Feb 27 2015

Between ‘Wizards of Oz’, Madagascari Lemur and Megalomaniac Presidents: The Amusements of Research in Post-Socialist Spaces

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When mentioning that my work involves dealing with several former USSR countries I often get questions on the kind of dangers my research entails. Whilst I do not see particular dangers in what I do, I have to admit that I had asked myself the same questions before my first fieldwork. I stopped worrying only after working out some automatisms, attitudes and gaining an understanding of certain realities that permit me, to a decent extent, to ‘stay safe’. This blog entry shares some experience-based reflections can be useful to minimise risks but it is also intended to discuss why dangers in some ‘exotic’ states are much less than one could think, writes Abel Polese

The former USSR is possibly the largest world area that has opened up to researchers in the past years. Visited by a few fortunate scholars during the cold war, it is now an immense live laboratory offering material for case studies and comparative research where urban studies researchers, inter alia, have been able to mingle for some time now. It is, although to different degrees and with a few exceptions, a widely accessible region and most of the permissions needed to conduct research in the past are now a fading memory.

Odessa, 1 May picnic, making post-socialist spaces accessible (Photographed by the author in 2006)

Odessa, 1 May picnic, making post-socialist spaces accessible (Photographed by the author in 2006)

This, however, does not mean that postsocialism lacks ‘exotic’ features or characters; the three mentioned in the title refer to: 1) the abundance of political elites – Heads of State are the most visible ones but their entourage tries hard to catch up with them – with, let’s say, unconventional habits and taste; 2) the possibility to find a ruling elite completely disjointed from reality, as in the case of the lemur chiefs of the ‘Madagascar’ animation movie and 3) the fascination of the ‘Wizard of Oz’ (Verdery 2005), this pointing at the fact that in an officially strictly controlled system there is a large margin of manoeuvre and officers will often make decisions on the basis of their personal perspective advantage, or lack thereof.

After more than ten years of fieldwork between the Caucasus, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, I wanted to share a reflection or two that could be useful to those visiting it for the first time or are simply curious to read about other colleagues’ experiences. I will refrain from mentioning the place where things happened for two reasons. The first is to guarantee the safety of informants, of people that have helped me, and possibly my own. The second is because most of the examples may apply to a wide range of situations and geographical locations. The difference is not the approach but the degree to which this may be used.

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Dec 10 2014

The homecomer and the stranger: Reflections on positionality and the benefits of an insider-outsider tandem in qualitative research

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Based on the experience of conducting field research in Kazakhstan, I reflect on the challenges of working in a cross-cultural insider-outsider differentiated team. My work with my colleague Eva Kipnis on this research project highlighted that the research team dynamics not only needed detailed attention in a research design, but also required consideration during data analysis. I realise that being an insider or an outsider is not a dichotomous relationship, and that applying particular methods, such as debriefing and memoing, helped give each other equal weight in the collection and interpretation of data. Besides memoing and debriefing, it is the informal conversations between the two researchers, talking about any questions, thoughts or ideas in detail between interviews that helped us do greater justice to our research and our participants, write Aurelie Bröckerhoff.

“… the homecomer’s attitude differs from that of the stranger. The latter is about to join a group which is not and never has been his own. He knows that he will find himself in an unfamiliar world, differently organised than that from which he comes, full of pitfalls and hard to master. The homecomer, however, expects to return to an environment of which he always had and-so he thinks-still has intimate knowledge and which he has just to take for granted in order to find his bearings within it. The approaching stranger has to anticipate in a more or less empty way what he will find; the homecomer has just to recur to the memories of his past” (Schütz 1945: 369)

On a 15-hour train journey across Kazakhstan, Eva and I review the interviews we had just conducted during the day. Reflections on the last interview with high-ranking policy officials (‘interview 5’) end in a heated discussion on our interpretation of what we had just heard. This is partly due to the fact that Eva, a Kazakhstani who speaks Russian (the lingua franca) and grew up in the country, has different insights into the subcontext of our conversations to myself, a complete newbie to Kazakhstan.

Visiting Karaganda in Kazakhstan (2). Photographed by Aurelie Bröckerhoff

Visiting Karaganda in Kazakhstan (2). Photographed by Aurelie Bröckerhoff

More specifically, during this interview, Eva perceived the many questions about her upbringing, her family and friends, as veiled threats posed to ensure that we comply with the interviewees’ strict rules of not linking interview data to the organisation interviewed. I, on the other hand, saw these essentially as opening ‘small talk’. Our different interpretations may be down to the fact that Eva is what Schütz (1944/45) has referred to as a ‘homecomer’, and I, on the other hand, am a stranger; in short, Eva, as a national, has more sensitivity in picking up situational cues and interpreting these.

