Tag Archives: Fieldwork

Only connect – the linked lives of the researcher and the researched in a walled village in Hong Kong

By Isabella Ng, The Education University of Hong Kong

In a village in the southernmost province of Hainan, China, women were not compensated when the government decided to remove some of the houses for tourism development; only the men were compensated for the loss. What is more, a new law passed in China in 2011 allowed no split in properties during divorce, but rather the property would be awarded to the person named within the deeds. In another part of China, Hong Kong the former British colony which was returned to China two decades ago, walled village women who lived in the territory were treated unfairly until 2004 when a law was passed that allowed women to have equal inheritance rights as their male counterparts. I was interested to find out how they fared after the old law was revoked and to find out more about gender dynamics in the walled villages. When I entered the field to conduct fieldwork, I soon discovered that studying a group intensively as a researcher is a journey that I needed to walk with the researched in order to produce ethical and fruitful research.

As a nascent ethnographer venturing into the field during my second year of PhD study, I felt anxious but thrilled about my initial pursuit in fieldwork. It seemed ‘cool’ to be an ethnographer—at least that’s what I thought initially—and I liked introducing myself to informants as an ethnographer. That feeling of excitement ended when one of my supervisors reminded me about my field notes, and how I should go about writing them. My notes should not just contain factual accounts and observations, but also my reflections and my state of mind. I should reflect upon the day’s event(s) and how I felt at the time. One important aspect that I failed to consider at that time was my role as an ethnographer. I had the naivety to believe that my work (research) and my personal life were, and could, remain completely separated. I thought that as long as I stayed away from personal involvement (meaning, keeping my private life to myself when conducting my fieldwork), then I could remain professional and avoid being too subjective.

However, it was not until I began my fieldwork that I realised that conducting fieldwork is more complicated than I had thought. Over time, I discovered that field experience is reciprocal, and that the lives of researchers are linked with the lives of the researched. I realised that my multiple positionality, the nuances in my life, and my personal experiences affected my day-to-day interactions with my informants. The way that things evolved in my life during my fieldwork, the way that prolonged interactions and connections with people and the environment intertwined with my personal life, and all the knowledge I acquired through this, could enrich my research and make it multi-dimensional.

In my recent paper, ‘When [Inter-]Personal is Transformational: [Re]examining Life Course Emotion in PhD Research’, recently published in Area, I explore the ways in which different life events I experienced between 2008 and 2013 affected my research as a PhD student. By examining the relationship between these events and my development as a researcher, I consider how the complexity of emotions and affect helped me understand my research participants and helped me produce multi-dimensional, ethical research.

Drawing upon a series of life events that happened to me during the research period—such as my divorce and then a new romance—I examine how these events affected not only my research perspective when looking into gender dynamics in the indigenous villages in Hong Kong, but how they also affected my interactions and connections with my research subjects. I discovered how research is an interactive and dynamic activity. The researchers and the researched are walking through a journey to mutual understanding. The lives of the researcher and those researched are connected, and they affect each other. In this auto-ethnographic account of my fieldwork, I demonstrate how life events happening to the researcher during the research period can affect the researcher’s emotional and affectual state, and how this in turn can enrich a researcher’s study of the subject.

Emotion and affect here play a critical part in my research. As Rose (1997) points out, emotions of researchers are affected by events preceding the fieldwork and during the research process. This alters the researcher’s positionality—defined in terms of gender, age, race, social status, economic status, and marital status. In geography, studies on emotions and affect have examined conscious and expressive factors. These factors are generally understood as emotion—as well as non-cognitive, non-linguistic, and non-representational factors—involving affect (Pile 2010; Thrift 2004). During the research process the discursive, conscious, and cognitive parts work in coordination with the non-cognitive, non-discursive aspects that affect how subjects and objects perceive the world and their relations with the world (Bondi 2005; Narvaro-Yashin 2009; Thrift 2004). In my case, these aspects affected how we saw each other.

In this paper, I argue that as researchers, we need to realise that research is an ongoing, interactive, ever-changing process. Also, we need to recognise the reciprocal relationship between researchers and the researched subjects during the research process in order to create a better understanding of one’s own work and the ways in which the research itself fits within one’s broader life goals.

