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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