Doctoral research collaboration with people in situ


Stephen Damianos

Stephen Damianos, a DPhil candidate in International Development, shares his experience of adapting his research project on male asylum seekers in Greece to the context of COVID-19. He explores the challenges of forming meaningful and effective relationships with informants and collaborators in the field. 

Collaborative doctoral research across borders


Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, I have sat, as most humans have, in something of a limbo, one marked by the incredible and disempowering discomfort of restricted mobility and uncertain plans. With travel banned and the ‘field’ indefinitely out of reach, I’ve anguished over how to move my project forward from a distance without distancing my project from the communities of study. To do research in a pandemic is to experience physical, ethical, and existential stuckedness; as a scholar of forced migration studying how asylum seekers experience extended periods of waiting, neither the irony nor the privilege of my position are lost on me. Nonetheless, this is a dilemma many researchers currently face: the idea of pressing pause is anxiety-producing and wreaks havoc on funding and research timelines, but the alternative of diving headfirst into online methods is daunting, and, depending on the subject matter, morally murky. 


I waded into this murkiness earlier this year when I tried to move my project online. My research was framed as a narrative inquiry into the moral identities of asylum seekers in Greece engaging in survival strategies that evoke feelings of shame (ie. sex work, illicit labour, drug and alcohol usage, etc), and I optimistically hoped that the intimacy of in-person trust could be achieved through months of patient online conversation. I designed, with the consent of an Athens-based NGO and according to standards approved by my CUREC 2 application, a virtual platform for community building and resource sharing, one that would function as an opportunity for both online participant observation and overcoming the challenge of building rapport remotely. I knew it would take time to gain enough trust to talk about sensitive information, but I took for granted that people would willingly engage with the platform at all, or even with me. Over weeks and months I posted resources, questions, and conversation starters, all of which received little to no engagement. The clock ticked and I found myself getting frustrated at my potential interlocutors for not biting, for not trying to make the online system work. This was, of course, unfair: it wasn’t that they were failing to make the platform work, but that I had failed to design a platform that worked for them. 


How, then, does one forge meaningful and ethical research relationships whilst stuck in Oxford (or wherever we may find ourselves stranded)? It begins, I believe, with active reflection and reflexivity, and an openness to participant-centred recalibration. In my research reflexivity journal, I reflected upon how my project could simultaneously adhere to rigorous ethical standards and nonetheless be experienced as a burden. I reduced my virtual interaction with asylum seekers and started building a research team of trusted collaborators (NGO workers, journalists, academics) based near my fieldsite, people with whom I have weekly conversations about local dynamics, trends, and occurrences in Greece. I have also started thinking less about entering the field and more about the conditions of my entry: for example, what do I want to know about Greek history, law, and politics when I arrive? What expertise is needed to engage my participants in the most contextualized and sensitive way? Practically put, how can I use this cumbersome time constructively, so that when I finally enter the field, I do so well-equipped? These strategies and more have reduced the distance between Oxford and Athens, and contributed to a shift in theme: after frequent conversations with people on the ground, including asylum seekers who unsurprisingly were more open to engaging through their own channels and terms, I have started to step back from my thematic focus on criminally-adjacent survival strategies to consider instead the technologies of power that shape them. This healthy and empirically-rooted evolution occurred without even stepping foot in the field, teaching me that with the right people and perspective, you can ground research from anywhere.