Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Covid life-courses – Reflecting on Meta-Temporalities in the Study of Youth Futures Within the Covid 19 Pandemic
Giuliana Mandich, Valentina Cuzzocrea, Caterina Satta, Università di Cagliari, Italy
On the 22nd January 2020, a meeting took place in the vibrant city of Naples, between those involved in an Italian Ministry of Education research project: Mapping Youth Futures: Forms of Anticipation and Youth Agency. Many members of the research group have studied temporalities for a long time, and the project had been under evaluation for an extensive period. Thus, although its main aim is anything but a simple one – analysing contemporary young people’s views of the future in Italy – a longstanding focus on these issues contributed towards what we felt like a lifetime engagement with the project. This somehow justified a lively discussion in Naples, accompanied by pizza, spaghetti alle vongole and friarielli and Falanghina, in some very crowded public spaces that are such a feature of the city.
At that time in the life course of the project, the hottest debate was how to tackle the qualitative interviews, with research partners discussing possible interview guides and samples. Scholars in the field will know that working with narratives of the future is never an easy task. The future as a ‘narrative field’ is an extremely fragile, evanescent, and at the same time pervasive, focus to capture in an interview encounter. The growing body of literature on its multifariousness and wickedness , its affective dimension , and the role of mere imagination , suggest complex methodological implications.
Back in late January, Covid-19 was completely outside of our research agenda. Ten days before, Covid-19 had been shown to have caused 282 deaths within four countries that we perceived as being sufficiently distant to consider them as beyond our personal concerns. In the Italian news, the main pages at that time had been dominated by football, Brexit, and Trump. Just a few days later, the first cases were registered in Rome and, on the 21st February, the first site of Covid-19 emerged in Lombardia, infecting 60 people within a day. It is from that moment on that the virus rapidly spread, transforming many fundamental aspects of our everyday lives and, for what we are concerned with here, the contours of temporalities that we were used to reflecting upon in conducting our research. Indeed, on the 23rd, Europe faced its first major outbreak as the number of reported cases in Italy grew to over 150. In the Lombardy region, officials locked down 10 towns, schools were closed, and sporting and cultural events were cancelled. On the 9th March, the national government announced a lockdown across the country, catching most people unprepared. Following an initial division between ‘red zones’ and ‘the rest of the country’, the danger of the pandemic grew, and, on the 12th March, the outbreak was declared by the WHO as a pandemic.
As the virus spread, some sporadic discussions took place between research partners on how these events could interfere with young people’s views of the future. Until that point, the team continued to interview ‘as usual’ (or, in a ‘pre-Covid modality’), as if the spectre of the virus did not interfere with either the interviewer’s performance, or more importantly, the interviewees’ perceptions. The Southern regions of Italy had been less affected, creating distinctive situations between the only partner based in the North (Milan) and the others (in Cagliari, Cosenza, Napoli). In running our research project, the first phase ‘simply’ felt like we had temporarily to suspend our activities and reorganize research timetables. How much time could, or should, we allow to let the monster fade away? A couple of weeks? A month? Several months? Soon, face to face interviews were evidently out of reach, so using Skype interviews become an alternative option. On the one hand, we felt an obligation to continue with the research; yet on the other hand, this forced stop was also somehow reassuring, as if the issue we were facing was inherently a technical one (we cannot do interviews right now). It allowed us to implement a sort of temporary ‘exit’ strategy in relation to what we continued to perceive as our normality, as a concept of what we would have gone back to at some point. This sentiment was backed up by the motto which concurrently spread all over Italy as a popular reaction to the pandemic, ‘andrà tutto bene’ (everything is going to be ok).
Admittedly, this was a very brief phase. In a few days’ time, we all had to face the fact that the complete disruption to our everyday lives (including teaching and research, aside from our personal lives), and the continuously growing anxiety were not something that we could simply sweep under the carpet. Should we reframe our research to capture the spirit of those days? To what extent were youth futures being redefined by the Covid-19 pandemic? What is it, in substance, that reconfigures our research objective, and how can we activate the most appropriate reflexive approach, beyond the, at times, pedantic research protocols?
McLeod argues that “all research takes place in and over time, research methods and ways of knowing and theorising emerge and take hold in particular times and places, and […] research projects mobilise different and cross-cutting temporal registers” . As never before, this notion that research practices have their own history has suddenly become a matter of readapting research practices on an everyday basis. The historical time of the research project has changed profoundly and will not stay still. Indeed, the pandemic frame we initially used to rethink our research design has since taken a range of different shapes according to the evolution of the contagion curve over the weeks. Our reframed research questions have continually been shattered by the incoming news, the next national law, the next regional restriction, and above all the next loss of known and unknown people.
As researchers we have studied the processes of time acceleration, and we have come up with the idea of an ‘extension of the present’  as a response to uncertainty. However, we often flatten the temporalities of our research practices as well as the rhythms entailed in them. Mostly, we keep temporality ‘under control’ by deciding when to launch a survey, how long it should take to conduct interviews, as well as when and how long an interview should take. Thus, the temporality of research often coincides with a timetable, a preconceived workplan, a technicality, so to speak, while the time of the research process itself mostly remains a matter of being accountable to research funders.
McLeod’s reflections are made in relation to longitudinal research, suggesting to us that we reconsider whether a research project which was developed in one temporal dimension could be reorganised into ‘before’ and ‘after’ the emergence of the pandemic. Such a distinction, however, still leaves us at loss when it comes to identifying an ‘after’ the resolution of the pandemic, being restricted as we are at the moment, in a quarantine bubble after which a (new) future will begin. Questioning the future therefore assumes different meanings today, and so is the question of how long is now. To speak about findings: in one interview that was conducted in Cagliari, it emerged that the interviewee, based on her personal experience of mobility, was working towards making her experience a source of future employment through founding a start-up for digital nomads. We cannot imagine how her imagination of the future, which she had probably thought of for a long time, has changed in the weeks after the interview. Yet, we can imagine that some very quick and unexpected adjustments ought to be made by her in view of future opportunities. Clearly, there is a ‘before’ and ‘after’ the emergence of the pandemic, as well as an ‘after the resolution’, and perhaps more significantly, a ‘future viewed from the past’ that has been surpassed.
Thus far, as a research group we have started to explore ways of continuing our research. Trusting that sociological tools will enable us to capture the possibly profound resignification of categories of futurity and temporality, the intertwining of the pandemic temporalities and the temporalities of research is an issue now. If things have accelerated so rapidly, can/should we ignore the speeding up of methodological adjustments too?
 Tutton, R. (2017) ‘Wicked futures: Meaning, matter and the sociology of the future’. The Sociological Review, 65(3): 478–492.
 Coleman, R. Tutton, R. (2017) ‘Introduction to Special Issue of Sociological Review on ‘Futures in Question: Theories, Methods, Practices’. The Sociological Review, 65(3): 440–447.
 Cuzzocrea, V. Mandich, G. (2016) ‘Students’ narratives of the future: Imagined mobilities as forms of youth agency?’. Journal of Youth Studies, 19(4): 552–567.
 McLeod, J. (2017) ‘Marking time, making methods: temporality and untimely dilemmas in the sociology of youth and educational change’. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 38(1): 13–25.
 Nowotny, H. (1994) Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience. Polity Press
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