Learning from live pandemic research


I haven’t taught research methods for a year or so. But right now I do wish I still was. I’m not asking for additional workload. Not at all. It’s just that there is so much potential for learning in the current pandemic.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m pretty unhappy with the kind of methods courses that take you through the ‘ologies’ – axiology, epistemology, ontology, methodology – and then present a tool kit of methods. The ologies in particular are often taught badly. So people in methods class are left mystified about what these apparently abstract ideas mean. They struggle to connect the conversations about knowledge, truth and various research traditions with their own research and the research papers that they read. They are flummoxed when asked to discuss their positionality, to state where they stand in the ology options.

But now. Ah now. Now we have a knowledge-making process going on in front of our eyes. It’s global. It’s high stakes. It’s highly political too – politicians say it’s all about “the science” – as if science were a singular thing, united, homogeneous, able to speak with one voice. As if it were fixed. No.

Right now we can actually see sciences plural, and researching and interpreting results as knowledge making practices. In real time. How exciting is this! Our colleagues are not only talking to each other in laboratories and in academic journals – much of their conversation is now in public. On blogs and twitter, in op ed piece and television commentary. They debate. They disagree. They develop informed hunches together. They dispute numbers. They create and challenge graphs. They make different interpretations of the same data.

Print news media regularly report on multiple lines of investigation into the virus and the painstaking development of potential diagnostic tools, treatments and cures. Each line of investigation has prior – and generally peer reviewed and published – research as its starting point, and thus a strong rationale for this approach or that.

Early papers are published fast and may not quite meet expected standards (retractions happen). There are open fora which share interesting new lines of thought that might then be tested out. There’s conversation about the need for scholarly community perusal of process, data and analysis and about the quality of evidence that is acceptable. There ate differences in views about the best way to go and what counts as evidence. There are rapid collaborative meta-reviews of what’s already out there, with implications for policy and practice drawn out. We see asynchronous scholarly community conversation in action and how it is that some things come to be accepted by the scholarly community as good-enough-to-work -with-until-something-better-comes-along. Researchers lead significant changes in what’s known and what’s acceptable – the line on the utility of face masks for example shifted rapidly from a “they’re no use at all” to a “well they may be some use and isn’t it better to be safe than sorry” after public health scholars published and pushed hard in all forms of media.

The workings of science disciplines are visible. There are no dry abstracted discussions about post-positivism and hermeneutics here, even though some of  the debates about evidence and process can be understood through these conceptual lens. Right now, what can often seem like dry ‘ology’ questions in classrooms are writ large, current, living, open and high stakes. Questions such as  – What can be taken as true? How do we trust what researchers are telling us ? What value is put on emerging findings? – are always present, but now right in our faces and vital.

And this may not fit the stereotype of “science as facts”. As John Dupre points out on the Nuffield bioethics blog 

…science is always more or less uncertain. I do not mean only to point out that science—like everything else—is fallible, but rather that uncertainty is an integral feature of many of the products of science.

This position is a far cry from the caricatures of positivism and post-positivism that appear in a lot of social science methods materials.

We can also see how advances in science are connected with other disciplines which use other research methods traditions. For example – linguistic researchers are busy discussing how the language of war legitimates particular kinds of policy approaches, how the naming of the virus carries on particular nationalistic and racialised views. Environmental scholars consider how current human-animal practices might be partly undone by understandings about the way that the virus mutates across species. Digital researchers are investigating the potential for heightened algorithmic surveillance in data tracking apps.

And we can see which knowledges are politically favoured – it is apparent, in the ways in which scientific knowledges are not only made but taken up, that knowledge making is not a neutral process.

I’m sure there is much more that a research methods course could get from this live case of knowledge production. And that’s the point at which a methods course surely needs to start. From lived cases. Research ologies aren’t disconnected from everyday life, even if their underpinnings aren’t in the foreground.

And the pandemic shows us we don’t learn about the ologies simply to understand how to conduct our own research. Research methods courses can also help us get a better grip on how understandings about, and decisions on, knowledge making are integral to every aspect of modern life. To the ways we live – and can live – our lives.

What knowledge is made, where, how, by whom, and how it is taken up are transparently obvious at the minute. What an opportunity to learn.

Which leads me right back to my initial thought  – what a live methods course I could run right now…