Thinking Ethnographically in Times of Covid-19

With the onset of Covid-19 a few months back, the world around us changed in ways we had never imagined. In one way or another, people witnessed almost every aspect of their life undergoing a transformation. Like many other countries, India too began to observe a lockdown from mid-march. However, India’s lockdown was much more severe as it heavily restricted people’s movement.

Thus, on one hand Covid-19 is a global pandemic with almost the entire world being affected by it to varying degrees. On the other hand,with the diverse ways in which each country is approaching the pandemic, people’s response and behaviour has been unique and needs to be understood in its localized context. Thus, a response to this pandemic needs to be understood at both these levels.

Given the current scenario, there is an immediate need to understand these emerging ‘local’ contexts. The enormity of the change in the last few months has created a need to understand the frameworks that shape our society. Our norms, values and rituals are all undergoing transformation. Over the next several months, there might be new norms, older values with new meaning, or rituals that were considered improper might suddenly become necessary. Every aspect of our behaviour will have to be put under a scanner and revaluated. Even the norms, values and rituals that stick might be rationalized differently and hence can’t be taken for granted.

Qualitative researchers are equipped with a variety of methods and techniques to decode people’s behaviour. However, such peculiar times demand a rigour that needs to go beyond just implementing the methods. How does one ensure that the nuances and complexities are not compromised as we begin to understand people’s lives?

Thus, along with the application of the qualitative research methods, I argue for the need to ‘think ethnographically’. In the following paragraphs, I outline and discuss a few skills of an ethnographer that can be extremely useful. It will allow an opportunity to grasp people’s changing reality and understand how they are behaving and negotiating with spaces, objects and the individuals around them.

However, these skills are not just restricted to helping us navigate through the current scenario but in general can allow us a more rigorous understanding of our consumer’s life. 

What is ethnography?

Before I begin to discuss some of the skills of an ethnographer, I provide a brief summary of ethnography as a methodology. Most commonly, anthropologists are known to deal with the method of ethnography. It is by conducting ethnography that they understand their field and collect data. Put simply “ethnography requires a researcher to immerse himself or herself fully in the chosen field of study, learning the day-to-day and extraordinary stuff of social and cultural life by ‘being there” (Lewis and Russell 400). Anthropologists spend immense time in the field to experience and partake in the activities that contribute to their area of inquiry.

Three ways of thinking ethnographically

1.       Questioning assumptions 

One of the core foundations of the methodology rests upon the belief that the researcher understands her field by experiencing it. A researcher using the ethnographic method aims to “experience the mundane and sacred, brash and nuanced aspects of socio-cultural life and through, observations, encounters and conversations, comes to an understanding of it” (Lewis and Russell 400). One of the core principles that largely any anthropologist would agree to is that a researcher conducting ethnographic research will learn to question her ‘assumptions’ at every stage of her research.  

Implementing the methodology simply means participating in the field. One of the main ways in which ethnographic research is conducted is by doing participant observation. Simply put, participant observation demands that the researcher actively participates in the activities that constitute and make their field. By performing its everyday rituals, they begin to learn about their field. 

Thus, participant observation “entails participation in the day-to-day activities of those studied over a long period” (Evans 172). In the process of implementation, any assumption that a researcher had at the beginning of her research about a topic, field site, participant’s behaviour etc. are bound to be questioned.  This would be useful as it will help ensure that no aspect of people’s behaviour is taken for granted. I next discuss an example to illustrate the above. 

(Picture credits: Rupali Kapoor)

A few months ago, I conducted research to understand why people click pictures of their food while dining out. At the time when I was putting the project together, a number of assumptions framed my thinking. 

  1. I had assumed that people who spend time clicking pictures while dining out with their friends are probably less invested in the food that they are consuming and hence clicking a food image will be more important than actually eating the food. 
  2. Since, the food often gets cold, dry or is left untouched – I had assumed that people are comfortable with compromising on their experience of eating at the cost of getting a good food image.
  3. I had also assumed that the act of capturing food images and consuming the food are separate and exclusive to each other – I felt that if they are putting in more time and effort on one of these then they definitely care a little less about the other. 

However, as mentioned above, doing ethnographic research demands that I actively participate in the field. At the time of fieldwork, I ensured that I continue to participate and observe everything without letting my assumptions affect my approach on the field. There was a conscious attempt to not allow my assumptions to inhibit my participation in the field. Further, to genuinely carry out participant observation requires that you completely invest yourself in the activities of your field. 

I only began to question my assumptions when I started to analyze the data I had collected. At the time of analysis, I began to understand how entwined are the acts of consuming and capturing the meal. I began to understand how the act of capturing was an extension of the physical consumption of the meal and had to also be seen as another form of consumption. 

What we need to understand and acknowledge about the current scenario (Covid-19), is that it has affected people’s belief and reasoning. Considering how drastically our lifestyles were affected, it has altered our outlook towards life in many ways. Thus, it requires us to ensure that any understanding that we previously held true of our consumers behavior is put under the scanner again. 

Application: A few questions to reflect upon at the start of your research

  • At the start of your research – Make a list of every aspect of the consumer’s behaviour that you are assuming
  • Some of these assumptions might be a result of the previous research you had conducted for that category or that profile of consumers. 
  • Take some time to reflect – how the pandemic could have altered people’s behaviour and revise this list.  
  • For the items that are still on your list – consciously ensure that your methodological approach to this research is in no way affected by your assumptions.

2.       Reflecting on your world-view

Prior to starting an ethnography, a researcher always reflects upon her ‘positionality’. What this refers to is the researcher’s position within her field. She consciously thinks about her position and how that shapes her experiences and world view. This also creates an awareness to understand who she is with respect to her field? In what ways would her presence affect the field?

While thinking of such questions, a researcher becomes aware of her own behaviour with respect to her field. It provides an opportunity to understand how her behaviour could be different from those who inhabit her field. Such introspection will ensure a far greater acceptance of her participant’s behaviour and actions. It will create a heightened awareness to capture and observe everything in the field.To reflect upon our positionality prior to the start of a research, will keep us more open minded to accept the different ways in which people will be making sense of the world around them.

For instance, as a researcher I want to understand people’s experiences during the pandemic. It would be extremely beneficial to reflect upon my own experiences at the start of the research. In the process of doing so, I will be able to understand how entwined are my experiences with my position. For instance, I am currently living with my family in Delhi and this affects my experience of the pandemic in multiple ways. Further, I am a single child and we live in an apartment where each one of us is able to find a balance between our personal spaces and sharing the space as a family. Such reflections provide an opportunity to acknowledge that someone who is living alone, with a joint family or in a smaller/bigger house, might have a completely different in-home pandemic experience.

Takeaways: a few questions to reflect upon your positionality:

  • Who are you with respect to your field? (Think of your gender, age, socio-economic background, geographical location and other criterias that define you and are related to your research question).
  • Now think of your participant’s and field’s position? (Think of their gender, age, socio-economic background, geographical location and other criterias that define them and are related to your research question).
  • How does your position affect your experience of the topic you are researching  – In detail think about your own experiences related to your research question and ensure that your research approach doesn’t just study it from that lens or limit your approach.

3.       Learning from the chaos  

Thirdly, no matter what the field site, an integral experience of conducting an ethnography is to continuously deal with uncertainties. Doing ethnography means a researcher places herself in the world of her participants. In most cases the field is generally unfamiliar, however, even when it is familiar, there is a lot that is beyond control. This prevents the researcher from being able to create a rigid plan for data collection. Thus, even though the researcher still prepares a detailed plan for how they hope to collect data. There is an underlying awareness that being in the field can never be controlled.

In the beginning, a researcher is trying harder to cope with this new way of being rather than collecting data. Collecting data and living are entwined in complex ways making it hard to often separate the two. A researcher is heavily dependent on informants who play a significant role in helping her to cope with her field and learn its ways. There is a continuous sense of instability that the researcher experiences during such a process. What I mean by instability here, is that there is often a very limited control that a researcher can exert. The power is often tilted more towards the informants and the inhabitants of the field than the researcher. In the process of conducting ethnography, a researcher learns how to deal with her lack of control. She develops a sense of patience to allow her informants to lead the way. However, this learning is a slow and gradual process that an ethnographer learns during the course of the fieldwork. The researchers develop a knack to handle disruptions on a daily basis as the dynamics in the field are constantly changing.

Such a skill can be especially useful during uncertain times (like the ongoing pandemic). Many of the traditional methods that researchers used for data collection have suddenly become redundant, pushing us to develop creative ways to reach and connect with participants through digital channels. Further, as we plan our research projects and prepare a research design, we have to be aware of the many disruptions that may result due the on-going pandemic. For instance, in the middle of May, I had planned a research project to understand and map people’s first experiences as they would begin to resume their pre-lockdown routines. As the cases were increasing at a slower rate, the lockdown was to be relaxed from the start of June. Many companies were asking employees to return to offices, people were planning to travel back from their home towns etc. So, there was an optimistic buzz that we would all be able to resume our lifestyles in a limited capacity. However, in the two weeks that I was recruiting for the project, the situation changed drastically. The numbers started to rise in an alarming way. Many people decided to take things slow and delay their going out. So even as I confirmed participants, their plans altered in a week. I then had to shift the larger objective of this research as well, make it more open ended and re-work the research design. I decided to reduce the number of participants and the platforms I was going to originally conduct this research on. I had to leave certain decisions for later as I had to observe the events unfold in real time and accordingly decide the course of action.

Application: A few ways to learn from the chaos?

  • Developing an alternative scenario or a Plan B  – how else can the project be approached if something is not working in our favour 
  • Learning to develop a sense of comfort in not being able to control everything as a researcher – let your research guide you! 

As researchers begin a journey of exploration of what this ‘new normal’ can even possibly mean, the above discussed concepts can hopefully allow us to move step closer in grasping this new way of being.


Evans, Rosalind. “Towards a Creative Synthesis of Participant Observation and Participatory Research: Reflections on Doing Research with and on Young Bhutanese Refugees in Nepal.” Childhood , vol. 20, no. 2, SAGE Publications Ltd, May 2013, pp. 169–84.

Lewis, S. J., and A. J. Russell. “Being Embedded: A Way Forward for Ethnographic Research.” Ethnography, vol. 12, no. 3, SAGE Publications, Sept. 2011, pp. 398–416.

About the author

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Rupali Kapoor works as the Research Officer for the Consumer Culture Lab at IIM Udaipur. She is trained in social and cultural anthropology from UCL. She is interested in decoding our everyday interactions with spaces, objects and fellow beings.

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