‘Do not be silent in defending the social safety net’

Rebecca Graber on why (and how) to do community-oriented psychology research during Covid-19.

Action research theorist Karl Lewin (1946), working in the shadow of genocide and fascism, argued that social change follows a period of unfreezing social structures. After this change, a recrystallisation – a refreezing – into a new status quo will occur. We are seeing the thaw of pre-Covid-19 social structures and are entering an uncomfortable, threatening, and potentially dangerous period of change, even though the pandemic is by no means over. 

Informal community networks, collective institutions and community-based organisations are all being reshaped as a result of pressures from the virus itself and reverberations from the public health response. As psychologists, we hold a disciplinary and ethical imperative to create opportunities to freeze into place a more equitable, just and compassionate set of social structures. There is much we can do, individually and collectively, to ensure that when we eventually freeze to a new ‘normal’, that normal is one we can bear to live in.

Whether you identify as a community psychologist or not, chances are your research can be enriched by considering the ‘whys’ of a community oriented approach (understanding lived experiences, constructions and processes of marginalisation, disempowerment, and collective aspects of mental distress and well-being) and the ‘hows’ (participatory knowledge-creation, empowering methods, and commitment to social change) (Kagan, 2011). 

Focus less on extracting data, and more on building and sustaining understanding

I doubt anyone sets out intending to disempower individuals or communities, but many of us unintentionally do so (and I’ll hold my own hand up!) because of the nature of research agendas, funding schemes and the format of many research designs. But with communities under threat, we have an especial impetus to use our research activities to support marginalised people as actors of social change; to amplify the messages of silenced groups; and to develop and sustain knowledge and infrastructure for these processes of social change to be increasingly directed by those who previously lacked power and capital. 

There many ways to directly or indirectly support communities:

- Enable organisations, groups or participants to set research questions, identify crucial social problems, or choose their preferred method of data collection; 

- be responsive to community input; share your findings freely in accessible formats; use naturalistic data where available; 

- ask for sense-checking by community members; 

- use participatory or creative data collection designs; and 

- take any and all opportunities to provide funds and infrastructure.

Qualitative, participatory and creative methods are ideal for questioning received knowledge and for exploring, understanding and analysing new concepts, lived experiences, and social constructions – and these days doesn’t everything feel new and uncertain? These methods are commonly recognised as empowering. They provide opportunities to develop skills in critical thinking and expression, and help assure control over disclosure within the research encounter, helping participants protect their own well-being. Such methods can develop skills and infrastructural inputs to support social change. Some useful methods include remote interviews or focus groups; sampling naturalistic data; remote Photovoice or photo elicitation; artistic endeavours such as collage; autoethnographic data collection; story completion; online surveys; app-based methods; or observational studies (Graber, 2020; Lloyd & Lorenz, 2020; Lupton, 2020). 

Reduce burden on participants and communities

Cycling through consultations with communities requires flexibility, but creating opportunities for community members to articulate their lived experiences and shape your research process should help assure that findings will benefit them and that participants engage with your project. This can be as simple as tweaking an interview schedule or as complex as engaging youth co-researchers. Be sensitive to fluctuating or diminished capacities, both on personal and organisational levels. Try to minimise resource and time demands when communicating with organisations and in your choices of research design, work together to develop meaningful benefits of study participation, and consider the value of peripheral or low-input levels of participation during periods of constraint, without veering into tokenism (Cornish, 2006). 

Whilst this scale of social change is unprecedented, plenty of research already exists with communities who have experienced cataclysmic change: internal displacement, migration, disaster recovery, family separation, infectious disease, environmental devastation. Consult existing literatures for knowledge generated by (and within) those communities hit hardest right now – now is not the time to question whether structural racism exists, for example, but to educate yourself on how it has previously played out on health disparities. There are clearly novel and unique aspects of the Covid-19 experience, but we can still learn from previous experiences of resilience and suffering.

Qualitative, participatory and creative methods have an additional practical advantage that they do not require many people to create robust knowledge, which can later be used pragmatically to support subsequent causal or correlational research if desired. However, whilst many methods exploit technological solutions, technological access should not be assumed for either participants or researchers in terms of devices, data, and privacy. Even reasonably well-equipped households face increasing demands, so choose the least resource-intensive method that suits the study and work adaptably as best you can.

Slow down and take time 

Knowledge creation benefits from time, but we can also turn to ourselves as a community of psychologists. Intellectual pursuit and collegial relationships are enriched by giving time to think, read, and converse (Berg & Seeber, 2017). Be aware of who is not sitting at the table right now, and what even the most basic science misses through their absence. Which researchers, educators and community actors are currently balancing childcare, elder care, health conditions, essential work, the very tasks of survival? Who have been providing pastoral and practical support to students at the expense of their research agendas? With the rush to fund new proposals in a typically fraught timeline, there is a distinct risk that those with more privilege will speed ahead whilst those who need more time, and more support, will fall by the wayside. Publishing disparities based on gender are already here (Fazackerley, 2020). Resist metrics that will disadvantage those who were attending to the business of survival, especially with university managers calling for layoffs. If you set research agendas, organise funding schemes or are putting together a proposal, consider ways to support and include colleagues and communities on extended timelines and how to lower barriers to access. 

Finally, although some social and policy issues demand a rapid response, we are in for a long journey with the virus and its fallout. Consider the social and political implications of your research and use your influence to be an advocate – do not be silent in defending the social safety net when it is explicitly under threat. Psychological knowledge reflects the social realities and social problems facing communities, so it is entirely appropriate to shift and adapt our modes of working during this period of unprecedented social change. 

Dr Rebecca Graber
Senior Lecturer in Psychology
University of Brighton
[email protected]


Berg, M., & Seeber, B. K. (2017). The slow professor: Challenging the culture of speed in the academy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Cornish, F. (2006). Empowerment to participate: A case study of participation by Indian sex workers in HIV protection. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 16, 301-315.

Fazackerley, A. Women’s research plummets during lockdown – but articles from men increase. The Guardian. 12 May 2020. Accessed 20 May 2020 from: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/may/12/womens-research-plummets-during-lockdown-but-articles-from-men-increase

Graber, R. (2020). Guidance on Conducting and Supervising Community-Oriented Psychology Research During COVID-19. Available at: https://research.brighton.ac.uk/en/publications/guidance-on-conducting-and-supervising-community-oriented-psychol

Kagan, C. (2011). Critical community psychology. Chichester: Wiley.

Lewin, K. (1946). Action research and minority problems. Journal of Social Issues, 34-46.

Lloyd, S. & Lorenz, L. (30 March 2020) Can I Do a Photovoice Project Remotely? You, You Can! Available at: http://www.photovoiceworldwide.com/blog/

Lupton, D. (editor) (2020) Doing fieldwork in a pandemic (crowd-sourced document). Available at: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1clGjGABB2h2qbduTgfqribHmog9B6P0NvMgVuiHZCl8/edit?ts=5e88ae0a#

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