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How do you conduct qualitative research when you can’t build rapport face- to-face?

21 May 2021
SRW PhD scholar Anthony Cowley and his partner (Julianne Cowley – Australian Consul-General in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) inspect the view over the city.

During National Reconciliation Week 2021, we are sharing stories from our scholars that promote First Nations led and First Nations focused research.


COVID introduced a whole new set of challenges for qualitative researchers having to work remotely. 2020 required us to face situations that seem foreign to our normal lives. But my expectation for 2020 was always going to be ‘unprecedented’ - pandemic or not. In 2019 we moved our young family to live in a part of the world that would challenge us – and Ho Chi Minh City delivered. To add to the challenge, I was approved to undertake a PhD as a recipient of the Sir Roland Wilson Foundation’s Pat Turner Scholarship.

My expectation for 2020 was always going to be ‘unprecedented’ - pandemic or not.

My expectations of what conditions I’d need to do a PhD have changed somewhat since accepting the scholarship. If you had asked me before, I would have told you a laundry list including; access to the National Library, a quiet place to study, reliable internet, a rigid work plan and few interruptions. And yet, two years into this study I have had none of these things. Even so, within this entirely different context I take great satisfaction in my progress.

A rare upside of COVID has meant that people are much more ‘reachable’ online. When previously I might have had to lobby for weeks to physically be able to go through doors, virtual doors are opening unexpectedly. In my experience, travel restrictions have made academics and some senior public servants more available.

Virtual data collection however has required me to reconsider the ways questions are asked. Particularly with Indigenous interviewees, usually I would have turned up with home cooked bush fruit cake, been able to shake a hand and start by talking about the country I grew up on and how my Grandad taught me about bush herbs.

‘Relationality’ in Indigenous qualitative methodology typically involves a face-to-face honest yarn to establish communication protocols and standpoints. The immense challenge of trying to build trust and rapport through a screen is clear.

Instead of bush cake, I am now sending locally produced glass artworks from a Wadawurrung Aboriginal art gallery near where I grew up. This artwork is a physical symbol that I can use to share my connection to land and a story of my family’s history.

I’ve also engaged a local Indigenous facilitator to coordinate the in-person group discussions, and be ‘in the room’ as I can’t be there myself due to COVID-related travel restrictions.

The Northern Institute at Charles Darwin University (where I am undertaking my PhD) is no stranger to distance research and has been a constant well of ideas for flexible research approaches. To read some of their research stories visit:


Anthony Cowley is a Sir Roland Wilson Pat Turner research scholar based in Vietnam. After his first year in the MPhil program, he transitioned into a PhD program, researching his thesis ‘Beyond consultation: Co-design as a process for redefining success for Indigenous communities.’

Anthony works in the Department of Social Services, contributing to the design and integration of performance and partnership functions under the Department of Social Services Grants Hub. He has over 20 years’ experience in the Australian Public Service, spanning several portfolios including Industry, Education, Health, Social Services and the Australian Public Service Commission. Seventeen of these years have been dedicated to working in Indigenous Australian policy and program delivery areas.
Anthony’s research uses a mixed-methods approach to examine the values and priorities that drive decision making by Australia’s federal public servants as they make critical choices about public spending (through grants) for social welfare.

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The Sir Roland Wilson Foundation is a partnership between The Australian National University, Charles Darwin University and the Australian Public Service.