public health recommendations, funding considerations, IRB suspensions, visa restrictions, advisor recommendations, and ethical concerns. When our authors opened up about their experiences, we saw three broad responses to the challenges of urban fieldwork during a pandemic. Those who could, continued their research, putting on their masks and applying hand sanitizer to adapt to pandemic realities, while managing the ethics and logistics of social distancing in the field. A second group was forced to make more significant shifts, changing research questions, eliminating field sites, and shifting timelines. As they rethought their projects, each reflected on issues of access and their responsibilities as members of their respective communities. A third set waited in limbo for travel restrictions to lift, surges to subside, and family conflicts to resolve. These responses, necessary and appropriate for those who adopted them, were rooted in the authors’ distinct locations and circumstances. But their experiences will resonate more widely for what they reveal about the (rarely spoken about) unequal politics and moral economies of international urban research — relevant even without the tragedies and inconveniences of a global pandemic.
The first three essays are windows into the specific challenges — but also the potentially revealing aspects — of pandemic fieldwork. As COVID-19 altered daily lives and reshaped political engagements in their field sites in Germany, Argentina, and China, these authors recognized political dynamics and social processes that might have been obscured in other moments, while also seeing with new urgency the importance of their research questions. For Gala Nettelbladt and Leon Rosa Reichle, doing qualitative research on right-wing politics in the East German cities of Leipzig and Cottbus meant constant navigations of proximity and distance, due not only to health concerns but also to the political polarizations the pandemic helped expose. Ethnographic research in informal settlements in Buenos Aires proved similarly complicated, as Francesca Ferlicca conducted online interviews and developed digital visualizations alongside her COVID-safe participant observations. But as the lockdown in Buenos Aires exacerbated the structural housing crisis she was researching, Francesca recognized the importance of adapting her methods and bearing witness to the struggles for shelter. The pandemic forced Hang Wei to shift from her originally planned fieldsite in Beijing to her hometown of Puyang, but she maintained her focus on affective politics and emotional attachments to market spaces. Researching these questions amid new forms of exclusion produced by the pandemic allowed her to see, with greater clarity, the anxiety and the fear, alongside a wider range of emotions, present in Puyang’s markets.
The second set of essays, more introspective in tone, include the personal reflections that accompanied more significant revisions to research plans. Describing their research pivots in India, Serbia, and South Africa, these authors reflect on how their shifting objectives led them to rethink their roles and responsibilities as urban researchers. Taru writes elegantly about how India’s nation-wide lockdown in late March 2020 disrupted her plan to research the impacts of modernist planning practices on established markets in Ranchi, India and Takoradi, Ghana. As travel restrictions eliminated the possibility of her Ghana fieldsite, she focused on supporting local organizations and reflecting on ground-level disaster management responses in Ranchi. While these experiences led her to question the potentially extractive research that many of us do with poorer communities, it also helped her recognize her relevant skills and access to resources that can support and amplify their work. Sara Nikolić reflects, with charming self-effacing humor on her (at times stubborn) efforts to stay true to her planned ethnographic research on smell-evoked memories in a densely populated housing estate in Belgrade. But as research changed (despite her best efforts) and timelines shifted, these experiences deepened her commitment to the “slow science” of ethnography and the social connections it can enable. Accepting the slow-down is also a central theme in Alison Pulker’s essay on her pandemic research on access to affordable food in Langa, Cape Town. While acknowledging her privilege relative to the communities with which she was working (including the privilege to slow down), Alison came to see “the field” as a temporal as well as a spatial construct.
In the third set of essays, the authors reveal, with honesty and humility, the complex choices urban researchers must make, not only as students and scholars, but also as mothers, daughters, and partners. These authors’ experiences in India, Germany and Egypt, and Austria remind us that we cannot fully compartmentalize our lives as urban researchers, particularly when the logistics and ethics of fieldwork are shaped by our most intimate needs and relationships. The decision Angana Banerjee made to not travel from where she lives and studies in Mumbai to her fieldsite in West Bengal — to focus instead on literature reviews and interviews she could conduct over Zoom — was shaped by the personal, as well as the practical and political. A field visit would have required that she either bring her three year old daughter to her densely populated fieldsite during the pandemic or leave her behind in Mumbai — a choice she did not feel she could make in light of India’s gendered division of family labor. While intimate considerations are often central to our research decisions, we have been taught not to say them out loud. Safa H. Ashoub also reflects thoughtfully on issues we’ve learned not to discuss: loneliness, isolation, and the lack of motivation and focus that have affected many, but especially students studying internationally. Stuck in Berlin, separated from both family and field sites in Egypt, Safa struggled to read, to write, and to do what she was “supposed to do” as a PhD student — but none of which felt appropriate at the moment. During the same period, Tatjana Boczy sat at a desk in her parents’ home in the mountainous region of Tyrol, waiting to return to work, to research, and to her life in Vienna. In her melancholic essay, Tatjana takes us through the past year as she experienced it: from the first reported cases in the early winter, to a spring of uncertainty, protests in the summer, surges in the autumn, and a winter of first vaccinations, protests over lockdowns, and early glimpses of a return to PhD student life. Many of us will relate to the rhythms of Tatjana’s year, frustrated by immobility, reflecting on our choices and engaging in the global pastime of “doom-scrolling.”
At the time of publication, the pandemic has continued to expose the brutal global inequalities of public health capacity and vaccine access. The US, the UK, and Australia are beginning to open up while the coronavirus and its variants ravage South America and South Asia. The students’ experiences conducting, altering, and suspending their urban field research in the pandemic will be sadly relevant for months and years to come. But we hope their insights will inspire and comfort, as members of the IJURR community continue to navigate these complexities. Helping to curate this collection and discuss these themes with the authors and IJURR’s Web Manager Aeshna Badruzzaman, has confirmed for me the importance of open discussions on the (complicated, nonlinear, often fraught) process of doing urban research. I hope this collection will help inspire these conversations and give us permission to say out loud what we don’t know, and how we came to learn what we do know, for the benefit of our students, our colleagues, and future urban researchers.
As we typically do, we have made a relevant set of published IJURR articles free-to-view for three months. I especially encourage you to reread the 2016 piece by Meike Wolf, which reconsiders the effects of urbanization and globalization on the spread of infectious disease. Providing useful context for the range of local experiences captured in this Spotlight On, Wolf’s analysis demonstrates that infectious diseases manifest themselves differently in different local contexts. The remaining five articles on pedagogy, theory, and reflexive research are particularly relevant in this moment, as our pandemic fieldwork experiences will prompt reflections on how we do international urban research for years to come.
Building on this Spotlight On, the authors took part in a recorded online forum with discussion and participation from both presenters and audience members, which can be viewed below:
Related IJURR articles on Becoming an Urban Researcher During a Pandemic
The Urban, Politics and Subject Formation
Lisa M. Hoffman
Who’s Afraid of Postcolonial Theory?
The Comparative City: Knowledge, Learning, Urbanism
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