By Josie Hooker, Department of Social and Policy Sciences, University of Bath; [email protected]
How to conduct social, and particularly ethnographic, research during a pandemic? Thus far, this haunting question has largely been addressed methodologically, particularly via a rapid digital turn (see e.g. Jowett 2020; LSE Digital Ethnography Collective 2020; Lupton 2020; Miller 2020). In contrast, I want to raise some pressing epistemological issues. To neglect the entanglements of politics and epistemology risks reproducing hegemonies that might yet be shaken by the pandemic.
How does the pandemic – and our location within it – re-shape our positionality as radical scholars vis-à-vis our field and/or our research participants, and with what repercussions for knowledge production? The pandemic dramatically intensifies the necro-political boundaries between expendable and not-so-expendable lives. In parallel, restrictions on mobility, “social distancing”, the heady expansion of digital sociality, and the re-drawing of the boundaries of home and community, trust and intimacy, the public and the private are among the pandemic effects that have wrought significant transformations in the social production of place, space, and temporality. These transformations re-constitute the social relations that comprise the fields in and through which we move (or do not move), and which structure our scholarly enquiries (Katz 1994). Amidst such transformations, how do we find ourselves and our knowledges situated, and how do we situate ourselves? How, from this location, are we to reaffirm and deepen our commitment to radical knowledge in the service of radical politics?
“The Virus Does Not Discriminate”
The untruth of this discourse was obvious to anybody familiar with the lethality of pre-Covid oppressions, onto which pandemic inequalities are grafted. It was obvious to those who knew these oppressions first-hand, particularly racialised people whose vulnerability to premature death has been produced and exploited since enslavement and colonisation (Gilmore 2007:28). Covid is no exception here. The pandemic dramatically sharpens what Achille Mbembe (2003, 2019) aptly calls necro-politics: it multiplies, compounds, and intensifies the harms to which the “expendable” are made vulnerable; and expands and entrenches the gap between the expendable and the protected.
Alongside grassroots advocates, leftist academics have done important work debunking the elite narrative, evidencing and explaining how and why we are not all in this together. This work recognises the elevated power of knowledge in a world of accelerated change and high political stakes: the will to know so as to intervene. But as radical scholars, we know that evidencing and explaining oppression is not enough. Radical knowledge is only true to its purpose when it actively works to resist and dismantle, materially and epistemologically, the hegemonies in which it is situated.
The entrenchment of inequality is an epistemological as well as “material” issue. As HIV/AIDS specialist Lisa Bowleg (2020) reminds us, long before government “social distancing” directives, physical, social, moral, but also cognitive distancing from groups marginalised by structural inequality worked together to underwrite oppression. As academics, we are overwhelmingly racialised, classed, and gendered as worthy of protection from the worst harms of the necro-political order. And that matters for knowledge production. It always mattered, but it particularly matters right now, and not only because the necro-political screw has tightened.
Pandemic Segregation and the Politics of Encounter
After all, this privilege gap is far from new. What is new is that the avenues we ordinarily use to reach out beyond our own experience have been radically curtailed: ordinarily, the epistemological bias of structural privilege can be partially mitigated – never erased – through certain methodological choices that, in the present conjuncture, have been foreclosed. Feminist, decolonial, militant, and co-production methods seek to destabilise the authority of the researcher. They explicitly seek and foreground, on its own terms, the standpoint of those invisibilised by epistemological coloniality, and they humbly join them in the praxis of transformation. Notwithstanding its colonialist legacies, ethnography attempts to reduce the distance between researcher and researched by engaging in a “slow scholarship” (Mountz et al. 2015) of accompaniment and encounter, listening and empathy.
This affective, embodied, and relational praxis owes much to transformative anti-oppression politics: from feminisms and Freirian pedagogy, through to the practices of escucha (listening) and sentipensar (to think with feeling and feel with thinking; see Cepeda 2017) in Latin American decolonial practice. To speak of my research, my feminist, decolonial epistemology and activist ethnography participate in and support their object’s transformative praxis: during the economic crisis of 2008-2014, housing movements in Spain countered decades-long neoliberal assaults on collectivity through an affective politics of collective counselling and convivencia (being together) that knitted participants together in forms of solidarity that transcended traditional working-class identities and, at their best, their race, gender, and other exclusions (Blanco and León 2017; García-Lamarca 2017; Lundsteen and Sabaté 2018; Palomera 2014; Zechner and Rübner Hansen 2015).
