Adapting to change: “Speaking with others in the same boat over this period, was both reassuring and practically helpful”

Rachel Claydon, a PhD researcher at the Institute of Development 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.

Below we hear from Rachel Claydon who is a PhD researcher studying at the Institute of Development Studies.

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

My research explores the role of the market in delivering positive nutrition outcomes. My original project planned to investigate the lived experience of fortified packaged foods targeting people with micronutrient deficiencies in Northern Ghana – products like fortified biscuits and juice powders. I wanted to gather evidence of the intended and unintended consequences of these polarising products. Fortified packaged foods are lauded by some given their potential to deliver vital missing micronutrients, but are feared by others because of their assumed association with the nutrition transition and a shift away from traditional diets.

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

I had planned to conduct a 12-month ethnographic study of food consumption in Tamale, Ghana, involving participant observation and semi-structured interviews, focus groups, key informant interviews, a market scan and a small household survey. I was writing up my Research Outline in spring 2020 while completing the MSc in Social Research Methods during the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. It quickly became clear that moving with my young family to West Africa for a year in October 2020 would not be feasible.

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

Given that fieldwork in Ghana would not be possible in the foreseeable future, I had to decide whether to postpone fieldwork for an unknown period, or to adapt the research and collect data in the UK. Given all of the uncertainties associated with the pandemic, I made the difficult decision to reorientate my research around fieldwork in the UK. The biggest challenge was reconceptualising the main themes of my research around the nutrition situation and market in the UK. This took a number of iterations, but I was supported by numerous patient conversations with my supervisors Nick Nisbett and Dinah Rajak (Global Studies). My research now explores experiences of branded foods with nutrition claims in the UK, specifically those targeting children. I had to rewrite my literature review for the UK context which took considerable time, however my methodology is broadly the same as planned for Ghana. I hope that a large part of my fieldwork will be able to be conducted with families face-to-face, however I have had to begin with an initial phase of digital ethnography in the face of ongoing restrictions in the UK. 

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

My supervisors were very supportive, and certainly spent extra time over the summer reviewing my evolving Research Outline. I also joined regular calls with SeNSS funded Development Studies students from Sussex and other universities, many of whom were also facing major challenges with their fieldwork as a result of the pandemic. Speaking with others in the same boat (or worse!) over this period was both reassuring and practically helpful as we talked through different scenarios for each of our projects.

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

We are often told to try to focus on indirect positive outcomes of the pandemic, and I honestly think that this is good advice. After a period of pretty major disappointment, I found I have been able to get excited about my adapted research plans by realising that my approach, originally designed for West Africa, was a new way of looking at the highly topical challenge of poor diets here in the UK. I am also pleased to have become part of the universalising development movement within Development Studies, looking at challenges in the Global North as well as the Global South.

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

I have now begun fieldwork here in Brighton. I am currently working through some technical challenges of doing digital ethnography, but this feels like a vital skill to be learning. I will be doing my data collection part-time until July 2021, so am looking forward to getting stuck in with face-to-face research later in the year.

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