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Anthropology from the Bedroom: Navigating Ethnographic Methods in the Time of COVID-19

By Rita Bouwens, M.A. student in applied anthropology at Mississippi State University

Conducting my Master’s thesis research during a pandemic was certainly an unforgettable experience. On top of enduring a pandemic that happens only once every 100 years or so, I was a novice researcher trying to navigate the ins and outs of ethnographic fieldwork during a time when face-to-face contact was not permitted except in necessary and unavoidable circumstances.

Zoo staff member with a chimp

I had hopes of going to my fieldsite, a mid-sized Midwestern zoo, to talk to and observe zookeepers, curators, conservation department staff, and education department staff in their daily activities pertaining to operating a zoo and contributing to both ex situ and in situ conservation. I wanted to study the praxis of the biopolitical aspects of captive wildlife management, neoliberal conservation and the spectacular display and commodification of nature, and affect the generation and creation of environmental stewards.

Examining the daily practices of zoo staff in person would have allowed me to more easily root these theoretical frameworks in praxis, giving me more context for understanding conservation in zoos as it is performed on a daily basis. These plans quickly dissolved as everyone realized the seriousness of COVID-19 and the dire impacts it would have on virtually every industry for the foreseeable future. Thankfully, I did work at the zoo during the summers of 2019 and 2020 after it reopened; I was able to frequent the zoo, interact with guests and zoo staff, and see areas visible to zoo guests, so I was already somewhat familiar with my fieldsite despite not being able to conduct research there.

Author working at the zoo in 2019

Although the zoo did open in June of 2020 after being closed for the months of April and May, employees were to observe social distancing guidelines mandated by the governor. Because I was practicing social distancing and did not want to jeopardize the health and safety of my interlocutors for the sake of my own research, I did not actually meet any of them in person. I could not “deep hang out” with my interlocutors, so I did not gain rapport with them or conduct participant observation, a pillar of traditional ethnographic methods. Therefore, I had to utilize unconventional methods to collect data, all of which happened from my bedroom.

Mediated by smartphones, computer screens, computer software, internet connections, faraway servers and satellites that most of us will never see, and popular social media platforms created by some of the world’s richest “techies,” methods that had once seemed reminiscent of armchair anthropology became legitimized, at least for the time being. Because I could not physically go to my fieldsite to meet interlocutors, I had to rely on electric communication methods (phone calls and email) to identify and schedule remote interviews with my interlocutors. I conducted semi-structured interviews with 10 zoo staff members remotely via Cisco Webex Meetings video conferencing software in September and October of 2020. I recorded these interviews using Cisco Webex’s “record” feature.

The upside of conducting interviews remotely is that some video conferencing software automatically generate (albeit imperfect) transcriptions, which was preferable to transcribing from scratch!

To compensate for the lack of participant observation, I watched “Zoo Insiders,” or video clips showing behind-the-scenes insights into zoo operations, and I read and took notes on the zoo’s Facebook posts that were posted between the months of April 2020 and August 2020. These included informational posts and videos about behind-the-scenes looks at animal training, visits with animals, exhibit design, animal enrichment, the zoo’s Eastern box turtle head-starting program, veterinary exams, veterinary facility tours, thank-you videos from sponsors, content about animals and consumer education, the transportation of a tiger to another zoo, etc. This information from web content provided me with a better understanding of the praxis of animal keeping and what the zoo looks like beyond the areas visible to zoo guests.

A child petting a wallaby

Conducting ethnographic-type research remotely leaves much to be desired, of course – a hallmark of ethnographic methods is that they allow the researcher to spend an extensive amount of time with their interlocutors, if not live amongst them, develop rapport, and observe and participate in daily practices as they happen “on the ground.” There is little spontaneity with remote research, as interviews are scheduled and therefore have to be more structured than the types of conservations that would typically take place in the field. Also, not all of our interlocutors will have internet access, so sometimes face-to-face contact is required even for more structured interviews. I do not think that social distancing mandates will be permanent, however, so one day ethnographers will be able to resume traditional ethnographic methods.

To keep our interlocutors safe, which is of the utmost importance, some of us had to either change or postpone our 2020 research. Not everyone had the luxury of postponing research, however, particularly graduate students and adjunct, visiting, and junior faculty limited by time and funding constraints. Let’s also not forget that electronic communication methods allow us to speak to people who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away while using significantly less money and time than it would take a researcher to secure grants and travel.

Child looking at a tiger through the glass

There are definitely upsides to conducting remote ethnographic-type research, and it is possible that aspects of virtual communication that parts of the world adapted to in 2020 will supplement ethnographic research in the future, particularly for those who cannot travel or for those who may need additional follow-up interviews after leaving the field. However, I do not think that remote research can fully replace traditional ethnographic methods.

I will look at COVID-19 as a lesson in unexpected field “happenings” and how many of us had to adapt to a changing world by utilizing technology, and that in itself is anthropological. While, initially, I felt very down about not being able to conduct face-to-face research, the fact of the matter is that disciplines and their accompanying methods must change and adapt to outstanding events and circumstances. Anthropology is no exception – even though the idea of conducting ethnographic-type research from one’s bedroom may seem preposterous, ethnographic methods must adapt to the broader challenges that our world is facing.

All photographs in this blog are taken by the author.

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