Action research and ethics in times of a global pandemic. An ongoing reflection on the EU-funded project ROCK in Lisbon

By Roberto Falanga, Jessica Verheij and Mafalda Corrêa Nunes

The Covid19 pandemic and the ROCK project

The widespread use of action research methods in social sciences since the mid-20th century, and the increase in participatory, transdisciplinary and engaged research approaches in the last few decades confirm an ongoing paradigm shift regarding the relationship between expert and lay knowledge. A growing interest into new ways of grasping social life and co-producing knowledge with local actors has unsettled the conventional divides between researchers and their “objects” of study. As local actors become active co-creators of knowledge, critical ethical issues arise regarding the role of researchers in the field, as well as the production, use, and impacts of scientific knowledge.

These are concerns we have been dealing with in our academic career, in particular during the last three years, while working on the EU-funded project ROCK at the Institute of Social Sciences (ICS-ULisboa). This is an action-research project based on the replication of heritage-led solutions for urban regeneration in three European cities, one of which is Lisbon. The development of co-creation Living Labs is the method used to pursue a wider participation of local communities in regeneration processes. Hence, our work has been largely based on an ongoing engagement with local actors and stakeholders, requiring a continuous reflection on the ethical dimension embedded in our role as action-researchers, and the responsibility we have towards local populations.

The recent Covid19 pandemic radically changed our perception of the ways in which we can or should approach action-research. We have been overwhelmed by the drastic changes in our daily lives, often causing feelings of unease and discomfort. We currently experience a time of contraction where the boundaries between our professional and personal lives have faded into a new “normal”, to which we have not yet become accustomed. Scenarios developed by virologists seem to predict that Covid19 will be part of our lives for a significant amount of time, during which periods of relative “freedom” will be alternated with periods of isolation and social distancing in order to control the spreading. Facing an unexpected turn of events, we find ourselves in the difficult position of trying to understand whether and how we can keep our commitments with local communities, and to what extent we are able to create a new sense in our work.

Picture taken during one of our ROCK Coffee Talks in Marvila. Fonte: ©​ ROCK project.

Regular community meetings and public events that used to function as a way to be actively present in the field have now been suspended until further notice. Given the consequences and restrictions brought about by the Covid19 pandemic, we feel that the gap between us, as researchers, and the local communities we work with, risks being widened. Confined to our own homes, it has been challenging to keep contact with the institutions and people we have been working with, even though we sense that local needs must be greater than ever. In fact, we wonder whether the engaged research prioritised in ROCK falls short of being a significant source of immediate help in our intervention area in the neighbourhoods of Beato and Marvila.

New ethical issues on the horizon

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Beato and Marvila gained a new centrality in the city of Lisbon. At that time, the local urban strategy was aligned with national goals of economic recovery through the attraction of foreign investment and the stimulation of the tourism industry. In our intervention area, this strategy capitalised on the potential of underused or abandoned post-industrial heritage sites in the riverside, and on the old palaces located in the inner side of Beato and Marvila, which became main targets of urban regeneration. The reuse of industrial buildings as creative hubs and innovation incubators was meant to bring a new social and economic life to the area and help (re)connect the city centre to Parque das Nações. In parallel, the more fragmented inner side of these neighbourhoods called for a different approach. The ROCK project has essentially unfolded small-scale regenerative interventions in this part of the city by seeking the active engagement of local populations. The project has sought to stimulate the social and cultural potential of these neighbourhoods through the temporary occupation of empty shops for community-based initiatives, the promotion of cultural events, such as “Os dias de Marvila” and “Bibliogamers”, and the community planning of a new edible garden coordinated by Muita Fruta and Colectivo Warehouse. Alongside, the creation of the Interpretative Centre for Marvila and Beato inside the municipal library of Marvila is meant to be the cornerstone of ROCK’s intervention in this territory by contributing to safeguard and promote local cultural heritage (material and immaterial) with the active collaboration of local inhabitants.

Picture taken during one of our ROCK Coffee Talks in Marvila. Fonte: ©​ ROCK project.

Under the current circumstances, however, we feel that action-research and participatory methods need to be reconsidered, as “traditional” formats of public engagement may not be possible for a considerable amount of time. Ongoing processes of urban regeneration may be threatened due to the forecasted crisis that lays ahead of us: public funds may be relocated towards more urgent needs, while private investments may be jeopardized due to the looming economic recession. However, this should not compromise the human relationships we built with the local communities and the expectations created through action-research. More than ever, we need to continue to be responsible with the information we have collected during our work in the field, and understand the use we can make of it, and to whose benefit. Under periods of greater stress, such as the current Covid-19 pandemic, the ethical commitment and responsibility towards the people we engage and collaborate in action-research may well have increased. Despite this being a time of suspension, we feel that we cannot uphold these ethical issues.

Picture taken during a local festival in Marvila. Fonte: ©​ ROCK project.

What can we do?

As social scientists, our practice is never purely objective or detached. As members of the ROCK project at the Institute of Social Sciences we have been reflecting on these issues, trying to understand the most ethical and useful way to continue our work in Marvila and Beato neighbourhoods. So far, we have not found concrete answers yet to the many questions we have. Nonetheless, we understand it to be extremely relevant to pose these questions, and to use our knowledge and the data collected so far to inform a more thoughtful reflection on the challenges and opportunities spurred by the current crisis in the ROCK intervention area.

What follows is the product of this group exercise, without having the pretention to be able, at this point, to provide any concrete solutions or necessary follow-up actions. As this thinking-process will continue in the weeks ahead, we will develop and deepen these thoughts further, aiming to gain a clearer sense or a new meaning of our role as participatory action-researchers.

