This article was written by S. Ram Aravind and originally published by PRIA. The views expressed in this article are of the writer and not attributable to SHLC.

As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep across India, researchers have faced difficulties in doing research with communities. The disruption to life and livelihoods as a consequence of lockdowns and restrictions on movement has cast a cloud over our communities.

The initial tendency can be to postpone, and even resist, making connections and maintaining relationships digitally. But researchers can, and should, move out of their comfort zones of physical interactions, that have so far been the cornerstone of community-based research, and develop skills in digital (online) interactions. This comes with a new set of challenges, especially with the societal inequalities inherent in diverse cultures, but is also an opportunity to learn new skills, as Ram Aravind writes in this blog.

Credit: S. Ram Aravind

The ‘unexpected’ imposition of lockdown in Delhi-NCR, following a record surge in COVID-19 related infections and deaths in India, has pushed time back on any hopes of reviving face-to-face interaction with the community, as PRIA has always done while conducting research with them. The situation was, however, different two months ago. Leading a team of community researchers and university students to explore adolescent health in informal settlements in Gurugram, I was overwhelmed and thrilled at the prospect of returning to the field after a gap of more than 12 months, since March 2020. Even as we made elaborate plans to join hands with the community to address the deficiency in health-seeking behaviour of youth in under-resourced settings, the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic situation forced us to seek other ways of staying connected with communities.

The world over, the research community is confronted by calls to align their research methodology to conform to the pandemic landscape and restrictions imposed on travel and funds. As participatory, community-based researchers, our decision to transition to the world of ‘Zooms’ and ‘Teams’ seemed logical and practical, a way to restore our connections with the community and sustain our relationship with our co-researchers. If we could not be together, at least we would get to see one another.

Credit: S. Ram Aravind

We decided to conduct two Focus-Group Discussions (FGDs) online, the first with mothers of those aged 10 to 19 to understand the care-giver perspective in adolescent health, and the second with adolescents to understand their perception of safety in their community. Living in the capital city (Delhi) and trying to digitally connect in an IT-enabled satellite city (Gurugram), we didn’t anticipate fully the enormity of the digital divide in India. With nearly 700 million people in India excluded from access to the World Wide Web, maintaining sustainable contact online with people living in low-income communities remains a barrier to effective community engagement. The rates of exclusion among women are even higher. Only 29% of India’s internet users are women, which stands amplified when it comes to communities like the ones we wanted to stay connected with. Most of the women who were going to participate in our FGDs are employed as domestic workers and have never owned a smartphone in their life.

“We don’t have a smartphone; how will we do this?”

“My husband has the phone; how long should we expect the sessions to continue? I can’t take the phone away from him for long.”

Even as the remarks made by women pointed to the high level of exclusion, it was also an opportunity to enable them to exercise their agency over the major global disruptor that is the internet. Most women had never contemplated owning a smartphone to maintain long-distance contact with their family back home; many did not even possess a basic mobile handset, often depending on the male members of their families, if the need arose. With adequate instructions from community facilitators and assistance from their children, the women were able to download and log in to Zoom, overcoming apprehensions of “talking to a screen”. Communities that are underserved have always shown a high ability to adapt to changing circumstances, in spite of a lack of opportunity and structural exclusion. Once online, the women seemed eager to share their experiences of how they ensure nutrition for their children.

Credit: S. Ram Aravind

Over the past year, my colleagues and I have become used to facilitating Zoom interactions. Aware that online discussions are different from face-to-face workshops with the community, conducting FGDs online required us to be agile and adapt to the ‘unique’ challenges of each participant group – several participants (often up to five mothers) logging in from a single smartphone device; frequent disruptions and ‘call drops’ caused by poor internet connectivity, both in the informal settlement and in our posh, middle class colonies; background noise from bustling households and demands from younger children for their mother’s attention – all of which threatened to break the flow of discussion and prolonged the process. The virtual space is a platform of great convenience, but it is equally important to create a space of trust and privacy. Breaking the ice to get the conversation flowing, encouraging adolescents to open up while their parents hover close by, and allowing time for the more shy mothers to feel comfortable enough to speak – as facilitators we had to pay close attention to these as well, just like we would have in face-to-face community interactions.

Credit: S. Ram Aravind

After conducting several online interactions, I am still not sure if online FGDs are effective, especially with under-resourced groups. Many universities in India have started replacing community visits with ‘online field work’, a term representing the post-pandemic world. By coining this term, has the academic world called it a day on traditional ethnographic field work and will the virtual space take over as the new ‘meeting’ ground?

Using digital, online means of data collection demonstrates adaptability, but trust and intimacy stands eroded if such methodological changes are routinised and normalised. Conducting community research needs to go beyond conversations over screens on smartphones.

At the end of one of our FGDs, the mothers told us they were eager to meet us in person; they wanted to learn what else they can do to meet the nutrition needs of their families within the resources they have, limited and constrained by the pandemic, and by accessing government schemes.

“Come and see us. We have more things to talk about,” one mother said, as she tapped the Zoom ‘leave meeting’ button to return to her physical world.

The project was led by Participatory Research In Asia (PRIA).

This research project ‘Healthy Cities for Adolescents: Participatory Research in Gurugram, Haryana, India’ was funded by the Centre for Sustainable, Healthy and Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods (SHLC)’s Capacity Development Acceleration Fund. SHLC is funded via UK Research and Innovation as part of the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund.