Reflections on conducting SlaFMig research during the COVID-19 pandemic

– by the SlaFMig project team members, Associate Professor Lotte Pelckmans, and master students Leah Durst-Lee and Nolwenn Marconnet, based at AMIS Centre for Advanced Migration Studies, University of Copenhagen-

The SlaFMig project began in February 2020 and in March 2020 the Copenhagen-based researchers went into a country-wide lockdown, working online from home. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, the project has managed to keep up the pace and conduct great research and our teams in Mali have almost gone unhindered by the pandemic. We, the three researchers from the Copenhagen team, reflect on our challenges and opportunities while conducting research for the SlaFMig project during the pandemic.

Lotte Pelckmans focuses mainly on the displacement, mobilisation and diaspora activism for men and women (of slave descent). She works on a short documentary which will be used in SlaFMig awareness raising campaigns. Lotte shares:

‘The bulk of my research was to take place among the (female activist) diaspora in France and I managed to begin research on the infrastructure, leaders, mobilization, social media and female activists in France by moving fully online. Compared to offline fieldwork experiences, meeting informants for the first time online was a bit awkward, both for them and for me. Even though I obtained my contacts by snowballing method via one central and trusted female community member, establishing first contacts on screen, gives the extra challenge of establishing trust. This was especially so for those informants, often women, who had never used Zoom before, some of whom are illiterate and therefore needed to rely on family members to log on and off, often using phones rather than computers. Nevertheless, the conversational format of online interviews allowed for quite intensive and valuable exchanges and having experience with types of greetings and humor during earlier work in and with Malian diaspora, certainly helped. The extra challenge in terms of building trust was the proposal to make a documentary movie with them, also partly by recording on Zoom. Since many of the women are exposed to a lot of hate speech due to their activism on slavery, appearing in a documentary was understandably a large request and resulted in no-shows and miscommunication. Those with more experience with Zoom were much more at ease, also when it came to recording. The format of online Zoom meetings has allowed for more privacy and intimacy, as compared to offline live fieldwork I had done in the same diaspora group years ago. In offline situations, informants were often in the process of doing something and accompanied by others and would not spontaneously (be able to) isolate themselves with me in a quiet spot to engage in 1-to-1 communication. In pre-covid19 offline settings, I experienced much more ‘noise’, both literally (incoming phone calls, TV, cooking or neighbourhood noises), but also in the sense of the co-presence of several other persons (co-habitants, kids and family members) who were around and possibly impacted on the informants’ ease to speak in full confidentiality and openness. In the online world, such ‘noise’ was surprisingly often almost totally absent. Of course, online interviews have  limitations, such as not being able to observe participants’ actions, body language and environmental haptic and sensory information, plus the input of ‘uninvited’ informants tagging along.  These limitations make us miss important layers to full understanding of situations, so I look forward to meet these great personalities in person in the Parisian banlieues. All in all, COVID restrictions have not fully limited getting in touch and establishing new relations with inspiring men and women who engage in descent-based slavery activism. In conclusion, I think ‘hybrid fieldwork’, combining on-and offline interactions, will become more common in my research.

MA student Leah Durst-Lee was inspired by her research internship with the SlaFMig project to focus her master’s thesis on how the passage of a criminal anti-slavery law may protect displaced formerly enslaved individuals from becoming re-enslaved into forms of servitude or dependence in Mali. To make this feasible during lockdown, she interviewed academics and practitioners around the world who have studied or worked with issues of descent-based slavery, forced migration and anti-slavery law. Leah comments: ’Performing research during the pandemic has impacted all areas of my research, however not all for bad. Because I am unable to physically travel to Mali to conduct fieldwork and interviews, I have virtually interviewed experts in Western and Southern Africa, Europe, and North America. I have also been pushed to try a new method, case study analysis, by studying how the passage of criminal anti-slavery laws in Mauritania and Niger may have impacted the vulnerability to slavery and dependence of formerly enslaved individuals there. While my dream would have been to travel to Mali, engaging online with SlaFMig researchers and other researchers and advocates has made me feel not quite as far removed, at least until it is safe to travel again.’
MA student Nolwenn Marconnet collaborated with Lotte Pelckmans on the role of social media in the Soninké diaspora who engage in anti-slavery activism, including awareness raising and legal actions. Nolwenn shares: ‘Navigating my own linguistic advantages and limitations (I speak French but not Soninké) and the fact that I have never met any of my informants in person due to the Covid-19 travel restrictions, I oriented my research to the transnational involvement of the (mainly French-speaking) diaspora through WhatsApp groups. When I started working in the SlaFMig project, the Covid-19 pandemic was already a well-known reality. Although some of my informants sometimes have difficulties using Zoom, the virtual meetings enable me to meet with people “in their home” while still respecting their privacy, and it is probable that my informants had more time to allocate to the interviews as they were in lockdown in France. Furthermore, I took the time to analyse the online content shared on public WhatsApp groups which for none of the participants involves a physical presence and can be done from my phone. I do regret however the lack of opportunity for small talk, participant observation, and the participation in physical meetings and protests organized by the diaspora in Paris, but I hope that the current easing of the Covid-19 restrictions will allow me to do so in a near future.

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