Monthly Archives: July 2013

Doing Fieldwork in China: Chapter 6 — “‘An Open Lhasa Welcomes You’: Disciplining the Researcher in Tibet”

Doing Fieldwork in China, edited by Maria Heimer and Stig Thogersen. Chapter 6:  “‘An Open Lhasa Welcomes You’: Disciplining the Research in Tibet” by Emily T. Yeh

I like the first quote in this chapter:

‘An open Lhasa welcomes you.’

‘An open Tibet celebrates the 50th anniversay of the peaceful liberation of Tibet.’

‘An open Tibet welcomes you.’ –Street banners, Lhasa, summer 2001

My Thoughts:

For aspiring Tibetologists or China researchers planning on working in sensitive areas (Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, other places), this chapter is for you. Yeh is also an American Chinese. She discusses her perceived identity in the community and how her assistants manipulated her identity during interviews for different reasons.

Yeh first introduces “the politics of fear,” a scare tactic commonly utilized by the Chinese government in sensitive areas around the country to control its population, and even anthropologists. She became so engrossed into the local community, that she subconsciously got affected by the fear of always being listened to (on the phone or in public) and being watched (by undercover police, etc.) that her local friends also believed. “I found myself constantly under self-surveillance,” she writes. This “politics of fear” is a common trend that the anthropologist should be aware of before entering their desired fieldwork site. Locals may not be willing to talk to you in fear of being watched, especially if you are known to be American or at least “look” American (aka white).

Yeh also goes into detail about how her Chinese heritage was able to unintentionally “conceal” her in the crowd. Her friends and informants would bring this up and oftentimes try to assist her in getting fake IDs or allowing her to illegally stay in their homes because “no one would know,” they would say. Even her official affiliation would not mention she was American in paperwork and just use her Chinese and Tibetan name. When conducting interviews, her assistant would lie that she was actually a distant Tibetan relative, so to make the interviewee more comfortable and (blissfully) ignorant of their interviewer’s connection to the United States. Yeh did not find his ethically accurate to lie about her identity, especially when conducting research, but many of her assistants would argue it was for the best of her informants, who would get in trouble with the government if it was known they spoke with an American researcher.

There’s a lot of red tape when conducting fieldwork in sensitive areas. Yeh’s Chinese heritage was able to assist in bypassing some of this red tape, but for the non-Asian researcher, this would be a completely different story.

In Lugu Lake, I am different. I have blue eyes, light-brown hair, pale skin, and 5’8”. Wherever I go, people stare, whisper, and laugh. I am treated different because I am viewed as an outsider. At least, Lugu Lake isn’t considered a “politically sensitive” area. I also am fairly fluent in Chinese (and learning the Mosuo language), so that it’s easier for me to gain respect with the local people. Though I do face difficulties for being psychically different from the local population, I think the researcher that has the most difficulties in building rapport within a community is Chinese Americans who do not speak Mandarin fluently. Native Chinese somehow connect Asian Americans who do not speak fluent Mandarin with someone forgetting their history and heritage. They also sometimes rudely treat them as stupid.

It’s a phenomenon that I fortunately have never experienced, but I bet there are blog posts or other writings on how to deal with this challenge.

Yeh’s chapter focuses on the idea that sometimes the researcher has no control over how their identity will be read and interpreted. For her, she didn’t know if her interviewees would acknowledge her American citizenship with her assistant’s obscure introductions. And if they did realize she was American, who would they interpret that in responding to her questions? For me, my main issues is being taken seriously. I’m still fairly young and I am a woman, which may get in the way of being respected by high male officials. It is out of my control how a cadre or local will identity me, but it is in my control to gain their respect through daily interaction.

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Doing Fieldwork in China: Chapter 5 — “In the Footsteps of the Communist Party: Dilemmas and Strategies

Doing Fieldwork in China, edited by Maria Heimer and Stig Thogersen. Chapter 5:  “In the Footsteps of the Communist Party: Dilemmas and Strategies” by Mette Halskov Hansen

My Thoughts:

In China, researchers (and anthropologists) face a number of challenges that are not often encountered in other parts of the world. Obstacles such as, “political restrictions on research topics, limited access to data, closed areas, and control of researchers’ movements,” which force the China researcher to move outside of the box of Malinowski’s traditional method of “participant observation.”

In the Mainland, there’s “officially approved fieldwork” and then there’s the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach that’s sometimes a necessary option:

Officially approved fieldwork means that you acquired a letter of introduction or affiliation with a university, organization, or cadre that allows you to do fieldwork, especially in rural areas. This is necessary if you plan to interact with the area’s local government and plan to connect with locals who would require proof of such paperwork.

Then there’s the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach, where the researcher ignores all ties with the local government and just dives into the local community. For me, I considered my preparation to fieldwork as not official research, but rather just getting my bearings of the place. When, in all honesty, I still treated it as informal fieldwork. I still took daily field notes, had informal interviews with locals, and traveled to remote areas to better understand Mosuo culture and tourism in the area. If I did bring unwanted attention, I would have explained that I was either, “getting to know the area (了解地方)” or “I’m a tourist (我是游客).” For the first half of my research, I used the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to build rapport with the community.

