Researching Digital Touch During and After a Pandemic

Guest post, by Ned Barker (@nedbarker10) with the InTouch team.

Methodological innovation is at the core of the InTouch project.

Our engagement with digitally mediated touch builds on a ‘socially orientated’ stance to touch. Prior to the pandemic, our research activities involved observing, participating in, experimenting with, and disrupting touch through in-situ methods developed by putting multimodality, sensory research and arts/design methods into research dialogues through touch.

Figure 1: ‘Coronavirus, Stay at Home’. Image Credit: iMattSmart

Confronted by social distancing measures and situated within a rapidly evolving tactile landscape, the InTouch team have been reflecting on the question of how to apply and adapt our methods for researching digital touch during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This question cuts across our varied research activities in different ways because:

  1. Case studies and PhD projects were at different stages when lockdown measures were introduced – some were completed, some in the midst of data collection, and others were being conceived.
  2. Each InTouch case study employs and advances a distinct palette of methods to gain fine-grained understandings of digital touch within a particular research context[1].

This Thinking Piece draws on our collective conversations across our research activities to identify common themes and adaptations. It concludes with some initial reflections on how digital touch research may continue to adapt to, and operate in, a ‘post-pandemic world’.

Mapping our research prior to and across the pandemic with water-based metaphors

One way we reflected was through an NCRM activity template[2] that invites researchers to map their research prior to and across the pandemic, through water-based metaphors or illustrations. This blog piece discusses some of our thoughts on the implications of Covid-19 for adapting our methods and conducting touch research.

Figure 2. Selection of water-inspired maps produced by members of the InTouch team to facilitate cross-case discussions & reflections.

Choppy tides                                                   

Whirlpools, quagmires and deepening waters were some of the metaphors we used to characterise the turbulent impact of Covid-19 on our active research projects. For example, immediate impacts symbolised by dams and rocks that blocked access to participants and physical spaces. In this we lost direct access to the socio-sensorial dimensions of touch that our in-situ methods were attuned to (e.g. the weight and feel of touching fabric together and learning techniques of touching with use of technologies that distance the body from dirty and dangerous materials).

We were forced to find new routes forward for research designs and methods – see figure 2. For example, participatory workshops moved online, changing opportunities for shared tactile artefacts. Participant observations had to be differently performed during ‘low Covid tides’ while online sensory interviews were developed to stretch ethnographic work in new directions.

Through the process of mapping our research activities we recontextualized the interruptions caused by Covid-19 as ‘one more challenge’ of doing research amongst the many that arise on often undomesticated and unstable touch technologies. Our methods have already been stretched to explore digital touch (where many technologies are prototypal and speculative) such as: developing a digital toolkit, rapid prototyping, collaborations with artists and dancers. Researchers navigating emergent technological landscapes and methodological terrains frequently encounter research challenges. These can also blow us in unplanned but useful directions. Mapping and naming these – oxbow lakes, meanders and sink holes, to name a few – enabled us to explore their differences and to consider the new research routes that have flowed from them. While not everything can be saved, tidal currents that redirect research (Covid-19 related or other) represent critical moments where designs and methods can be productively reorientated. In this respect, the ‘choppy tides’ of Covid-19 have not always presented challenges that are entirely ‘new’. Appropriate methods exist and can be adapted, while prior research experiences can inform us when navigating the specific restrictions and conditions of our changing research contexts. To harness opportunities to adapt our methods in innovative directions, we have sought to clarify what the essence of a method is and to keep that alive.  

Proxy Feelers

As InTouch’s core methods became unavailable, we had to reorientate our exploration of sensory/tactile environments within a different physical divide between researcher and participant. To stretch our methods to remote (rather than in-situ) contexts, we invited participants to engage with their material surroundings in meaningful ways. To do this, we used alternative means and techniques to help ground participants’ discussions, reflections, practices and speculations within the felt and emplaced dynamics of touch – ‘proxy feelers’. Our proxy-feeler experimentations include:

  • Digital Cultural Probes, which can keep the participatory nature of touch workshops and the essence of doing activities around a ‘resource pack’ alive:

Figure 3: (1) Digital probes website with week 1 digital tasks; (2) A participants shares material and objects that have given her comfort in one of the online workshops; (3) One participant’s touch technology prototype – a programmable, flexible string with multiple options for tactile sensations and patterns.

  • Online sensory interviews employing techniques that encourage participants to demonstrate touch and create instances where touch actions are disrupted:
Figure 4: Online Sensory Interviews: keeping the essence alive.
  • The use of Touch diaries to document touch experiences during lockdown:
Figure 5: From the pre-pandemic stage of The Touch Diaries (2015): dancers Anne-Gaelle Thiriot and Will Dickie explore ‘absence of touch’, image by Paul Blakemore, Marine Theatre Lyme Regis.

These experimentations flexed, stretched and adapted existing methods to smooth over the immediate limitations posed while access to in-situ touch was restricted.

Underpinning these innovations was the agility afforded by multimodality, sensory ethnography and arts/design-based methodologies. Experimenting through proxy feelers offered alternative routes to keep the social and sensory dynamics of touch alive.

Navigating ‘unchartered’ waters

These are unprecedented and challenging times for social life, touch, and for researching touch. However, our reflections problematise overplaying the ‘newness’ of the challenges of researching touch during and after this pandemic. InTouch’s ongoing approach proposes a long view, rather than populating an uncertain future with a projected methodological momentum for what digital touch research may come to look like. To achieve this, we are looking back across our case studies to explore connections, ruptures and openings, to explore changes and similarities, new challenges arising, and the shifting emphasis for research questions and methods, such as the ethics of touch encounters.

As we continue to design research that responds to new touch landscapes, we seek to avoid reactionary responses and to use this period to forge ahead with methodological advances across the InTouch project.


[1] This dynamic mobilises the methodological expertise of the research team and feeds the interdisciplinary approach that brings together multimodality, sensory ethnography and the arts and design in productive and novel ways.

[2] This template was developed as part of the NCRM project ‘Changing Research Practice: Undertaking social science research in the context of Covid-19’. Team members encountered this activity as part of their engagement in the methods workshop and adapted it to facilitate team reflections.

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