Turn and Face the Strange: Research Approaches in the Age of Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic will be a history-altering event. But where will it take us? In “On the Horizon,” a new CSIS series, our scholars offer their insights into the fundamental changes we might anticipate for our future social and economic world.

Covid-19 has turned our way of life upside down. It has revealed the relative weakness of international institutions of governance, strained our confidence in federal support structures in the United States, shifted the economic landscape for years to come, and accelerated global social unrest. From a policy analysis standpoint, Covid-19 has fundamentally disrupted almost all regional or functional areas in some way. The balance of power in Asia is in question while long-standing political assumptions about privacy and surveillance are no longer certain. Just as we have adapted to new forms of work and social interaction, long-held assumptions and expectations about the international political system need updating.

In this shifting and uncertain environment, practitioners and scholars of government and international affairs have been forced to reassess their work and ask themselves: how is Covid-19 shaping the future of my area of study? What assumptions have I made about trends and ongoing developments pertinent to my field that now necessitate re-examination?

As researchers confront these questions, their answers are likely to fall into one of three main categories:

  1. Events and trends have been fundamentally changed by Covid-19, and my studies and predictions should change to account for them.
  2. The ongoing crisis has brought existing issues into sharper relief, highlighting or exacerbating problems.
  3. The trends and issues I study have not been significantly changed by Covid-19.

We will walk through each of these three cases, examining the ways researchers have begun to reassess their work in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Unexpected Events Bring New Challenges

Many researchers have found that Covid-19 has substantially altered their field or region of study, causing unanticipated events and changing decisionmaking processes around the world. In these cases, researchers must focus on what and where. What new developments might arise now as a consequence of the pandemic? What political and military decisions might change? Where are these effects likely to manifest?

For example, our team just finished a major study on Russia’s military and diplomatic campaign in Syria, the largest and most significant Russian out-of-area operation since the end of the Cold War. Part of the study focused on current Syrian regime operations in Idlib province, what we considered to be perhaps the Assad regime’s final offensive of the Syrian civil war. At the beginning of 2020, it was highly unlikely that fighting in Idlib could halt.

Yet, in March, Russia and Turkey agreed to a limited ceasefire in Idlib, which held up surprisingly long. Though both sides have used the lull to resupply and prepare for future rounds of fighting, the pandemic appears to have also had an impact. In April, the Turkish Ministry of Defense announced it was decreasing troop movements across the Turkish-Syrian border to curb the spread of the virus throughout its military. There is also evidence that Iran’s role in Idlib will diminish due to the pandemic. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has reduced support to proxy forces in Syria, such as Liwa Fatemiyoun, Liwa Zainebiyoun, and key Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs). Though many assess these withdrawals are likely shorter term, they are nonetheless an unexpected development as Iran and Russia continue to grapple for influence in Damascus.

Existing Challenges Deepen

In some cases, Covid-19 has not fundamentally changed issues facing our society, but has instead brought greater attention to them or increased their impact. In these cases, the problem is known already, but researchers must now ask how. How has Covid-19 worsened or sped up the trends that I study? How can I frame research questions to most effectively respond to changing circumstances?

For example, evidence shows that the pandemic is worsening income inequality and health disparities, including disproportionate effects by race. Though income, health, and racial disparities are long-standing problems, the current crisis has exacerbated them and drawn more widespread attention.

Meanwhile, the virus may also be used as a tool to further existing goals. In Syria, for example, although military combat has slowed, our colleague Will Todman suggested the Assad regime is weaponizing Covid-19 to ensure it will hit opposition-held areas the hardest by obstructing aid to key rebel positions in the northeast.

Researchers confronting problems like these may now consider how their existing work can incorporate new evidence, how to focus on areas of their research that most directly influence pandemic response planning, and how to frame their work to policymakers and the public to best affect lasting change, even beyond current circumstances.

Existing Trends Continue

Finally, there are some subject areas in which trends and findings may not be affected by Covid-19, or only affected tangentially. Though many circumstances have changed, the global challenges that preceded the pandemic will continue. Though Covid-19 rightfully commands much of the world’s attention, we should also take care not to overlook existing trends in a rush to find connections to the spread of Covid-19. The trend toward further automation and efficiency in industrial supply chains, for example, appears to continue moving forward.

In these cases, with research subjects or conclusions largely unaffected, researchers should instead consider how their methods will change. How can I conduct research remotely? How have my team’s technological needs changed? Are there new opportunities in a remote work environment to connect with others in my field worldwide? How do I present my work to retain impact as policymakers focus primarily on Covid-19?

What Remains Constant?

In light of all this uncertainty, it is natural for researchers to wonder what we can rely on for a sense of “normalcy.” Early in the Covid-19 crisis, Dr. John J. Hamre, CSIS president and CEO, remarked to staff that our mission will be the thing to guide us through these trying times. This leads us to the last question researchers must keep in mind, though their answer is likely unchanged: why?

Why do we pursue this work? Whether driven by public service, curiosity, or other motives, the reason researchers commit to their work is unlikely to have changed. Surely our process has changed, particularly as individuals juggle quarantine requirements, work-remote directives, financial obligations, health concerns, and other strains brought on by the pandemic. But at its core, the why that drives scholars is likely the same, even as we adapt our research questions and methods to fit the crisis at hand.

Nicholas Harrington is a research associate with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Catrina Doxsee is a program manager and research associate for the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Catrina Doxsee
Associate Director and Associate Fellow, Transnational Threats Project

Nicholas Harrington