With this essay we explore the field of tension between proximity and distance as a prism to share our research experience during the pandemic. Our projects overlap in their qualitative exploration of far-right politics in East German cities. Whereas Gala’s work attends to negotiations of far-right contestations in urban planning and governance processes in Cottbus, Leon explores changing tenants’ relations in a restructuring, and politically polarized neighbourhood of Leipzig. In the following we reflect on our respective experiences of pandemic research, and link these to the subject of our inquiries through the lens of proximity/distance. This angle enables a combination of analytical and methodological observations regarding the nexus of the pandemic and urban far-right articulations. Concentrating on this nexus, we find that the pandemic not only deepens established challenges in qualitative research on the far right, but also that it unlocks new avenues of inquiry.

The implications of COVID-19 are by now routinely described as a ‘magnifying glass’ (Freedland 2020) of social relations/inequalities. With our explorations, we want to shed some light on how this can be understood considering urban qualitative research on the far right. In Germany, like elsewhere, the pandemic crisis opens a window of opportunities for far-right narratives and praxis. We witness growing popularity of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, extreme-right ‘Systemkritik’ and new alliances beyond the traditional political right. Simultaneously, social inequalities are intensified while interactions and social relations are reduced to a (very selective) minimum.

For our research this poses three interrelated challenges that we will subsequently scrutinize as three layers of proximity/distance: 1) negotiating physical proximity/distance in research situations; 2) relational polarization in our fields; and 3) the acute responsibility of reflecting political and emotional proximity/distance in the research process, alert to the shifting nature and pandemic implications for our research subjects. Even if questions of proximity/distance are always core themes of qualitative research, we emphasize that they gain in relevance, if not in urgency, during COVID-19.

Cottbus: As their office had to close due to the pandemic, a local consumer protection organisation put up this “COVID information bike” in a public space. Photo: Madlen Pilz.

Navigating physical research proximity/distance

Studying contemporary far-right politics in cities, we position ourselves as anti-racist and feminist researchers, ‘recognising our ideological standpoint and privileged positions’ (Mondon & Winter 2020). Thus, comprehending encounters with research participants as powerful relationships (Cochrane 2020) is an important part of our research practice. One example of such encounters are interview situations, where our interviewees’ accounts are often diametrically opposed to our personal political convictions (Sullivan & Smith 2020). This entails an acute awareness of what Bondi terms the ‘oscillation between observation and participation’ (Bondi 2003), i.e. being at once observer and participant, entering into the other person’s experiential world while retaining an awareness of the difference between one’s own experience and that of the other – in our case: being empathic without being complicit.

The necessity to maintain a critical distance in order not to legitimize or support the views of far-right actors, or those sympathising with them, gained new urgency during the pandemic, as the German far-right scene has been very active in advocating conspiracy theories about the virus and is one of the main organizers of so-called ‘corona deniers’ rallies’ (BellTower News 2020). This broader trend was present in Gala’s first interview phase, which she conducted during the summer months of 2020, when in-person fieldwork was possible.

Unpreparedly, she was confronted with interviewees who either did not take the virus very seriously, or, in extreme cases, openly advocated conspiracy theories about it. One of the immediate challenges that emerged from such encounters was navigating the physical proximity/distance to research participants when they did not comply with COVID-related safety regulations, as the following field note from an interview with a civil society representative illustrates:

‘I adjust my mask, sanitize my hands, take a deep breath and ring the bell. I don’t have to wait long; Herr X opens with a big smile and stretches his hand towards me. I hesitate briefly before I, rather intuitively, give him mine. […] But in the back of my mind I asked myself “Why is he not keeping a distance? Why is he not wearing a mask? Why is he shaking my hand?”. I consider whether I should bring up the pandemic. […] I don’t want to affront him and am scared of potentially ruining our basis of trust before we’ve even established it. […] As we sit down in his office and he asks me to take off my mask, as “it is impossible to have a proper conversation with a mask on”, I cannot hold back. […] as I try to politely address the pandemic, it turns out that he openly supports a local extreme-right group that has been organising anti-COVID protests. […] He calls the government’s COVID-rules “Corona Diktatur” and cites multiple contemporary German far-right intellectuals. […] I take off my mask to not discourage him.’ (Fieldnote 27/07/2020)

On one hand, the nonverbal, COVID-related code of conduct puts the question of physical proximity/distance at the centre stage of the interview, triggering an informative conversation about the research participant’s entanglement with far-right networks in the city (Nettelbladt 2021). On the other, the observation described above poses serious health consequences for interviewer and interviewee alike, as well as for our broader environment. Navigating this dilemma is not easy. Far-right ideologies always potentially instigate physical violence and harm to others, yet the pandemic situation has brought this to the fore of our research praxis. Thus, Gala later regretted not complying with safety regulations, and questioned if the same information could have been obtained while keeping with safety rules – even at the risk of upsetting the research participant.