Why did I chose this approach in the beginning? It was because my university insisted that I found an assistant (陪同) before visiting Lugu Lake. I agreed that I would like an assistant, but the university office wanted me to find one immediately. At the time, I did not know anyone and did not want a stranger following me around. So, I decided to go without asking a couple of times to get to know the community and area. Now that people have gotten to know me by myself, I feel more comfortable having an assistant tag along. I worried that if I brought along an assistant before, then that would have made a larger difference gap between me and the locals. I feel like they would have treated me more formally, when I just wanted to be friends with them. I would have been seen as just another anthropologist. Now I am friends with many in the area who treat me more like a local, than a tourist.

Hansen mentions when he was in the field, he had to combine official and unofficial fieldwork into his research design. This is definitely prevalent among most China researchers (including myself!). Now I’m at the halfway point of my Fulbright research grant and am currently waiting on getting official approval from my university to do fieldwork in Lugu Lake. I also have an assistant, who was a friend I made while taking graduate courses at Yunnan Nationalities University.

Hansen’s notes on his experience with assistants:

Working with officially appointing local assistants in China I have experiences the great advantages of immediately access to a local ‘informant’ and contact, while at the same time having to struggle with the potentially serious implications of working with some body who could inform on the interviewees (and on me, although with much less serious consequences). 

Most important when finding an assistant (陪同) is patience. Take your times and find someone who you enjoy being around and fully supports your research.

In the end, China researchers always have to keep in mind that they must follow in the footsteps of the Communist Party (at least on the exterior) to gain official acceptance from the higher ups. This includes: writing proposals that gloss over sensitive issues and paint the party in a positive light, conducting formal interviews that are politically accurate to get uncontroversial information (and then conducting informal interviews in private to hear what they locals really have to say), and writing two different papers for China journals (uncontroversial article) and foreign journals (what we would consider isn’t controversial, but the Chinese government would.)

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Doing Fieldwork in China: Chapter 4 – “Field Sites. Research Design, and Type of Findings”

Doing Fieldwork in China, edited by Maria Heimer and Stig Thogersen. Chapter 4: “Field Sites, Research Design and Type of Findings,” by Maria Heimer

My Thoughts:

Chapter 4 “focuses on the role of selection of field sites plays in the the fieldwork process, and its relation to the case study method and to research design.” Most researchers write proposals to receive grants or funding to go out into the field. Each proposal holds all different kinds of research method designs that the researcher believes will fit well into acquiring end results. There is no “right” research design, but there is a common trend of methods among social scientists. The author looks at three main research design methods that researchers in China most often utilize in the field:

  1. one-field-site approach = staying in one place for an extended period of time to conduct research on one topic (this is very useful for ethnographic research)
    • “When you study one case in depth with an established truth firmly in mind, however, the fieldworker needs to have a good idea what he or she is going to find at the outset, skipping the exploratory stage.”
  2. all-of-China-field-site approach = studying all across China for an extended period of time to conduct research on one topic (this focuses on breadth, instead of depth.)
    • This approach is “suitable for macro-analysis but it is less appropriate for conducting the micro-analysis that will help us to understand [cultural] mechanisms.”
  3. one-case multi-field-site approach = focusing on one topic but visiting multiple field sites (in close vicinity) to acquire more comparisons (this is very useful for ethnographic research as well)
    • “Authors can gain a deeper knowledge of one phenomenon by probing for similarities, while downplaying variations across place (or across regime types). Having said that, such comparisons can be helpful for identifying the essential characteristics of a phenomenon under study.”

The author does not try to hide her favoritism for the third kind of research design–“one-case-multi-field-site approach.” Fortunately for me, that’s the approach I am using for my research! In order to get a deeper understanding of my research topic, I’m conducting a comparative analysis on the development of tourism around the Lugu Lake area. That means, I investigate the touristy towns alongside the lake and adventure out to the remote villages that receive backpackers to add breadth to my observations, but also add depth as I find the similarities and differences between the two different kinds of locations.


Touristy Lugu Lake

During my last visit, I was fortunate enough to catch a double rainbow over the Lige Peninsula! I was only able to capture one though.


Remote Mosuo Village–Backpacker Central

When defending my Bachelor of Philosophy thesis at the University of Pittsburgh, one of the reviewers emphasized on the importance of conducting comparative research. The use of cultural comparisons is integral in growing the breadth and depth of knowledge that is shared among world of Anthropology [and beyond!]. He wanted me to compare my thesis (focusing on how the Mosuo are portrayed in the Chinese media) with other groups in South East Asia or Indonesia. At the time, I did not have the time or  expertise to successfully add that to my senior thesis, but he pas persuaded me to focus on the importance of comparisons for my current and future research.

I agree with Maria Heimer and my reviewer that when writing out your proposal, try to incorporate comparative analysis methods into your research deign. This comparative analysis can be like my current project (investigating different villages in the Lugu Lake area) or like my good PhD friend at the University of Pittsburgh (traveling to Taiwan, China, and Brazil to observe the process of commoditizing precious stones).

Of course, whenever you write your proposal, always go over it with your advisor. This blog is just from the perspective of an amateur anthropologist. If you have any questions though, always feel free to leave a comment or send me a message.

A last bit a advice, after formal or informal interviews, always be sure to cross-check your results. Don’t just trust the one person you talked to, even if it fits well into your proposed topic, you need to make sure other people in your field site share the same opinions.

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