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  • Paper, Pen and Today’s Communication Platforms: Remote Disaster Research during a Pandemic
  • Daniela Paredes Grijalva (bio)

This note reflects on how measures to face the pandemic have affected how we conduct fieldwork. In my case, COVID-19 arrived just as I began my doctoral project on how mobilities are shaped in post-disaster Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, which was hit by a devastating earthquake and tsunami in September 2018. Studying the disaster and its aftermath as a focusing event (Birkland and Warnement 2014, p. 60), I had planned to identify pre-existing social vulnerabilities and look at how these relate to the articulation of power asymmetries. In order to understand how social, political, economic, environmental and cultural interactions give shape to what we call a disaster, I planned to use archival sources on population movements, policy documents on land use, and—most importantly—the classic ethnographic methods of participant-observation, interviews and focal group discussions with people affected by the disaster and the experts involved in the pre- and post-disaster landscape. The pandemic, however, has translated into an impossibility of travel and uncertainty. Below, I share my reflections on these circumstances.

My original research design included an extended period of fieldwork, as is customary in anthropology. I had planned on being ‘here and there’, sleeping, eating and sharing people’s everyday experiences. It meant getting to know the people, the environment, [End Page 376] the coast, the hills and the other inhabitants of Central Sulawesi’s Palu Bay. Listening to people’s stories about the befores and afters while walking the landscape, establishing relationships by virtue of physically being in the same space-time continuum—that was the plan.

Only a couple of days after I had obtained a research permit for Indonesia, Austria announced its lockdown measures. This was in March 2020 and my optimist self believed that this was just a delay. Only a few weeks later, I was informed by the Indonesian authorities that travel to Indonesia was also suspended. By midsummer it was clear that travel restrictions would be in place much longer. By then, remote, distance and digital ethnography had not only become the subject of publications and discussions in virtual channels, but also among colleagues, both senior scholars and, particularly, doctoral students who, like me, were just getting started on their fieldwork. Thanks to the support and encouragement of my supervisor, I went ahead and tested remote and digital ethnography. Although I had originally planned on collecting some data online, I had conceived of it as supplementary information in addition to the juicy stuff of the ethnographic experience.

Working in this fashion is not entirely new for social scientists. Ethnographers have worked remotely (Postill 2016) for instance in conflict settings (Brandt 2017) and digitally in a variety of online environments (Horst and Miller 2012; Sanjek and Tratner 2016). However, for many of us, myself included, this was not the plan from the start. Instead, my research questions had led me to design fieldwork that involved plenty of participant-observation, (walking) interviews and focus groups. Getting started with some online explorations seemed like a good temporary fix. As time went by, it became clear that travelling would not be possible for the whole of 2020. Uncertainty about when it would be possible was the only certain thing. Acknowledging this new reality, I reached out to people via the internet. Email, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have often been the first channels of contact. These interactions are saved digitally on the platforms themselves, sometimes as screenshots and notes on a word processor file on my work cloud, and written with [End Page 377] pen and paper in my field diary. Keeping the field diary has served as a potent anchor for reflection, not only on the material but also on this trial run of digital data collection methods.

I have established contacts via email, Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger and the private chat function of online meeting platforms like Zoom. The snowball effect known from offline research works similarly online. And, thanks to generous recommendations and contact detail sharing, I continue to connect to more people. When the initial contact is not established via WhatsApp, the conversation often...