On Cars and Phones:
Researching Irregularized Migration in the Pandemic Context

by Marijana Hameršak

Since March 2020 when the World Health Organization “made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic” [1], many things radically changed in our private and professional lives. In the first weeks of the pandemic, even leaving a house for a random walk, not to mention doing ethnographic fieldwork, for many of us seemed, or de facto was, impossible. However, like so many others, most of us started to adjust to new circumstances, being in that more or less successful. In parallel, our research topics and, probably, even more, our research methods also endured metamorphosis. They were modified as much as it was necessary and/or possible regarding individual and project research designs, personal and professional situation and interests, institutional and other expectations and deadlines, taking in that process different directions and appropriating different forms. At least for me, this process was followed by steadily increasing of feelings of fault, disorientation and deficiency that usually follow the research of irregularized migration. Nevertheless, in the same context other, more affirmative feelings also emerged, and here I would like to tackle their origins.
The pandemic, for me, among other things, triggered the shift from in-person, spontaneous communication and occasional, un- and semi-structured interviews to more systematic, previously arranged, recorded, non-contact, semi-structured interviews. Because of the pandemic, fieldwork in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina planned for spring/summer 2020 was replaced with series of short, mostly one to two days long fieldwork visits to different places close to home in Croatia. In the planning and realization of these research rearrangements two “old-school” technical devices were of crucial importance: phone and car.
As a device that enables remote personal interaction or, from the epidemiological perspective, personal contact with no epidemical risk, a phone seemed like an appropriate tool for establishing contact and conducting interviews in the pandemic context. The phone came into the game first, while travelling in Croatia was highly restricted and reduced only to one’s place of residence. In this tense context, telephone interviewing of officials, in particular, representatives of detention centres, seemed like the best and most feasible option, despite the uncertainty of research access to them. Once the permit for access was issued and interviews set, I opted for the use of office telephone for conducting these interviews at my end. The idea was to keep the interviews formal as much it is possible, and to avoid default sharing of my personal mobile phone (and number) with my interlocutors. This specific choices regarding the research tools generated chain reaction with some telling outcomes. In order to record interviews, interlocutors were put on the loudspeakers, which would be needless if interviews were done with mobile phone with installed recorder application. Switching to loudspeaker did produce some echoing in the beginning, but at the end it made the conversation headsets or headphones free and, in sum, more closer to contact one. In parallel, switch to loudspeakers made the interviews more formal since they were fully audible to colleagues who were in the office at the moment.
Comparison of these interviews with in-person interviews done several weeks later with the same officials (as follow-up of the phone interviews) and several years ago with officials of the same or similar professions and ranks (Hameršak and Pleše 2018), suggests that phone interviews can have specific qualities. Although in our professional imaginary often degraded as non-ethnographic, in this particular case (interviews with officials) and circumstances (pandemic), telephone interviews prove to be more comprehensive, informative and engaging than their face-to-face counterparts, which can be related to the specific spatial, sensory and other characteristics of phone as a technical device.

On the other hand, reaching out for a car in the pandemic context was not connected with the idea to avoid public transport and contact with a mass of unknown people, but with the fact that selected research places were not easily, if at all, accessible by public transport. Nevertheless, it was the pandemic and imperatives of social distancing that informed the selection of these specific research places in the first place. Local bridges and cemeteries referred in media and activist reports about irregularized migration became research sites because they were identified as sites of non-intensive and even seldom human presence and in that particularly suitable for research in the new circumstances. Leaving aside the questions about the relationship of cars and mobile methods, here I would like to mention that in this specific research context car was more than a transportation vehicle. Car became a tool for the first encounter with the unknown environment, medium for facing violent topography and even a comfort zone. By making my colleagues and me isolated in the space and readily mobile, the car provided the illusion that we can leave any space at any time and that every place could easily be reached, which was far from the truth at some moments, having in mind all missed turns and all unknown roads that we did not know or were not sure how to leave. Moreover, car in that context functioned also as a mobile research station. In the car we were planning, commenting and discussing, some were notetaking, some were contemplating, some were driving, some were navigating the driver etc.

In sum, use of the car for doing fieldwork in pandemic period enabled fieldvisits with minimal human-contact and in the relative vicinity of the place of residence, like the office phone enabled the contact by the non-contact interviews. Noting special, of course, but at least something in the context of global (post)lock down, and a lot for someone as me, who until recently was extremely reluctant towards driving outside of the city and who since the advent of mobile phones used the office phone at most once a month and only for internal communication. Paradoxically, researching mobile phenomena in the period of restricted mobility enforced my own mobility, while imperative of avoiding social contacts expanded set of my communicational tools for establishing personal contact.