Doing Fieldwork in China: Chapter 3 “Fieldwork as Coping and Learning”

Chapter 3: “Fieldwork as Coping and Learning” by Elin Saether

This chapter is about the process a young researcher goes through when being introduced into the world of fieldwork. He mentions “most students who decide to work on a topic related to China will try to locate China scholars locally, nationally, and maybe also internationally. The first approach is often an email where the student presents the project and asks for advice. This can be seen as the first meeting with the insider/outsider dichotomy.” I admit I did this exact thing when I moved to Kunming, Yunnan Province, China. I was planning on doing my first fieldwork trip, but I was nervous because I did not know anyone at Lugu Lake. I emailed top Mosuo experts and got a couple replies back. Most giving similar advice:

  • Recommended a town to start off at—Lige or Luoshui Village
  • Not interested in sharing informants, but supportive that you will find your own (broadening knowledge about the place)
  • “Good luck!”

To be honest, I hit the ground running, but at least I had a destination in mind, Lige Village. When I visited the town, I tried to keep myself very available and friendly, talking with as many people as I could. This came to an advantage because I coincidentally befriended the informant of an anthropologist. Because she liked me, the anthropologist trusted me to join them to do fieldwork in a remote village.

Upon entering the field, the “insider/outsider” dichotomy suddenly shifted from me vs. Mosuo experts, to me vs. locals. I was not one bit a part of their society. With my pale skin, blue eyes, and light brown hair, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Though I was so physically different from them, I took advantage of my language abilities to connect with them on personal levels and immediately started studying the Mosuo language. Even though I was aware I would always be an outsider in Lugu Lake, I wanted to at least lessen the gap and build a positive reputation. This feeling of being different is hard to cope with at first, but the moment the locals start treating you like a friend or someone that lives in the community; somehow you forget all that hard work. It was worth it:

I remember the documentary team and I were filming boat rowers on one of the beaches of Lugu Lake when a gaggle of Shanghai tourists fluttered by with their flashing Canon cameras. They pointed their lens in different angles to capture the local women. A Mosuo woman spoke up: “Leave! We don’t like it when you do this.” One of the Shanghai women gave a fake smile, “Oh, then why can they [us] film you and we can’t?” Without any hesitation, she responded, “because they are Mosuo and they are using a Mosuo camera!”

I felt proud that we had earned the trust of some of the villagers, to the point that they treated us like “insiders” and not “outsiders.” This was accomplished by interacting with these woman many times a week, playing with their children, and simply just being visible in the community. When you befriend someone, be sure to keep up with it. Say “hello,” “have you eaten yet?” and join them to eat or to drink at a bar. It’s all a part of the process. Who knows, maybe that one person you befriended will become your most trusted informant and best friend?

How do you start fieldwork? For everyone it is different. My tactic was to build rapport with the local community and learn the language before diving into the theoretical aspect of my research. I can say I was really fortunate in befriending the French anthropologist who introduced me to fieldwork in the Lugu Lake area and then joining a documentary team sponsored by National Geographic. Because of these two coincidences, they helped me build a foundation for my place in their society, as well for my research design. From these experiences, I have built strong relationships with the people of Lige village, which is integral in the next phase of my research that I will be conducting in July 2013.

The author makes a good point to say, “during fieldwork, the learning process is often hidden, which means it is difficult to identify progress.” I agree with this statement. Fieldwork is an accumulation of different methods: observations, interviews, “tacit learning,” and learning through failures. With these methods, it’s normally difficult to recognize what you have gained in knowledge or progress each day. I mean, you do not get any physical evidence of your achievement, like a recorded tape with the day’s interviews. Instead, you have sights, smells, interactions, feelings all jumbled up in your memory. This is why writing at least every night about observations and conversations is important because even if you did not notice anything interesting in these encounters, at least in the future you can analyze your notes to find deeper meaning. Also be perceptive of newspapers, the news, what you hear people saying on the streets, restaurants, and bars. All of these minor interactions also can contribute to your research. Even though your research may have a very focused topic, but recognizing big news and social issues in the major society can help give you a much broader understanding of how its affecting the community you’re studying (i.e. modernity, globalization, politics, etc.)

Fieldwork, especially in the beginning, is a coping and learning process, but each step you make, it begins to make sense and you get better at it. A good first step is to look for guidance among your peers, advisors, and experts in the field. This will take away the mental block that’s tearing away at your confidence. This will take you away from the “dipping your toes in first” technique to just “diving” right into the new waters that is Anthropology.

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