SeedBox Research in a Pandemic

‘I feel my social world thinning like gauze. I feel the fabric, the tissues of affective connection with other human beings is thinning, thinning, thinning like gauze.’
Haraway, Living and Dying in Pandemia.’[1]

In many ways Haraway’s raw sense of loss of her social world resonates with the experiences of SeedBox Postdoctoral researchers. They too have had to calibrate projects and interpersonal relationships to new ways of being in the pandemic. However, while they share similar situations in terms of impacts to research work and socialities, their experiences are by no means uniform and there have even been a few surprising benefits. The Seed Box fellows were recently asked what happens when everything is upside down and what does that do to research? This blog combines transcript notes from a meeting with The Seed Box Fellows in December, emailed feedback and shared editorial. It tries to capture some of the rich discussion around thinking, living and feeling with the Covid 19 challenges.

The sense of missing the physical presence of colleagues highlights just how significant in-person meetings are to collaboratory research work. Stephen Woroniecki, whose project involves field work in Fiji, offered that it felt surreal and a little sad to have not actually physically met a lot of colleagues. He notes that losing touch with empirical context includes not being able to access, and feeling disconnected from, empirical material and place: “I’m looking forward to taking my head back to Fiji”. Both Frida Buhre and Johan Gärdebo are also  missing the physical meetings with colleagues. For Frida it is not being able to catch up with the small talk in hallways, which she stresses are an important part of research. Johan spoke of missing the in-person connections and feels the absence of fika[2] chit chats– finding that particular, casual but rich chit-chat form of sociality gets a bit lost in digital meetings. Johan’, whose project is also very reliant on field work, has had to reshuffle, recruit and re-cultivate trust in the project. Interviews take longer; it is now perhaps the third meeting until there is material that can be transcribed. AM Kanngieser’s (Ame) work incorporates sonic ethnographies and is reliant on access to place in order to do recordings–they too miss the opportunity to do this physical work.

Nikiwe Solomon, says that though Covid has not seen exponential increases in Africa (except in South Africa), it has still thrown her off the game. She also encountered non-pandemic related issues of personal safety because certain elements of her project involve fieldwork in Ethiopia. For example, in December it was unsafe to visit the country because of the eruption of violences related to tribal cleansing.  Covid 19 raises its own unique issues in relation to matters of personal safety for The Seed Box researchers. Camila Marambio, who is based in Chile and hadn’t commenced her project at the time of our discussion, noted how lovely it would be to meet her collaborator in Denmark. However, this was not without concern because, even if travel restrictions were lifted, what would be the personal and public health risks in travelling to Denmark? At least living in a small town in Chile, Camila feels she knows the public health rules and is connected to community and supportive environments.

Ame emphasised how the Covid 19 pandemic really amplifies risks to personal health for people who are immunocompromised. As someone who experiences this condition, Ame discussed how immunocompromise scholars are scared about the ‘returning to normal’ discourses, where moving on may exacerbate existing divides; and may mean going back to a time when there was a lot of division. Some academics have experienced the lockdown as fortuitous in that it provided quiet, focussed time. For Ame though, who is based in Melbourne,[3] lockdowns are a “massive impediment”. The experience of lockdowns has raised issues of “how to manage work and labour; and the guilt and sense of shame around not being able to manage”. Ame questioned “how much recognition will be given to these uneven experiences?”

Though Covid makes it difficult to meet new colleagues, Frida reported that her project has not been too affected because most of the research material is social media based and already online. The necessary shift to online communication has also provided opportunities to practice online interviews and video calls. Frida’s project researches the political aesthetics of the global climate strike movement ‘Fridays for Future’ (FFF), who have taken their strikes on-line. “I am looking forward to seeing what happens with FFF if Covid recedes and they can be back on the streets protesting. Will the youth climate justice movement bounce back to its formal format and activities? Will it be as large as before, or even larger? Will the youth activists’ narratives about growing up in a warming world have changed after having experienced a pandemic?” As with others, Frida recognises the positive aspects of the past year, including the Postdoctoral opportunity at Tema Environmental Change and Child Studies! She has also been accepted to serve as a guest editor with Collin Bjork (Massey University, NZ) for a Special Issue of Rhetoric Society Quarterly, on ‘Resisting temporal regimes, imagining just temporalities’.

Ame highlights another positive aspect which is that though much academic work has been derailed, research as disabled scholars is amazing. The pandemic has brought attention to matters of accessibility, even the increasing use of closed caption and signing has been enormous. “Disabled researchers can actually conduct and present their work without it being exceptional.” As a research highlight, Ame recounts the experience of running the workshop ‘Unwanted by Land’, which was oriented to settler-colonialist experiences of occupation. The workshop actually took place during lockdown which provided an intense opportunity to experience and understand what it means to occupy land with people literally in place; locked down in their home.

Other positive experiences include the ability to think about subjects in a space more peaceful and quieter than it might have been and the excitement of meeting new colleagues. Nikiwe reported that it was great to see the emergence of environmental humanities in South Africa and growing networks on the continent. Camila, who is also unable to participate in fieldwork, meets weekly with her collaborators in the “digital peat bog world”. The consistency of the meetings and their one-hour duration have “become nutritional”. In this space, Camila says “we give our imagination a respite away from the uncertainties of pandemic thinking and dream into each other’s virtual realities”. Observing the “immensely diverse, contaminated and complex realities” of these times, Camila also asked, “What are the protocols of an ethical practice of caring from a distance? How do we show up for each other?”

It feels apt to reflect on Haraway’s salient response in ‘Living and Dying in Pandemia’, where she stresses that this is a time for “holding ourselves to be ready to connect”. Through our desire to connect we are all trying to thicken and stitch and weave our ways together, whether by Zoom, forest fica wanderings or other careful, safe practices of interacting.

Blog contributors

Susan Reid in collaboration with SeedBox Postdoctoral Fellows: Frida Buhre, Johan Gärdebo, AM Kanngieser, Camila Marambio, Nikiwe Solomon, Stephen Woroniecki.

Links to individual Postdoctoral fellows can be found here.


[1] Donna Haraway: Living and Dying in Pandemia, February 4, 2021

[2] The Swedish culture of ‘fika’ entails intense coffee and chit-chat in cafes. While this is now not possible because of Covid restrictions, there is apparently a forest fika movement emerging that involves intense wandering between trees, also with intense coffee and chats.

[3] A city just out of its third lockdown. Melbourne’s 17-week lockdown in the second half of 2020 was one of the world’s strictest and longest.