Collecting qualitative data during the Covid-19 pandemic: Reflections from the field

Ndiweteko Jennifer Nghishitende

PhD student

Living with the Consequences of Slavery Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull.

N.J.Nghishitende-2020@hull.ac.uk

My research aims to understand women’s journeys after experiencing ‘modern slavery’ in the UK. Though ‘modern slavery’ is understood as an umbrella term encompassing various forms of exploitation, including human trafficking, slavery, servitude, and forced or compulsory labour, the term is highly contested, and so in my writing, I have decided to place inverted commas around it.

In October 2021, I began collecting data through semi-structured interviews with women affected by ‘modern slavery’ and practitioners working in the field across the UK. Because there were still high levels of Covid-19 infection, I offered the women I interviewed the choice to talk online or in person. In this blog, I will share some reflections on my experiences of conducting interviews online, and their benefits and drawbacks. The names of the women involved have been changed.

Out of the nineteen women I interviewed, only five decided to be interviewed in person, while fourteen chose Zoom. As soon as I realised that online interviews were the preferred method, I began asking the women why they had chosen to meet on Zoom rather than in person.

Zoom has a reputation as a ‘subtly dehumanising technology’ with the potential to undermine the trust that is necessary to building rapport. However, in general I did not find it difficult to warm to the women, especially when they learned that I am a mother – a good number of my interviewees were mothers.

When asked why they had chosen Zoom, the first prominent reason the women gave for preferring it was the ability to express themselves freely. Ginger said:

It was more convenient, and I could be free to speak my mind, in my own space where I know that no one can hear me. I felt free to speak with you and also be vulnerable in my telling you of everything that happened.

Naomi highlighted a potentially overlooked aspect – the problem of anxiety.

I prefer zoom. No travelling and it depends on the area anyway where I’m going. I’m a very very quiet person on a normal day so when I’m around people that I don’t know or I’m not used to I’m very very uncomfortable. I have anxiety so I’m always conscious when I’m outside.

When participants in such intimate research feel safe to speak, the interview process becomes much easier for both parties and better for collecting quality data. Remote interviews may then be the solution for those who have access to them and consent to use them.

Some women also informed me that the screen provided an essential emotional shield. Selma, for instance, said she would not say she particularly preferred either online or face-to-face interviews. However, in hindsight, she said, ‘it was better seeing me upset over the cam than physically.’

Other women also saw online discussions as less embarrassing and raised other issues related to the screen image. Paula had this to say:

online is fine but the travel … is only because my leg is bad, I think for me and that the things probably we discussed I will find it harder to discuss face-to-face because you wouldn’t want to break down and online kind of like allows me to speak. That’s my own personal opinion. To speak quite bluntly about a lot of things let’s say if we were sitting face-to-face I would start watching your body language and say maybe I’m making her uncomfortable maybe I’m not you know those kinds of things.

Most women indicated that because they could not see most of my body, they could not see my body language. This was important because sometimes body language can act as a disincentive. Similar to Paula, Ruby said:

No hassle of travelling and to be frank, I would not be as open to speaking with you as I am now. I would have been looking at your body language to see if I am making you uncomfortable and then decide based on that whether or not I should reveal more.

As the researcher, I also found distance in the screen as I fought back tears at several points during the interview. But at the same time, I felt powerless.  Though I appreciate that when some women become emotional, they want to be on their own to deal with this, in person, I could have offered a tissue or a drink of water.

At the same time, the distance provided by the screen can be a problem. Travelling away from an interview’s location can help the interviewer deal with the emotions they accumulated from the interview by putting a physical distance between themselves and its location. However, this was not possible with Zoom. You can press a button or close your laptop once you say goodbye, but the interview stays with you. It lingers.

In addition, I was at a disadvantage in not seeing much body language. Although I could note facial expressions, long pauses, laughter, tears, and sighs, I could not see what the women were doing with their hands and found it hard to notice when they shifted in their seats. Without these important non-verbal cues, I found it difficult to assess their level of discomfort and deliver my duty of care towards them.

In one case, all body language, including facial expressions, was eliminated. I had given all the women the option to keep their camera off during the interview, but fortunately, only one woman decided to do this. Nonetheless, her ability to see me while I could not see her was an interesting experience. Out of curiosity, I asked her at the end why she did not feel comfortable having her camera on; she said, ‘I don’t know you’, which was fair enough.

