Coping with Covid and Catalonia

How have Coronavirus lockdowns in Europe affected my particularly international academic project, and how have I recalibrated my research?

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Covid-19 has certainly created difficult conditions for conducting any sort of research, that is certain. My engagement with other Laidlaw Scholars at St Andrews over the last few weeks has demonstrated the far-reaching and profound impacts of global lockdowns upon academic research. Some have found themselves isolated in their rooms, left with only a desk and a computer upon which to conduct their research. Others have been separated from their notes from last year, unable to travel to the regions they intend to study or have struggled to find the motivation to keep working throughout the pandemic. Rather unluckily, I have been affected in all of these ways. With no notes, no ability to travel and daily challenges to my motivation, this summer's research has presented unprecedented obstacles - and opportunities for growth.

Catalonia: Coronavirus hotspot = no travel

My research project attempt to understand, explain and interpret the relationship between the Catalan secessionist movement and those who take part. On the surface, this may seem simple - one's identity can be self-determined through an affiliation (often political). My research has focused on pinning down the linguistic, discourse and emotional characteristics of this relationship. Of course, this involves talking to Catalans themselves, experiencing the atmosphere of the movement and immersing oneself. Knowing the history of the region, understanding the party-political situation and keeping up to date with current affairs in Catalonia are essential to writing an impactful report.

It is clear why lockdowns have so deeply affected my research - without contact inside Catalonia its been difficult to assess participants' mannerisms, terminology and to 'read between the lines'. I have been unable to secure interviews with key figures - as I did last year when I interviewed figures such as the Catalan President-in-exile Carles Puigdemont and the Director of the Catalan Government's Department for External Action. 

Carles Puigdemont and I following our one-on-one interview

No notes? No problem!

I left St Andrews at the start of Spring Break in the belief that I could return before any sort of lockdown would be imposed, hence my separation from my notes from last summer's research. When my research period started I attempted to see this almost positively, allowing me to reset and refresh my knowledge on a vast array of Catalan culture, politics and history. I bought George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and read up on the constitutional situation in Spain. My participants last year frequently referenced a history of Catalan oppression, so what were they specifically referring to - beyond the living memory of Franco's dictatorship? What bonds and unifies Catalans? Mutual suffering appears to be part of the story - but not all. 

This unexpected refocusing during my research period has actually widened my knowledge of my topic of study in areas unknown. This impact of the lockdown upon my research has been strangely freeing and offered some liberty (or llibertat). Discussions with my supervisor helped  me to read around my topic effectively and I feel set up to eventually go back to Catalonia with a more refined (albeit still incomplete) understanding of their culture and history.

Has lockdown helped my research?

Well, in truth, probably. It has presented me with the opportunity to better understand why I love my research topic and to deepen my relationship with the subject matter. Of course, I have maintained contact with my participants and asked them questions in relation to my research. Also, this is not the end of my research - I opted to split my project this summer (conducting two weeks of research from 1st June and flying out to Catalonia and Madrid when restrictions ease). 

Laidlaw has taught me how to be a better social researcher and how to approach sensitive topics (such as political secessionism) with my participants. When I do manage to get back into the field, these weeks conducting research in lockdown will improve my ability to connect and interact with the information I find. 

Unexpected turns in social research are frequent - participants change your perspective, you bump into new and interesting people and you might walk to the wrong university campus for an interview. Lockdown research has left me with a stronger verve and desire to get back into the field and make a difference.

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I'd like to thank my supervisor, Dr Jeffrey Murer of the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, for his unwavering support throughout my project. My fellow Laidlaw Scholars have also been a great source of support and motivation!

Joseph Horsnell

President, Faculty of Arts & Divinity, University of St Andrews

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