The Covid-19 Pandemic and Social Science (Qualitative) Research: An Epistemological Analysis

Jyoti Bania and Rupali Dubey
Oxford Internet Institute -
The Covid-19 Pandemic and Social Science (Qualitative) Research: An Epistemological Analysis

The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the world to its core and severely hit every sector including health, economy and livelihood. Apart from worsened public health, the pandemic has significantly impacted the global economy due to closure of economic sectors and restrictions imposed on mobility. The economic shock caused by the Covid-19 pandemic will be significantly larger than the 2008-09’s great recession and will lead to growing unemployment rates (Loayza and Pennings, 2020; Sammrrai, 2020). Global economic activity is expected to fall by 6% in 2020, even though the second wave of Covid-19 could be prevented (Schleicher, 2020).

While the long term impact of the pandemic is uncertain, it may more likely to affect public spending on education (Schleicher, 2020). Ledoux and Segniagbeto, IIEP specialists argue that the pandemic will lead to an expected decline in financial resources to the education sector in future and widen the gap of global inequalities in access to education (IIEP & UNESCO, 2020).

The Covid-19 pandemic has a tremendous impact on higher education institutions across the world. The UNESCO data reveals that schools and higher education institutions (HEIs) were shut in 185 countries, disturbed 89.4% of total enrolled learners as on 1st April 2020 (IAU, 2020).

Impact of Covid-19 Pandemic on Scientific Research

While most of the institutions across the world have been tackling an abrupt shift to the online mode of teaching and learning, according to the IAU (2020) survey, research in 80% of HEIs has also reportedly been affected due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The common impacts of Covid-19 on research are the cancellations and deferments of conferences and workshops; and scientific projects are at risk of not being completed in more than half of HEIs (IAU, 2020). Thus, cancellations and deferments of conferences, exchange programmes and a decline in student mobility may jeopardize the efficiency and innovation of research in future (Schleicher, 2020).

The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly affected the primary methods of doing qualitative research such as personal (in-depth) interviews, focus group discussions (FGDs) and observations which are often conducted through interactions with individuals in a social setting. Thus, researchers have shifted to alternative methods of data collection such as telephonic interviews and video conferences. Nevertheless, the effectiveness and trustworthiness of conducting virtual qualitative research are still questionable (Khandelwal & Kapoor, August 18, 2020).

Researchers have been increasingly conducting online surveys to collect data since the Covid-19 outbreak. However, there is a potential risk of decline in the quality of research. Therefore, the paper intends to explore the possibilities and challenges of conducting qualitative research in social sciences during and after the covid-19 pandemic. The paper intends to explore methods of doing rigorous qualitative research by addressing two major questions:

How to deal with the challenges of qualitative research posed by the Covid-19 Pandemic?
How to build rigour and trustworthiness in virtual qualitative research? 

The paper is based on a review and analytic approach. Relevant books, articles, newspapers, online journals, reports (produced by the United Nations, UNESCO) have been reviewed and critically analyzed for the preparation of the paper.

Dealing with the Challenges of Qualitative Research
Qualitative research is a means of exploring and understanding “the meaning individuals or groups ascribe to a social or human problem” (Creswell, 2007, p.53).  Qualitative researchers tend to collect data in the field site (natural setting) where participants experience the issue or phenomenon under study (Creswell, 2007).

Holloway and Biley (2011) argue that in qualitative inquiry, the researchers themselves are involved and cannot distance themselves from the research participants, although they cannot fully present their meaning and experience. If a researcher is aware and sensitive, rather than over-emotional or self-absorbed, qualitative research can be enlightening, subjective, and humanistic (Holloway & Biley, 2011) even in the time of pandemic when physical contact is neither possible nor ethically permitted in research.

Drawing from the techniques of rigorous qualitative research suggested by Holloway and Biley (2011), the present paper argues that it is possible to conduct rigorous and trustworthy qualitative research even in the time of (Covid-19) pandemic.

A Good Story
Being a qualitative researcher means being able to tell a good story and focus on meaning over measurement. The researcher adds all the human touches that make the story interesting to the readers (Holloway & Biley, 2011). Qualitative researchers should be able to interpret the individual experiences with genuine evidence even when research is being conducted in online mode.

Involvement of the Self
The self is always an integral part of any qualitative inquiry (Holloway & Biley, 2011) and researchers should not disconnect from the participants in the whole process. Therefore, the qualitative researchers should ensure their involvement with the participants irrespective of any means of (online or face-to-face) communication.

Being a qualitative researcher means searching for the new and innovative methods of data collection and presenting research. Use of new strategies and innovative technologies hones qualitative research enquiry with fascinating opportunities, however, researchers are obliged to maintain trustworthiness and rigour in qualitative enquiry (Holloway & Biley, 2011).

