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