COVID-19 has posed unique challenges for graduate students in the social sciences, especially those with international or field components to their research. On top of funding limitations, time-to-degree extensions, and changing expectations about the quality and content of doctoral dissertations, these students have been forced to rethink what it means to be a scholar in today’s world.
“When you plan your research or think about your field experience, you picture yourself settling into a certain routine,” said Meenu Deswal, a doctoral candidate in History. “For me, that would be going to the archives and libraries most days of the week, sorting through hundreds of documents in-person. But of course, that’s not possible anymore.”
“I now have to work with a limited number of sources that I was able to obtain before March and draw the most out of digitized materials available through online databases. Access to these resources is, and has always been, limited to scholars due to copyright restrictions. It is not a fulfilling research experience especially for someone whose research depends on physical access to different archives in several locations.”
Deswal, who currently works and researches from her home in Delhi, studies the experiences of indigneous rural women in colonial legal processes. With a focus on late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century British Punjab, her dissertation research explores indigenous practices and normative structures of authority, trafficking of women and minors, and the administration of justice in the socio-cultural and political-economic landscape of high colonialism.
She visited Punjab in February to conduct research and made plans to visit again in the coming months. She’d also planned and secured funding for a summer research trip to London. In March, however, the Indian government issued a national lockdown as COVID numbers began to increase across the country.
“When everything came to a head in March, I was in Delhi with my family. Staying here was the best decision for me, because I have Indian citizenship and this is where I feel safest,” Deswal said. “Even as travel restrictions begin to ease a bit within the country, things don’t look too optimistic for researchers as physical access to research sites remains restricted or prohibited.”
A doctoral candidate in Anthropology, Janaki Phillips was also in India when lockdown orders were announced. Specifically, she was based in Shimla, a city in Northern India’s Himachal Pradesh.
“I’m interested in what you might call local religion; local folk stories about ghosts and spirits,” Phillips said. “In Shimla, you have both the local and regional practices of ancestor worship and perpetuation alongside colonial ghosts of British historical figures, for example. My research focuses on the social lives of these ghosts and how people interact with them.”
In November 2019, Phillips arrived in Shimla to begin what she initially thought would be twenty months of fieldwork. She’d received funding for her project from Wenner-Gren and the American Institute of Indian Studies.
When the lockdown was initiated in March, Phillips said she’d been on the brink of getting some big leads for her project. She explained that many of the religious practitioners she was interested in speaking to—those versed in local and traditional healing methods, who worked either in conjunction with local temples or as freelance practitioners—were often difficult to contact.
“When, in mid-March, I received the email from U-M instructing everyone abroad to return, I completed a liability waiver which allowed me to remain in Shimla. My reasoning was, in the entire state of Himachal Pradesh, there’d been only eighty [COVID-19] cases reported. The US was in a much worse state. I was planning on staying in India for another year and a half. At the time, I don’t think any of us realized how long this would last,” Phillips said.
“But by the end of June we were seeing a very alarming rise in cases across India. There were astronomical daily jumps, in Delhi especially. I realized my visa expired in October, so I’d have to go back to the US at some point to get it reissued. My residence in Shimla was changing ownership, and if I moved I’d have to notify local authorities. Ethnographic interviews are also very hard to conduct from a distance; they are, by definition, social interactions.”
Phillips managed to secure a repatriation flight back to the US through Lufthansa. It took her a while to find a plane home; commercial and evacuation flights were no longer running. She described her flight home as “the most stressful travel experience [she’s] ever had.”
“As far as my dissertation project, I’m trying to make do with the notes I have,” Phillips said. “In my original research proposal, I did include some limited media aspects. This semester, I’m going to delve into a study of Bollywood ghost movies. I also have three short story collections of ghost stories from the Shimla area that I can analyze and explore; there are online paranormal communities I can reach out to.”
“While there are workarounds for fieldwork, there isn’t a full replacement without completely altering your project. And when you’ve devoted four years to that project, it’s difficult to make such radical changes.”
Anisha Padma, a doctoral student in the interdepartmental program in Anthropology and History, had planned to conduct preliminary research in Hyderabad and London this summer. Her academic interests include migration, slavery, and race in the Indian Ocean. She engages with a Hyderabadi community of Afro-Arab individuals known as the Siddis.
Her plans had included an intensive Persian language program, which she was ultimately able to take part in online. She’d hoped to visit the British Library, as well as the National Archives in London, to try to locate certain archival documents.
“I study a group of individuals whose histories already aren’t privileged in the archives,” Padma said. “Because of this, I knew I’d be facing access limitations, no matter what. In a sense, COVID-19 just highlighted the pre-existing challenges I face in my research.”
Because access is an issue that Padma so frequently encounters in her work, she sees the pandemic as an opportunity to think critically about the positionality of the researcher. She pointed out that scholars based in South Asia face such obstacles on a regular basis, not just in times of global crisis.
“Depending on which South Asian country you hold citizenship in, your passport itself might limit travel within the region,” she said. “We have scholars in South Asia who are unable to do comprehensive histories of the region due to political complexities. This limits the topics South Asia-based scholars are able to study.”
“It's especially important to consider that, if you’re a woman, LGBTQ+, or have an otherwise marginalized identity as a scholar, you’re already facing a number of barriers in your research. People might assume research is easy if they think of researchers as these unmarked bodies from advantaged backgrounds.”
Padma said she’s thinking about the idea of connecting with people, for research purposes, on various social media platforms. Social media, she explained, is a reminder that it’s possible to draw from sources beyond archives and ethnographic interviews.
“Usually we are trained to think that we have to travel to a particular physical space to conduct research. But within that physical space are so many different ‘spaces’ people are participating in. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—people engage with these platforms regardless of location. Their engagement informs a multitude of ways of being in their respective physical spaces, as well.”