Solidarity and Research: An early career researchers perspective

by Sarah Lemon

I have been inspired to write this after attending a presentation by Rachel Sumner (the co-researcher for the CV19 Heroes project along with Elaine Kinsella).   The presentation was made to Rachel’s academic colleagues and covered how and why the project started, the findings to date, and how information about the project was being disseminated.  All of this is relevant and perhaps one could argue standard for academic research.  However, what made this presentation notable in the academic field was Rachel’s candour about how learnings (what she referred to as her failures) from previous research have helped shape the success of this current project.  Rachel also touched on her concerns about doing justice to frontline workers’ experiences and how important it is for both her and Elaine that the research helps address any negative impacts on the wellbeing of frontline workers and helps drive positive change.

I am a PhD student at the University of Gloucestershire (UOG) and am seeking to further understand the relationship that solidarity has on people whose job goals are interdependent on members of society external to their organisation.  This wonderful opportunity has been afforded to me, in no small part, by the support and integrity of Rachel and Elaine and the CV19 Heroes participants.  Firstly, it was through my role as a research assistant for the project that I am now on this journey, secondly the topic of solidarity within my PhD has been informed by the project’s research findings, and finally, without the scholarship this would not have been an option for me.

Whilst solidarity is understood in different ways, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim conceptualised social solidarity as arising within modern societies because of our interdependence on each other to carry out our varied and specialised roles.  Perhaps there has never been a more poignant reminder in recent times of societies interdependence on key workers who carry out essential roles in keeping us all safe.

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

The feeling of, and acting in, solidarity has had a massive impact on the wellbeing of frontline workers, one which I heard first-hand when interviewing CV19 Heroes participants. All participants spoke with an honesty and openness that was humbling and an honour to bear witness to, with many expressing a responsibility to speak out and share their experiences so others could benefit. Despite the immense pressure participants were under, they gave freely of their time, and many talked about wanting the world to be a better place and their hope that people would ‘do the right thing’.  The other day, I pondered what would have happened if, in those early days of COVID-19, our frontline workers around the world had just downed tools and said ‘no’.  How many more people would have suffered, how many more would have died? But they didn’t, they stood in solidarity with their communities and despite not knowing the cost to themselves they stepped up and continue to do so.

The similarity between the feelings and actions of the CV19 Heroes participants and the project’s researchers strikes me powerfully, although I do not doubt Rachel and Elaine will seek to deny this. As my supervisors, both on the project and now for my PhD, I am honoured to work with them for many of the same reasons. They started this research with no financial grants simply because it was too important not to study and did so out of solidarity with the frontline workers who they felt would need their support. Both have donated much of their personal time to this research and continue to do so, working tirelessly to raise awareness. As academics, Rachel and Elaine offer an open door and collaborative approach with students and colleagues alike and this extends to their research, for example consulting with participants on this project about how best the research can support them moving forward.

This project has clearly shown that we need to act in solidarity with our frontline workers by playing our role wherever possible in stopping the spread of the virus.  But it has also shown the importance of academics standing in solidarity with members of society in their time of need.  The lead researchers and participants of the CV19 Heroes project highlight the importance of acting with honesty and integrity and how together participants and researchers can act in solidarity to address injustices. 

Working on the CV19 Heroes project has also highlighted the importance of solidarity within research.  For social research to happen and make a difference it requires researchers, colleagues, policy makers, the media, funders, and most importantly participants, to each carry out their unique and inter-dependent roles within the research process.  However, as this project attests to, when researchers and participants stand in solidarity and act with integrity then research can ripple out creating a positive and important impact for all.

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