“Discovery, Research (Redesign) and Theory Building” by Kevin J. O’Brien
Kevin O’Brien brings up the importance of serendipitous meetings or unexpected turn of events while in the field. He believes being flexible (like forming a research design or conducting interviews, etc.) is imperative in making an in-depth, well thought out product at the end of one’s research. Many researchers go in with a rigid project design with a well-constructed theory to base their future results on…but sometimes that well thought out plan can backfire. Though it may at first feel like you have failed, in actuality, this also brings about a whole new set of opportunities. Your informants may not be interested or even know much about your previous topic, but they seem very enthusiastic to answer about something else important within their society. Explore that, and who knows, maybe it will connect to the previous project design?
I have encountered a handful of serendipitous events during my four trips to Lugu Lake:
The first being meeting a French anthropologist, PM, who took me under her wing and introduced me to a remote Mosuo village that still continues traditional customs, like matrilineal families and “walking marriage.” Through her, I learned more about conducting fieldwork and traditional Mosuo culture. During that stay, a local told us there would be a village celebration in a month after the building of a house. They invited us to the event.
A month later, I visited the same remote village by myself, only to find out that the house had already been built and that I had missed the event. I was disappointed, but decided to stay in the remote area to study the Mosuo language and understand more about their traditional culture. During that time, I often played with the kids in the home. They loved to watch me draw, so I would draw whatever they asked. One night the uncle, a local priest, noticed my drawing abilities. He mumbled something in the local dialect and suddenly walked out of the living area. He brought back a bag that contained over 100 year old religious tablets that were painted by his grandfather. They were falling apart as he handed them to me. He asked if I could redraw them for him on new tablets.
This opened up an unexpected turn in my research aim. I did not expect to utilize my artistic abilities to learn about Daba religious culture and the history of the small village. I accepted. That night I also learned that Tibetan Buddhist monks would come to the village in 11 days to read scriptures to bless all the villagers. At the end of the reading, there would be a bonfire party celebration. However, I had already decided I’d be back in Kunming to take classes.
When I went back to Lugu Lake from the village, I then ran into a group of filmmakers sponsored by National Geographic who wanted to go to the same remote village. They asked if I wanted to help them and join their crew. I’m not much for believing in fate, but I did feel this meeting to be serendipitous to the point that I accepted. When would I ever have another chance to join a film crew also interested in modern Mosuo society and associated with National Geographic? I joined them a week later to that festival and spent an entire month with them filming around the lake.
Through these coincidental events, I have a clearer understanding of what my research aim is, what I want to write (ethnographic articles), and have built close relationships with the local people. When I begin in-depth research in July, I now have a well-established group of informants, as well as close friends. Like O’Brien mentioned in his chapter, when conducting research, make your fieldwork visits as flexible as possible because these uncanny encounters and random circumstances can improve your research.