This contribution reflects upon the author’s earlier exposure to public media and its positive implication on her own fieldwork, encouraging other researchers to consider the potential benefits of being known in the (non-academic) ‘field’. Against the common perception of researchers being ‘quiet observers’ in the field, media exposure brought about familiarity and trust that seemed extremely valuable to the research in Zambia, writes Alice Evans.
Oh there’s no need for that’, exclaimed the Maternal and Child Health Co-ordinator as she dismissed my formal letter of introduction from the permanent secretary. ‘I already know who you are, Mapalo!
This was surprising since we had never met, nor had I ever before been to the rural Zambian district in which she worked. Yet Beatrice seemed remarkably at ease and familiar with me, immediately inviting me to stay at her house while I undertook my research.
This experience was not uncommon. Whether I was wedged in a bus traversing pot-holed roads in Kalulushi, hailing a unmarked taxi in Kitwe, queuing at Shoprite (a South African supermarket chain) in Luanshya (90 km west) or passing provincial ministers in Lusaka (388 km south), I was often recognised. A broad range of people knew my name (or at least the Zambian one I had been given), the subject of my research and my fluency in Bemba.
This status proved remarkably significant. Some participants felt they already knew me, as well as my agenda. This enabled trust and rapport, both of which are critical to any ethnographic project yet usually require a great deal of time to develop. Besides improving the quality of my empirical investigation, being known and happily greeted by strangers also enhanced my own well-being – which was equally critical to the research process. Continue reading
This discussion focuses on the issue of participation in relation to fieldwork in China. Drawing upon more than 24 months of musical ethnographic fieldwork in rural Kam (in Chinese, Dong 侗) minority areas of southwestern China since 2004, I describe the main participatory aspects of my research methodology. I look at three of the main challenges—linguistic barriers, cultural concerns and research positionality—that I faced while utilizing participation as part of my research, and describe some of the most effective ways in which I was able to turn these possible “constraints” into productive ends, writes Catherine Ingram.
Nay Lyang-jyao and Catherine Ingram planting rice seedlings, 2008 (Photograph by Wu Jiahui)
Performing big song in Sheeam, February 2011 (Photograph by Cao Yang)
During the past nine years I have undertaken more than 24 months of ethnographic research in rural Kam (in Chinese, Dong 侗) minority areas of southwestern China to investigate Kam music. Through being invited to participate in daily activities and musical events in rural Kam communities, and through my involvement in the lives of Kam friends and teachers, I have learnt to speak the Kam language and sing many Kam songs (singing is the main musical activity in Kam communities). The range of activities I have participated in together with Kam friends has extended from preparing food, collecting wild foods in the mountains, and planting and harvesting rice to learning Kam songs, watching and discussing VCD and DVD recordings of Kam singing performances, and singing various genres of Kam songs at weddings, at New Year celebrations and in many staged performances. A documentary (click here) about my research that was produced by Guizhou Television in 2011 (based on an earlier documentary made by the same director in 2006) gives an overview of some of the many different ways in which I participated in Kam community and musical life.
Participation has allowed me experiences and understandings that have been extremely beneficial for my research, and has also been the key to developing relationships with Kam people and defining my position in Kam communities. It has helped to make my ongoing research a more collaborative undertaking, and has better ensured that some of my research activities have direct benefits for Kam communities. While my use of a participatory research methodology has also had advantages—and challenges—for the members of Kam communities where I have conducted research, here is not the forum for discussing either of those aspects (part of my decision to undertake research in this manner was made on the basis of projecting the likely benefits and challenges). Instead, following a brief background about Kam people and Kam music, I discuss three of the main challenges that I faced in utilising participation as part of my research—challenges related to linguistic barriers, cultural concerns, and research positionality. I also describe some of the most effective ways in which I was able to turn these possible “constraints” into productive ends. Continue reading
This contribution offers intimate insights on entering the field, establishing relationships with research participants and the use of visual methods to gather material. It builds on my work on the coexistence between the old and the new in Shanghai, spanning across multiple scales: from the structural forces that trigger and direct globalisation, migration and urban change to the processes of agency, which become manifest in individual perception, attitude and behaviour. The speed and scale of China’s urban transformation require not only the continuous questioning of established theories, but also the creative use of unconventional methods to capture ephemeral conditions, writes Deljana Iossifova.
This contribution builds on my previous doctoral research, Lives on the Borderland: The Sociospatial Transition of a Neighbourhood in Shanghai. Coming from an architecture background, I had practiced in China for several years before beginning my work on the PhD. I knew what I was interested in – the curious phenomenon of coexistence of and the human experience of transformation in in-between spaces that emerge when parts of the existing city are erased and replaced with new residential developments and their respective residents. In retrospect, it is safe to say that I entered the field blissfully, ignorant of basic theoretical approaches or research methods in social sciences. I had yet to invent my methods of data collection, and learn how to analyse my data and relate my analysis to the extant literature. This is an arguably difficult position to start from, but it left me advantageously unbiased and open to experimentation.
