Fieldwork, gender, and race

I haven’t written about the research process in awhile. Recent knowledge of a fellow researcher’s experience at her fieldsite has motivated me to finally put some thoughts in writing, related to being an Asian woman researcher who does fieldwork in communities other than her own. Though the focus is very specific, non-Asian female researchers would be able to relate to the issues that I shall discuss here.

In fact, in their guidebook for fieldworkers doing participant observation, Kathleen and Billie DeWalt (2002) have written about the connection between the requirement of ethnography to become close to informants and violence (that includes harassment) experienced by female researchers. Women are believed to be better ethnographers because they are able to form the necessary relationship for informants to share openly, but they have been victims in the field, too. In addition to the gender of the researcher, the DeWalts also highlight sex and sexuality as a source of violence, specifically sexual assault. Using Latin America and American researchers as examples, they point out that some female researchers have had intimate relationships, including marriage, wth male informants. This has contributed to the perception that US female researchers are “loose,” giving way to fear of competition by female informants and expectation for sex by male informants. The issues raised by the DeWalts in their 2002 guidebook have yet been resolved, and many researchers, myself included, still don’t include sex and violence (personal safety) in their discussion about methodology. Before leaving the DeWalts, I’d like to point out that they may have omitted the possibility that informants are unfamiliar with the meaning of fieldwork even when the researcher has explained it. This lack of understanding could lead to all sorts of interpretations that could contribute to violence. I shall return to this point later.

When I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, I collaborated with two researchers, one woman from mainland China and another Korean American. Somehow we always did our interviews in pairs. The only time that the three of us were together was when we brainstormed for the paper we co-authored. Because we never did our interviews alone and our research participants were all from China, I had the luxury of not paying attention to issues related to race or gender. Similarly, in Grahamstown, South Africa, I didn’t travel up and down the Eastern Cape doing interviews alone. I had collaborated with a white South African photographer. In each small town we stopped, she’d take photographs of the shops and people who came in and out of them while I interviewed the Chinese shop owners. My partner at that time would sometimes accompany me to do fieldwork. She’d shop while I talked with the Chinese shop owners. At the end of our conversations, the shop owners would always be very happy that they had done business at the same time. Point is, I was rarely alone when I conducted interviews or was just an observer. This wasn’t deliberate. There seemed to be more opportunities to collaborate in South Africa…unlike in Guangzhou, China.

Except for the first month or two in Guangzhou, I often went to Xiaobei (a neighborhood in the Yuexiu District) alone to try to meet African women, who were doing business in this Chinese city. I should be clear that there are quite a few researchers running around Xiaobei doing fieldwork, but everyone was in their own world. I’m not sure if it’s because majority of these researchers were (and still are) postgraduate students, who are trying to find something unique to say in their dissertation. Nonetheless, for the first couple of months, a white American senior scholar took me under his wings, showing me different places in Xiaobei and introducing me to a few of his informants. He was actually doing fieldwork with his Chinese postgraduate students, who were women. Everyone, Chinese and Africans alike, didn’t refuse talking with us. It gave me the impression that fieldwork would be easy in Guangzhou. But, I soon experienced what one of his students had experienced when she first did fieldwork alone in Xiaobei: Chinese shop owners quickly turned me away when I’d enter their shops, pointing to a sign that they don’t sell to “locals.” I look Chinese, so I was a potential competitor. It didn’t matter to them that I speak English better than Chinese. My American accent was unconvincing. On the other hand, with Africans I encountered, they’d immediately refuse to talk with me, assuming that I’m Chinese, until they’ve heard my American accent.

The experience I had with a Nigerian man gave me firsthand insight into stories I’ve heard from other female researchers in Guangzhou. I had met this man in Nanhai, a city just on the outskirts of Guangzhou, when I accompanied a group of researchers from South Africa out there to see another area where there’s a known African presence. We exchanged a few words: hearing that his son’s mother is from the Philippines, we exchanged phone numbers to follow up again. It was probably less than a week when he called. During our conversation, he wanted to know if I was married or had a boyfriend. Sensing where the conversation was heading, I made an excuse to get off the phone. A few weeks later, he called again. This time he told me that he had just moved and was looking for someone to clean his house – he was offering me the job. I kindly declined, reminding him that I have a job as a researcher at a university. The conversation ended with him asking me to refer someone to him. I never got back to him about that because my research focused primarily on African women, so I had a choice to disengage.

When I was doing fieldwork in Guangzhou, other female researchers had broader research aims, so they interacted mostly with African men, who are the majority of Africans who stay in China. Most of these researchers I met were Chinese studying in the US, Canada, or a European country. They had returned to China to do fieldwork. Most of their advisors have never been to China or know any Africans. And, only now, it’s crossed my mind that they don’t care enough about the environment that their students enter into to gather data for their theses. The above mentioned incident of sexual assault that happened in South Africa reminds me of what one Chinese professor had said during her lecture at Jinan University on doing ethnography. That is, she has made a point to visit every field site that her students have chosen for their fieldwork. This may seem too maternal, her being overly protective. But, thinking about it now, her presence at her students’ field site (her age and authority) helps to give legitimacy to her students’ role as a researcher – she helps to sharpen her students’ role as a student. Just as important, in my view, it signals that the students are members of a community somewhere. One could say that her presence also helps to locate the researchers-cum-students.

I know from my own fieldwork – in South Africa and Guangzhou – that the people I had chosen for my studies didn’t all understand why I would be interested in their stories, experiences, or lives (indeed, they also couldn’t comprehend why I would choose to not stay in the US). What researchers do isn’t tangible or visible to those outside the academic setting and, more specifically, those who hardly completed grade school. So, regardless of how they/we explain ourselves, it could remain difficult for the informants to grasp. One of my research participants, who had invited me to visit her in Africa, still asked me to explain to her what my work entailed when I was already at her house. From what I’ve observed, informants use their own world views or filters to make sense of our sudden presence in their lives. Being Asian and women doing research on Africans (who are mostly men) in China, our informants have filtered/are filtering us through their understandings of race and gender to try to make sense of us – just as we have used/are using ours to interpret and analyze the stories/information they share with us.

This should be an ongoing conversation among female as well as male researchers. How do we address/correct biases not only in our final products, but also in the methodologies that we have been taught and use?


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