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Tools and Tricks for Fieldwork in Medical Settings: The Imperative of Health-Related Research During an Evolving Pandemic


31 mars au 1er avril 2022


Michael Deml (PhD, University of Cape Town), Martina von Arx (PhD candidate, UNIGE)


Keynote speaker: Dr. Jennifer Githaiga (Lecturer, University of Cape Town)



The idea for this module originated when, sharing a beer and discussing their research, Martina von Arx and Michael Deml expressed their surprise and frustration about the lack of texts on precise methodological advice for fieldwork in medical settings. While researching the dynamic and ever-changing field of medicine is a challenge, a pandemic did not simplify the task. The exceptional conditions of the evolving COVID-19 situation not only forced researchers to adapt but contested their very roles as social scientists within the medical field. To what extent is there an imperative of doing health related research, both on and during, an evolving pandemic? Can we benefit from this period to refine our fieldwork tools and tricks in an innovative manner? Such and other questions shall be discussed with PhD candidates and postdoctoral researchers who adopt a social science perspective to medical topics.


The first focus of this Module questions the current state of affairs within medical sociology and anthropology. It begs the question: Is there an imperative for medical social scientists to study the medical field, both on and during, an ongoing and evolving crisis? The obvious, immediate answer is probably a resounding, "Yes!" However, the pandemic struck at a moment in which ongoing fieldwork was at different stages or had not even started. While it seems almost impossible to not add a COVID-19 twist to the original research subject, other considerations concerned deciding how much attention to pay to the pandemic or if the study should wholly be reframed around it. In other words, is the imperative to study COVID-19, in addition to our own original object of study, jumping on a growing bandwagon where we know there is public interest and opportunities for us to advance our careers? Framed differently, are we just doing COVID-19 research because it is in vogue, and are we considering the actual contributions such research can brings to the field critically? Finally, an old question about the role of medical anthropologists and sociologists resurfaces: Should our research be of immediate importance and instrumentalized for finding solutions to pressing socio-medical issues in society? Or rather, should it be able to stand alone on its own merit without having any direct immediate relevance for healthcare practitioners or public health interventions?

The second focus concerns the nitty gritty of conducting health related research as social scientists during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some scholars have written generally about the conditions of gaining and maintaining access while conducting qualitative fieldwork,[1] we only sporadically came across such helpful methodological literature in medical sociology and anthropology[2]. Our sense was that there is a lack of systematic texts that could help us with some of the basic concrete and logistical questions about the day-to-day conduct of qualitative medical research as social scientists. Our questions were basic and naïve (without wanting to diminish their importance) and included: How do I recruit healthcare professionals to participate in my study? How do I explain medical anthropology and sociology to healthcare professionals and the patients I would like to study? How do I present myself to potential study participants, not only in title, but in self-presentation (clothes, mannerisms, placement within professional space that is not mine and that is 'foreign' to me professionally)? What methods are available to me in my social science toolkit when studying medical settings? What methods are not available to me in medical settings? Then, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and all of these questions, which we had not yet resolved, were more starkly and clearly brought to the fore. Many research projects focusing on medical "fieldwork" had to be cancelled, postponed, or adapted with innovative methods aiming to understand the quickly shifting black box of the ongoings of medical settings (hospitals, clinics, and other places of care), during an ongoing pandemic. Besides the restricted access, a novel question arose in this context: What actually constitutes the "field" when much fieldwork during the pandemic has been adapted to online modes of data collection?


The module will take the form of a 2-day workshop involving selected presentations, collaborative breakout sessions, and round table discussions with peers and senior researchers. Informal discussions will be fostered by coffee breaks, meals, and other activities.


Martina von Arx and Michael Deml aim at publishing a selected collection of texts resulting from the module. The follow-up special edition would assemble methodological and conceptual chapters for a collective publication in English for a wider readership in the fields of medical sociology and anthropology. Module participants will be prioritized for contributions.


[1] See, for example: Feldman, Martha, Jeannine Bell, and Michelle Tracy Berger. Gaining Access: A Practical and Theoretical Guide for Qualitative Researchers. Lanham, Maryland: Altamira Press, 2003.

[2] See, for example: Barry, Christine A. "Multiple Realities in a Study of Medical Consultations." Qualitative Health Research 12, no. 8 (2002): 1093-111.



Thursday, March 31, 2022 - The nitty gritty of doing medical fieldwork

9:15 AM: Welcome Coffee

Morning: Presentations by Prof. Mathilde Bourrier, University of Geneva, and Dr. Jennifer Githaiga, University of Cape Town, followed by a round table discussion

12:30 PM: Lunch Break

Afternoon: Breakout sessions with smaller groups focusing on personal research projects

6 PM: Apéro and dinner


Friday, April 1, 2022 - The imperative of doing COVID-19 related social sciences research

8:30 AM: Breakfast

Morning: Presentations by Prof. Claudine Burton-Jeangros, University of Geneva, and Martina von Arx, University of Geneva, followed by a round table discussion

12 PM: Lunch Break

Afternoon: Wrap up

3 PM: End of Module
à Visite guidée en Français pour ceux et celles qui sont intéressé.e.s !


Hôtel Murtenhof & Krone


Modalité de participation financière pour les doctorant-e-s CUSO: CHF 20.-



Please sign in via the CUSO-platform.

Optional: To best prepare the module, we are happy to receive some background information of you. Please send the brief responses to the following questions to Martina von Arx ([email protected]) by noon on Tuesday, March 15, 2022.

Could you briefly describe the research methodologies you are using or plan to use?

Could you briefly describe the nature of your field? In other words, are you collecting data in a hospital, a clinic, on the Internet, documentary/archive analysis, qualitative interviews with lay people, etc.?

What do you expect or what would you like to get out of this module?



Délai d'inscription 13.03.2022
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