Figure 1. Screen shot showing aerial photograph with boundary around the case study area, derived from Google Maps in October 2010. Photograph:© 2010 Google Imagery, © 2010 DigitalGlobe
In early 2007, my fieldwork began with the task of identifying a suitable case study area. I chose an area north of Shanghai’s Suzhou Creek and west of the inner city. Here, there were two very different neighbourhoods adjacent to each other, separated only by a narrow street (see Figure 1). On one side, there was the remainder of a former slum; on the other, a new-build residential development – a typical gated residential compound. My work in the field included the visual and sociometrical cataloguing of interactions across the street between these two adjacent areas. It also included an inquiry into what people had to say about one another and about the borderland between them. In the following sections, I elaborate on participant photography and photo elicitation interviewing, which I used extensively to generate the data. I have added excerpts from my original field notes and hope that – without the need for too much further explanation – these reflect both the advantages and challenges of using a visual method by an inexperienced researcher in Shanghai. Continue reading
My multiple roles as a friend and a researcher serve to explain the diversity of my behaviour under different circumstances. I argue that the influence of gender, class and hukou on the research process is subtle and complex, writes Yang Shen.
Fieldwork experiences are not only influenced by the geographical location of the field and timing that a researcher enters. Arguably, the experience of a white male middle class researcher conducting fieldwork in urban China in the 1990s is hugely different from the experience of a female Shanghainese researcher focusing on urban China today. For example, Farrer (2002) did his fieldwork in Shanghai from 1993 to 1996. He wrote that ‘I have about a dozen very close Shanghaiese friends who helped me and continue to help me with my research’, and another dozen local friends who invited him to dance clubs, and even TV shows (Farrer, 2002: 328). He married a local Shanghai woman. As a middle class white man who conducted the fieldwork in the 1990s, his fieldwork experiences were very different from mine.
My research focuses on new-generation migrant workers (NGMs) in restaurants in Shanghai. New-generation migrant workers are defined as the second generation migrant workers following the Reform in 1978, and according to a national report published by the All China Federation of Trade Unions, refer to those whose ages are above 16 and born after the 1980s. The research explores their life experiences, the changing gender relationships, and their economic share of China’s rapid development in recent years. I have conducted a series of fieldwork (in total, amounting to six months) from April 2011 to January 2013 in Shanghai.
A researcher’s position has a great impact on the whole process of the research undertaken. Some western scholars discuss the identities of gender, race and class that influence the researcher’s position (Killick, 1995; McCorkel and Myers, 2003; Moreno, 1995). Fieldwork in China shares similarities with fieldwork elsewhere, but remains peculiar in some ways. Since all of my informants are of Han ethnicity, and I am Han as well, race and ethnicity is not a profound aspect to consider in terms of this fieldwork in China. However, hukou status is an aspect that is more conspicuous in the field. Continue reading
Drawing upon my fieldwork in Xi’an, I attempt to problematise the binary of insider-outsider by drawing on the term, familiar strangers, to describe the positionality of Western-trained Chinese researchers. Performing as familiar strangers opens up an alternative space for these Western-trained Chinese scholars to fully capture the nuances of the everyday while being critical and reflexive, writes Yang Yang.
Xi’an, Shaanxi, China
Doing fieldwork in China has always come loaded up with anticipated and unexpected dilemma. This is especially problematic when it comes to categorising the researcher as either an insider or an outsider. These two seemingly mutually exclusive categories become entangled with regard to the positionality of situated Chinese scholars based in the West. By situatedness, I refer to the subjectivity, the opposite of the objectivity celebrated by modern scientific knowledge (Haraway 1988). By ‘situated Chinese scholars’, I refer to those scholars who are either ethnically Chinese or Chinese nationals who received academic training and conducted research in affiliation with universities in the Euro-American world.
In this contribution, I apply the term ‘familiar strangers’ coined by Jonathan Lipman (1997) on multiple identities of Muslim Chinese to discuss positionality of Western-trained Chinese scholars, as well as dilemmas and opportunities they encountered in the field. By showing how being familiar and strange become mutually constitutive, I explore multiple subjectivities of situated Chinese researchers produced in the fieldwork. I argue that Western-based Chinese scholars are familiar insiders and distanced strangers, offering them a unique perspective infused with lived experience and critical reflexivity. To contextualise this inquiry, I reflect on my ethnographic fieldwork in Hui Muslim communities in Xi’an, Shaanxi in 2011-2012. Continue reading