Doing Sociology – Funding, Teaching & Opportunities
Coronavirus and Family Life: Challenges for Qualitative Longitudinal Research
Ulrike Zartler, Associate professor of family sociology, Department of Sociology, University of Vienna.
‘How do families experience the current situation?’, ‘How do parents cope with the exit restrictions?’, ‘What studies have been done?’ As a family sociologist at the University of Vienna, Austria, these were the most frequent questions I have been asked since a country-wide lockdown was announced in Austria in March 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic is currently changing social life around the globe, and it makes starkly visible which parts of society are essential for its functioning, and which parts are particularly vulnerable. It has become clear that families represent an essential part of society. Austria was one of the first European countries to impose a Coronavirus lockdown, and stay-at-home orders were in effect from 16th March 2020 until mid-May (with loosened conditions from mid-April onwards). Large areas of the country were placed under quarantine, including one entire federal state, Tyrol, where hundreds of skiing tourists became infected. Childcare facilities, kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, and all non-essential shops were closed. Under these circumstances, families often spent 24 hours a day together, with many parents working from home while simultaneously acting as child-care providers, teachers, cooks, and cleaners.
It was difficult to answer the journalists’ questions. Although some sociological evidence on the impact of pandemic events on family lives exists, nobody has ever experienced a global crisis like the current one. Accordingly, it was difficult to provide substantive answers and in-depth knowledge regarding the effects of the pandemic. Of course, the most suitable approach to addressing these questions would be to capture families’ current experiences, instead of asking them retrospectively about their lives during the pandemic. Such a study would be most effective and informative if it were started immediately, but how would that work? Usually before starting a sociological investigation, we develop detailed research designs, well-grounded study proposals, and precise time plans. In this case, I had only a few days to prepare the entire study, as I was convinced that it would be important to start the investigation in week 1 of the shutdown, when the entire situation was still new to everybody, and it was unclear how long the situation would last. In light of the exceptional circumstances, I decided to give it a try. I developed a concept; thought about methodological approaches, recruitment strategies, and ethical questions; and asked several colleagues  and selected students whether they were interested in being part of the project team or guiding the interviews. We ultimately approached the first respondents during the very first week of the country-wide lockdown.
Theoretically based on family stress theory and a praxeological approach, the aim of the study is to conduct a comprehensive sociological examination of the challenges, experiences, practices, and resources associated with family lives under the Covid-19 measures and restrictions. The final sample consists of 98 parents of kindergarten and school-aged children. Methodologically, the Austrian-wide longitudinal study relies on repeated problem-centered telephone interviews (65 respondents) and diary entries (33 respondents), all of which were collected over the entire period of the Austrian lockdown and beyond (bi-weekly contacts from March to June 2020). Despite my comprehensive research experience (I had previously conducted several qualitative longitudinal studies), undertaking sociological research under these exceptional circumstances was difficult. In the following, I will highlight some of the major challenges we faced in conducting this qualitative longitudinal research.
High time pressure. It is very unusual to set up, prepare, and conduct a study in such a short period of time. In order to start collecting data during the first week of the lockdown, we had to work quickly. Within several days, we had developed recruitment strategies, interview guidelines, templates for diary entries, socio-demographic questionnaires, information sheets, informed consent statements, interview protocols, etc. Under these exceptional circumstances, there was little time to perform pre-tests. We made up for this shortcoming by asking several individuals with diverse backgrounds to review the research tools. We then discussed their feedback in the research team, and we revised the tools accordingly. Furthermore, technical matters, like drawing up instructions on how to guide, record, and document the interviews, had to be resolved.
Dynamic development. Although qualitative research always relies on the principles of openness and flexibility, it is a unique experience to conduct a study during an extremely dynamic situation in which the circumstances change almost daily. Initially, we planned to conduct the study for about three weeks, which was the length of the kindergarten and school closures announced at the start of the crisis. We began by conducting weekly interviews. However, after it became clear that the restrictions would last until at least mid-May – i.e. about 10 weeks – we shifted to conducting most interviews on a bi-weekly basis.
This tight interview schedule turned out to be an excellent methodological approach for capturing the rapid changes and the respondents’ related experiences in a longitudinal manner. However, the uncertain duration of the measures substantially increased the number of interviews we conducted. Moreover, the dynamic situation and the long duration made it necessary to adapt repeatedly the interview guidelines and templates for diary entries, in order to cover issues that emerged over time. The changes had to provide sufficient continuity to allow for comparability over time, and enough variety to cover all new developments, and to keep the respondents interested and motivated. Later on, we also had to think about how the study should develop in the future. Would it be possible and reasonable to maintain the short interval between interviews? When should the study be terminated, and how would we communicate this completion date to our respondents after having 10 or more contacts, usually lasting for an hour or more? We decided to wrap up the study at the end of the school year, but to collect additional data at crucial points in time for families: namely, during summer 2020, when children are on holiday, and families are affected by the reduced availability of child-care and of limited opportunities to take family vacations; during the autumn/winter 2020, after the beginning of the school year; and approximately one year after the lockdown (March 2021).
