Return to Normal?


Lou Bezuidenhout

Return to Normal?


If you’d asked me in January 2019 what I thought about doing interviews via Whatsapp I would have given you a very straight answer: terrible idea! All of my previous research had involved face-to-face interviews, and I was not about to change. I loved meeting my interviewees, seeing different places and reflecting on my impressions in my field journals. How, I would have asked, can you establish a rapport with an interviewee without seeing them face-to-face?


When lockdown started I faced a dilemma. Much of my research project relied on interviews with gig platform workers, such as Uber drivers. Even when we moved into lower levels of lockdown, face-to-face interviewing seemed impractical. I would have been asking interviewees to potentially put themselves at risk to travel to the interview location. Moreover, the interview location would have been a public space, which would mean that I was not able to guarantee them the privacy and anonymity that would have been possible in a private space. Making the health of my interviewees a priority meant that I needed to make another plan.  


Grudgingly I decided to conduct the interviews using Whatsapp, reasoning that I was making the best of a bad situation. I was worried that without face-to-face contact I would struggle to establish a rapport with my interviewees, and that they would not be as forthcoming about the issues under discussion. Much to my surprise, however, the interviews were a resounding success. It became apparent that my concerns about rapport were baseless. I think that this, at least in part, was due to the method of interviewing. By allowing interviewees to decide where and when they would take the calls meant that they were comfortable in their surroundings and could control their privacy. This allowed them to speak with candour – perhaps more than they would have face-to-face. Moreover, as gig platform workers have to respond to job allocations as soon as they are posted on the platform, their schedules are very erratic. Allowing the interviewees the flexibility to message me when they were ready to speak meant that I could fit around their schedules, rather than expecting them to miss out on earnings by committing to meet me at a certain time and place. 


The need to make a sudden switch to Whatsapp interviewing meant that I stumbled on to a methodology that was actually a better fit for my research than my previous plan. The approach was less invasive, time-consuming and onerous for my participants and, to my mind, gave data of very similar quality to that which I had been able to gather face-to-face. This got me to thinking, would I continue doing Whatsapp interviews in the future?


Many of us have adapted our research methods to the pandemic and are rolling out highly effective virtual data collection activities. As lockdowns ease across the world, it is important to reflect on what we have learnt. Many of us – myself included – are eager to return to more traditional fieldwork approaches. We love the excitement of travel, new fieldsites and new people. Recognising that this is not always necessary, and that there are potentially sometimes more appropriate ways to gather data means putting ourselves, and our preferences, second. Sometimes it would seem that the return to “normal” is not in the best interests of either the research or the researched. As we emerge out of lockdowns across the world I think that we need to take a good hard look at what worked, and what didn’t, as we researched our way through the COVID-19 pandemic.