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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Oct 14 2014

Confessions of a ‘doorstep researcher’: Reflections on a comparative study of displacement experiences

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In  many  cities,  public  authorities  engage  in  redevelopment  or  renewal  of disadvantaged neighbourhoods.  While  the  aim  is  social,  physical  and  economic upgrading  of  these   neighbourhoods,  the  result  is  often  displacement  of  local residents.  Despite  the  growing literature  on  displacement,  we  know  little  about  how residents  experience  the  process of  displacement.  This  research  studies  residents’ displacement  experiences  through  the analytical  lens  of  accumulation  by dispossession. This post looks at the challenges and rewards that come with comparative methods, writes Bahar Sakızlıoglu.

In my PhD thesis, ‘A comparative Look at Residents’ Experiences of Displacement: The Cases of Amsterdam and Istanbul’ (Sakızlıoglu 2014b), I investigated how residents experience displacement in neighbourhoods undergoing renewal. In this piece, I will share some of the methodological challenges I faced and concerns I had during my research. I will discuss firstly the theoretical promises of engaging in a comparative (urbanism) practice. After mentioning the difficulties of employing comparative methodology, I will discuss the promises of being a ‘doorstep researcher’ and how it helps to grasp and map the socio-spatial and temporal divisions. I end this piece with a critique of ‘academic sightseeing’ in neighbourhoods undergoing urban renewal. For this exercise, my arguments are exemplified primarily through the case of Istanbul with brief references to Amsterdam.

The promise of comparative urbanism: Breaking the conventional thinking

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Following the call for comparative urbanism (Robinson 2006, Lees 2012), I analysed two very different cases, Amsterdam and Istanbul, within a single theoretical framework built around the concept of accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2005). I carried out my fieldwork in Istanbul first, and my field experiences and findings there shaped the questions and expectations for my fieldwork in Amsterdam. This enabled me to identify some aspects of the displacement process that I might not have observed otherwise. For instance, my observation that authorities in Istanbul used their discretionary and informal power to manage the process of displacement made me ask if such modalities of power could also be found in the rather formal policy environment of Amsterdam.


Indische Buurt, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Indische Buurt, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Indeed, I found that many of the residents in Amsterdam did not have regular tenant contracts and were not officially recognised as stakeholders in renewal processes. Housing corporations who are in charge of implementing renewal projects in Amsterdam start renting out vacant flats to temporary renters instead of regular tenants as early as five years before the projected renewal date. These temporary renters are not afforded many renters’ rights protections. This deregulation of rent protection through the insertion of temporary renters indicates a ‘calculated informality’ (Roy 2009: 83) that enables housing corporations to set aside their formal obligations to compensate renters for their displacement. More spaces for informality are created because the allocation of housing to temporary renters is loosely regulated. These precarious tenants are routinely overlooked in research on the Dutch housing market even though their precariousness aids the smooth operation of displacement through renewal. In regards to question of discretionary and informal power, I could thus shed light on how authorities create and use informality in Amsterdam to manage the process of displacement. This was an interesting comparative exercise that helped break with the conventional thinking that associates informality only to the cities in the Global South. Continue reading

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Sep 19 2014

Fieldwork in a digital age: Questions of privacy and copyright

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Maximising research impact and promoting knowledge sharing require researchers to pay greater attention to the ways in which data are collected, processed and stored for systematic access at a later date. This also means that questions of privacy and copyright would emerge naturally. In this post, Jenny Ostini explains how she has dealt with the issues of licensing, privacy and communication with research participants while she was building up a database of digital literacy narratives based on her research project to study people’s everyday digital literacies.

As a communication historian working in a digital research institute, I often find myself asking tricky research and ethical questions. This is not necessarily because I set out to do so, but because they are inherent to the nature of new media and technology and may not immediately have obvious answers. This is especially the case when there is a greater focus on the technical aspects of innovation than on the social. Many studies of technology have a greater focus on the “gee whiz” factor of innovation (what Kathleen Tynan refers to as the “rah-rah promotion of technology”) for its own sake rather than critical examination of short and long-term implications of technology. These ethical questions may get swept under the rug.

What some might call the administrative and technical issues of research can have serious implications both for the research outcomes and for researcher’s use of fieldwork data. In my current research project, questions of how data are collected and shared have become such significant issues that the project has broken into two streams: the fieldwork itself and the management of the data.

Fieldwork locations: Toowoomba and Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Fieldwork locations: Toowoomba and Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Recording digital literacy narratives in the field using the Twisted Wave app on an iPad with an Rode IXY mic attachment. (Photograph taken by Jenny Ostini) CC-BY

Recording digital literacy narratives in the field using the Twisted Wave app on an iPad with an Rode IXY mic attachment. (Photograph taken by Jenny Ostini) CC-BY

My research project is a study of people’s everyday digital literacies, that is, the practices in which we engage on a daily basis as we interact with technology. I’m collecting people’s stories of their first encounter with a computer and their most recent uses of computers and digital devices. I’m digging into their memories of learning to read and write and learning to use computers. I’m also exploring the rules around using computers at home, at school and personally. And I’m trying to find out how comfortable people feel with technology and what they do when things go wrong.  I’m interviewing a wide range of people about their experiences: from 14 and 15 year old schoolgirls in Brisbane to new university students and postgraduate students to academics involved in a digital research network at a regional university. I’m trying to build up a picture of the trajectories of individual digital literacy within each person’s social context. It has also become a work-in-progress testing some of the ethical and copyright issues around digital research.

