Apr 17 2014

‘Renqing’ in conducting interviews with Chinese business people: Insights from a returning researcher

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This contribution explores the complex impact of ‘Renqing’ (human feelings) on conducting elite interviews in China. Over 50 intensive semi-structured interviews relating to the procurement shifts by leading retail transnational corporations (TNCs) in the Chinese market had been carried out between 2010 and 2011. As the majority of interviewees were reached by the recommendation of the researcher’s social networks, reflections on the relationships among the researcher, researched and recommenders are necessary. As a particular guide of social behaviours in the Chinese society, Renqing is therefore proposed as the theoretical framework to explain the challenges and issues occurred in the fieldwork process, from access to respondents, undertaking interviews to follow-up communications, writes Yue Wang.

When considering undertaking interviews with business people while conducting international business research, most research focuses on two aspects (Harvey, 2010). On the one hand, attention is paid to the techniques of preparing for and conducting interviews. These techniques include how to gain access to interviewees and carry out interviews in particular places as well as instructions about how to handle difficulties and challenges when interviewing elites. On the other hand, keen attention is also paid to the complex and dynamic power relationships between researchers and the researched during the interview process. From this perspective, it is important to examine the interplay of power between researchers and interviewees in different social identities such as gender, class, race and nationality relations. This paper seeks to utilise Renqing (human feelings), a very important guide tool for the Chinese people to maintain and enhance their relationships with others, in order to demonstrate and reflect on the cultural implications in carrying out interviews with Chinese business people. This blog begins by introducing the research design for the fieldwork that deals with retailing business people in China. Then it focuses on the complex role of Renqing in interview processes, from accessing interviewees and conducting interviews to follow-up contacts after interviews. The final section draws the paper to a close.

Research Design

Shanghai, China

Shanghai, China

My research examined how the arrival of retail transnational corporations (TNCs) in China has transformed the supply network and upgraded the local market. The research was conducted during two fieldwork periods in Shanghai, China. During the first period between November 2010 and January 2011, I had brief contacts with retailers and food suppliers in order to gain background information on the Chinese retailing market, as well as to identify the appropriate food cases informing the research. Ten interviews were undertaken and among them eight were with retail representatives. The second period of fieldwork between April and August 2011 focused on the specific procurement shifts adopted by retail TNCs and in turn, the responses made by suppliers/wholesalers and logistics providers across three selected food types. 44 interviews were carried out with academic scholars, business consultants, retailers and, in particular, logistics providers and suppliers. These interviews allowed the researcher to overcome the limitation of interviews largely conducted with retailers in the initial fieldwork, and to derive different accounts by a variety of actors undergoing the supply network transformations. Continue reading

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Apr 10 2014

Rice wine and fieldwork in China: Some reflections on practicalities, positionality and ethical issues

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In China, social networking in both the professional and private spheres is usually achieved through group meals or banquets. Drinking is often an important element of these social events as a means of showing respect and friendship. Researchers who wish to conduct in-depth fieldwork in China need to engage with this social practice and, ultimately, the choices that researchers make while navigating the Chinese drinking culture during fieldwork have important implications for the design, implementation and outcome of research, as well as for research ethics, writes Nicholas Loubere.


As anyone who has spent time in China can attest, the most common way to make new social connections, strengthen old ties, or simply spend time with family and friends is through group meals. When first entering a fieldwork site in China, researchers will invariably be required to spend a significant amount of time attending meals with potential research subjects and gatekeepers. Heavy drinking is frequently a prominent feature of these meals, with the customary drink being a strong rice wine (40% alcohol or higher) known as baijiu. Throughout the meal toasts are given and attendees are then expected to drink an entire glass of rice wine (ganbei) in order to show friendship and respect.

