A blog not so much on plan Bs, but endurance

Dr Anselma Gallinat is a Reader in Social Anthropology at Newcastle University and PI on the AHRC-funded project: ‘Knowing the Secret Police: secrecy and knowledge in East German society’. Here she writes about her team’s experience of planning around (and powering through) the COVID-19 pandemic.

The project ‘Knowing the Secret Police: secrecy and knowledge in East German society’ explores not ‘what the Stasi knew of society’, but what ‘society knew of the Stasi’ and how such knowledge developed and circulated. We would conduct interviews with people belonging to four spheres of society (‘networks’): members of the East German protestant church; literary authors; staff at two East German plants (‘at the workplace’), and former anti-fascists. In addition, all studies and strands would involve research in 3-4 different archives.

Pastor Dr R Gallinat.
Pastor Dr R Gallinat. Image credit – Dr Anselma Gallinat

Problems? Not yet

We submitted our request in July 2017, just a year after the British EU referendum, which didn’t bode well for us. In the last few months of 2020, I often wished we could go back to a time when Brexit was our only problem.

Now we have a problem

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to rise in Europe, the project was stranded with half the staff in one country and half in another. All three of our RAs were in Germany. Grit Wesser had been conducting fieldwork in the town of Gera since October 2019 and had begun to view files at the BStU (Federal Agency for Stasi-documents). Tara Windsor had moved to Germany in February and was just beginning archival research and interview recruitment among literary authors. Alex Brown, a German resident, had also begun archival research at the BStU. The half in the UK were now at home with their kids and (often desperately) ‘trying to work’, while the pregnant wife of one RA developed symptoms and the COVID-19 test took weeks to return.

Building of the BStU (federal archive of Stasi-Documents) in Berlin.
Building of the BStU (federal archive of Stasi-Documents) in Berlin. Image creditBStU/Dronebrothers.de

No fieldwork, so read and write…?

Archives were closed for nigh on five months. Interviews were impossible under lockdown rules. There was literature to read, but this required brain space, energy and interest. As Grit put it once in our monthly virtual project-coffees: “it’s not particularly cheery literature either” (that literature about oppression and surveillance by the Stasi). There were things to write and think about, but this also required brain space, energy and interest in a context full of news about threat, death and disastrous politicians. As a therapist pointed out to me, “COVID-19 re-traumatised us all”. So, different members were able to do different things during lockdown.


In May, it became apparent that lockdown rules in Germany were beginning to ease. For any further fieldwork, Newcastle now required a renewed ethics application, but the website stated this needed to conform to UK social distancing guidelines. We re-wrote our ethics requests and argued this should meet the guidelines of the country where the fieldwork was to take place. The faculty ethics committee, thankfully, agreed. There was not much to be said about archival work, which would be regulated by the archive. We chose to persist with face-to-face interviews, as the majority of our interviewees are elderly and not au fait with technology. Moreover, two studies took an at least partial ethnographic approach, which required us ‘being there’ to garner tacit and sensual knowledge. We also felt online interviews wouldn’t allow us to do so or allow us to build sufficient rapport around a potentially (not always!) tricky subject. But we thought much about our interviewees’ and interviewers’ safety and made risk mitigation plans. These included conducting interviews outdoors where possible, with masks, and signing consent forms etc using privately owned pens so they wouldn’t be exchanged.

Book signing in East German times.
Book signing in East German times. Image Credit – Bundesarchiv, Hartmut Reiche 1974

Best laid plans…

However, this was easier written than done, and our safeguards have only been used partially. Interviews with masks didn’t really work out, nor had we mitigated against lunch invitations… At this point Grit was mostly interviewing retired clergy. These (predominantly) men and their wives had devoted a lifetime to care-giving and hospitality. Of course, any guest would receive coffee and/or whatever meal was due to be served. Rejecting commensality would always threaten any budding relationship. This was however key for long, in-depth Oral History and life-story interviews. Moreover, face masks conceal non-verbal communication and clues, making understanding much trickier, which is a problem in an interview situation.

Plan B?, or plan A+ (and fingers firmly crossed!)

