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Hybrid fieldwork: from emergency solution to research enrichment

You have prepared a research project, put together a plan, and you are ready to travel to the country where you will be conducting your fieldwork. What do you do when Covid suddenly makes that impossible? Nadia Sonneveld was forced to relocate her project Living on the Other Side to a hybrid form: ‘It was a challenge, but also creates a lot of new possibilities’.

Living on the Other Side

Living on the Other Side is a sociolegal research project conducted by Associate Professor Nadia Sonneveld and PhD candidates Judith van Uden and Nada Heddane. They conduct research into how migrants in Morocco deal with important life events such as birth, marriage, divorce, and death. The inspiration for the research came when Nadia was working at the Al Akhawayn University in Morocco and noticed how many migrants were actually living there. ‘In Europe, we always think that all immigrants want to go north, but there is a lot more south-south migration. Many immigrants do not have the ambition to travel to Europe.’ In Morocco many life events are determined by family law, which is based on religion. The research focusses on the decisions taken by migrants and the extent to which family law, but also other law systems, play a role in this.

The NWO-Vidi research project ‘Living on the Other Side: A Multidisciplinary Analysis of Migration and Family Law in Morocco’ is part of the Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance and Society of Leiden Law School and is conducted in close collaboration with the Faculty of Sociology of the Moulay Ismail University in Meknes, Morocco. More information on the research project.

Challenges and possibilities

Because of the corona measures, the empirical fieldwork came to a halt. Suddenly, it was no longer possible to travel to Morocco to engage with the participants. The fieldwork continued online, which came with its own challenges. Heddane: ‘It is not always common for participants to have constant internet access where they are, or mobile phone coverage even.’ The participants were provided with internet bundles with the help of research assistants who were also immigrants in Morocco. Sonneveld: ‘It continued to be challenging. Even if you had a stable internet connection, there would, for instance, be a television on in the background. The men there all loved to watch soccer together. For them, that was more important than an interview.’

The hybrid version also created a lot of new possibilities. Van Uden: ‘The participants were able to have more control over the conversation then if they were sitting in front of you in a room. They made the online environment their own and quickly felt more at ease.’ Heddane adds: ‘In general, they took you along during their day. For instance, you would start the interview while they were still in bed and they would take you to the garden for a conversation with their neighbour. Or you would suddenly be passed to a friend in the back while driving in a car.’ Sonneveld: The conversation really came to life because of this. These are aspects you would not be able witness when you are speaking with participants in a static interview setting.’

'You never conduct research on your own'

Starting the project in this hybrid form ended up being beneficial for the fieldwork. Heddane: ‘When we finally arrived in Morocco, we already had a group of participants we could approach. I had a good idea what their day looked like and when they would be available for interviews. We had also been able to establish such a connection that they were able to help looking for new participants.’

Without a close collaboration, the hybrid version would never have been successful, emphasises Sonneveld. ‘Without the assistance of the research assistants and our colleagues of the Moulay Ismail University we would not been able to conduct the research. They provided our participants with a stable internet connection and supported us with the interviews: translating, explaining, and clarifying the answers given by people to us and to the participants themselves.’ A Moroccan student who had previously been on exchange to Leiden even invited people into his house to participate in the online interviews. Sonneveld: ‘He and his mother had equipped a room with a good internet connection and without ambient sound. They even provided warm meals.’ Van Uden adds: ‘You never conduct research on your own. You do it in collaboration with your assistants, with the country, but also with the participants. Without them there is no fieldwork.’

Enrichment, no replacement

The online version cannot replace fieldwork according to the researchers. Sonneveld: ‘You need the physical fieldwork. It is a sociolegal research project and to get a sense of what someone’s life looks like, you need to spend time with people. But at the same time, the online interviews enabled a very open manner of communication on their side because they were in control. The two forms really complement each other.’ She emphasises the importance of this new form of research for future projects. ‘It is not always a given that you can visit the country where you would like to do research. Political instability or a pandemic can put an end to your research project in one fell swoop. You must be prepared to be able to conduct your research in a different way and maintain contacts to help you with this. This allows for an important contribution to diversity and inclusivity of academic research.’

Introduction video 'Living on the Other Side' project

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Text: Mireille van der Stoep

Images: © Nadia Sonneveld

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