Responsible Research and Innovation in the context of Corona

By Antoniya Cristina Ursula

In this essay we will illustrate the benefits of ‘cultural proximity in ethnographic research’ to facilitate understanding and the necessity of ‘cultural proximity in ethnographic research’ in times of crises – for RRI.


RRI needs cultural proximity in ethnographic research


“When one has a lot to say and then has to translate this, you just summarize it all and thus, a lot gets lost in translation”


Expressed in a telephone call between an interviewee and interviewer speaking the same language, this quote is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. 

Communication is deeply cultural, and language is only one element of social interaction alongside, for example, sound and sight (Carbaugh & Boromisza-Habashi, 2005). Yet, communication is at the heart of RRI, understood as including ‘science with society’ (Owen et al., 2020), implying active engagement with stakeholders. This active engagement means attending to voices of different stakeholders regarding means and ends of the research & innovation project, while being aware of framing issues (Stilgoe et al., 2013). It requires deep knowledge about the cultural context, about values, norms, and behavioural patterns (Laviziano & Sökelfeld, 2005: 2). In stakeholder engagement, a researcher’s position vis-à-vis the actual stakeholders might also vary, ranging from detached observation to taking an active role in the relationship. And an active relationship in turn covers a range of positionalities, from being a ‘village boy’ with intimate knowledge of the local culture (Heley, 2011) to – as in our case – sharing the same linguistic-cultural space, here the Rioplatense Spanish, spoken in the Río de la Plata Basin of Argentina and Uruguay (Di Tullio, 2012; Kailuweit, 2012).


RRI aims to align research and innovation with societal values and needs (EC, 2021). Cultural proximity in ethnographic research can help here because it allows an ‘emic’ consideration of local values and needs – consideration that is grounded in deep study of one’s own culture. Our research project ‘sustainable co-production’ serves as an example to illustrate the importance of cultural proximity in ethnographic research. The Project combines plant and industrial biotechnology in order to increase the value of commercially grown tobacco with products that can sustainably substitute fossil raw materials. If successful, the project would support sustainability by replacing fossil fuel in selected applications, supporting the local economy in Argentina, and introducing new market opportunities. It is a rather comprehensive project as it combines competences from different partners to serve environmental, social and economic purposes, with an emphasis on implementation.


In the spirit of community-based participatory research (see, e.g. rri-tools.EU), a core element of our research project is to explore local knowledge and perceptions and to integrate respective insights into recommendations for implementation. Drawing on our discussion above, we were to conduct qualitative emic-oriented ethnographic field research to understand the concerns, interests, expectations, and perspectives of the relevant stakeholders regarding the technology’s use in Argentina. The tools we would use for participatory exploration include personal interviews, focus group discussions, outcome-mapping and joint reflection. All are tools that require a setting characterized by personal commitment and trust.


Normally, our ethnographic research would begin with an exploratory phase, allowing the participant and researcher get to know each other personally and begin to build a trusting basis for the following interviews. Subsequent interviews would be carried out with non-standardized qualitative ethnographic interview methodologies, which are particularly suitable for intercultural exploration and which account for the particular constellation of the research situation, such as the relationship between the participants (to one another) and the context of the encounter. This form of interview requires the researcher to conduct the conversation with respect, cultural sensitivity, great attentiveness and openness, so that the role asymmetry that arises in more standardized interview forms is reduced and a trustworthy interview situation can be established. It gives us the chance to gain insights into the ways specific people or cultures construct realities and allows us to examine the place of technologies, their use, and their potential acceptability within those realities. It also enables serendipitous situations, allowing us to gain unforeseen knowledge (Schlehe 2003).


Our research trip was planned to start  in March 2020 – unfortunately the start of a new ‘time of crisis’ that many around the world are still living in. The emergence of the corona pandemic and, in particular the rapid increase in Covid-19 infection cases in Europe in February – March 2020 necessitated that we consider the possible effects of our journey and our research stay on our health and on the health of the population of the study site. Initially infection rates were much lower in South America than Europe, and a particular concern for us was that our visit might aggravate the spread of the virus. This is something ethnologists are extremely attentive to because the field has historically contributed to the introduction and exacerbation of disease.  We therefore decided to postpone the trip to a later date.


Times of crisis – created by public health issues, political upheaval, or war – are turbulent moments that complicate or even prevent access to the local, real, social world (Bridgen and Mainwaring, 2021). During these moments a multitude of factors make it difficult, if not impossible, to conduct in-person fieldwork. In a pandemic this happens primarily by putting restraints on the researchers themselves rather than on the local field (Günel, Varma and Watanabe, 2020). Times of crisis expose the limits of some methods of biophysical data collection or ethnographic participatory research with local stakeholders (Douglas et al. 2020). But they can also be opportunities to pilot alternative forms of stakeholder interaction and to develop new research methods. And as we will show, in times of crises, ‘cultural proximity in ethnographic research’ remains a precondition for communication.


We were faced with a major dilemma: On the one hand, some other research activities had already started in Argentina and we wanted to prepare for a postponed, and only, project visit to Argentina. But on the other hand, the pandemic was causing considerable delays to our research and would make it impossible for us to establish personal, direct contact with local stakeholders on site. We decided, in deviation from our initial plan, to make a cautious attempt to interview selected Argentinean stakeholders via phone from Germany. Our project partners in Argentina, who had received our decision to postpone the trip with great relief, supported us intensively in the search for interview partners who would be willing to take part in telephone interviews.


Clearly, telephone interviews are less suitable for building a trustful basis to explore the culture-specific situation and to take into account the societal, cultural, and economic context. But the decision was supported by the fact that the interviewer comes from the same cultural context – the Río de la Plata region – and thus interviewer and interviewees shared a cultural proximity, sharing a local language and related culture. In this respect, the linguistic and cultural identity of the researcher contributed to the building of trust and accordingly contributed to the fact that, despite the impossibility of being on site due to the pandemic, we were able to conduct our field research at least partially from a distance. 


But this cultural proximity also shaped several other decisions that we made about how to reconfigure our research methods. First, we decided to conduct telephone interviews only with interviewees from the field of regulatory institutions and from science and research. We chose only these stakeholders because we could assume they used digital communications in their day-to-day work. Second, we learnt from early interviewees that there was a strong preference for telephone interviews during office hours because they saw it as a more considerate form of communication than video-supported interviews. Furthermore, in contrast to a video conference, the telephone interview has the advantage of being exposed to fewer interruptions, especially in the provinces of Sta. Fe and Salta, because of the unstable internet connections. And above all, we refrained from using the video interview format, as in this particular Covid-19 constellation, without a prior contact and acquaintance phase between interviewer and interviewees, the video interview could represent an intrusion into the private or working sphere of the interviewees, and in this respect could be perceived as a violation of the trust placed in the ethnographer.


In conclusion, while the pandemic has so far prevented us from exploring stakeholders’ views with ethnographic field research, we experienced great willingness to help during the turbulent development of the project. It has prevented us from engaging with some stakeholders, in effect silencing them within our study. But at the same time, the mutually-sensitive handling of concerns (especially regarding a visit) and the interviewer’s cultural closeness paved the way for a good relationship that we hope to expand with a personal visit. Researchers should thus take times of crisis as opportunities to conduct ad hoc surveys or collect data using alternative technologies while still creating trust. Interviewees take note of the crisis – in this case the special pandemic situation – and, if approached in a context-sensitive way, accept alternative research methods.


Sharing the same cultural context in ethnographic research is essential to attend to local voices in international or transnational research contexts. And while times of crises often necessitate researching from a distance, cultural proximity is a precondition to do research in these moments at all.


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