For those who chose Zoom, the convenience of an online interview was a key factor, and this has been confirmed by other studies.  Tiwa indicated that ‘it’s only because of my busy schedule. I can only afford to do Zoom at the moment, which made the interview faster rather than waiting for a day that I’ll be free’. Others pointed out that they were glad that they did not have to travel to meet me, and spending less was also cited, even though I had informed them that I would be responsible for any costs they would incur. I believe this revealed some empathy for my research costs.  I have to say here that I also appreciated the convenience that came with online interviews for me, which saved me time and money. Most importantly, I could complete my research diary immediately after the interview while the conversation was still fresh in my mind.

It was interesting that safety, including contracting Covid-19, was the least cited reason. Only one woman glossed over the issue. One other mentioned safety and said: ‘You stay in Hull, will it be easy for you and besides, I haven’t met you before so for safety reasons as well.’

It is, however, also important to note that not everyone prefers Zoom, as Naita’s response reveals:

I’m not sure… I would have liked to meet face-to-face, but it was convenient that I could fit the zoom meeting into my schedule also. So, I normally like to meet face-to-face, but it all depends how busy I am.

Despite slight connectivity problems with one or two interviews, my experience of Zoom interviewing overall has been positive. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that there are some drawbacks and while online interviews seem promising and will probably gain more prominence moving forward, we should keep in mind the inequalities that Covid-19 has laid bare across the world, at individual and government levels. Communities with little or no access to computer technology will, in this online world, be excluded from research. This should remind us that when able to do so, the physical field is still the best place to be, even if it means spending more hours travelling and spending more money to hold interviews to ensure that no one is left out.

As researchers, whenever possible, may we always choose inclusion over convenience. Let us hike deserts, if we must, to reach the rarely researched, technologically out of reach communities. Photo by author.

Mothers with lived experience of modern slavery

Ndiweteko Jennifer Nghishitende

PhD student, Living with the Consequences of Slavery Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull.

N.J.NGHISHITENDE-2020@hull.ac.uk

When we consider life after modern slavery, we should not only consider survival, but also the prospect of survivors having opportunities to become thriving members of society. My research focuses on women and young persons who have left situations of modern slavery in the UK, and I have recently commenced fieldwork, speaking to women as well as practitioners who support them. I am increasingly becoming aware of the large gap in the manner in which mothers with children are supported, which may severely impact their potential to thrive after exploitation. Many women enter exploitation as mothers, while others emerge out of exploitation pregnant, or with young children, some having their children as a result of the exploitation.

Motherhood

Motherhood requires ‘maternal work’, which comprises daily repetitive tasks towards the raising of children. This ‘maternal work’ is three-pronged in that it encompasses the physical care of children, the emotional and spiritual care of children, and the training of children to be social. This makes motherhood a multidimensional role, in addition to taking care of oneself as an individual. The ‘cultural story’ of motherhood, however, makes mothers out to be strong, independent, and nonthreatening- thus expected to be able to bear almost anything.

Mothers with lived experience of modern slavery seem to be expected to conform to this ‘cultural story’ having to rely mostly on strength to survive. Strength is needed to perform their ‘maternal work’ – physically, spiritually, and emotionally taking care of their children, doing school runs – and during the COVID-19 lockdown, this included home-schooling. This is done in conjunction with moving forward; battling insecure immigration statuses; dealing with insecure, sometimes temporary accommodation; dealing with criminalisation; integrating; working (if allowed and able); dating, or sustaining a marriage; fostering friendships; and so forth.

A suspended future

Women generally consider their children to be their lives, and some mothers find solace in vicariously living through their children by throwing themselves into their upbringing. After all, a mother’s love is ‘supposed’ to know no bounds, and part of her ‘maternal work’ is to protect her child. Because the support available for those who can access it is limited, mothers with lived experience of modern slavery may have to pause or suspend their own lives in favour of those of their children. Some would, for instance, skip their therapy sessions  and other important appointments, but would ensure to take their children to the doctor when needed.

However, children grow up and move out. What happens then? A mother I recently interviewed could not answer me when I asked her about what she wanted the next few years of her life to look like. Her children are her life and soon they will grow up and leave the nest, after which she will be left to deal with her past trauma that was deferred to raise her children.

Work

The benefits of being able to work have been well documented. The inability to work, on the other hand,  has been found to affect individuals negatively, as it can impede social integration and increase destitution, impair confidence, cause loss of skills, accentuate isolation and increase vulnerabilities. Working is important in restoring mental wellbeing and a sense of dignity and self-worth and the provision of a meagre weekly allowance does not address the mental health implications associated with living without work.

