Reformulating our research during COVID-19

Reformulating research with parents who use drugs and services that support them.

By James Todd

Original plans of the Relations Study

Before I joined the study in February 2021, the team’s pre-pandemic plan was to conduct relational, longitudinal ethnography, following the work of Matthew Desmond (2014), working closely with 30 families and within 12 services in the Lothian region and in London, England across a 20-month period. In doing so, the team hoped to witness in real time and in everyday spaces relations between practitioners, parents, and their wider families, and to explore how entangled networks of policy, practice, discourse, care, and support for parents & families actually work and unfold.

Reformulating the research in Scotland

In this blog, I’ll focus how we reformulated the project in the ongoing COVID-19 context in the Scotland side of our research, begun in autumn 2021. The challenges we have faced in London and Scotland have been distinct, particularly around COVID-19 guidance within services and the access we have had to conduct in person research in both services and family spaces. Indeed, our access to services has been more limited in Scotland than in London.

Reformulating research with families

Initially, we were not able to enter family homes due to restrictions, and the family work had to be reformulated to allow us to work at a distance from parents. To combat this, we repurposed some of our project budget to allow us to purchase smart phones for parents, which we use to keep in contact via text and phone calls, with family members able to send us photographic snapshots of their daily lives. We also meet families for walking interviews and we have spent more time outdoors engaging with parents. More recently, in recognition of the difficult situation many families find themselves in during COVID and the current economic context, and in relation to their often-overwhelming engagements with multiple services, we pivoted our focus away from deep, longitudinal ethnographic engagement. We now have the flexibility to offer families multiple choices about how they engage, from an individual, one off interview, to a longer programme of more participatory work.

Keeping in contact via text and phone calls

Although we have faced challenges getting referrals of parents from services, we have built a solid cohort engaged in the study and we are now beginning to build connections with their wider family networks. Working at a distance also introduces new challenges around ensuring privacy, confidentiality and safety.

Another major challenge for the research team has been recognising the limited and often rapidly shifting ability of families to create space in their lives to engage in research, often when family members are overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of service involvement in their lives. This is further compounded by our more limited ability to demonstrate the distinction between having your voice heard through research and repeatedly resharing intimate lived experiences with multiple practitioners, as many family members have told us they find particularly difficult.

Reformulating research with services

Our approach to research within services has become similarly sporadic and, crucially, responsive to the changing needs of practitioners. In Scotland, we have prioritised focussing on individual practitioners’ workloads and caseloads, and on capturing their views and perspectives as they unfold over time through repeat interviews, rather than observing direct practice.

Although we have lost some of the important immediacy of a more ethnographic approach to witnessing the conversations, relationships, and practice with families that occurs in services, we have managed to understand a range of practitioner perspectives through ‘workday debriefs’ (adapted from Schoepfle and Werner, 1999). This approach involves regularly meeting online with practitioners for short, informal interview conversations to get a sense of their recent, current, and ongoing caseloads, and to reflect on their perspectives around their practices with families, and the multiple forces and policies that impact this. We have also run online and in person focus groups with teams of practitioners, and more recently have begun recruiting outside of the organisations who have approved more longitudinal research taking place in their service. We are now able to interview a wider range of professionals across all sectors supporting parents who use drugs across the Lothian region.

Key challenges

We have faced several key challenges when reformulating our research. First, we have experienced a reluctance amongst professionals to refer parents into the study. Specifically, some professionals appear to restrict access to parents whose lives they (perhaps problematically) deem, for example, more ‘chaotic’, or ‘in a difficult place’ suggesting this means they would ‘not ready to take part in research’. This reluctance contrasts with what professionals tell us about the agency and decision-making abilities they try to afford to parents, and limits our ability to recruit a diversity of families, including those who might have more difficult or problematic relationships with services. Working predominately in a virtual environment has exacerbated the gatekeeping ability of professionals.

Second, our more limited, sporadic engagements with families meant that demonstrating solidarity and generating rapport has been challenging. A key issue has been to avoid replicating the experience that family members describe having with services, and to put them at ease in the research relationship.

Third, we have a reduced ability to capture the relational dynamics of services and family spaces. However, by prioritising family and professional voices over own observations, we capture the material nuances and felt dimensions of particular spaces and relationships that families and professionals identify themselves as particularly important through their own articulations.

Finally, I want to mention an often unacknowledged reality that both impacts our research engagement and has been impacted by the way that we currently work and research: researcher mental health (see my paper exploring my own experience of anxiety in academia; Todd, 2021). I have found that remote research – and the increased distance, worries, and isolation that this generates – has exacerbated my anxieties. As a research community, we must explore what this means for us, our participants, and our field sites and to expand what we deem is acceptable to live through and feel whilst researching.


Desmond, M. (2014). Relational ethnography. Theory and Society 43(5): 547-579.

Schoepfle M. and Werner O. (1999) Ethnographic debriefing. Field Methods 11(2):158-165.    

Todd, J.D. (2021). Experiencing and embodying anxiety in spaces of academia and social research. Gender, Place and Culture 28(4): 475-496.