Use of cameras for data collection in qualitative enquiries is not very recent. However, Holloway and Todres (2007) suggest that qualitative researchers can learn from artistic and literary pursuits and acquire multimedia skills. According to Morse (2004), virtual research methods do not replace conventional research but are complementary to the later (Holloway & Biley, 2011).

Understanding Virtual Qualitative Research

In the wake of Covid-19 pandemic, researchers are learning and adapting different procedures to be employed in social sciences (qualitative) research. Virtual qualitative enquiry can be proved significant to capture the insights, behaviour of individual experiences if used effectively, particularly during a pandemic. The three major virtual research methods as indicated by Kristie Saumure and Lisa M. Given (2008) in, “The Sage Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods” are discussed below:


In virtual interviews, a researcher interacts with participants over email or via real-time chat. There are two types of virtual interviews such as standardized (i.e., structured) and non-standardized (i.e., semi-structured or unstructured) interviews. Standardized online interviews are administered through emails and web-based surveys and participants are asked specific questions with predetermined (multiple) responses. Non-standardized interviews involve choosing between synchronous (e.g., videoconferencing) and asynchronous (e.g., email) modes of communication with more flexible responses to gain detailed responses (Saumure & Given, 2008).

Observational Studies

Observational methods are often employed in virtual environments when researchers are less dependent on participants’ past experiences. Observational studies can be implemented through participant observation (where researchers engage with the research participants) and Non-participant observation (where researchers observe the research participants without any engagement) to examine individuals’ interactions in virtual spaces (Saumure & Given, 2008).

Document Analysis

Online mode of documents analysis has become recently popular, previously, qualitative researchers used hard copies of texts or documents for analysis. The internet helps researchers to get accessed to an increasing number of diverse user-generated content (e.g., personal web, blogs) on a variety of topics (Saumure & Given, 2008).

Ethics in Virtual Qualitative Research

Ethical procedures must adhere to all three methods of conducting virtual research. Apart from taking informed consent and maintaining participants’ anonymity by using pseudonyms, researchers have to maintain the confidentiality of participants’ additional information such as email ids, user login names and phone numbers. Researchers should also maintain “netiquette” (the rules of etiquette used on the internet) to ensure that participants don’t feel humiliated (Saumure & Given, 2008).

Advantages of Virtual Research Methods

Saumure and Given, (2008) indicate many advantages of virtual research methods such as the online environment enables researchers to connect potential participants across the world including areas which are difficult to access in person. Participants may feel comfortable to share sensitive issues online whilst being more anonymous than in face-to-face interaction, and doing online research can also be very reasonable in terms of financial and time-related costs (Saumure & Given, 2008). Moreover, some participants may also feel safer and find convenience in completing the research project online from home than visiting an interview venue (Saumure & Given, 2008).

Challenges of Virtual Qualitative Methods

Apart from these advantages, there are many challenges in conducting virtual research.  The text or e-mail based internet communications reduce researchers’ capacity to interpret non-verbal communication which makes analysis and interpretation of data more challenging (Saumure & Given, 2008).

Saumure and Given (2008) also emphasize the importance of recognizing the impact of the “digital divide” in conducting a virtual qualitative enquiry. Some potential participants may refuse or may be unable to participate in an online study due to the lack of skills in using computer technology. Diverse geographical location, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, caste, gender, and other factors make individuals deprived of internet and digital technologies that are necessary for conducting virtual research.


Undoubtedly, Covid-19 pandemic has boosted the use of virtual research methods. Moreover, with more accessibility to the internet and the growing number of internet users will lead to the increasing prevalence of virtual research enquiry in social sciences. Qualitative research can play a vital role in understanding epidemics like Covid-19 by using virtual methods effectively. Virtual qualitative methods such as online interviews, video conferences, online observations and document analysis could be very useful to explore and interpret different phenomena and social realities during a pandemic. However, qualitative researchers will need to overcome the challenges that exist in conducting virtual research while making the most of its advantages. Researchers need appropriate technical expertise, validity and quality assurance mechanisms, and training on technology skills to practice virtual research enquiry. The future qualitative research lies in its synthesis with digital technology.



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Authors’ Biography

Jyoti Bania is a PhD scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Hyderabad, India currently working in the area of men and masculinities. He holds an M.Phil in Women’s Studies from TISS, Hyderabad and Master of Social Work from Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan, India. His areas of interest include Men and Masculinity, Gender and Development, Caste and Gender-Based Violence, Migration, Sustainable Development.

Rupali Dubey holds Master in Rural Development from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Tuljapur, India. Her MA dissertation was around the topic of analyzing the decision-making process in corporate social responsibility (CSR) organizations. She is also passionate to contribute towards resolving global social issues through research and advocacy. Her areas of interest include Gender Inequality, Climate Change, Social Stratification, Multidimensional Poverty and Sustainable Development.


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government