Experiencing pandemic polarization of relational proximity/distance

Globally, the outbreak of COVID-19 shook up relations of social reproduction (Mezzadra 2020, Harvey 2020). This gives rise to the relational layer of exploring pandemic shifts in proximity/distance. Locally, COVID-19 and regulations enforcing physical distance and resulting isolation affected community and neighbourhood relations. ‘There’s a sort of COVID-ballet happening in the streets, everyone is dancing around one another trying to keep maximum distance’, as an interviewee from Leon’s research in Leipzig described palpable COVID-manifestations in public space.

Encounters and relationships are embedded in space, and contingent on specific places (Massey 1994). With the transformation of public and private space, neighbourhood relations change. For Leon’s qualitative case study on tenants’ relations, relying heavily on a ‘doorstep ethnography’ (Hall 2018), this had substantive implications. Planned methods, like focus groups in specific social spaces (e.g. a senior’s social centre), simply became unfeasible. Along with the drastic change of ethnography in public spaces, where the ‘COVID ballet’ accompanied a general decrease of liveliness and impeded casual conversations, this generated a substantial obstacle to sampling. Intended to serve as major access points to tenants, both focus groups and public ethnography held specific importance for researching the far-right dimensions of political polarization in Leipzig’s inner East. Far-right attitudes were (mostly) hard to access by merely snowballing through existing (rather leftish, academic) networks.

Yet the pandemic shifts increased the dependence on existing relations whilst limiting access to all those outside them. It highlighted the research (im)practicalities of pandemic ‘relational polarization’ (Reichle 2020b) a term emerging from Leon’s research. It denotes the exacerbation of existing divisions, barriers, segregation, isolation, but also bonds in the Leipzig neighbourhood during the pandemic.

In response, Leon sought a change of research design. Hence, letters with interview invitations and a phone number were distributed to randomized households in the neighbourhood and participant observation shifted online, to emerging mutual-aid networks. What we call the resulting ‘lockdown ethnography’ had two major consequences: relational gaps, not caused but amplified by COVID, were bridged through the novel sampling methods. All new research participants gained through the letters turned out to be very withdrawn and out of reach through the originally planned sampling procedure, even under non-pandemic circumstances. They did not have wide social networks, nor did they frequent communal spaces. Furthermore, the anonymity of the phone interview seemed to put respondents particularly at ease especially in voicing racist interpretations of urban change. These statements significantly expanded the political spectrum of tenants’ perspectives represented in the study to the right.

Moreover, participatory observation with mutual-help initiatives illuminated these groups’ similar struggles with reach under pandemic circumstances. Their relational limitations proved to be especially problematic, as they inhibited practical support of those outside of young, predominantly academic circles, and thus to those probably most vulnerable to COVID. Emerging solidarities remained limited to existing and rather homogenous social networks (Reichle 2020a).

These experiences permit reflections on (potential) political implications of the pandemic amplification of neighbourly proximity/distance. Firstly, this ‘relational polarization’ impedes bottom-up solidarities across social ‘bubbles’ fostering alternative ‘infrastructures of care’ (Kavada 2020). Secondly, in politically polarized spaces, it threatens to exacerbate relational evils (Donati & Archer 2015), defined as both the absence of solidary relations and hostile divisions, when spaces of (conflictive) encounter disappear.

Leipzig: This usually lively and diverse point of encounter in the neighbourhood in front of a small “Späti” (late shop) was closed down in March 2020. Photo: Leon Rosa Reichle.

Reflecting political and emotional proximity/distance

Having thus far reflected on Gala’s experience conducting interviews in Cottbus and Leon’s ‘lockdown ethnography’ in Leipzig, what both these explorations reveal is that the entanglement of COVID-19 with far-right articulations deepens established challenges but also opens new avenues for qualitative research on the far right.

