Guest Blog: A research visit to Helsinki during the pandemic

Sometimes a much-anticipated research visit to a centre of excellence coincides with an unforeseen set of circumstances. That’s what happened to Rachael Drewery, who turned up in Helsinki only to be caught up in the Finnish lockdown. She tells her tale…

Rachael Drewery

Rachael Drewery, Nottingham University

On 18th February, when reports about COVID were found in the middle of UK newspapers, I commenced a three month research visit with the Emotions in Interaction team at the University of Helsinki.  Little did I know that four weeks later I would be conducting a research visit, via online platforms, during a global pandemic.

There I was in Helsinki, seeing COVID rates going up and the numbers using public transport suddenly going down. But after talking it over with my Nottingham supervisors, and with my Helsinki host Anssi Peräkylä, I decided to stay on in this beautiful city and continue my research visit.  Like everyone else, I had to adapt rapidly – setting up a home office, learning how to use online platforms and reassessing the aims for my research visit.  No longer would I be visiting other universities and healthcare institutions, but I could engage in online data sessions and reading groups, and the opportunity to enrol in Helsinki University’s course ‘Goffman and social encounters’ presented itself.

helsinki uni

Helsinki University, Senate Square, pre-lockdown

The timing of that course on Goffman was especially lucky for me.  Selecting and analysing online videos created opportunities for light relief e.g. the widely viewed You Tube video ‘children interrupting a news interview’.  Daily news briefings and outings became resources for considering Goffman’s theories in a pandemic e.g. how health care leaders maintain ‘face’ while admitting that they broke social distancing rules.

Data sessions online

Helsinki has a rich tradition of work utilising conversation analysis and both the Emotions in Interaction and the Intersubjectivity in Interaction groups quickly moved data sessions online.   While online sessions involved new challenges for everyone, including concurrently managing transcripts and video, and turn-taking during discussions, sessions were attended by a large number of participants from different disciplinary backgrounds (perhaps more than if the data session had been in a building).  For a visiting researcher, the opportunity to present data on nurse-patient interaction and to participate in a wide variety of data sessions, including empathy in a book club (Liisa Voutilainen), physiotherapy in mental health settings (Katja Mustonen) and dog walking (Mika Simenon), provided opportunities to develop my analytic skills and gain knowledge from colleagues working in different disciplines.

In addition to data sessions, the Emotions in Interaction team offered a regular reading group and a weekly online coffee break.   Weekly coffee breaks were supportive, breaking the isolation of working and living in one room.  They were also an opportunity to discuss how work including the project Facing Narcissism was progressing during COVID and, being a group of sociologists studying interaction, lots of discussion about observations from people’s daily lives – especially whether people ‘swerve’ to maintain social distancing.   In Helsinki wide pavements, quiet streets and a recommendation to maintain one metre distance from others appeared to allow social distancing without having to actively swerve.

The pandemic in the public sphere

While conducting a research visit during a pandemic was at times difficult, focusing on social interaction presented lots of opportunities to think and apply my learning to what was happening around me.  Observing how people interacted in public spaces as COVID rates increased, how people maintained one metre distance when out cycling or walking, and how people navigated the new rules about travel on public transport during my return to the UK all provided opportunities to think about interaction in an era of social distancing.

Empty departure halls, Helsinki airport, 16th May 2020

Empty departure hall, Helsinki Airport, May 16th 2020

Thank you to my supervisors and everyone at the University of Helsinki who facilitated my staying in Helsinki during a pandemic.  Special thanks to Anssi Peräkylä who took the time to supervise me, and to and the Emotions in Interaction Team (Mariel Wuolio, Aurora Guxholli, Maarit Lehtinen, Katja Mustonen, Liisa Voutilainen, Emmi Koskinen, Pentti Henttonen,) who welcomed me into their team.