Existing polarizations of caste, religion, gender and class also shape the repercussions of the current crisis in many ways. The switch to online education has amplified the manifestations of caste, gender and class divisions among students. On June 1, 2020, a 14-year-old Dalit girl student committed suicide in Kerala because her family could not afford a smart phone for her to attend online classes. There are many incidents of domestic violence against women reported during the lockdown.
The worldwide COVID-19 crisis is posing unforeseen hurdles for the academic community just as in many other sectors. A colleague discussed with me how he was not able to access the archives for the last four months, which was much needed for his study on media history. Another colleague in fashion communication explained how online resources are not enough for academic work on something like applied photography as it requires time spent in studio settings.
The need to protect our bodies and lives in these times made it necessary for us to restrict our research to our senses of seeing and hearing digitally. In several social science disciplines such as Anthropology, fieldwork is central to research. What does the transition to the digitized field, in the place of an evolving uncontrolled living field, mean conceptually for social science research?
The unfeasibility of conducting research in real life settings leaves the researcher with the option of collecting materials through mediated means such as telephonic and online interviews, surveys, etc. In media studies, accessible materials are confined to contemporary representative practices other than online methods. Numerous possibilities that may arise from being in the field are currently out of bounds for now. Limited methods for gathering materials also reduce analytical possibilities. For instance, analytical frameworks which uses embodied affects in the field as central to their research are difficult to conceive due to restrictions on actually being in the field with people.
Indeed, one cannot approach the field as it was before the crisis. The field itself has changed drastically after the global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. For a researcher conducting media ethnographies, there is no chance to be back in newspaper/ television offices anytime soon. Except for a few technical crew, most of the print/digital media journalists are working from home. The field of labour studies and informal labour is another discipline which may need to address multiple questions and new strategies for research because of the emerging situation. How does one even begin to understand the inhuman conditions that labourers had to go through after the lockdown was announced in the country? What are the ethics of attempting to conduct research among informal sector labourers such as domestic workers at a time when most of them have lost their jobs?
Maybe another way to think about these questions is to alter our research questions considering how the field itself has changed in these unanticipated circumstances. This means adopting an active ethical sense that social science researchers must stick to in order to understand the pulse of the field and begin posing questions from there. Does this mean that philosophical and theoretical questions would cease to become significant or are undermined? Not necessarily! For instance, the precarious lives of the labourers at this point cannot be reduced entirely to the crisis caused by the pandemic. Instead, it may be a continuation of the existing precarity which made them more vulnerable during this time. Uttar Pradesh’s suspension of labour laws for three years at this time has to be understood in terms of a continuing dilution of labour laws since the 1990s.
Similarly, the field of media has also undergone many changes in the last four months. For instance, the study of cinema and television may have to register how digital platforms have become the main means of entertainment during the last several months and how it will impact these media forms. Again, as we discussed in the case of labour studies, we may need to closely examine the specificities of this changing media forms and viewership.
The Current Crisis as a Continuum
Existing polarizations of caste, religion, gender and class also shape the repercussions of the current crisis in many ways. The switch to online education has amplified the manifestations of caste, gender and class divisions among students. On June 1, 2020, a 14-year-old Dalit girl student committed suicide in Kerala because her family could not afford a smart phone for her to attend online classes. There are many incidents of domestic violence against women reported during the lockdown. Thus, changes in the field are very much mediated through these existing structures. The researcher may need to identify this moment not in isolation, but as informed by traces from the existing structures. Otherwise, analyzing this moment as an independent crisis may miss the larger picture and the continuities specific to each region.
In this regard, one may also keep in mind that social science research in India was already facing several challenges including political interventions before the virus struck. Last year, India has also scored abysmally low in the International Index of Academic Freedom (0.352/1). Indian universities known for their social science research such as Jamia Millia Islamia, Jawaharlal Nehru University and University of Hyderabad were already facing unprecedented political turmoil over the last few years. The new challenges of conducting research today have to be understood in this background. Increased surveillance due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus, will also aggravate the issue of freedom to think and analyze social problems in an effective manner. In other words, the already existing lack of freedom of the mind caused by political reasons and now, the need to isolate one’s body due to the COVID-19 crisis, are leading to a constrained situation for researchers to work freely.
When one considers a way forward for research amidst this crisis, as the whole world embraced online education and research, India has also adopted online mode for educational activities. Internet connectivity across India is quite uneven due to lack of facilities in different geographical terrains and, sometimes, due to political reasons as in the case of Jammu & Kashmir. So, the transition to the online mode in research is also fully possible only if the researcher happens to be located in the ‘connected’ part of the country. To add to it, the crisis for social science research does not start with prevention measures against COVID-19. Instead, researchers were already facing a crisis when the world went under the lockdown. Anand Teltumbde, a prominent scholar, was arrested on April 14, 2020, during the lockdown period for his alleged involvement in the violence on January 1, 2018 at Bhima-Koregaon (1). Despite the several pleas from national and international scholars, the 70-year-old scholar remains in prison.
In some sense, research in social sciences is not just bound by the physical boundaries set to prevent viral infection, but also restrained intellectually by the constraints of political interventions. The way forward from these crises also involves not just figuring out the technicalities of conducting research without bodily presence, but also thinking about diverse strategies to free the mind from looming, often organized political threats.
(1) Violence erupted at the annual celebratory event of Dalits at Bhima-Koregaon on Janury 1st, 2018 as a result of clashes between different groups. Several activists were arrested in June the same year over allegations of instigating the violence in their speeches. Anand Teltumbde’s arrest is also connected to the same case though several civil society members have questioned the arrest of activists and scholars in relation to the case.
Carmel Christy K.J. is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Journalism, Kamala Nehru College, University of Delhi. Views expressed are personal.
This article is part of a series called “Academics Post COVID-19”. The other articles in the series can be found here.
Update (26-08-2020): The last sentence of the article was incomplete and the sentence after that was inadvertently not posted. The two errors have now been corrected.
Update (08-09-2020): The unfortunate event of a Kerala student committing suicide happened in 2020 and not in 2018, as erroneously mentioned earlier. The error has now been corrected.