About the author: Isabella Ng received her doctorate from SOAS, University of London. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Asian and Policy Studies, The Education University of Hong Kong.

books_icon Bondi L 2005 Making connections and thinking through emotions: between geography
and psychotherapy Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 30 433-48

60-world2 Branigan T 2015 For richer, for poorer: how China’s laws put women second The Guardian Online https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/24/chinese-women-equality-laws-land-housing 24 February 2015

books_icon Burton L M and Bengtson V L 1985 Black grandmothers: issues of timing and
continuity of roles in Bengtson V L and Robertson J F eds Grandparenthood Sage, Beverly Hills CA 61-77

books_icon Elder Jr. G H, Johnson M K and Crosnoe R 2004 The emergence and development
of life course theory in Mortimer J T and Shanahan M J eds Handbook of the life course Springer Science + Business Media, New York 3-19

books_icon Haraway D 1988 Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the
privilege of partial perspective Feminist studies 14 575-599

books_icon Navaro-Yashin Y 2009 Affective spaces, melancholic objects: ruination and the
production of anthropological knowledge Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15 1-18

books_icon Ng, I. (2017), When [inter]personal becomes transformational: [re-]examining life course-related emotions in PhD research. Area. doi:10.1111/area.12325

books_icon Pile S 2010 Intimate distance: the unconscious dimensions of the rapport between
researcher and researched The Professional Geographer 62 483-95

books_icon Rose G 1997 Situating knowledges: positionality, reflexivities and other tactics
Progress in Human Geography 21 305-20

books_icon Thrift N 2004 Intensities of feeling: towards a spatial politics of affect Geografiska
Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 86 57-78

Studying Abroad and the Neoliberal ‘Cult of Experience’ in the Youth Labour Market

By Ashley Crowson, King’s College London

Figures released this week have shown that more UK students than ever are travelling abroad as part of their degree programmes.

Last year, 15,566 UK students studied in another country as participants in the European Union’s Erasmus programme. This was a 115% increase in the number who took part in 2007, when the scheme was first extended to the UK. Large increases in students travelling to China, India and the USA have also been observed.

The figures were released ahead of the British Council’s annual ‘Going Global’ conference for leaders of international education. Professor Rebecca Hughes, British Council Director of Education, said, “This latest evidence confirms that a growing number of the UK’s students are recognising the huge value to be gained from international experience… The UK needs graduates who have the skills and confidence to compete globally, and can compete against foreign talent that may speak more languages, and have wider international experience.”

An Erasmus promotional video highlighting the professional benefits of studying abroad.

Clare Holdsworth addresses the seemingly uncontroversial nature of such statements in a recent article for Area. Holdsworth argues:

Young people are called upon to make themselves employable through engaging in a range of experiences that may include: volunteering, work experience, paid work, internships, travel, leisure and membership of organisations. This fetishizing of experience is becoming so normalised that it is rarely contested. It appears self-evident that in order to protect themselves against an absent future, young people need to not only complete more education and/or training, but they have to acquire experiences to stand out from the crowd.

Holdsworth takes issue with the commodification of experience, suggesting that experiences gained in order to guarantee a better future are ‘conventional and passive’, and have little to do with experimentation, creativity, exploration or learning. Holdworth’s main focus, however, is with the popular notion that the acquisition of experience is a solution to the difficulties of the current youth labour market:

The prevailing popular discourse of youth is one of failure against the need to do better. Thus if academic grades increase, this is because of grade inflation; if more young people are out of work, this is because they do not have the correct skills; if graduates cannot get jobs, this is because they have not acquired the right ‘experiences’… This failure to see beyond the supply side of the labour market is having profound effects on young people’s lives… Not only are young people still faced with the difficulty of finding a job, they are having to do so in direct competition with their peers in a ever-growing globalised labour supply… Thus programmes for work experience, placements, volunteering, internships etc. are rolled out in order to compel young people to invest in their own futures…The cult of experience reinforces this charging of responsibility and passes over other solutions that target the demand side of the youth labour market.

The article highlights the arms race-like nature of the neoliberal youth employment market: as experience is seen as increasingly necessary in order to compete with one’s peers, young people are compelled to engage in more and more homogenised ‘experiences’, effectively ‘running faster in order to stand still’. Invariably, those who win this experience arms race are those with the greatest financial means.

This article also raises important questions for university geography departments; fieldwork has long been seen as a crucial part of a geography degree, but how, in a neoliberal educational establishment, can the experience of fieldwork be elevated above that of a CV-enhancing commodity and turned into a ‘genuine’ learning experience, encouraging students to explore, experiment and consider their own subjectivity?

 Clare Holdsworth, 2015, The cult of experience: standing out from the crowd in an era of austerityArea, DOI: 10.1111/area.12201.

Beyond sub-disciplinary boundaries: geographers and the study of development

By Rory Horner, University of Manchester

The world economic, social and political map and consequent geographies of development are rapidly changing, as a result of such trends as the growing influence of rising powers and simultaneous forms of crisis in both global North and South.

Yet, among geographers, it can seem as if the study of development is often relatively separate to that of economic geography, which can be quite perplexing and challenging for postgraduate students and others keen to research at this interface.

In a recent paper in Area, I explore how this imbalance may be encountered and hopefully gradually overcome. Upon commencing my PhD research on India’s pharmaceutical industry, I initially focused on the economic characteristics of Indian pharmaceutical firms as emerging multinationals. However, I struggled to reconcile much of the conceptual work I was reading, initially in economic geography, with the empirical issues at hand.