As both Charles Stafford and Hans Steinmüller have already noted in previous posts, the way in which researchers engage with this cultural practice has significant practical implications for both access to the field and quality of research. A researcher’s ability to ‘play the game’, say/do the right things, and ultimately make a good impression on potential gatekeepers during these meals is often directly related to that researcher’s ability to gain prolonged and meaningful access to fieldwork sites. At the same time, these meals are sometimes the only chance a researcher will get to speak with important research subjects. Since ‘playing the game’ properly often means drinking vast amounts of alcohol, vital fieldwork sometimes takes place in a drunken haze, which raises questions about the validity of data collected from drunk sources by an inebriated researcher. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the way that the researcher participates in the act of socialising during fieldwork is intertwined with a number of issues related to researcher positionality and research ethics that are of fundamental importance to the research that is produced and how it impacts research subjects.

In this article I will provide some specific examples of how I navigated the practicalities associated with being a guest at banquets/meals during empirical fieldwork, and then reflect on some of the implications for researcher positionality and research ethics. Continue reading

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Apr 4 2014

The vulnerable observer: Fear, sufferings and boundary crossing

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In this contribution, Yunpeng Zhang responds to an earlier post by Qin Shao (see Building Trust and Boundary: Fieldwork in Shanghai) to provoke discussions on the dilemma and ethics of observing, witnessing and writing about vulnerable people. Challenging the ‘boundary’ setting efforts in researching contentious topics and in working with such people, Yunpeng reflects upon his own fieldwork research on Shanghai’s Expo-induced domicide, relating in particular to an episode that revolted his own subjectivity and agency. It is suggested that we take a radical path that views ourselves not as academic professionals but as persons with a particular set of knowledge, and that this way of thinking pushes us to ponder our civic and intellectual responsibilities for the people not as research subjects but as fellow citizens, writes Yunpeng Zhang.

Let me start this short reflection on fieldwork dilemmas with a vignette.

Shanghai, China

Shanghai, China

On a windy afternoon in early April, I was on my way home before a thin woman intercepted me and asked me if I would be interested in her experience of forced eviction. After I had spent a month in this neighbourhood, displacees started to recognise me, a liuxuesheng (student studying abroad) working on Expo-induced displacement, but familiarity had not yet developed into trust and easier access. Therefore, I was a bit surprised when she approached me in this way. I cancelled my later appointment and sat with her on a wasted couch inside a bicycle shack.

A photo album called People’s Expo

A photo album called People’s Expo

I made a snap judgement of her age based on her looks: wrinkled and dull face, full mouth of dental implant, grey hair, etc. Therefore, it was a great shock to me when she revealed her real age. “I am now ren bu xiang ren, gui bu xiang gui (half human, half ghost),” she bitterly commented on her stigmatised self, “when I was displaced, I was overweight. Neighbours called me Miss Big. Look at me now.” Her eyes filled with tears when she related to her suicide attempt during the eviction day. Her family of three, collective owner of a private property, was excluded from all negotiation meetings and was not offered any resettlement deal.  On the eviction day, she jumped off from the roof of her home as a desperate act of protest. She was rescued but with permanent scars: broken ribs, dental implants, clinical depression. “I feel so unfairly treated. Are they government officers?” She asked me a rhetoric question, “They are thugs. No, they are worse than thugs, far worse.” After saying this, she had a sudden emotional breakdown, hysterically crying out loud in the bicycle shack. It was so sudden and so intense that I felt so unprepared and emotionally incompetent to deal with this situation. Continue reading

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Mar 29 2014

Encountering the archival research ‘field’


The research ‘field’ is not a clearly defined, Cartesian geographical space or place, nor is it restricted to places where ethnographic work is conducted. Instead, one’s research ‘fields’ are: firstly, subjective and open to interpretations; and secondly, simultaneously existing in parallel to an ongoing understanding of one’s research and epistemology, writes Sin Yee Koh.

My PhD project examined migration geographies of mobile Malaysians who are tertiary-educated professionals with transnational migration experiences. One would naturally assume that the research ‘field’ is where ethnographic work is conducted through interviews, focus groups, or participant observation. While that is true to some extent, my research ‘field’ extended to archives. In fact, Malaysia’s colonial history played significant roles in my research journey and subsequent research findings. In this contribution, I reflect upon my encounters with the archival research ‘field’, particularly in terms of how the experience shaped how I interpreted my research, and contributed towards developing my broader research agenda as an academic.

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Feb 27 2014

Media exposure, familiarity and trust: A note on the fieldwork in Zambia

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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

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