Fieldwork at your fingertips: creative methods for social research

We are members of a social-science laboratory in Sydney, Australia, and collectively we research how social factors, such as gender or education, affect health and how people integrate digital technologies into their everyday lives Huh.

We have studied topics including smartphone usage, women’s health and fitness practices and how people track self-improvement metrics using smartwatches. Seeing people in their everyday environment was an important part of our work. Being physically present helped us understand people’s routines and relationships and the social world around them.

And then, it happened. This did not mean that there were no face-to-face interviews or in-person research. Yet the need to understand people’s experiences – particularly their health and relationship with the digital world – seemed more important than ever. We had to improve and improve our methods quickly, so we started using creative digital techniques to capture different voices and perspectives (see kit toolkit ‘).

Here is a summary of three such methods along with what they have learned about them so far.

Digital diary

As soon as the lockdown began, we saw more people moving around in our own neighborhood, cycling and remodeling outdoor locations. We decided to investigate people’s immediate fitness practices during lockdown.

We wanted to incorporate a participant-led experience that reduced the real-time demands of doing live interviews on the videoconferencing platform Zoom, especially at a time when screen fatigue prevailed, leaving us with an interview outside.

Used to allow meaningful moments to take hold. We asked participants to start creating digital diaries so that they could tell their stories through a combination of photos and text, rather than simply relying on language.

Participants received a daily e-mail with a Details to the ‘Digital Diary Entry’ form. He was invited to upload a digital image related to his physical activity, and to tell a short story about what he meant. We were concerned that people might provide very few, descriptive answers.

But participants uploaded a wide variety of images and shared thoughtful, emotional stories. These stories provided rich insights into the contexts and challenges of everyday life during the epidemic and highlighted the importance of physical activity to maintain daily routines and relieve epidemic stress.

Our findings help us understand the benefits of physical activity beyond health and aesthetics. These include providing a feeling of ‘escape’ from the stresses of daily life during an epidemic, gaining a sense of control in times of uncertainty, creating a daily routine, and a sense of calm (sometimes fleeting). Digital photo diaries helped bring ideas to life that a virtual interview could not.


Another way in the series is to create ‘zine’. Zines ((linguistically derived from magazines) are do-it-yourself writing and visual arts publications. People make it their creative work to share and disseminate community information, much the same as an analog form of blogging. Like. Although zine workshops are often conducted in person, we have designed digital workshops that combine online and print creative processes.

Digital zine making works similar to an online focus group. We want to gather diverse perspectives on a given issue, for example, mental health and social media.

So we bring a small group of participants together using Zoom to discuss the research topic. In addition, each person uses pen, paper, and magazine scraps to create one or two pages in real time that represent their ideas. They then post or e-mail us these, so we can compile the same zine from the workshop that ties together their different perspectives.

Standard focus groups can be dominated by one or two loud voices. People may also struggle to articulate verbally how they feel about complex issues. Zeen Making provides a creative process and an end product that distracts the diverse views of people, and gives space to all voices. We analyze the recording of the discussion and the content of the final product to give people a nuanced understanding of social issues.


A third method of our series is analyzing YouTube videos. We were analyzing YouTube videos even before the epidemic as there is a large number of active communities on the platform. With many social-media platforms, people socialize through YouTube. This makes it a valuable site for content analysis and virtual observation.

The study of digital communities works in the same way as in-person fieldwork – you must be familiar with the community, be an observer and take notes.

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