WhatsApp and the politics of care in ethnographic research in the COVID-19 era.

Diana Rodríguez-Gómez

Thursday, April 28, 2022

In the midst of the health, economic, and political crises that came in the wake of COVID-19, both graduate students and seasoned professors held meetings and produced materials offering guidelines on how to do qualitative research during the pandemic (click here). The result was an extensive archive with recommendations ranging from how to establish rapport with participants via various teleconferencing platforms to how to navigate institutional bureaucracies to ensure that local research assistants received their salaries on time (click here). 

While I found the existence and availability of these materials wonderful, ever since I read Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy I keep asking myself questions about how I distribute my attention 💡 and how I ask others to manage and in some cases deliver it to me. Many of the solutions packaged under different versions of the title Resources for Doing Ethnographic Research During the Pandemic 😷 required participants to make their time, attention span, and knowledge available to the researchers. 

Now that I’m finally out in the field, I’m the one demanding attention via WhatsApp. Here goes the anecdote and the questions 🙋🏻.

This month, while reading the documents that consolidated the Plan Colombia proposal before the US Congress and preparing a presentation for an academic conference (#CIES2022), I wanted to understand how coca farmers of Cauca had responded to this military intervention initiative 💥. With no data available and with the possibility that the answer was a message away, I wrote to Orlando, one of the project’s future research assistants: 

“Do you remember if your mom or dad ever told you about Plan Colombia?” 

This short and apparently simple question gave rise to a two-day exchange in which Orlando shared with me his memories as a child ✨, a video where his father sings 🎶 with his guitar 🎶 “that dammed glyphosate,” three audio recordings where the elders of the town describe their experiences of the fumigations, 🛩️ and the information from the lawyer who for more than 12 years has been following up on the lawsuit that the community filed against the nation, the Ministry of Defense, and others 🤺 . In less than 48 hours I had access to unique data that in different formats intertwine the personal and community memory of the people with their respective practices of resistance 🎯. 

In a traditional ethnographic exercise, the researcher restricts her demand on the attention of her participants to the period of collecting data in the field; this time, I extended my need for attention (and extraction), via WhatsApp, beyond my time in the field. 

In line with Odell’s proposal, in this entry I would like to formulate three questions:

  1. What are the implications for a research process when data arrive outside the formal researcher-participant encounter?
  2. At what point does data collection end if the opportunity to know “a little more” is always a message away?
  3. What are the ethical implications of drawing more attention from participants, even when no longer in the field? 

My instinct leads me to ask for your help with possible answers, but I recognize that it would be an abuse of your time 😜.

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