Social science research is often focused on the big questions, requiring large samples and de-identified data. Ethnographies and social history are the stories of the particular and the individual.  Understanding why something is said or done is about knowing how that individual is situated in their social, economic and political contexts. As an individual researcher this is not an issue. It simply requires careful planning and use of information. But what happens when you want to go beyond the individual researcher to build shared resources that you might not be able to control access to, and use of? Or if your goal is to build a shared research resource? Continue reading

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Sep 4 2014

Competing loyalties: Dilemmas arising from violent outbreak in a planned research site, South Sudan

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Researchers choose field sites for a wide range of theoretical, ideological, interpersonal or pragmatic reasons, usually combined. Some of these rationales are acknowledged, while others remain unacknowledged and hidden from either external or the researcher’s own reflection. However, where these sites focus on conflict or post-conflict settings, the disruptive influence of violence brings with it the expectation of volatility. In this post I examine the reasons underlying my choice of South Sudan as the field site for my PhD research, which were exposed when, as a result of tragically renewed conflict in South Sudan in December 2013, I had to review my approach. Situated within the dilemma of whether to maintain continuity in the research population or the research questions in view of an externally necessitated change to a research project, I relate competing ‘expert views’ that I was presented with as I evaluated the options available, and my own reflection on the emotional content of field site choices, writes Rachel Ayrton.

“No action can occur in a society without emotional involvement” (Barbalet 2002:2, cited in Connor 2007:1)

The reasons and the secrets behind field site choices

Perhaps you have sometimes wondered, as I have, why people choose the field sites they choose for research. This is a particularly engaging question in the case of cross-national studies, where seemingly-unlikely companions are juxtaposed, and I find myself wondering: Whose idea was that?  What rationale do they argue for their choices?  Are there other reasons that they are not telling us? (read the previous posts on comparative research by Charles Stafford and Jennifer Robinson)

Some reasons for choosing field sites are acknowledged, while others remain unspoken and secret, at times even from our own reflection. Our choices in this regard matter, as the contexts within which we co-construct empirical data shape what we find, how we theorise, and (we hope) what is done about the social issues we investigate in the future. Whether these decisions are made by individual researchers, research groups, institutions or funders, they are not disinterested.

Reason and emotion in research decisions

I intended to conduct my PhD fieldwork in South Sudan, and if I am honest I would probably have been content with an adequate rational explanation of my choice to satisfy my supervisors, examiners and potential readers of my work. However, after violent conflict erupted in December 2013, I was presented with unwelcome and unanticipated decisions regarding the direction of my study, whilst managing my own grief about the unfolding tragedy. I became starkly aware of the competing emotional and rational factors that were present in these choices, and in order to reach a conclusion that I could feel both justified in and at peace with, I needed to trace back the reasons why I chose to research South Sudan in the first place. Continue reading

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Jul 21 2014

Art in the field: harvesting visual narratives in the dispersed city

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This post presents a project that engaged designers and citizens in the creation of representations – visual narratives, or films – documenting and interpreting urban conditions in the city of Winnipeg, Canada. The intention of the project was that these stories would articulate problems in the city (both physical and social); that the involvement of different groups would contribute to a dialogue about these problems; and that the existence of the films would help develop a shared, if contested, imagination of the city’s potential future, including its urban design. A range of works were created; each fits on a spectrum between urban documentary and storytelling. All share something with urban activist approaches like “photovoice”: contributing to the social understanding of the city, and to our imagination of it. This post takes a critical look at the methods and results of the project, writes Lawrence Bird.

Winnipeg, Canada

Winnipeg, Canada

In 2009 I began Beyond the Desert of the Real, a two-year project documenting a North American city in short films produced in the community and with graduate students. The project focused on shortcomings of the urban environment as perceived by residents and recent immigrants. The project was funded by Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), as a postdoctoral fellowship in research/creation. It was carried out in two departments of the University of Manitoba’s Faulty of Architecture: City Planning and Architecture. This financial support and coexistence in two departments leant some validity to the project, but also created other challenges. What is research? Architects and city planners would probably answer this question differently, as would those adopting different approaches within each of those fields. Such differences are built into a project like this. I’m an architect by training, a social scientist and activist by (I suppose) vocation, and a filmmaker and visual artist by inclination. This project brought those interests together, taking the position that the creative synthesis of approaches and methods is a valuable strategy in understanding the city and giving it form. Continue reading

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