Blog | The possibilities and limitations of adapting your research project in times of COVID19 | by: Kristof Van Assche, Raoul Beunen, Monica Gruezmacher and Martijn Duineveld

This blog was written by: Kristof Van Assche, Raoul Beunen, Monica Gruezmacher and Martijn Duineveld 

The global pandemic has frustrated many research projects and many scholars are in doubt about how to move forwards with their research. We cannot provide a solution, but perhaps shaking up the research mantra a bit, could help those scholars to explore alternative routes and to rethink their methodology. 

A simple and familiar model of research

Many research projects are based on a familiar, basic, model of research: a topic is chosen and literature is reviewed to get an understanding what has previously been studied on this particular topic and what not. Then one familiarises oneself with different available theories that could be useful and a theory is chosen, taking into account the latest insights within the discipline. After or during these steps research questions are formulated and finetuned and a method for data collection and analysis is selected. Then it’s time to jump into the field, the laboratory, the archive or the worldwide web. 

Most of these steps can be done from home, based on information that is available online. Yet the covid-19 pandemic has seriously frustrated the collection and analysis of data. Labs are closed, some forms of fieldwork cannot be carried out, and it has become more difficult to conduct interviews, to organize or attend meetings for example. Given these circumstances it might be relevant to consider how all the different elements of the research process can be adapted, in order to explore possible routes that allow the continuation of research by other means.  

Let’s start with the starting point of a research project: the topic. Adapting the topic is possible if the findings do not illuminate the initial topic. In other words, it can be adapted if the findings do not answer the initial research question, but seem to shed a light on a different issue. This can entail a slight modification, a move towards a related topic where the otherwise unchanged combination of method, theory and data provides new insight. It can also be a wholly different topic, where the findings do not produce much interesting in terms of the original topic, but show e.g. a pattern that is accidently interesting, new or unique for a different topic. The academic literature is littered with examples of such serendipity, where the road of discovery is meandering, and openness to unexpected patterns is more productive when there is also an openness for shifting the topic. 

Adapting theory is both the easiest and the most difficult. In one sense it is the easiest, since no new empirical work has to be done and no tough linking between method and empirics is required. Choosing a new theoretical frame, or developing one, to explain the observed realities, might be an armchair activity, at first sight. On the other hand, the chosen theory pervades all aspects of observation and interpretation, so it can influence all the other linkages in the scheme of research expounded here. So, adapting once theory can be a radical adaptation. Still, one can modify a theory, in the sense of adapting it to a new topic or field of observation, or in the sense of further developing or modifying certain aspects. Adapting theory can lead into constructing theory, and this is a related form of adaptation, where an empirical focus can shift to a theoretical focus. 

Adapting method can be needed when its observed that the chosen method does not deliver the insights expected, or nothing new that might be interesting when shifting the topic (see notes on theory above) or when the world changes and the method you chose is no longer possible. The latter is currently the case, since field work often implies proximity and travel. So alternatives can be sought for (see for an overviews of alternative methods this crowd sourced document ‘Doing fieldwork in a pandemic’. Here it’s important not to forget, a method is not a universal set-in-stone recipe for research. It is a tool to guide observation and conduct reasoning and as such it can be adapted if a different method might be needed, or that a chosen method might be modified, limited or extended to include other methods.

Adapting data might be needed during the research process, and to be clear we don’t refer to illegal practices here, like making up data. The empirical materials obtained through the application of a particular method might at some point prove to be insufficient or even useless. This can be a matter of errors or mistakes in the application of method, and it can be a matter of quantity of data, or of the domain of application of the method. If the research relies on case studies, the cases might have to be chosen differently, or different information might have to be gathered. The object studied might thus have to be changed, or not. The reason to change the data, and not the other elements of the research design, must lie in the belief that the other elements do not need alteration, that one is close to a more important finding with the chosen combination of method, theory and topic. 

Adapting one of the elements mentioned, is, to paraphrase the great philosopher Matthew McConaughey, not easy and it never was and it never will be. And to make things worse: implementing the adaptations just explored, is likely to bring about more adaptations to the research design. Research design thus becomes iterative, with adaptations adopted as long as the fit between topic, theory, method, and empirics can be reasonably improved. 

The need for and the limits of an adaptive methodology 

While the global pandemic might speed up our quest for radical adaption of our research projects, there are other good reasons to avoid methodological rigidity. Rigidity can hamper insights, renders adaptation harder than it ought to be, and it can break the cycle of upgrading the linkages between the elements that constitute a research project. Adaptive methodology is all about learning, taking place within the research itself, improving the learning capacity of the project, but it also relies on the broader knowledge and learning capacity of the researcher or the team. Umberto Eco famously spoke of Abbe Valais, whose horrible interpretation of Thomas Aquinas he found in a Parisian book stall, but where the structure of the mistakes made by Valais pointed himself in the right direction, for a related but different topic.

Unfortunately, adaptive methodology is not without limits. There are many forces that can actually hinder adaptations. Becoming aware of these constraints is crucial for developing an adaptive methodology. The field of topics one is supposed to work on and the theories and methods one is expected to work with, are often pre-structured by a set of forces that do not always coincide with the actual academic potential (or even practical relevance) of these topics, theories, methods and so on. For every concrete research project, there are unique limits to adaptation. Most simply, there are pragmatic reasons to limit adaptation and especially its iterative form: time, money, authority, and the identity and legitimacy politics of disciplines. Certain disciplines are more open than others in terms of methods and methodology and in terms of selection of theory and of topics. In the more extreme cases, a discipline (say economics) might tie its identity to a particular set of quantitative methods and ideological assumptions, whereas extreme cases in the other direction (one can think of cultural geography) expand very quickly by accepting new topics and theories quite easily (the geography of everything). 