Mothers with lived experience of modern slavery express a strong desire to work, but there are various compelling challenges that prevent them from doing so. The issue of work affects mothers differently and it is not simply a matter of having the right to work or the capability. Usually, these mothers are lone parents, and encounter problems surrounding childcare. Some women are British survivors for instance who are unable to work due to insecure childcare. Others may be international survivors with the right to work but face other layers of difficulty in addition to childcare – women may have language barrier problems or long gaps in their resumes that are hard to explain to potential employers because of time spent in exploitation.

In addition to childcare, some mothers are also faced with skills deficits.  Some may have spent many years in terrible working conditions performing unfulfilling tasks that may have stunted their productive abilities. Others may have entered exploitation while they were still children and as such were deprived of the opportunity to gain certain skills. One of the women I interviewed relayed to me that in the quest to obtain skills and thus gainful employment, she would take her babies to class with her, sometimes having to breastfeed during lectures and subsequently having to repeat modules multiple times.

Effects on children

With World Children’s Day commemorated on Saturday, 20 November 2021 (and on 20 November of every year since 1954) to ‘promote international togetherness, awareness among children worldwide, and improving children’s welfare’ it is apt to recognise the impact on the children discussed within this context. Children emerging out of exploitation with their mothers are being let down by the system, even though the need to extend particular care to the child has been emphasised in various international and national human rights instruments. Insufficient support for a mother invariably means insufficient support for the child.

Further, some children are affected by their mothers’ experiences. Those with their mothers and are exposed to their mothers’ hardships may face the possibility of stunted growth and development and/or mental health problems. Children are at times forced to grow up too quickly – taking on responsibilities such as taking care of younger siblings and sometimes even suppressing their feelings to protect their mother’s emotions.

Others are affected by being left behind – a significant number of migrant women have children and are usually unable to migrate with them, because of a lack of safe and legal pathways to migrate and other factors. Some then decide to leave their children behind, in the care of relatives, friends, or nannies, although most feel guilt and remorse  for doing so.

While existing studies suggest that the circumstances surrounding each cohort of children left behind are highly variable, some children struggle without their mothers and some may become withdrawn or perform poorly in school.

The way forward

Although I am in the early stages of my data collection, I have found that the journeys of these mothers and those of their children have barely been researched. Data needs to be collected to inform solutions. More needs to be done, to ensure that women and children in this category are given equitable treatment to not only survive but also thrive, given that their background conditions are complicated. As a mother myself, I know that thriving mothers have a better chance of raising thriving children.

Caption: Mother and child photo from Pexels, copyright free.

Living with the consequences of slavery

Isabel Arce Zelada

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

i.d.arce-zelada-2020@hull.ac.uk

Jen Nghishitende

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

n.j.nghishitende-2020@hull.ac.uk

Mavuto K. Banda

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

m.k.banda-2020@hull.ac.uk

Five months in, our three newest PhD students, Isabel Arce Zelada, Jen Nghishitende and Mavuto Banda, reflect on their collective agenda and their individual research projects so far.

We started our PhDs in the midst of a pandemic and as a cluster we have had little opportunity to work together and understand how our projects interlink. However, through various zoom calls and physically distant interactions we are beginning to understand where we belong in this cluster as a team as well as individually. As a cohesive unit we found that we each speak about the way various institutions constantly ask groups of people with different experiences of exploitation to present themselves as victims. This establishes a uniform ‘humanitarian’ response to problems that involve a multiplicity of experiences, and in the process creates and recreates the model of what a victim is and what they need. At the core of all our projects are individuals who constantly have to prove themselves to be victims in order to get some level of assistance. As such, we are, as a collective, critically investigating what we mean when we say ‘victim’ and what solutions we need to achieve to assist this group of individuals. 

Isabel

In asylum processes the idea that the nation-state is providing safety to a person seeking persecution has a long and complicated history. As an institution asylum has always led to wide networks of power in which many other institutions are involved. In the UK, the rise of nationalistic sentiments, detention centres and hostile environments have led to an awkward paradox in which the UK saves the asylum seeker, yet also condemns them for a role in the demise of the British nation. At the same time, the asylum system keeps its humanitarian role by supposedly saving the true refugee. I am therefore researching the many violent tactics of distrust and retraumatization that are present in the UK asylum process. 

Jen

My research deals with women and children who have survived modern slavery in the UK and as such, I will be focusing on those people who have already either been accepted or rejected as ‘victims’ by the UK Home Office. In recent years, the spotlight has been placed on survivors’ accounts, their tales of slavery and their eventual escape or rescue; scant attention has been placed on what happens to survivors after slavery, especially in the long term. My research will therefore examine the long term trajectories of survivors in the UK, all the while looking at the laws, policies, and processes that are in place to assist them with rehabilitation and reintegration into society in order to  regain their rights and dignity.