So, in June, fieldwork resumed. We had lost five months in real time, plus at least another five months in terms of the time the Co-Is/PI would have spent contributing to data collection. While archives had re-opened, access was much reduced due to social distancing in reading rooms. But all studies had begun, our RAs had been hired for their expertise in each distinct area. While some studies will now be slimmer, it wasn’t possible to drop any in full. So we have persevered, and our exceptional RAs have been able to develop a range of fascinating case studies. Grit, Tara and Alex are now all thinking about future publications. The three Co-Is/PI are coming to terms with losing their own access to fieldwork, although 2021 may bring a final opportunity(?). We keep going with our monthly all-team virtual Kaffeeklatsch (German, directly: ‘gossip-over-coffee’) which keeps us connected and thinking together, about concepts as much as lunch invitations in the COVID-19 era.

The rollercoaster ride: Plan Awesome and beyond

Gemma Molyneux is a second year PhD student in Sociology at Newcastle, studying high school girls’ everyday experiences and consumption of STEM subjects at school. In the second post in our Plan B series, Gemma writes about adjusting her research in schools during COVID-19. She reflects on the changes she has made to the project, and the new questions and insights these have brought about. 

Let’s get it out of the way first: COVID-19 came along and I am not going to get to do the research project I had planned.  My planned research project involved exploring girls’ consumption of Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) through a focus on everyday life. The project was intended as an ethnographic study within a high school. The aim was to observe first-hand the day-to-day lives of girls within the school environment, as they interact with their friends and the teachers, within class and break times. From this I would then have been able to develop some rich data that would have shown me the girls’ consumption of STEM within their day to day lives. But now, that’s not going to happen! On the other hand, life would be boring if everything went to plan!

So, what now? Let the roller coaster begin

Image credit: I-ing/Shutterstock.com

The first bump began in March, when I started to consider: how long will this lockdown be? What shall I do with my project plan? Being positive, my supervisors and I decided to delay the start of the ethnographic fieldwork from September to January, allowing extra time for additional data to be collected (Plan B).

Second bump at the end of summer: will January be realistic? How long do you wait on the uncontrollable and when do you make a change and take control? Ok, we decided, ethnography (where you need to be around people) in a pandemic is not going to work, just move on. Hence, the decision to use virtual group interviews with students with photograph/vlog elicitation was made.

Let’s not go through the alphabet: Plan Awesome is born

In October the ride starts to change direction again: will/won’t the schools close? Along with the constant adrenaline rush of the possibility of the group of students or the coordinating teacher being isolated,  will the interviews be affected? (still sticking with Plan Awesome!)

Just because it’s different does not make it wrong

Putting the roller coaster imagery aside, the truth is that the challenges brought about by COVID-19 on my research have been present, but not insurmountable. Changing methods changes the type of data you get, so being clear whether this data will answer the research questions has been important. They do say there is more than one way to skin a cat. Ensuring the alternative data collected from group interviews aligns with my research questions establishes that the change of plan still meets my objectives. Being open minded and generating many ideas for every possible method I could think of was helpful. I used a SWOT analysis  to understand what all the different ideas meant to the project and whether they would answer the research questions. In creating the SWOT analysis I wrote down every method I could. Thinking through how these could be used or combined with others made me consider data generation in a more creative way. In addition, evaluating the methods’ negative aspects required creativity in generating possible solutions that could be put in place to mitigate these issues.

Image credit: Ravennka/ Shutterstock.com

Changing the project has reduced the richness that a long-period study of students would have brought. However, now, the research includes a wider range of data sources with the potential opportunity to gain observations from students from more than one school and interviews with a range of teachers. Already some of the additional data sources that have been explored are giving interesting (and unforeseen) insights.

Being able to be flexible has allowed my project not to be derailed

It’s December in year 2 of my PhD and I have completed 5 teacher interviews and have started the school group interviews. Have I made the right decisions and the right changes? I am still prepared to be flexible for the probable additional bumps to come. I have to be positive and confident and remember ♫ Everything is Awesome ♫.

Documents as data: My experience of transitioning to a documentary-based PhD

Angela Plessas is a third year PhD student in Sociology at Newcastle, studying polycystic ovary syndrome as a diagnostic category. Like many students, she has had to adapt her research project in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, shifting from interviews to a document-based approach. This transition has been challenging, but ultimately rewarding.  