Visiting Karaganda in Kazakhstan (1). Photographed by Aurelie Bröckerhoff

Visiting Karaganda in Kazakhstan (1). Photographed by Aurelie Bröckerhoff

As another example of the impact of the differences in our positionality on interpretation, a point made by several of our study participants regarding the cultural aspects assigned to marijuana consumption (also referred to as anasha in Kazakhstan) proved a particularly challenging data point for us to reconcile. Specifically, participants (even in one same interview) voiced conflicting opinions and views on the role and meaning of marijuana in society: while on the one hand, our participants expressed highly negative views on marijuana and clearly viewed it as an entry drug, they also, on the other hand, referred to marijuana as part of the Central Asian cultural landscape. For Eva, this conflict was a natural one that did not need particular attention in the data analysis, whereas to Aurelie it raised some issues around perceptions of drugs that from her own experience and perspective would benefit from further analysis.

The notions of ‘homecomer’ and ‘stranger’ put forward by Schütz 50 years ago are in need of updating to reflect, for example, modern means of communication and travel. Despite this, they still resonate with the on-going debate about insider and outsider research in ethnographic fieldwork. Continue reading

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Nov 14 2014

From behind the lens in a familiar place: Reflections on using photography to explore gentrification in Los Angeles

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As I would assume many do, I found field research by far the most exciting part of the PhD experience. During the fieldwork stage not only was I released from the isolating process of reading, writing, and project planning, but I was able to watch theories, hunches, and answers come alive. It was the point where my relationship with the subject was most intimate and most revealing. The photographs that I took during fieldwork were a reflection of this intimacy, and were indeed the glue that held my data together. However snapping these images did not come without unexpected moments and a few lessons learnt, even in a location in which I could not have been more familiar. Here I reflect a bit on my time in Los Angeles making my way through the neighbourhood of Silver Lake with a camera in hand, and an open mind, writes Juliet Kahne.

I am often envious when I hear exciting ‘tales from the field’ from colleagues, especially when fieldwork has been conducted in areas foreign and exotic to the researcher. In the case of my PhD, the field research consisted of seven months in Los Angeles – a well-known, well-documented, and well-developed city, and a city I already knew extremely well given I that I grew up there. The fieldwork experience was very much as I expected it to be, and overall everything ran smoothly due to my familiarity with the location, its people, and a great deal of pre-planning. However as a participant observer who was highly dependent on the use of a camera as I made my way through the research area, there was indeed an element of surprise in my fieldwork, and I did have some unexpected encounters.

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Silver Lake, Los Angeles, California

My PhD research investigated a historic neighbourhood in the eastern section of Los Angeles – Silver Lake – that appeared to be resisting mature gentrification despite being situated in a sea of re-development projects around Downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood. Ostensibly, this was an investigation into ‘social’ and ‘cultural’ urban processes, and an attempt to identify the various physical characteristics of the gentrification process due to an influx of capital. Due to the socio-cultural nature of my research topic, fieldwork was based on people and their experiences, but also it was highly based on the changing physical state of the research area over time. I therefore used photographs to record much of what I was ‘seeing’.  Photographs captured the setting of Silver Lake and the processes that were taking place within it, and a ‘photo diary’ became the foundation of ideas, thoughts, themes, knowledge, and observation shared throughout the final thesis. Using photography I was able to capture Silver Lake the ‘place’, rather than just the gentrified Silver Lake the media often described, and furthermore I was able to see, and show, the gentrification process in action.

Silver Lake

Workers putting the finishing touches on a new artisan coffee shop on Silver Lake’s western border. (Photograph by Juliet Kahne, 2012)

Noting the participatory act of ‘doing’ cultural geography, as opposed to being a passive researcher, Shurmer-Smith (2002: 4-5) states that “Doing [cultural geography] includes looking, feeling, thinking, playing, talking, writing, photographing, drawing, assembling, collecting, recording and filming as well as the more familiar reading and listening”. I feel this very much applied to my PhD fieldwork and the photography that documented the entire experience (see also Deljana Iossifova’s earlier post, which explains the use of photography in fieldwork). As I wandered through Silver Lake taking photographs over the seven months I was there, I saw change as it was taking place – buildings changing from one use to another, shops changing hands, and new businesses popping up. In gentrification, there is typically an ‘aesthetic’ associated with this process (see Bridge, 2006), and this was something I tried to document since it is truly a visual change in the landscape. One day as I crossed into Silver Lake from neighbouring Los Feliz I noticed the final touches being put on a new coffee shop, clearly showing examples of this aesthetic. The building had held a variety of businesses over the years but remained a non-descript looking building without much character. It was receiving a make-over with a clean font title, style, and colour scheme that better represented the aesthetic of an up-and-coming neighbourhood – this is besides the fact that an abundance of coffee shops in a neighbourhood often signals gentrification in its early stages. This new establishment, and the abundance of similar ones in surrounding locations, became useful in photographs as I could track the visual changes taking place in the landscape that were representative of gentrification. Continue reading

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Oct 30 2014

Embedding research in local contexts: local knowledge, stakeholders’ participation and fieldwork design

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It is not always easy for researchers to explain how and why a research project is important to local people whose interests may be diverse or in conflict. Viewing fieldwork as a process of constructive communication with all the stakeholders for better understanding of local situations with a broader context, this post argues that the balance and interface between research focus and common interests of relevant stakeholders must be found at the beginning of the fieldwork. It raises questions about the nature of fieldwork and roles of local stakeholders in the process: Why do we need the participation from multiple stakeholders? How can they make a contribution to the fieldwork? What attitude, approach and preparation could be helpful for the researcher in order to conduct an effective and successful fieldwork? The aforementioned questions are addressed via a field research experience in Italy, which involved adjusting the research focus and involved wide participation from local people including Chinese migrant workers, writes Bin Wu.

