covid-19, Notebook

Childcare is an important consideration in qualitative social research, pandemic or no pandemic

By Katherine Mackinnon

We are going to be living with COVID-19 for a long time.  While school and nursery pupils in Scotland look set to return in August, in future we may see a return to distance learning or temporary school and nursery closures. Flexibility around childcare when doing research is more important than ever.

I am a part-time PhD student in my first year of an oral history project documenting refugee experiences of everyday life in Scotland. When working with refugees and asylum seekers, important concerns include security, access to technology, English communication skills, and caring responsibilities—all of which have only been heightened by the pandemic. However, even in the pre-COVID world, access to childcare was an important consideration in developing a methodology for recording oral histories of refugee lives in Scotland.

Availability of childcare is a potential barrier to participation for anyone with child caring responsibilities, but particularly significant when working with newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees who may not yet have developed a strong local support network. Most people are unable to call on family members for informal childcare, and language barriers along with a lack of knowledge of carer entitlements can make negotiating the bureaucracies of formal childcare difficult. On top of this, people in the asylum seeker process are regularly forced to move at short notice to a different neighbourhood, which can result in delays to accessing nursery accomodations and longer periods spent on the waiting lists. Without taking these factors into account and providing ways to participate that work around the presence of children, a significant group of people will be excluded from the research – parents of younger children requiring childcare, the majority of whom are women.

As a PhD student I was unable to write a budget line for participant childcare costs into my proposal because it didn’t come with a budget. It is very difficult to find standalone funding for participant expenses, so it’s even more crucial to consider ways to work around childcare if you are not able to cover these costs  

In non-pandemic times, offering flexibility around interview times and locations which are specifically designed to work around school opening hours is a good way of taking advantage of the institutional childcare available. Given that provision of external childcare is not possible at the moment – and that school holidays will always be a thing – it is important to design adaptable research methods that are functional without formal childcare.

My research was never intended to involve children as participants, so these workarounds have all been designed to include the presence of younger children without actively involving them. This is feasible because of my focus on everyday life, meaning people are able to choose aspects of that topic they feel comfortable talking about with a child present. Obviously, this approach is not suitable for all topics, nor is it the optimum interview scenario. However, I would rather record the voices of parents who are somewhat distracted than not include them at all.

One way I have tackled the childcare issue is by choosing methods which can be done with children involved, like walking interviews around the local neighbourhood which could include younger children in a buggy. Navigating a public space with a buggy is a very different experience to walking through it alone, and the use of walking interviews can foreground aspects of everyday life which might not arise in a standard interview.

Another approach is to include methods which can be done at a time which suits the participant, like keeping a diary. Bea Gardner’s  audio diaries are a great example of this because they track longitudinal developments by recording over time. The audio diary has the benefit of being accessible to participants whose levels of literacy in English would make keeping a written diary challenging.

The prospect of ongoing restrictions on social gatherings ,  varying levels of comfort associated with different venues (indoor or outdoor, well-ventilated or not), and the availability of known, comforting meeting places like libraries and community centres have all made me consider ways to adapt, change, and develop my research when I can do face-to-face work again.

With young children, so much of everyday life happens in the swing park: Could I audio record a conversation there? And would this location lend itself to a more nuanced conversation about the experience of being a parent and a refugee in Scotland? The audio quality of many of these methods would be sub-par compared to a recording made in a quiet indoor space. Though, we have adjusted to news reports over Zoom, to weird angles on interviewees, and to children bursting in on discussions. These recordings will be artefacts of this time. They will be records of the radical changes to everyday life we have all experienced, some of which will be with us for the long term.

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