Documentary research methods are generally considered the realm of the Historian, not the Sociologist. Although they don’t necessarily have a ‘bad name’ in social research, they are certainly misunderstood. The precise steps for carrying out documentary research are seen as vague, and the resulting analysis prone to bias. Documentary research is usually considered, at best, complimentary to a researcher’s main choice of methods, but never the main method itself.

I was once guilty of these misconceptions myself, until COVID-19 changed everything. When the country went into lockdown in March, I was about to start interviewing GPs who have cared for women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). I knew these interviews would be challenging, but I felt ready. I had ethical approval, my interview schedules had been tried and tested, and I was in the early stages of recruitment. A few days into lockdown though, when communication with potential GP participants completely dried up, it became obvious that things had changed.  

What is PCOS?

PCOS is a common endocrine condition, thought to affect 1 in 10 women around the world. My original ambition for this study was to ‘shed light on the true lived experiences of women with PCOS’, with a focus on experiences of diagnosis. However, thanks to my supervisors and their experience in in-depth research with medical documents, I began to realise that there was much more to PCOS diagnosis than that which takes place in a GP surgery. Many of these trends and practices are rooted in medical literature – its ambiguities, controversies and debates. 

Image credit: Torrenta Y/Shutterstock.com

How my research changed

During lockdown, many GPs were working remotely and had to prioritise the most essential tasks over others. Even now, routine care remains severely disrupted, and GPs are tackling a huge backlog of care for those who had treatment postponed during lockdown. Recruiting and interviewing GPs in this environment seemed near impossible. Like most PhD students at a similar stage to myself, I needed to consider alternative options.

For my study, documentary-based research methods offered a practical way forward and an opportunity to conduct an entirely original study of PCOS-literature. Since adopting these methods, I have realised how rich and ripe for analysis PCOS medical literature is. PCOS has had numerous names throughout its history. It was once named after the researchers who ‘discovered’ it – Stein and Leventhal – before being known as polycystic ovary disease, and more recently, polycystic ovary syndrome. Although this name refers to ‘multiple cysts’ and to ‘ovaries’, many women with PCOS have no ovarian cysts whatsoever. Equally, many women who do have ovarian cysts, do not have PCOS. The fact that a huge and expansive body of PCOS medical literature exists, and that significant diagnostic dilemmas remain, also indicates a host of unanswered questions which need exploring.    

These include questions like:

  1. What happened to Stein and Leventhal?
  2. Why does the name of the condition revolve around ‘cysts’ and ‘ovaries’?
  3. How many PCOS symptoms ARE there?
  4. How many PCOS ‘phenotypes’ ARE there?
  5. What makes it a syndrome?

There are a number of advantages to using documentary research. From a practical perspective, this approach is extremely COVID-safe. A documentary-based study also allows for a detailed and focused examination of the stories and debates which exist in relevant literature. These stories often go untold and unexamined and could help provide answers for the dilemmas and difficulties experienced by professionals in the field, as well as by women living with PCOS.  

Doing documentary research should not be considered an ‘easy’ option. It must be systematic and rigorous. Narrowing down large samples of documents involves meticulous sorting and searching. The work is entirely desk based and I spend a LOT of time staring at documents on my screen. I occasionally experience ‘medical language overload’ where, as someone with no medical background, I start to feel overwhelmed by the new and unfamiliar terminology. Below is a good illustration of what this looks like!

Image credit: mypokcik/Shutterstock.com

My advice for others thinking of changing their projects is to talk to your peers and supervisors as much as possible. Many of us across Sociology and the HASS faculty have now been through significant project changes, some of which have been much more dramatic than this one! Try to stay positive and know that your project can still be truly engaging and enjoyable, even if it’s not what you originally had in mind.

I quickly learned to love and enjoy my newly adapted project. Although I’d still like to interview PCOS professionals, I am finding that using only documentary research methods is a truly effective way to understand the nuances and complexities of the PCOS diagnostic category. If it had not been for having to change my project due to the global pandemic, I would never have discovered this.