Interpretivism and Hiring: The Problems of COVID-19 and Its Implications for Academic Research

10 March 2022, 2133 EST

The COVID-19 virus scrambled the plans of social scientists whose research depends on field work, including many who use and reflexive methods. It became almost impossible to do research that depends on face-to-face interviews, personal interactions, and participant observations. It’s difficult to imagine how someone like Elisabeth Jean Wood, who spent months in El Salvador (in a conflict zone, no less), could do inspiring field research during the height of pandemic. Even now, any research that requires travel has become more precarious; you never know when health guidelines might cancel your project.

But let’s say that things do get back to normal. The fact remains that many scholars lost the ability to conduct research for years. Early career researchers, who need timely publications to secure jobs or get tenure, are in particular trouble.

Methodology at Risk

COVID-19 restrictions have affected all forms of inquiry, but it perhaps hit hardest for scholars who conduct research by immersing themselves in the study of meaning-making – in language, identity, gender, culture and the like . Travel restrictions, ongoing uncertainty, and new risks (especially in the most affected regions of the world) are forcing many early career interpretivist researchers to reconsider their entire mode of research. Some have turned to remote forms of data collection – which can easily undermine the reflexive and transformative interactions that drive their work.

Remote collection of data strikes at the core assumptions of interpretive forms of research. In-depth ethnographic and genealogical studies do not take data as a given. They see it as co-produced through symbolic and material interactions involving the researcher. Thus, it’s almost impossible to remotely “generate” interpretive data. It also even more difficult to bring underrepresented communities and their concerns into scholarship.

Indeed, we might lose entire cohorts of experienced interpretive researchers, with all of the negative consequences that entails. The discipline may have to revise expectations for entry-level lectureship and post-doctoral roles.

Rethinking academic culture and the hiring process for early career researchers

How can we address these problems?

Forming peer support groups

A career in research can in itself often be a lonely pursuit. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the number of academics suffering from mental fatigue. Quarantines have worsened the sense of isolation that many academics feel.

Universities establish peer support groups that cluster students together in terms of common interests and areas of expertise. Like-minded interpretivists should also self-organize. These groups can help provide community, encouragement, and feedback.

A bottom-up approach

Doctoral students in their first years should also be included in more senior peer-groups. They would benefit from learning about the challenges they are likely to face in the future, and how people dealt with them. It would also help prepare them for unforeseen disruptions and the difficult challenges they might face in the future academic job market.

Funding from champions

Acclaimed interpretivist scholars should take the lead in developing opportunities for early career researchers to undertake interpretive research. They should push for better monetary support for younger scholars, so that early career researchers don’t have to abandon interpretive and reflexive inquiry for less expensive, more mainstream forms of data collection. Greater funding would also serve a more practical purpose of cushioning the financial impact of quarantine protocols and health care.

Flexible hiring strategies

University hiring offices need to take into account the effects of COVID on the scholarly trajectory of early career researchers. They should adjust expectations about scholarly productivity and on-ramp early career researchers in ways that make it easier for them to complete unfinished work.

Normalising COVID-19 disruptions

The disruptions created by the pandemic provide an opportunity for the field to rethink its expectations for early career researchers. Scholars encounter many setbacks that are beyond their control, but are understandably reluctant to sound like they’re making excuses or to show ‘weakness’ during the hiring process. This doesn’t speak well of academic culture, and we should do our best to make it more empathetic and understanding.

In the short term, the hiring process should normalise open and honest discussion of what roadblocks candidates have faced. Interviews should explicitly enable candidates to discuss – within legal limits – their personal circumstances. Hiring committees should evaluate a candidate on more then the length of their curriculum vitae, especially in the context of the pandemic and its effects on research productivity.

Concluding thoughts

Younger scholars face multiple challenges, including hiring freezes and changes to their tenure clock. This makes it all the more important for the academic community to create a collegial support system for early career researchers. They need help navigating and coping with the physiological, economic, and social damage related to COVID-19. Providing this help, and doing so within an overall rethinking of academic culture, will strengthen the academy and help nurture a scholarly ecosystem where diverse and multi-disciplinary research agendas can flourish.