Reflections on the impact of Covid19 in the riverside-area of Beato and Marvila

Regeneration of the built environment on the riverside of Beato and Marvila has mainly focused on the reuse of abandoned industries and buildings, feeding into an overarching strategy of city rebranding. This process has relied heavily on upcoming tech companies, start-ups and creative industries, but also on a large number of cultural facilities and services moving into this part of the city due to the availability of space at a lower cost. These industries will need to adapt their strategies to these changing times, inevitably affecting ongoing spatial transformations. Can these changes be positive for the local population and for the city as a whole? Will it be possible to steer these changes in one way or another? Will current challenges related to gentrification and touristification be exacerbated, or could these now be reduced?

Regeneration efforts have been also based on the promotion of more intangible aspects of cultural heritage, often supported by ICT and digital tools. Social distancing measures and confinement have empowered many people to either start using or increase the use of the internet to be in contact with families and friends, for work, and for leisure. In many cases, the digitalisation of cultural initiatives and cultural heritage has led museums, library collections and venues to offer free access to their collections, along with an increasing number of concerts and DJ sets available in live streaming. This “digital turn” can potentially bring attention to less visible forms of heritage and culture in the city and possibly provide new opportunities to the cultural sector also in Beato and Marvila. However, this can also lead to further exclusion or isolation of people who do not have access to the internet, requiring a much wider debate on cultural and digital accessibility.

Picture taken during the ICS Annual Conference, co-organised by the ROCK team. Fonte: ©​ ROCK project.

Reflections on the impact of Covid19 in the inner side area of Beato and Marvila

Regeneration initiatives in the inner side of Beato and Marvila have been mostly oriented towards improving urban connections in this area of the city, given the low availability of public transport, the poor urban mobility conditions and the high levels of spatial and social fragmentation. With large parts of the private sector “shut down”, we acknowledge the value of the public measures currently in place to face the pandemic to supply food to local communities, suspend social housing rents, and provide other responses to basic needs. However, deprivation in these areas is likely to be exacerbated, and additional public services need to be able to adapt and respond swiftly.

Among others, access to quality public space and nature in the immediate surroundings of people’s houses becomes increasingly important at this moment. In Beato and Marvila, there is a particularly low availability of nearby green public spaces, where the local population can enjoy fresh air while having the necessary safety conditions. These kinds of urban inequalities take on a whole new sense and dimension in face of the current pandemic, and they deserve increased attention.

Alongside public authorities’ responses, local communities have demonstrated great capacity to self-organise and provide collective solutions and support to those in need, particularly, through the local community group “4 Crescente”. In our research, we understood the key role played by this group in bringing together residents and local associations around bottom-up collaborative initiatives, and in helping to bridge their work and claims with local institutions. Yet, we believe that mobility restrictions, confinement, and the suspension of activities which are not related to the current emergency can have greater repercussions over these neighbourhoods, particularly on the most vulnerable. We wonder now whether this sort of community groups can act as effective catalysers of community responses at the neighbourhood level and how they can find new ways to ensure that the voice of the local people continues to be heard in times of social distancing. Likewise, we wonder whether the residents’ capacity of self-organisation can be the condition for new forms of resilience and mutual solidarity.

Picture taken during the event ‘Marvila, e agora?’ organised by ROCK. Fonte: ©​ ROCK project.


Our concerns and questions on the impacts of the pandemic in the ROCK intervention area are necessarily connected to our role as action researchers. We feel that new ethical issues rise for social scientists that find themselves in similar situations. While there is a sense of general need for a revised “ethics of care” in academia, we argue for the same need to care differently for the people we engage with in our work. Measures of social distancing and confinement require, more than ever, that this debate is made public and wide-spread. We fear that dominant professional values related to “individualism”, “competitiveness” and “self-responsibilisation” have been overshadowing opportunities for better cooperation in research processes, compromising the social relevance, the effectiveness and the sustainability of research outputs.

With the exacerbation of urban problems and inequalities, the social impacts and transformative change stimulated by action-research are more urgent than ever. European projects like ROCK can help to raise broader discussions on these issues, by reflexively reassessing research questions and priorities of action-research. Such contributes may (re)orientate policy discourses, future projects and funding schemes.

While we do not have concrete answers yet about the best way to proceed with our work in Beato and Marvila, we believe that these reflections will guide and change our approach to action-research in the years to come.

Roberto Falanga é investigador de pós-doutoramento no Instituto de Ciências Sociais (Universidade de Lisboa), e co-Investigador Principal do projeto “ROCK – Regeneration and Optimization of Cultural Heritage in Creative and Knowledge Cities” no instituto. A sua investigação foca-se na análise de processos de participação cidadã em processos de tomada de decisão coletiva.

Jessica Verheij é investigadora no Instituto de Ciências Sociais (Universidade de Lisboa), no projeto “ROCK – Regeneration and Optimization of Cultural Heritage in Creative and Knowledge Cities”. O seu trabalho foca-se no papel de espaços verdes e natureza urbana na regeneração de cidades, tendo ainda interesse em temas relacionados com justiça ambiental e transições de sustentabilidade justas. Tem mestrado em Geografia Humana pela Universidade de Amsterdão e mestrado em Planeamento Urbano pela KTH Royal Institute of Technology de Estocolmo.

Mafalda Corrêa Nunes é bolseira de doutoramento no projeto H2020 “ROCK – Regeneration and Optimization of Cultural Heritage in Creative and Knowledge Cities”, frequentando o programa doutoral inter-universitário em Sociologia (Opensoc) no Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa.


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