In the remainder of this essay, we contemplate this dual process by focussing on the need to rethink the political and emotional proximity/distance to our research participants in pandemic times. First, this concerns the close relationship between totalitarian dispositions and conspiracy theories, encompassing the loss of the capacity to distinguish between ‘fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience)’ and ‘between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought)’ (Arendt 1973, p. 474 in Celermajer & Nassar 2020). These blurred lines between fact and fiction, true and false were present in the narratives of our research participants, heightening the difficulty of navigating the multiple hermeneutics of qualitative research.

How might researchers deal with such counterfactual chatter and what academic insights can we possibly gain from engagement with such voices? While this is a general issue debated within qualitative research on the far right (Feustel 2019), COVID-19 amplifies this difficulty. For example, while it is important to highlight that COVID-19-related conspiracy theories are not confined to any territory, in the East German context, Gala encountered far-right historical falsifications and cooptations of the 89 revolution (Klein 2020) – the ‘peaceful revolution’ that led to the fall of the Berlin wall – through the alleged historical comparison between chancellor Merkel’s ‘Corona Diktatur’ with the GDR regime in the late 1980s (Maier 2020). Or as an interviewee in Cottbus put it: ‘People took to the street in 1989. We fought for our freedom of speech. And now we should be silent about the things that are happening’. This respondent described herself as a ‘critical free thinker’, a common self-description in the conspiracy milieu (Harambam & Aupers 2016). Confronted with the impossibility to engage in rational debate, the assumption of the qualitative research approach of empathic closeness, is complicated by the fact that often it is not proximity, but distance that we seek from our respondents, based on political beliefs, safety concerns and emotional wellbeing.

Second, doing qualitative fieldwork during a pandemic that dictates physical distance opened up new ways of engaging with the political and emotional proximity/distance previously held with research participants. In Leon’s research context, bridging relational distances via pandemically induced research creativity (letter distribution and online ethnography) was crucial for gaining insights precisely concerning these divides. Furthermore, the phone interviews generated access to far-right perspectives otherwise out of reach, and their apparent anonymity facilitated trust in some instances. In these cases, our genuine engagement with research participants’ ideological mediations of urban experiences permitted the latter to reveal their own contradictions. In analysing these, we gained insights into the spatio-temporal and relational nature of political subjectivation. In Leipzig, withdrawal and isolation among tenants, generated by spatio-temporally specific experiences of residential alienation, went hand in hand with increasing racist and authoritarian divisions. Whilst this observation was enabled through proximity in data collection, it was only through distance in analysis, that such findings could be made productive. Yet navigating these positions was by no means an emotionally and politically easy one.

Concluding thoughts

In this essay we have reflected on the intertwined challenges of researching (a) the far right (b) in pandemic conditions. The chosen angle of proximity/distance permits us to touch upon methodical, methodological and analytical aspects at once and illuminates their entanglements. We argue that one cannot be thought through without the others. Focussing on three layers of proximity/distance in our research, namely its physical, relational as well as emotional and political aspects, has illustrated this: Both the difficulties of navigating physical proximity/distance in research situations, and the experience and handling of relational polarization, shed light on the political, ethical and emotional implications of our research. Reflecting these in our methodological and analytical praxis is crucial both for our sanity and the scientific and moral value of our findings. Whilst the pandemic ‘magnification’ of the challenges posed by these fields of tension has impeded our traditional research designs, it also generated new possibilities of research and analysis.

The above exchange about our research experiences in Leipzig and Cottbus alludes to the understanding that while our positionality as critical urban researchers presupposes a political distance to racist interpretations of urban change or conspiracy theories about COVID-19, it is only through different layers of proximity with our research participants that we are able to tap into their worlds of experience. Yet how this is best achieved in the daily changing social reality of pandemic times is a continuous (ethical) tightrope walk and begs constant reflections and continued dialogues through formats like these.

Gala Nettelbladt (Twitter) is a PhD candidate at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and a research associate at the Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space. Her PhD project investigates the urban politics of far-right contestations in planning and governance processes.

Leon Rosa Reichle (Twitter) is a PhD student at the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity at Leicester’s De Montfort University. Leon currently researches changing tenants’ relations in the restructuring, politically polarized East German city of Leipzig.

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