The Health and Social Consequences of the 2001 Foot and Mouth Epidemic in North Cumbria
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Researcher commentary

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Researchers kept field notes during their 18 months of contact with panel members to maintain a critical view of the longitudinal process. These notes reveal some ethical questions raised by this kind of data collection, such as what could and could not be included as data, and how panel members responded differently in different formats, i.e. diary, individual interview and group discussion.

During fieldwork visits, conversations were wide ranging, from local and national FMD developments and initiatives, to everyday talk about families, paid work, past and future events, hopes and fears. Researchers occasionally sought clarification of what had been written. Respondents sometimes made great efforts to communicate detail about the imperatives of their circumstances, such as a respondent describing his working practices as a livestock haulier – “so’s you knows exactly what it’s like for us, what the pressure’s like dealing with all the paperwork”.

Respondents approached the project in different ways, sometimes finding one method of communication suited them better than others. Some panel members who in interview indicated that they had been severely affected by the events of 2001, rarely mentioned these in their diary; others, living near disposal sites for instance, recorded in their diaries their continuing concerns directly related to FMD. Over time we came to recognise the way in which each diarist was applying ‘benchmarks’ to their own health and well-being in the structured part of the diary. For one respondent a score of ‘Average’ for health/quality of life indicated normality - no problems, no highlights; while for another, the change from a regular entry of ‘Good’ to ‘Average’ occurred at a time of personal crisis.

There are ethical considerations relating to intensive longitudinal methods and in particular repeated visits to diarists. These are well recognised in sociological and health literatures, e.g. how to deal with different degrees of disclosure the insider/outsider dilemma of positioning fieldworker within the respondent’s household; the power relations within the research process and the difficulties of achieving informed consent. Overall however, the duration and intensity of the research process in this study led to the development of trust between researchers and respondents, which we believe lies behind the very high commitment of respondents to the study.

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