Covid Realities: participant-led research in response to the pandemic

Dr Ruth Patrick, Dr Maddy Power and Dr Geoff Page, School of Social and Political Sciences 

Covid Realities website / York Research Database project profile@CovidRealities


Screenshot from the Covid Realities website
Screenshot from the Covid Realities website, © Covid Realities, 2021 (all rights reserved)


Researchers from York and Birmingham developed a collaborative, participatory rapid-response research programme focused on exploring the ways in which the pandemic impacted on families living on a low income. Around 120 parents and carers took part in virtual discussion groups and shared their experiences with us through online diaries, which have been anonymised and made fully accessible through the Covid Realities website. This created a live archive of everyday lives at an extraordinary time. We have also created an open and informal space for the research community to explore the shift to virtual working and reflect on their experiences of the pandemic, facilitated by webinars and a blog series.

Case Study

In March 2020, as the UK went into lockdown following the coronavirus pandemic, two University of York researchers (Dr Ruth Patrick and Dr Maddy Power) joined forces with Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite (University of Birmingham) to develop a rapid-response research programme. As researchers of poverty, social security, and emergency food aid, we recognised an urgent need to pivot research priorities towards a focused exploration of the ways in which the pandemic would impact on families living on a low income, who the existing research evidence suggested would face particular and significant pressures as a result of the pandemic. There was also a commitment to researching in collaborative ways and providing a space for the research community to explore - together - how to adapt research and working practices to the new context. As a research team, we had considerable expertise in participatory approaches; however, we had no experience of participatory research during a pandemic, nor did we have experience of participatory research using online methodologies. In light of this we were reliant on the limited body of research on the use of audio-visual methodologies in ethnographic and/or participatory research in guiding our approach. We also drew on expertise from individuals like Catherine Hale, who has done participatory online research previously.

From this collaboration came the Nuffield Foundation funded Covid Realities research programme, an innovative programme of research that is rooted in collaborative and open ways of working and researching. This is also a partnership with Child Poverty Action Groups. At the heart of this ambitious and innovative research programme is participatory, online research, with around 120 participants from families living on a low income across the UK. Parents have worked directly with the research team, taking part in virtual discussion groups and sharing their experiences through online diaries and responses to video-elicited ‘big questions of the week’. Through this methodology we have generated over 200 entries which we are sharing on our Covid Realities website, an openly- accessible, anonymised archive capturing everyday lives in poverty at an extraordinary and historically significant time. The archive can be used by researchers, students, journalists and members of the public.

This programme has prioritised participatory approaches, creating chains of dissemination that enable parents living on a low income to share their experiences and recommendations for change through high profile media appearances, meetings with parliamentarians, and other outputs. For example, participants were featured in week long coverage of BBC Radio 4’s flagship PM programme and further co-produced a zine sharing their everyday realities and aspirations for their futures.

Front cover of the Covid Realities zine by Jean McEwan
Front cover of the Covid Realities zine, © Jean McEwan, Dr Katie Pybus, Tom Flannery and the contributors, 2021 (all rights reserved)

Another key element of the Covid Realities research programme has entailed creating an open and informal space for the research community to explore the shift to virtual working, and the particular ramifications for those doing research on poverty. To facilitate this, we set up a successful webinar series that has provided a space for researchers to document their methodological approaches and speak frankly about the ethical and varied challenges they have experienced. This has been linked to an equally popular blog series that has created a useful and important space for documentation and reflection on changing methods and approaches in unprecedented times.

The participatory nature of Covid Realities means that we have been often led by our participants. This has clear benefits in principle and in practice, but has led to some challenges. For example, we did not insist that people submitted demographic information. This reflected our participatory approach, but from online discussion groups we know this means we have a skewed view of who took part – racially minoritized women, and women with English as a second language were particularly unlikely to fill out demographic details. We also allowed participants to choose if they were happy for their diaries to be published on our website, or if they only wanted entries to be used in academic publications and reports. With the benefit of hindsight, this created a lot of complications and additional work – we ended up creating two pseudonyms for each diarist, so that their ‘research only’ entries could not be directly linked with their ‘published on the website’ entries. The practical benefits of this were small – all entries were pseudonymised anyway, with all identifying details further removed; so there was little to be gained from having two-level privacy. At the same time, this proved very complicated to manage – and some people appeared in write-ups with two names.

Overall then, this research programme has been underpinned by innovation and has critically privileged creating open spaces to share findings, involving diverse voices in chains of dissemination and facilitating a space for researchers to reflect on their experiences during the pandemic.

Licensing information

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