Unfortunately, it is exactly the affective and physical encounter upon which this praxis relies that is hampered by the pandemic, especially its redrawing of the boundaries of inclusion, kinship, and intimacy, and its segregations. The pandemic therefore has important epistemological consequences. Lockdown not only transforms the interface between epistemic subjects and their world – as a friend put it to me on day one of lockdown: how can you observe what you cannot see? But perhaps more significantly, it also traps us ever tighter in the echo chambers of an already segregated world, widening the gulfs between us as situated subjects.
There has been much enthusiasm about the recent expansion of digital sociality, as if digitalisation can annihilate space and flatten social and political topographies. Yet this contraction of space has been paralleled by the amplification of place and its particularities. For many, the home has loomed large as a mediator of experience, as too have the neighbourhood and the state. Inequalities are territorialised and etched into these places. Digital methods of political organising and scholarship can connect people and places across borders and inequalities, but alone they cannot bridge the segregation in which we increasingly live.
Grassroots movements are finding ways to organise despite the formidable barriers this closure presents (Chattopadhyay et al. 2020). How are they doing so? With what outcomes? What is lost and gained in the absence of physical encounter? These are important research questions. Yet answering them presents challenges: in pandemic conditions of closure and surveillance, does community extend to a researcher whose outsider status was only ever partially mitigated, and who, in my case, retreated from “the field” to the security of home?
My research is about the gendering and racialisation of precarity in Barcelona, and its expression in grassroots organising around housing and work. The pandemic has frayed the thin thread of shared experience between me and my research subjects. I am low-paid and precariously-housed, but the pandemic has highlighted my white, middle-class safety net. Furthermore, having returned from Spain to the UK as both locked down, after just one of a planned 12 months of fieldwork, I am no longer able to drop shopping at the closed door of my vulnerable neighbour in Barcelona, offer my terrace for neighbours to enjoy precious time outdoors, share across the balconies worries about health, work, the future. Nor can I participate in the neighbourhood Telegram groups through which mutual aid and rent strikes are being organised online (Martínez 2020:17). Deprived of place, and with it the possibility of everyday, albeit distanced encounter, I am stripped of the raw material of the slow and relational militant scholarship to which I am committed.
As a result, I feel forced into a role I have resisted and with which I do not identify: the academic, that expert purveyor of empirical analysis and theoretical commentary. This is the kind of labour readily associated with academics and thus communicated to its grassroots “recipients”. It is also more easily accredited and delivered at a distance. As such, I’m worried pandemic conditions are fortifying the false division of radical labour between doers and thinkers (Casas-Cortés et al. 2013; Sitrin 2016), and further entrenching segregation between the academy and its public.
Research and the New Normal: Hibernation, Digitalisation, or Hybridisation?
Given these epistemological issues, I’m concerned at academics’ resignation before risk-averse university management and ethics boards that prefer us to ride out the pandemic from home. A new reality is in the making “out there”. As researchers, do we really intend to keep a safe distance from these world-making processes?
At the peak of the first pandemic wave our social duty was to stay at home. Especially given governmental failures, it remains our duty to scrutinise and mitigate our contribution to the spread of the virus, and its intersection with our privileges. However, as global society adapts to a new normal of “social distancing”, and on/off, targeted lockdowns, to exercise the white-collar privilege of not resuming at least some face-to-face work might do more harm than good. As militant scholars, is it time we considered that putting our bodies as well as our minds to work for justice might sometimes be an appropriate form of allyship, rather than solely a vector of infection (Fine and Abramson forthcoming)?
I don’t suggest we throw caution to the wind. There is a place for online interviews and focus groups, data sampling, digital and auto-ethnography. However, we must also defend the worth of physical encounter in forging the co-productive, mutually affective research relationships that underpin radical scholarship. In creative and responsible pursuit of such encounter, we will need go beyond reflexivities of comfort (Pillow 2003) to more deeply re-think the discomforting politics of differential vulnerabilities. Finally, we must be bolder in demanding of ourselves that we reclaim our practical as well as intellectual solidarity work as research; of our institutions that they support us in this; and of each other that we debate the new ethical issues it raises in dialogue with our non-academic partners. This Intervention has been my contribution and I look forward to its continuation.
 See also Sousa Santos’ (2018) discussion of the Andean concept corazonar.
 See also Apostolidis’ (2019) discussion of convivencia as a political practice at migrant day labourers’ centres in the US.
 On digital ethnography, see e.g. UCL Centre for Digital Anthropology (2020), UCL Medical Anthropology (2020a, 2020b), and RMIT Digital Ethnography Research Centre (2020a). On auto-ethnography, see e.g. RMIT Digital Ethnography Research Centre (2020b).
 On researcher vulnerability, I recently identified with Mitchell-Eaton’s (2019) grief as method. See also Behar (1996).
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