Dr Adriana Mihaela Soaita is a Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow. Her research, entitled “Exploring the nexus between trust, corruption and anti-corruption policies in post-communist Romania” won a RSA membership grant in 2019.
All my preparations for one-month’s fieldwork in Romania were arranged when the Covid pandemic struck. The UK’s and Romania’s borders closed with no air-bridge ever opened since. Hence, my research turned digital. Dr Adriana Mihaela Soaita (University of Glasgow) reflects on her experience of Zoom-interviewing during the lockdown and presents initial findings of her ongoing research on trust and corruption in Romania.
The COVID-19 pandemic is engulfing the globe, changing the life of billions of people. The threat of the invisible has tested our trust in governments, institutions and local communities. We have seen amazing bottom-up collective action whether in the favelas of Rio or in the ghostly, locked-down cities of Europe. But we also saw catastrophic state failures, triggering e.g. the mass exodus of India’s migrants who walked hundreds of miles back to their villages.
In this global scene, Romania has been sheltered by an early, Spartan lockdown, respected by a citizenry historically sceptical of their national health system; a second wave is nonetheless evolving as I write this from Scotland. In this blog, I wish to reflect on the implications of turning digital for a qualitative-longitudinal research that requires reaching prior participants during the lockdown; and to present some initial findings.
On ZOOM-Based Methodologies
Technologically-based research methods are not new but the zoomification of life has cast them into more obvious and further-reaching options, notwithstanding their issues of technological exclusion. Personally, I have conducted hundreds of telephone interviews, more recently with an element of photo-elicitation (Soaita and McKee 2020). I have found participant/researcher voice-based rapport rewarding, while pictures added a visual element that resembled visiting in person the setting of interest.
While costs prohibit long-distance calls, ZOOM interviews eschew this issue; hence I have embraced them for this research (with ethical approval). As my qualitative study is longitudinal, reaching my prior participants has been more difficult. Nonetheless, with the help of a local assistant, I was able to locate and then interview some of my technologically-empowered participants during the lockdown. Once the lockdown eased, I could even reach some digitally-excluded participants as my assistant delivered and set up the required technical gadgets.
I have so far conducted 15 interviews. They were unusually long. The topic of trust and corruption clearly sparked interest but I suspect it was also an element of time availability and lockdown boredom which made the interview a welcome distraction. The longest one lasted four and a half hours (two hours on average), hence I wish to take this opportunity to warn researchers to increase their cost of transcribing. Bar one, interviews were video calls, which enabled face-to-face encounters. Prior unfamiliarity with the ZOOM technology has not automatically triggered unease. It did so for one participant but two others felt so at ease that – called by a friend during our ZOOM video call – one participant even said ‘I am with Adriana in the room’ (female, aged 80).
Although in qualitative research data collection and analysis are interactive, I commonly abstain from reporting before robust analysis. Nonetheless, I would like to highlight three puzzles for now. First, when asked about trust in 2008 (the first wave), participants highlighted forms of inscribed trust – trust in people we know well, e.g. family and close friends. But in 2020, their first thoughts went to institutions; and the most trusted were those closer to everyday life:
“Why I trust the firefighters? Because I so often hear they were the ones who came to save the cat stranded in a tree; saved people from flooded homes; they just come whenever they are called, they never say “it’s not our remit” (female, aged 52).”
Second, my 2008 research collected bleak narratives on social distrust, indeed forecasting Romania’s second lowest level worldwide shown by the 2012 World Values Survey (Soaita and Wind 2020). Social trust has since increased, supporting the observed, positive association between trust, economic affluence and the institutionalization of society (Sztompka 1999). It could be argued that the empirical explanations have moved from a rational-choice framing in 2008 to an institutional-based one in 2020, indicating that people may be more likely to take the ‘leap of faith’ of just trusting others (Möllering 2006).
Third and finally, perceptions of corruption seemed divided between ‘small’ bribery and corruption at the top. There is agreement that the former are far less prominent in 2020 than in 2008; and that they will nonetheless persist not least because people like ‘following the norms’ and expressing ‘gratitude’. Conversely, corruption at the top is seen as becoming more prevalent and increasingly sophisticated, able to eschew legal enquiry while involving ever larger funds.
The COVID-19 experience rarely entered our discussion, showing that perceptions of trust and corruption rest on a much longer timespan. Participants whole-heartedly agreed that increasing trust and fighting corruption matter greatly to peoples’ everyday lives. The last point has been hotly debated recently in relation to the distribution of the EU Recovering and Resilience Funds, the largest in the EU’s history, which only emphasizes the timeliness of this research.
Möllering G (2006) Trust: Reason, Routine, Reflexivity. London: Elsevier.
Soaita AM & McKee K (2020) Researching home’s tangible and intangible materialities by photo-elicitation. Housing, Theory and Society.
Soaita AM & Wind B (2020) Urban narratives on the changing nature of social capital in post-communist Romania. Europe-Asia Studies, 72(4), 712-738.
Sztompka P (1999) Trust: A Sociological Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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