Awareness of the forces that limit adaptation is essential for the concept of adaptive methodology. This understanding can be deepened by becoming aware of the couplings between disciplines, topics, theories, methods, and so on. These couplings can be very weak or very tight, or somewhere in between. In some disciplines, for example, certain theories are tightly coupled with certain methods and topics, while other theories can engender research embracing a variety of methods, even lead to the devising of new methods. Conversely, new methods can be semi-autonomous of the theories underpinning the disciplines they emerged from, and produce insights which then lead to the formulation of new theories, etc. 

Adaptive methodology can, over time, change the pattern of couplings, which can then be navigated by others. It might lead to hybrid genres, or, pardon our French, lead to innovation. Generalization of adaptive methodology can in other words enhance the creative potential of science and can be useful far beyond the pragmatics of the project. Education can play an important role here, in emphasizing the importance of rigor in research, the importance of method, while simultaneously showing the possibilities to transcend routinely accepted couplings of method, theory, topic and data. Cultivating reflexivity is useful as is the maintenance of perspectives (and identities) beyond the discipline.

This blog was written by: Kristof Van Assche, Raoul Beunen, Monica Gruezmacher and Martijn Duineveld 

Further reading 

Novel data sources

Alaszewski, A. (2006). Using diaries for social research. Sage.

Lupton, D. (editor) (2020) Doing fieldwork in a pandemic (crowd-sourced document). Available at: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1clGjGABB2h2qbduTgfqribHmog9B6P0NvMgVuiHZCl8/edit?ts=5e88ae0a#

On interviewing 

Alvesson, M. (2003). Beyond neopositivists, romantics, and localists: A reflexive approach to interviews in organizational research. Academy of management review28(1), 13-33.

Czarniawska, B. (2002). Narrative, interviews, and organizations. Handbook of interview research: Context and method, 733-749.

On Case studies

Åsvoll, H. (2014). Abduction, Deduction and Induction: Can these concepts be used for an understanding of methodological processes in interpretative case studies?. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education27(3), 289-307.

Dooley, L. M. (2002). Case study research and theory building. Advances in developing human resources4(3), 335-354.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2006). Five misunderstandings about case-study research. Qualitative inquiry12(2), 219-245.

Innovative and adaptive methods

Austrin, T., & Farnsworth, J. (2005). Hybrid genres: fieldwork, detection and the method of Bruno Latour. Qualitative Research5(2), 147-165.

Blaikie, N., & Priest, J. (2019). Designing social research: The logic of anticipation. John Wiley & Sons.

Creswell, J. W., & Clark, V. L. P. (2017). Designing and conducting mixed methods research. Sage publications, Thousand Oaks.

Creswell, J. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2017). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage publications, Thousand Oaks.

Eco, U. (2015). How to write a thesis. MIT Press.

Hickey-Moody, A. (2013). Affect as method: Feelings, aesthetics and affective pedagogy. Deleuze and research methodologies, 79-95.

Hussein, A. (2009). The use of triangulation in social sciences research: Can qualitative and quantitative methods be combined. Journal of comparative social work1(8), 1-12.

Latour, B. (1980). Is it possible to reconstruct the research process?: Sociology of a brain peptide. In The social process of scientific investigation (pp. 53-73). Springer, Dordrecht.

Todd, Z., Nerlich, B., Clarke, D. D., & McKeown, S. (Eds.). (2004). Mixing methods in psychology: The integration of qualitative and quantitative methods in theory and practice. Psychology Press.

Leavy, P. (2017). Research design: Quantitative, qualitative, mixed methods, arts-based, and community-based participatory research approaches. Guilford Publications, New York.

Theory and method

Beunen, R., Van Assche, K., & Duineveld, M. (2016). Evolutionary governance theory. Theory and applications. Springer International Publishers.

Lipsey, M. W. (1993). Theory as method: Small theories of treatments. New directions for program evalu

Mackenzie, N., & Knipe, S. (2006). Research dilemmas: Paradigms, methods and methodology. Issues in educational research16(2), 193-205.

McGregor, S. L., & Murnane, J. A. (2010). Paradigm, methodology and method: Intellectual integrity in consumer scholarship. International journal of consumer studies34(4), 419-427.

Kumar, R. (2019). Research methodology: A step-by-step guide for beginners. Sage Publications Limited, London.

Peirce, B. N. (1995). The theory of methodology in qualitative research. Tesol Quarterly29(3), 569-576.

Stanley, L., & Wise, S. (1990). Method, methodology and epistemology in feminist research processes. Feminist praxis: Research, theory and epistemology in feminist sociology, 20-60.

Van Assche, K., Beunen, R., Gruezmacher, M., Duineveld, M., Deacon, L., Summers, R., … & Jones, K. (2019). Research methods as bridging devices: path and context mapping in governance. Journal of Organizational Change Management.

Van Assche, K., Gruezmacher, M., & Deacon, L. (2019). Mapping institutional work as a method for local strategy; learning from boom/bust dynamics in the Canadian west. Journal of environmental planning and management62(1), 51-71.

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