I planned to conduct fieldwork in rural China with the help of research assistants. I knew I needed advice and translation and hoped that I would find partners and friends to go into the field with me, as I didn’t really want to be alone. However, I never found reliable research assistants. I learned to think of my research subjects as my friends and research assistants. They had as much to teach me as any other graduate student, professor, or guide. By the end of 10 months of fieldwork, I came to prefer working without official assistants but with local villagers and village leaders. This post shares some reflections on the challenges of finding reliable research assistants and how to rethink and appreciate the assistance available, writes Elise Pizzi
Working with research assistants, translators, and collaborators is common. The acknowledgements sections of books, papers, and dissertations are filled with thanks for the help received from local colleagues and assistants. When I started my fieldwork in China, I too intended to work with research assistants, co-authors, and collaborators. But I came to prefer conducting fieldwork alone.
I spent 10 months in rural China investigating drinking water management practices. Guizhou Province, in southwest China, is relatively water abundant, but many villages still do not have safe and reliable sources of drinking water. My dissertation explains why water-rich areas sometimes don’t have enough drinking water.
I did not expect to work alone or feel isolated because of my choice of methods when I conducted my fieldwork. In planning my research, most of the people who gave me advice or who had done research in China had a research assistant or a team who went into the field with them. Previous research (Thunø 2006) and posts on this blog (most recently Aurelie Brockerhoff) have effectively discussed the challenges of working with research assistants and local colleagues. But they ultimately benefit from the collaborative experience.
Research assistants can help with translation and interpretation. They provide insights into the community, language, and culture. They help find contacts and convince those contacts to talk to a foreigner. They help with data collection and analysis. They become research collaborators, coauthors, and friends. When I began my research, knowing that my Chinese was imperfect and I could benefit from help and guidance, I did not even consider the possibility of conducting fieldwork without ongoing collaboration. Continue reading