Limited methodological options. The spectrum of methods used in sociological research under normal conditions is much broader than the methods that were available during the Covid-19 crisis, which made it impossible to apply any methodological approach that requires face-to-face contact. Personal interviews, observations, or other ethnographic methods that are normally used to conduct research on family households could not be employed during the lockdown. Faced with these externally imposed limits, we narrowed our potential research methods to those that are applicable over great distances. Simultaneously, the respondents’ understanding of the necessity of engaging in digitally supported conversations (e.g., telephone or Skype interviews), and their willingness to participate in a study based on such methods, has never been higher than it was during the lockdown period.
Limited resources. Carrying out qualitative longitudinal research always requires more resources than conducting cross-sectional studies. Nevertheless, my basic conviction that the Covid-19 pandemic should not be researched retrospectively, meant that we had to take rapid action. It would have been impossible to develop and conduct this study without the curiosity and interest, as well as the time, energy, and commitment, of the entire research team. During its first four months, the study had received no external funding. Since then, two institutions have funded individual analyses of selected parts of the study . The modification of the procedures of several funding agencies, and the introduction of fast-track funding solutions for projects related to the Covid-19 crisis, should help to improve the funding situation for this and many other studies. Without adequate resources, it will be difficult to conduct additional interviews in order to investigate the medium-term consequences of the lockdown, and it will be impossible to perform comprehensive in-depth analyses of the enormous amount of data collected.
Ethical responsibility. The careful consideration of ethical aspects is always a key task in qualitative longitudinal research. However, the exceptional situation during the Coronavirus pandemic added a number of facets to our ethical responsibilities as researchers. The crisis has fundamentally called into question families’ daily routines, everyday family lives, roles, responsibilities, and economic circumstances. These disruptions have increased the risk that people will experience conflicts, stress, and feelings of instability and fear. At the same time, people’s social contacts, which usually act as stress moderators, were minimised and reduced to virtual encounters during the lockdown. Under such conditions, the social interactions in an interview context gain a whole new level of significance.
Accordingly, many respondents welcomed the interviews as an opportunity to reflect on and share their thoughts and experiences with an interested non-family member. When conducting longitudinal research, interviewers establish a large number of contacts over a relatively short period of time, and thus develop personal relationships with the respondents that are much more intensive than they are in other research contexts. For example, many respondents wanted to stick to the weekly interview schedule (instead of switching to a bi-weekly mode), as they valued the interviews as a tool for reflecting on their often difficult situations. The research team complied with their wishes. We also noticed that the respondents signalled an increasing interest in the researchers’ lives. Interviewer continuity (which is the standard in this study) seemed to further strengthen this interest. While we would not normally reveal our private details, it is unclear whether this principle can or should be fully maintained over the entire study duration under such exceptional circumstances. The highly personalised relationships that developed through the interviews also encouraged the respondents to be very open, and to talk about sensitive issues like conflicts, anxiety, or depressive symptoms. This is the point at which our abilities and capacities as sociologists end, and we carefully informed respondents about the availability of helplines and psychological support. Reflections, exchanges, and supervision among the research team also proved to be important, despite being reduced to taking place in digital conversations due to the lockdown conditions.
Personal involvement. The coronavirus crisis concerns everybody. Like the respondents, the researchers are living under exceptional circumstances, and many have care responsibilities. Moreover, the research activities do not take place in designated office spaces, but at kitchen tables, in bedrooms, in closets, or in tiny workrooms – often while the researchers are coping with care responsibilities and unfavourable technical conditions, and with living situations that make it difficult to conduct confidential interviews. In my case, my husband and my two school-aged children not only accepted my extended working hours and the complete entanglement of work and family life, but also generously granted me the best workplace in our apartment, and they left the room without being asked when I was carrying out interviews. More generally, it is essential that we reflect carefully on our own living and working conditions when conducting research under these circumstances. While having similar living conditions can enhance our understanding of the respondents’ circumstances, experiencing these conditions can also make it more difficult to conduct research, can lead to exhaustion, and may increase the need for exchanges within the research team.
In conclusion, conducting qualitative longitudinal research on families’ experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic demands flexibility and creativity, and presents numerous challenges. The applicability of conventional methodological practices and procedures is called into question under these conditions. Thus, it will be exciting to discuss the experiences of sociologists performing such research around the world, and the implications of these exceptional experiences for future research approaches. Sociology certainly has substantial contributions to make to efforts to investigate this crisis, and to explain its impact on diverse areas of society.
 Many thanks go to Vera Dafert, Sabine Harter, Lisa Bock, Lina Kröncke, Francesca Bisanti, Christina Lux and Susanne Vogl for supporting the study.
 ‘Women in Vienna and COVID-19’, supported by the City of Vienna Women’s Department (MA 57); ‘Corona: Work and Care. Challenges for Families during the COVID-19 Pandemic in Austria’, supported by the Vienna Chamber of Labour.
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