In February 2020, universities across Australia, including the Australian National University where I am a doctoral student, began to enforce a travel ban for staff and students in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a ban on students conducting field research in their home country. A travel ban is one thing I never imagined would be a part of my research journey
My doctoral research is concerned with waste management in Indonesia, with a case study focused on the Special Region of Yogyakarta (including Yogyakarta City, Sleman Regency and Bantul Regency). This topic interests me because whilst the issue of waste in urban areas in Indonesia is increasing, the effort to resolve the issue of waste remains half-hearted. There are many issues in waste management, starting from reduction in the production of waste (by households, offices, markets, etc.), to the problem of waste disposal sites or final processing sites in many cities. A key question my research is seeking to explore is the relationship between various actors and systems within the waste management system, including government and non-government groups, and how they contribute in forming waste management systems in urban areas.
Best laid plans
When preparing my doctorate studies research proposal in 2019, I imagined that my data collecting methods would predominantly include an ethnographic study, participant observation and in-depth interviews with various stakeholders. I imagined I would visit a major waste processing site in Piyungan in the Special Region of Yogyakarta, where I planned to observe the interaction between scavengers, collectors, and workers of that landfill. I imagined I would meet, interview and observe various people, including activists in different communities who manage waste, to academics, journalists and bureaucrats involved in the waste management systems in the Special Province of Yogyakarta. Needless to say, the pandemic upended those plans entirely.
My university’s travel ban meant the ethics committee, to whom I needed to submit an application to conduct my research, would only accept applications that used remote methods. Since my research had to continue, the data collection methods I proposed included in-depth interviews using online media such as Zoom. Initially, I had doubts about using these methods with interaction only through a screen, however without any other option I made the decision to proceed.
After receiving ethics approval in September 2020, I began to identify potential candidates to interview. Fortunately, because the location of the case study, Yogyakarta, is also my hometown, I was able to use my existing network to reach out to interviewees for my research. Occasionally I encountered difficulties contacting potential interviewees through email, for whom there were days and even weeks without a reply. The way out was by relying on a snowball method, whereby I would ask candidates whom I had previously interviewed to suggest further contacts and provide me with the mobile/WhatsApp numbers.
Another significant obstacle was variations in access to the internet. Connectivity is unstable and often a call was cut or interrupted and audio unclear. The biggest challenge, however, was building deep communication with interviewees, whom I had only just met and seen via Zoom. On a positive note, due to their prevalence during the pandemic, when I came to carry out my interviews my interviewees were all technically proficient in accessing the online interview platforms I was using.
Certainly, online research is not as interesting as conducting research out in the field. Communication through a screen makes interaction less intimate than interacting in person, especially for interviewees whom I hadn’t met before. In online interviews, I could only see the facial expression of interviewees without seeing their body language. Approaching interviewees also had its own challenges, especially for those I had not previously met. Many times, I experienced the situation where interviewees I contacted didn’t respond to my email or WhatsApp message. I felt hopeless at that time, because in three weeks I had not had a single response to my request for interview. However, just as I was despairing, friends and acquaintances began to ask about my research and to help me contact interviewees.
As mentioned, another challenge was the lack of quality internet access. This was particularly marked when I was attempting to interview people from scavenger or collector groups. I was told that that the internet connection in the areas surrounding the waste processing site was unstable, which meant I had difficulties completing interviews with those from this group. This means that so far, I have only been able to interview people in positions within the formal waste management system. As a consequence, my research feels elitist because it has only reached bureaucrats, academics, journalists and activists.
I processed the transcribed interviews using NVivo, an application which processes qualitative data, and which I have only learnt about since the pandemic began. As I reached the halfway point of my research I expanded my research methods and data analysis to include use of Critical Discourse Analysis in addition to interviews. The idea to use critical discourse analysis came at the end of January 2021, when I began to prepare texts related to waste management policy in Indonesia. I took a short course to learn about this method.
Despite the long process of my research, until now I haven't thought about giving up or taking time off my studies. My supervisors have been very supportive and have understood the difficulties of my research because of the pandemic, and they have become a source of energy and encouragement. In mid-February 2021, despite interviewing one third of the target number of interviewees for my research, I have been able to compile a progress report that my supervisors have considered satisfactory. They also agreed with my plan to use critical discourse theory as an additional research and data analysis method. My request to the research ethics committee for a variation to my research method, to recruit a research assistant in Yogyakarta to help me interview informal groups (scavengers and collectors), was approved, which added to my enthusiasm to continue my research.
I have also adapted to this online research method by coming to terms with my own previously held ideas and standards of what ‘good research’ is in the context of my field. Coming to terms with alternatives that are logistically possible and methodologically sound in a situation that was not ideal, in the end became key to generating my enthusiasm for the project. My experience is also proof that if we can accept the situation around us, there will be help from unexpected directions.