Observing and admiring from afar: ethnography in the times of the covid-19 pandemic

On the evening of December 17th, 2021, I sang a Māori song titled ‘Te Aroha’ (meaning love, faith, and peace for us all) for a group of 17 social entrepreneurs gathered around a bonfire amidst a national forest park area in the southern part of India. I am not a professional singer. I am a PhD student conducting field work at a 3-day bootcamp organized by a social-impact incubator. At the end of my third day “in the field”, I participated in 3-minute performances where each group took turns narrating their personal adventures, sharing inspiring experiences, singing, playing an instrument, or making the entire group dance.


I could have just observed this pre-dinner event. However, after nearly a year of zoom-based field work it felt great to be so close to the people I am studying. During the bootcamp, I participated in over a dozen sessions with entrepreneurs. I witnessed a wide array of external experts and experiences curated by the host incubator. I got closer to the individual and organizational struggles and aspirations of the participants. By the third evening, I felt connected to the participants and their commitments to pursue social missions. It prompted me to sing!


Though I started data collection on two Indian-based social impact-focused incubation programs and their annual cohorts of social entrepreneurs in the spring of 2021, it was only in mid-December when an in-person observational opportunity presented itself. Anticipating yet another lockdown in the Netherlands and hoping that I could finally be “in the field” after 9 months of waiting, I made a trip to India in early December. This was my 7th inter-continental trip since March 2020 trying to juggle my ‘online’ coursework, ‘remote’ teaching duties, and mostly virtual data collection efforts. After landing in India, I took 600 km road journey (from my hometown to the training venue) to avoid domestic air travel restrictions. It was all worth it!


The new observations, perspectives, and connections I gained from this field trip were preceded by 9 months of virtual engagement. The pandemic-imposed ‘digital’ fieldwork was not without advantages. First, as the social entrepreneurs themselves were located in remote rural hinterlands of the country or had operations in urban slums, their interactions with the incubators and mentors/coaches also started off digitally on Zoom or Google platforms. This format immediately allowed me to attend more than 100 meetings, capture copious notes about the interactions I was observing, and understand the impact-focused incubation process and social entrepreneurship efforts from the comfort of my physical location (the Netherlands).


Second, I invested more time to collect and analyze their professional and organizational details (available on social media platforms - LinkedIn and Facebook). Third, it gave me the opportunity to shadow the interview and selection processes and co-attend training sessions along with the current cohort of social entrepreneurs. Concurrently, I interviewed social entrepreneurs and their mentors/coaches, and went through prior cohorts’ data. Lastly, it helped me consider other available data (like identifying applicants who were not selected to follow their trajectories). I also developed the practice of sharing meeting notes with entrepreneurs, mentors, and incubation staff. This allowed me to offer something back to my informants and signal my commitment towards learning what they are doing and experiencing.


Given how pervasive, low-cost, and accessible digital platforms have become across organizational settings, researchers have the problem of plenty of a data. Nevertheless, as a novice ethnographer, I yearned for in-person field time and opportunities to experience social connections beyond the zoom breakout rooms. Just like the social entrepreneurs I met in person, the pandemic and associated restrictions have forced us all to feel isolated at our desks craving for empathetic bonds and interactions that are meaningful, validating, and aligned to our respective missions. My 3-day in-person fieldwork was preceded by 9 months of digital field work, and each has a special place in helping me advance my curiosities. For all my fellow qualitative researchers, I sing again Te Aroha - meaning love for all kinds of fieldwork, faith in our abilities to marry both in-person and digital experiences, and peace with the process that unfolds for us all!


Photo 1. Clay animals (materiality) capturing entrepreneurs’ individual self-representations



Photo 2. Expert-led sessions enhancing entrepreneurs’ understanding of ecosystem



Photo 3. Learning, inquiry, & commitment post it reflections collected session wise



Photo 4. Informal Spaces for peer-level networking & community building



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