Ralf Cox with his box for remote research. Photo by Reyer Boxem

Social research in times of lockdown

Observing from a distance

Ralf Cox with his box for remote research. Photo by Reyer Boxem
How are you supposed to do social research if you can’t observe people in real life? These scientists devised some creative solutions. ‘But I don’t want this trend of online research to persist.’
Door Lydwine Huizinga
11 May om 9:57 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 24 August 2021
om 15:31 uur.
May 11 at 9:57 AM.
Last modified on August 24, 2021
at 15:31 PM.

Ever since the coronavirus paralysed the country more than a year ago, developmental psychologist Marijn van Dijk hasn’t been inside a school. That is, to put it mildly, kind of annoying, since it’s her job to study behaviour in children and adolescents when they’re in school or engaging in sports, and she can’t do that now.

The study she and her colleagues are working on has been at a standstill since March 2020. ‘We kept postponing it’, she says. ‘In late May, we thought the schools would reopen after the summer holidays. Only now do I realise how naive I was to think that.’ 

What were they to do? ‘We shifted our focus. Instead of observing students in school ourselves, we’ve asked teachers and parents to fill out a report’, says Van Dijk. ‘We’re also currently exploring options to visit the children at home.’ 

Ambient noise

They’ll just have to make do. ‘We can’t do any experimental research. We occasionally need really specific measuring protocols and there is too much ambient noise in a home situation. A little brother that jumps into a frame, a doorbell. It simply doesn’t work.’  

I hadn’t got around to processing some of the data

Marijn van Dijk

Out of sheer necessity, she’s gone back to data from older studies. ‘It’s low-hanging fruit. I’ve been working as a researcher and I had a lot still lying around. I simply hadn’t got around to processing some of the data.’ 

She thinks that by using it more efficiently, the data will last her ‘a couple of years’. ‘This period has provided an opportunity for a deep dive, which I hadn’t had time for before. I realise that I’m lucky, because not everyone has that option.’ 


Fellow psychologist Ralf Cox also has previous research to fall back on, but the PhD students he supervises don’t. ‘These researchers only have one thing planned and no room to postpone anything. They have to keep going’, he says. ‘Some of them can easily do their research online, but others have had to get seriously creative.’

I tried to get everything out of this time that I could

Nicol Arellano Véliz

Finding an alternative for studying the behaviour and physical characteristics of people looking at art is not easy. It seemed impossible at first, but master student Gemma Schina found a way. Together with Cox, she came up with the idea to implement a new tool that allowed people to indicate where they felt their emotions using a silhouette online. 

This method had never been used in the field of art psychology before, and it led to surprising results. It even became the basis for Schino’s PhD research. 

Writing assignments

Nicol Arellano Véliz also refused to give up. Her PhD research focuses on expression and behavioural indicators in connection to depression and personality. She is now basing her research on a technique called expressive writing, where people put their experiences and feelings down on paper and she studies their word usage. The participants also have to film themselves doing assignments on their own, so their movements, speech patterns and facial expressions can be recorded. 

‘The past year hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learned so much from it’, Véliz says. ‘By letting go of my plans and being more flexible, I realised I was moving forward. I tried to get everything out of this time that I could.’

Research box

Cox hopes to create new opportunities for experimental research over the next few months. He has come up with the concept for a box that contains a laptop and a heart rate monitor, for example. This box would enable research participants to perform the research themselves with the help of instructions. 

‘We disinfect the box before we deliver it and pick it up again an hour later’, Cox explains. ‘It’s not the same as in a laboratory, but it’s a close approximation.’ He plans on requesting approval for his idea soon. ‘I think a lot of researchers could use this method if we get approved.’

The things we really want to do are impossible right now

Ralf Cox

But in spite of all the innovations, developmental psychologist Van Dijk would just like everything to go back to the way it was as soon as possible. ‘What if this situation lasts for a few more years?’ she wonders. ‘Will most of our research just be lost? How will we pick it back up?’ 

Cox is also wary of the future. ‘The things we really want to do, observing and measuring people, are impossible right now’, he says. ‘Will we be able to get back to our old research? I’m seeing this trend towards online research, but I don’t want people to think that we can start doing everything that way. There is no online substitute for proper experimental research.’ 

Lockdown tips for researchers

Researchers in the social sciences and other fields are forced to make do with whatever they can. Cox and his PhD students share the tips that helped them: 

  • Use your data effectively. Is there data from existing research that you could analyse for other research objectives?
  • Look for collaboration opportunities. Set up online studies with scientists from other countries who are facing the same problem and share information.
  • Talk to each other. Brainstorming with other colleagues enables you to test and optimise creative ideas. Make your group as big and as diverse as possible, as this will lead to the best ideas.