Keeping connected, staying social, getting virtual

In this post, Jenni Brooks, co-chair of SRA North shares her experience of organising her first virtual event (with Bev Bishop co-chair of SRA North and Daniel Stunnell of SRA Scotland). Jenni introduces lessons from contributors about the use of creative and virtual research methods, and outlines some of the challenges social researchers are facing under the current pandemic. 
Way back in autumn 2019, SRA North and SRA Scotland hatched a plot for a joint event to showcase social research being done in Scotland and the north of England. Our events have often been held in central city locations, which didn't always suit our geographically dispersed communities, and so we started to think more creatively. 

We planned a face-to-face event, streamed online, and combined with a series of 'hubs' where social researchers could get together in small groups to join the main event virtually. We decided to keep it small and manageable, and reasoned that, if it worked, we would have a model for more inclusive future events. 

None of us had organised a virtual (or even partially virtual) event before. We learned a lot in those first few months of planning. 

And then the world went into lockdown, and all of a sudden a virtual event, which had felt experimental to us, became the new normal. What we lost in novelty, we gained in pertinence. 

Instead of a more general showcase, we focused on two topics which had become increasingly relevant: virtual social research methods, and the experiences of social researchers whose work had been affected by the pandemic. This post outlines each of the presentations, and concludes with some thoughts about future virtual events. 

 

Virtual social research methods

Using creative methods

Helen Kara, independent researcher and author of Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences started the event by reminding us that some people may be excluded when we switch face-to-face interviews online, and suggested three creative methods which may be appropriate to consider in current times

  1. documentary research
  2. autoethnography 
  3. digital methods
Helen focused on the ethical issues surrounding online research in particular, and emphasised the importance of letting the research question dictate the choice of method. She made several recommendations of useful books, which she has also listed in a post on her own blog. 

Facilitating virtual events

Órla Cronin, chartered research psychologist and director of Órla Cronin Research, talked about how to bring the whole person into the room when facilitating virtual events (including focus groups), concentrating on 
clarifying aims
intentional design
creative implementation

Órla stressed the importance of clarifying both practical aims (the issues to cover) and experiential aims (how you want participants to feel during and after). Are you trying to inform, consult, involve, collaborate or empower people? She demonstrated the use of several techniques, including asking us as participants to annotate a Powerpoint slide together, and answer questions on a FunRetro board. Orla has shared some tips for creating engaging virtual events in this post on the SRA blog, and we'll definitely be taking some of these ideas forward to use in our future events. 
 

Online deliberation

Anna Cordes, senior policy researcher at Which? introduced her recent research about online scams, and explained how the planned face-to-face deliberation had to be switched online during COVID-19. 

The resulting ten-day online community with a large panel of UK consumers had many benefits, and did deliver rich responses, but also posed a number of challenges, including maintaining engagement, which the team achieved by having realistic expectations of what participants could achieve each day, and varying activities to keep people interested. 

Anna has shared some insights for managing large online communities in this post for the SRA blog. 

The experiences of social researchers 

Changing landscape for social researchers

Emily Gray, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI discussed the changing landscape for social researchers, outlining rapid transformations in 

  1. the demand for evidence
  2. methods and how we engage participants
  3. relationships

New methods are being adopted, but Emily also mentioned the potential for revival of older methods, for example telephone interviews, especially considering that not everyone will have access to new technology. 

A key feature of Emily's talk was the need to consider the risk of burnout to researchers as the pressure for a quick turnaround of research evidence increases. 

Impact on new and existing research

Paul Bradshaw, Director, Scotcen, focused on the changes COVID-19 has had on existing research, and will have on new research in the future. UKRI have provided £200m worth of research funding for projects related to the pandemic, and Paul identified several longitudinal projects which were well placed to study the impact over time. 

Paul discussed the impact on face-to-face surveys, citing uncertainty over when restrictions would be lifted, and the potential impact on response rates for example for people with pre-existing medical conditions, or those who were concerned about having researchers in their homes. 

Future virtual events

One thing we might do better in the future is audience interaction. We had over 60 participants which somewhat limited our options, but we did plan breakout rooms at the start, a map for people to pin their location on, and taking questions both before and during the event. We could certainly have allowed more time for questions after each presentation.

We collected information from each participant before the event and will be circulating this to other participants - we hope this will facilitate networking and collaboration between our members and others. 

We as an organising committee learned a lot from the process of putting on our first virtual event, and both SRA North and SRA Scotland will be using a similar format in the future. We are not experts, but we'd be very happy to share what we've learned with anyone considering putting on their own first virtual event - please email Jenni Brooks on j.brooks@shu.ac.uk or Daniel Stunnell on Daniel.Stunell@zerowastescotland.org.uk 

AUTHOR BIO: Jenni Brooks is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Sheffield Hallam University. She has been a qualitative researcher for over ten years, specialising in social care and health. She is co-chair of the SRA North committee.