Mavuto

My research looks from a different perspective at the children that have become the victims of modern slavery. In adhering to Fairtrade standards and safeguarding their corporate image, Malawi’s commercial agriculture has banned the employment of under-18 year olds in its plantations, as it seeks to prevent and rescue children from the evils of ‘child labour’. Once the work of under-18 year olds in commercial tea and tobacco plantations had been defined as ‘child labour’ this ban became necessary. My study therefore aims at exploring the impact of ‘child labour’ bans in commercial tea and tobacco estates with respect to youth employment and livelihoods in rural communities of Malawi. It will try to understand the socio-cultural dynamics of life in Malawi, and how communities view children’s participation in the labour market.

Henry Ford once said, ‘Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.’ Our continual working relationship will therefore lead to the collective success of our cluster as well as our individual successes in our research projects. We also look forward to hopefully meeting and working with everyone soon in person at the Wilberforce Institute. Our shared hope for the future is that victimhood, with the pressures of presenting oneself as the perfect victim, is scrutinized, and the assistance that is needed is given without requesting trauma as payment for it.

Protective medical mask on laptop. https://www.flickr.com/photos/156445661@N02/49799314177

‘Living with the Consequences of Slavery’ PhD Cluster

Dr Lorena Arocha

Lecturer in Contemporary Slavery, Wilberforce Institute

lorena.arocha@hull.ac.uk

This month we are delighted to welcome three new PhD students to the Wilberforce Institute. They are all part of the ‘Living with the Consequences of Slavery’ PhD Cluster, a strategic investment for the Wilberforce Institute and the University of Hull in this field.

The position we have taken with this PhD Cluster is that it is not evil people that create victims but systems. Criminal justice studies have historically been more concerned with the punishment of the offender, but our new students’ research sits with recent moves to re-centre attention critically on the relational shared experiences of victims/survivors and non-victims. Each of these individual projects therefore explores key questions that go beyond the individual person affected by these practices, examining instead the effects of systematic and rooted processes of exploitation, its relation with processes of victimhood and their intersection with questions of social justice and social rights.

The ‘Living with the Consequences of Slavery’ PhD Cluster examines contemporary forms of slavery from three different angles of critical victimology. The first project is led by Jennifer Nghishitende, who will be looking at what happens after people have experienced exploitation, how people make sense of these experiences and how they then move on with their lives, especially in the longer-term, with an emphasis on questions of dignity and rights.

Jennifer Nghishitende 

‘Living with the Consequences of Slavery’ PhD Research Cluster

n.j.nghishitende-2020@hull.ac.uk

The second project is led by Isabel Arce Zelada, whose investigation centres on testimonies, in asylum courts and beyond, and the extent to which these deliver justice.

Isabel Arce Zelada

‘Living with the Consequences of Slavery’ PhD Research Cluster

i.d.arce-zelada-2020@hull.ac.uk

The third project, led by Mavuto Kambochola Banda, focuses on tea plantations in Malawi. Mavuto will examine the unintended consequences of policy measures which are put in place to tackle contemporary forms of slavery.  Such interventions can adversely affect the lives of those they intend to assist.

Mavuto Kambochola Banda

‘Living with the Consequences of Slavery’ PhD Research Cluster

m.k.banda-2020@hull.ac.uk

The ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ Cluster will therefore look at these problematics from opposite directions: on the one hand, from the perspective of those who have experienced exploitation and its relation with victimisation processes in contemporary forms of slavery; and, on the other, from the perspective of those who have been disadvantaged as a result of humanitarian anti-slavery measures. This, we believe, offers an exceptional opportunity to gain a more comprehensive picture of the complexity of practices and processes that drive exploitation experiences as well as an in-depth understanding of the impact of these experiences in the long term.

The theme of critical victimology, which marks a new direction for the Wilberforce Institute, is composed of two strands. Alongside our investment in the PhD scholarships we are introducing an MA programme in Contemporary Slavery Studies and Critical Victimology, due to start in February 2021.  The MA offers our new PhD students a platform and a community with whom to share their research. We are hoping they will inspire others to engage in this critical area of study.

We have high expectations for our new PhD students, and are looking forward to guiding and supporting them through their studies. They will be based at the Wilberforce Institute when they are not away on research, working with a team of supervisors across various disciplines, in Human Geography, Social Sciences, Criminology and Law.  We are excited by the prospect of seeing their research projects develop as they grow as scholars.

Oriel Chambers, High Street, Hull – the home of the Wilberforce Institute.