Adapting to Change: “It is important to look at the whole picture, instead of focusing on what you cannot do right now”

A selfie of Belen Martinez Caparros wearing a facemask in a street in India. Image: Belen Martinez Caparros
Belen Martinez Caparros, a doctoral researcher in Global Studies

In this Adapting to Change series, we interview Sussex PhD researchers and supervisors about the challenges they faced in 2020, and the different approaches they took to tackle the issues, adapt their projects and continue with their research.

Belén Martínez Caparrós is a doctoral researcher in Global Studies investigating the experiences of women in the male-dominated taxi sector in Spain and India.

Tell us a little about your research and what your original research plans involved.

My original research project was a comparison of two programmes run by local NGOs aiming at the empowerment of women in Bihar (India): a microfinance and a rickshaw driver programme, the latter challenging traditional gender roles of women in India. I wanted to explore if the different opportunities that these programmes offer to rural women in Bihar result in any changes to the way women self-identify, and whether their life choices are less limited by social norms and expectations of their social roles.

Once my research outline was completed and I obtained all necessary approvals, I travelled to India to start fieldwork. I first spent almost three months in Jaipur studying Hindi at a language school. After my language training, I moved to Bodhgaya (Bihar) in February 2020, where I was planning to stay for about twelve months conducting ethnographic research.

Which methodologies were you using in your work, and what stage were you at when you had to adapt your research?

My original research plan was to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in rural Bihar for six months at each programme, using photo-elicitation interviews, participant observation and informal conversations with community members.

Unfortunately, just a few weeks after starting my fieldwork in Bodhgaya, I had to return to the UK due to the pandemic. During my time in Bodhgaya, I made some connections and managed to find a female translator to help me with my research. It was very unfortunate timing that I had to return to the UK when I was just getting ready to start the interviews with my participants. Therefore, when I returned to the UK in late March 2020, I had no data that I could work with. As the pandemic worsened globally, I felt increasingly anxious and worried I was not going to be able to safely return to India to resume my fieldwork. Due to the ethnographic nature of my research, it is not possible to start the writing-up process before the collection of data is completed and the themes of interest have emerged.

Auto rickshaw taxis waiting for customers by the roadside in India. Image: Belen Martinez Caparros
Photo taken by Belen during her initial fieldwork in India

As it was unclear when I could resume my fieldwork in India, I had to rethink my project and transform it so that I could conduct my fieldwork in Europe. I decided to relocate it to Málaga (Spain). As a Spanish citizen and a Spanish-native speaker, I expected a quick and smooth immersion in my new field site. However, the decision of abandoning my research in India was not easy. I had invested a lot of time in developing my literature review and research outline, and I had already spent a lot of time in preparation for my fieldwork in India, which was also lost.

During summer 2020 I did a new literature review and adjusted my research proposal. After obtaining the necessary approvals, my new fieldwork started in Málaga in September 2020, where I am planning to stay until July 2021. My current project examines the experiences of women working in a male-dominated occupation such as the taxi and PHV (Uber, Cabify) sector and if they perceive their life choices as less limited by social norms.

What obstacles did you face to your original research plans and how did you address these challenges?

The main impact of Covid-19 in my research was the inability to conduct fieldwork in India, which resulted in the subsequent change of field site and project adaptation.

After my unexpected return to the UK, I looked for possible alternatives such us requesting an intermission to my studies, conducting remote and digital data collection, or undertaking a placement at an organisation. I joined groups created by researchers where they shared articles, ideas and examples of projects that had been impacted by health crisis or political instability. I attended workshops about digital ethnography and creative research methods. I read articles on the matter and looked for examples of how other people had managed crucial disruptions to their research.

However, none of them really offered me a good solution. Due to the rural setting of my fieldwork and language barriers, I did not feel that conducting remote and online research would be suitable. It slowly looked like the best option for me was to change the location of my project, although it was not an easy decision to make.

What support did you receive during this period of change and where did you look to for guidance when you encountered an obstacle?

My main source of support were my supervisors. They were very supportive, both at a personal and academic level. Although this situation was new to all of us, they always remained calmed and open to my suggestions and ideas. They were also highly available during those initial uncertain months, quickly replying to emails and attending numerous videocalls, which helped me to stay connected to my PhD studies despite all difficulties.

I also got a great support from my SeNSS pathway group. As a funded student, I am involved in activities and events with students from other universities which are part of SeNSS. This involvement can feel distant at times. However, I felt relief to discover that some of the students at my pathway group had been similarly affected by Covid. With them I found a shared support and understanding. Although we were all navigating our own personal and academic circumstances we talked regularly, sharing worries and offering advice when possible.

Taxis queueing outside Malaga airport. Image: Belen Martinez Caparros
Photo taken by Belen during her fieldwork in Spain

What advice would you give to someone currently facing challenges in their research?

It is difficult to give advice, but I can share what I feel helped me the most during those uncertain months.  

First, it helped finding people who were in a similar position as me. It provided a group of support and I felt I was not the only one going through so much uncertainty.

Sometimes stepping back and taking some time away from the research project can help you see things differently. It is important to look at the whole picture, instead of focusing on what you cannot do right now. Specific workshops can help with that. I attended a session on “How to create a Plan B” and I would highly recommend it for when you feel you are stuck. It provided me with many tools and ideas on how to look at my project differently.

Finally, talking to people who had finished or were at the last stage of their PhD was very helpful. I reached out to students who had had to significantly change their research as well, although for different reasons than mine, and were just about to submit their theses. I found that talking to people who had already completed all stages of the research project was really useful as they could give you a different perspective. Often problems can look huge in the moment, but once you have finished the project and look back, you realise that was just a small part of it.

Where is your research headed now and what’s next for you?

I am halfway through my fieldwork in Málaga, interviewing female taxi and Uber drivers. Some interesting topics have emerged already, and I feel positive about my change of project. I think that relocating my project from India to Spain was a good decision. The fact that I am familiar with the language and culture of Spain has helped me to quickly progress in my fieldwork.

I am hoping that by end of the summer I will go back to Brighton and start the writing-up process of my thesis.

If you would like to share your experience for the Adapting to Change interview series, please contact