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Blog post Part of series: Covid-19, education and educational research

Conducting research during the pandemic using an ‘ethics of care’

Faiza Hyder, Middlesex University

The Covid-19 pandemic has created economic and social instability for many people in Britain and around the world. As such, we might consider it an experience of ‘collective trauma’, combining a loss of life and livelihoods with ‘a crisis of meaning’ (Hirschberger, 2018). As we try to cope with the immediate challenge of the pandemic and learn to adapt to the longer-term implications, we are collectively navigating a new sense of ‘normal’.

In this context I recently found myself undertaking a small research project for my master’s, exploring the experiences of Polish mothers and their children living in the UK after the Brexit vote. The implications for research are far from obvious; while some research studies have stopped or slowed down, the crisis has also created opportunities (and demands) for new research. When considering whether and how to conduct my own research, I found it crucial to re-engage with and review ethical considerations, at the very least to reassure myself that I would not exacerbate the potentially traumatic experiences of my participants. In the process of revisiting the ethical dimension to my work, I engaged with feminist writing on the ‘ethics of care’ (Gilligan, 2014; Noddings, 2002), and in this blog I reflect on how this has informed my research, and how it provides a useful source of ideas for other researchers.

My sample population was mothers from Polish immigrant backgrounds living in London. Seven mothers participated in this project. Given the disruption to employment and family life caused by lockdowns and social distancing restrictions, I was aware that some of the women I had been in contact with were experiencing extra pressures with childcare and raised anxieties around health and employment. According to Harvey-Golding and Robson (2020), 60 per cent of job losses within the first two weeks of the Covid-19 crisis were shouldered by women. The precarious position of migrant women in relation to the UK’s labour market is illustrated by one of my interviews with Maria (a pseudonym). Having lost all her cleaning jobs during the first national lockdown in March 2020, Maria was the only participant to move back to Poland with her family due to financial difficulties. As the primary care provider for her daughter, she has currently stopped seeking paid employment in Poland to care for her daughter at home. Ahmed, Castañeda, Fortier and Sheller (2003, p. 5) discuss the ‘specific enabling and disabling forces of power’ in relation to migration. Power is exerted both by external forces such as immigration policy, employment law and border controls as well as social attitudes and institutions where inequalities in race, gender, sexuality and class are generated. For Maria these disabling forces have directly flowed from the pandemic, although they have been exacerbated by the wider complexities of economic and social inequalities. In this context I was concerned that participating in research may no longer be a priority and may even be perceived as another burden. However, this seemed to be a naïve assumption as, for Maria and all the mothers I reached out to, it seemed to be a welcome distraction during the burden of lockdown and a way to feel valued when productivity is difficult.

‘Given the disruption to employment and family life caused by lockdowns and social distancing restrictions, I was aware that some of the women I had been in contact with were experiencing extra pressures with childcare and raised anxieties around health and employment.’

An ‘ethics of care’ has been elaborated by Noddings (2002) who argues it is important to demonstrate the quality of sympathy, through being attentive to others and receptive to them and their views. This nurtures a commitment to care about others and their situation, as the prelude to undertaking actions that show caring for them. This has been developed by Gilligan (2014) in the context of thinking about difference – a key theme for me exploring the experiences of European migrant mothers following the Brexit decision. Gilligan’s interpretation of Noddings’s work connected to my strong belief that it was important to hear how the virus may have a disproportionate impact on people already experiencing inequalities such as poverty, gender inequalities and processes of minoritisation (Rzepnikowska, 2018). An ethics of care ensures everyone’s voice is recognised and given the respect it deserves. In doing so, it provides some kind of recognition to those experiencing social injustices and oppression.

In my experience I found that interviews, particularly the one with Maria, offered a cathartic experience for participants. It gave participants the time to share the relatively mundane aspects of daily life in lockdown such as undertaking the weekly shop or managing working from home. It also gave them an opportunity to voice their concerns about bigger changes, such as their loss of employment and home in the UK, as well as the emotional dilemmas of childcare. My role as a researcher allowed me to engage in a dialogue of empathy and consideration for participants, allowing for meaningful social interactions and reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation that may be exacerbated during this time. While researchers always need to ensure that their research is worthwhile in terms of the academic outcome, I now argue that acting in accordance with an ethics of care raises the possibility that research during these troubled times may also be justified as a process of engagement and caring. In this way I have come to appreciate that, handled sensitively, our research engagement could form part of a caring response to the collective trauma of the pandemic.


References

Ahmed, S., Castañeda, C., Fortier, A. & Sheller, M. (2003). Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of home and migration. Oxford: Berg

Gilligan, C. (2014). Moral injury and the ethic of care: Reframing the conversation about differences. Journal of Social Philosophy, 45(1), 89–106. https://doi.org/10.1111/josp.12050

Harvey-Golding, L., & Robson, S. (2020). Response to call for evidence from Joint Committee on Human Rights: Paper 4 – Providing socio-economic support to women. Women’s Resource Centre. Retrieved from www.wrc.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=d22ba3b4-0b59-410e-938f-ab37031b31bb

Hirschberger, G. (2018). Collective trauma and the social construction of meaning. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(1441). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01441

Noddings, N. (2002). Starting at home: Caring and social policy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rzepnikowska, A. (2018). Racism and xenophobia experienced by Polish migrants in the UK before and after Brexit vote. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 45(1), 61–77. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2018.1451308