A good beginning of fieldwork is largely dependent upon how a researcher explains his/her research aims and relevance to local people, which requires a good understanding and use of local knowledge. Local knowledge is even more important for fieldwork in a complicated or transitional society, such as China or Chinese society to which available academic references or theories may not be appropriate in light of high complexity, low trust, interest conflicts and rapid changeable environments. This raises questions about the roles of local knowledge and stakeholders’ participation in the fieldwork design and implementation, a vital condition for an effective and successful fieldwork.

Local knowledge here is broadly defined as a sum of facts, concepts, beliefs and perceptions used by local people to reflect or interpret the world around them. Different from abstract or general knowledge which has been widely adopted or circulated within academic circles, local knowledge are created by and accumulated within local people. It may not be necessarily limited to a specific location or group but normally unfamiliar to scholars. Essentially, it reflects the way local people observe, measure and reflect on their surroundings, their solutions or coping strategies as well as how they validate new information. Local knowledge is different from ‘traditional knowledge’ or ‘indigenous knowledge’, used in a negative way to reflect local people who live in areas isolated from the rest of the world or their knowledge systems which are static and do not interact with other knowledge systems.

Based upon the broad definition of local knowledge highlighted above, the two extremes of fieldwork strategies can be distinguished from each other: academic-driven and community-based. The former treats a fieldwork as a process of information collection from “samples” or sampled population for the purpose of theoretical testing in which local people have nothing to do but provide genuine information/data requested by the researcher. The latter refers to a mutual process of learning, communication and interaction between the researcher and local people for common interests. The differences of two approaches can be illustrated in Table 1 below. Continue reading

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Oct 21 2014

Encountering Chinese officials: bureaucratism, politics and power struggle

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Encountering officials is inevitable in many research projects in China. The encounter itself shows a snapshot of how local officialdom works. Being rejected by the officials, being unable to find the officials during office hours, being passing like a ball from one office to another, and being scolded or humiliated were normal occurrences for ordinary people in dealing with local officials. ‘In a meeting’ was a frequently named excuse by officials to avoid unwelcome visits. Encountering Chinese officials thus put challenge on researchers to get needed information, to interpret meanings behind words, and to explore complex relationships behind certain phenomenon. But the encounter itself constitutes a significant part of the research ‘field’. This post proposes carefully reflecting the laborious process of encountering government bureaus and officials to deepen our understanding of the local social world, writes Jiong Tu.

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Sichuan, China

My PhD project explores people’s moral experience of health care transformations over the past decades in a county in eastern Sichuan, China. In the field from 2011 to 2012, I met many patients and health professionals through acquaintances’ introductions without much difficulty. People sincerely shared with me their concerns and worries as health care increasingly became a troubling issue. I also interviewed dozens of health administrators and officials in order to get a view from within the structure of the authority with respect to the health policy agenda and administration. Perhaps because I went back to my ‘hometown’ for fieldwork and my topic is not politically sensitive, I experienced neither intervention that many western researchers encountered in China (such as that depicted in an earlier post of this blog by Lisa Richaud), nor the fear and scare depicted in Mayfair Yang’s fieldwork in Beijing (Yang 2004) and in Yunpeng Zhang’s fieldwork in Shanghai (see this previous post here). But my encounters with local officials were frequently disturbing, dramatic and sometimes humiliating.

Politics at the bottom of bureaucratic structure

Figure 1

The county capital of my research site (Photo credit: Jiong Tu, December 2011)

In 2009 when I first did my master thesis research in the county, I naively went directly to local health office to ask for some data. There I was ruthlessly rejected by the officers, who responded to me in a scolding tone that I did not know even the basic social rule. ‘How could you come directly to a government office to ask for information?’ they responded. They said that I should at least ask some acquaintance to make a reference call to them, or else how could they know who I actually was, even though I had showed them my student card and a reference letter from university. As a native who spoke local dialect and appeared to be just an ordinary local young person, they simply rejected me. That time I did not get any information. The encounter several years ago gave me a lesson how I ‘should’ interact with government officials in a conservative interior county.

When I did research in this county again in 2011, I always tried to find some acquaintance to introduce me to local health administrators and officials. With the introduction of a reliable acquaintance, many administrators and officials appeared to be kind, sincere and outspoken during interview. Some of them further introduced me to their subordinates. Even so, I still met many obstacles in interacting with officials. Continue reading

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