Fieldwork during COVID19


FIELDWORK is a key component of research for many disciplines in the humanities, arts, and social sciences (‘HASS’). It takes many diverse forms, from solo individuals conducting archival-based research off-campus, through to fully co-designed collective projects where community partnerships require significant time-based commitments including meetings, and including face-to-face interviewing and oral histories, as well as large-scale surveys.

Every type of fieldwork has its own risks and requirements relating to stakeholder collaboration and management. Some fieldwork activities can be appropriately transferred from face-to-face mode to online forms of communication. Other forms of participant-observation, archaeological excavations, or knowledge exchange cannot, for reasons that are multiple and specific, but include heightened health and safety vulnerability, undue or additional work pressure as a result of changed methodology, increased caring responsibilities, lack of necessary technology, and so on. The present situation may make research less of a priority for some participants, while others may see an opportunity for developing community-led responses. All fieldwork activities continue to require approval of institutional or professional ethical protocols, and any alterations require amendments to existing protocols.

Fieldwork can also describe the implementation of translational research impacts. In contrast to processes of data collation described above, these activities refer to the reporting and dissemination of research results, be it directly, to community stakeholders and participants, or to a wider field of general community audiences. The communication of results to achieve social engagement, outreach, or impact for researchers working in every field will be adversely affected by social isolation and distancing measures, as all commonly develop associated activities such as workshops and follow-uptraining programs, exhibitions, and performances. Dissemination activities occurring in public typically do not require HREC approval but changes to deliverables may need to be negotiated with funders.


COVID-19 has led to widespread disruption of all kinds of fieldwork, from data collation and knowledge sharing, through to the dissemination of results. These issues affect many researchers, as well as research students conducting fieldwork in the humanities and social sciences.

OBSTACLES to fieldwork and face-to-face research include:

  • COVID-19 transmission and re-transmission risks globally.
  • Closure of, and/or restricted access to Indigenous and at-risk communities (e.g. aged care facilities, prisons); and community imposed self-isolation measures.
  • Bans on some regional and interstate travel.
  • Restrictions on international travel, likely to be long term.
  • Institutional restrictions to Human Ethics approvals processes.

RISKS of research stoppages are financial and reputational, and include:

  • Not being able to meet obligations to research participants, communities, beneficiaries.
  • Not being about deliver outcomes or acquit funded grants and consultancies.
  • Not being able to disseminate research findings per public or community impact, outreach and communication plans.
  • Rescoping research projects (replacing face-to-face interviews with video ones, for instance) will have implications for methodology and outcomes. It may lead to more text-based research and reliance upon existing materials rather than creating new resources. Additional in-person, on the ground, meeting time and relationship building may even be a pre-requisite for appropriate re-scoping.

OPPORTUNITIES arising from the present situation may, in some cases, include:

  • Exploring what is really possible in terms of community engagement and ways to mitigate risks to community health in real terms.
  • Considering ways that we can engage with communities in new innovative ways, and assessing community resources, technology and skills (what is the capacity for undertaking field work remotely?)
  • Asking if there are others in the field that we can work with to facilitate communication. For example, might community-located researchers, sometimes called field-based liaison officers, become greater assets to facilitate or conduct in- and on-country research? These could include people conducting interviews, surveys, documents, meetings, or other field-work or archive/library-based tasks.


PRINCIPLES for returning to fieldwork remain regulated by government regulations around travel and social distancing, human ethics protocols, and community agency and consent.:

  • Maintain communication with your partners and participants.
  • Reschedule travel.
  • Consider a range of risk management processes for all research including but not restricted to interviews and fieldwork that has direct contact with Indigenous peoples and cohorts that may be at heightened risk during the pandemic.
  • Discuss strategies for relocating field sites, rescoping communication methods (from face-to-face to online meetings), or modifying team composition in case you are not able to access your normal field sites for some time (e.g. employing community-located researchers) What innovative options might emerge for co-designed research as a result of the crisis?
  • Renegotiate milestones and deliverables with teams, partners, participants, and funders as required.
  • Keep abreast of advice coming from your institution’s Ethics and Research Services sections, and revise protocols where required.


RECOGNISE that every situation, partner, researcher, site, and collaboration is different, and that their needs are subject to change. Every research question will have many solutions, which might themselves be influenced by the modified methodologies or adjusted forms of engagements that emerge in response to the problems of the doing fieldwork in a pandemic.

Author’s note: This paper was written in March 2020, soon after our national and state borders closed and we were directed to work from home. It sought to encourage discussion at our university about how to assess the impact of COVID19 on fieldwork for researchers in the humanities and social sciences, and gain a clear understanding of the acute as well as longer term needs arising from the pandemic and associated restrictions. It was accompanied by a  compilation of resources. The discussion formed the basis for much more substantive and nuanced research into impacts, needs and ways forward, that are addressed elsewhere.

Photo by John Baker

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