Fieldwork beyond disciplinary boundaries

Particularly when conducting fieldwork in India and reading various India-published newspapers and journals (as well as some more development studies-oriented research), I was opened to a whole host of broader “development” debates around the industry – most notably around the public health issue of access to medicines. After my pilot fieldwork, I adapted my research to try to take a more inclusive focus:

Interviewing:

  • a wider range of small and medium-sized, as well as large, firms
  • civil society organisations as well as firms and policymakers
  • Asking a broader range of questions, going beyond firm-level concerns to a greater interest in access to medicines issues
Corporate Headquarters of Aurobino Pharma, Hyderabad Image Credit: Rory Horner

Corporate Headquarters of Aurobino Pharma, Hyderabad Image Credit: Rory Horner

A small-scale pharmaceutical company in Delhi (image credit: Rory Horner)

A small-scale pharmaceutical company in Delhi (image credit: Rory Horner)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Particularly for those at an early career stage who are perhaps less embedded in prior research divisions, fieldwork, and engagement with various stakeholders, can provide relative freedom from academic boundaries and be a crucial stage for challenging sub-disciplinary boundaries.

Richer geographies of development?

Ultimately, the scope of my PhD research shifted from understanding a growth industry, and its industrial reorganisation internationally, to research about global governance, specifically changing patent laws, the role of the state and development impacts. By playing a crucial role in the global access to medicines campaign and in contesting a Northern agenda on pharmaceutical patent laws. the Indian pharmaceutical industry has had global significance in a social as well as an economic context. Any analysis to separate the ‘economic’ aspects of the industry from the broader ‘development’ dimensions involving health would have been incomplete.

Writing up the research, making conference presentations and submitting to journals did provide somewhat of a re-encounter with disciplinary divides. Yet, some journals and senior scholars (and PhD supervisors) fortunately appeared interested in seeing early career researchers pursue research in new directions. I found new opportunities by drawing on economic geography literature to contribute to a development debate (around the impact of changes in patent law – and vice-versa (around integration into global production networks. In addition, India-focused social science publications, and a report for the interviewees involved in the research, provided opportunities to communicate my results relatively free of disciplinary boundaries.

The possibilities of any scholar being completely free of sub-disciplinary boundaries is doubtful, and some research may have greater resonance with one “side” (for me, with economic geography). Yet if we are to better understand major development debates that cross the economic, social and political, such as access to medicines issues in India as featured in a 2013 New York Times article, we need more integrated approaches. By engaging with the dynamics of extensive fieldwork and the integrated nature of social and economic development, a new generation of researchers can play a crucial role in breaking down the divides between the “economic” and “non-economic”, in geography and related fields, and ultimately produce richer geographies of development.

Recommendations for postgraduate students seeking to cross (sub-) disciplinary boundaries
  • Read beyond your (sub-)discipline and from multiple sources (e.g. academic, policy, media, international journals and local publications)
  • “Listen” to the data during fieldwork, following and even reconsidering the research question, relatively free of disciplinary boundaries
  • Inter-relate concepts, perspectives and literatures derived from global North and South, and different parts of each, to make new connections in journal publications
  • Write publications for stakeholders where the research was conducted, and other more “empirical” publications to communicate the work relatively free of disciplinary boundaries

books_icon Horner, R. (2014), Postgraduate encounters with sub-disciplinary divides: entering the economic/development geography trading zone. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12130

books_icon Horner R (2014) The Impact of Patents on Innovation, Technology Transfer and Health: A Pre- and Post-TRIPs Analysis of India’s Pharmaceutical Industry New Political Economy  19 384-406

books_icon Horner R (2013) Strategic decoupling, recoupling and global production networks: India’s pharmaceutical industry Journal of Economic Geography

60-world2 Harris G (2013) India’s efforts to aid poor worry drug makers The New York Times

About the Author: Dr Rory Horner is a lecturer in Globalisation at the University of Manchester.

 

 

 

A View from Above: Geography explores the outdoors

by Fiona Ferbrache

The scientific method has close connections to ideas about progress and innovation.  In 2010, a question was posed in the Guardian: “Can a human break the sound barrier?” This question may well be answered later this year when skydiver, Felix Baumgartner, will free fall to earth from the edge of space.  Taking a balloon to roughly 37km above the earth’ surface, the skydiver is expected to be the first human to break the sound barrier during his ten minute return flight.  Baumgartner’s adventure will be facilitated by a range of technical apparatus including oxygen tanks and a special suit designed to withstand temperatures of -94ºF.

The theme of adventure and exploration in this sky diving story connects with Area’s special quarterly section Exploring the Outdoors.  Celebrating the multiple ways in which geographers engage with outdoor spaces, the papers in this collection address activities such as climbing, mountaineering, mountain rescue and fieldtrips.  Each paper contributes to our knowledge of the outdoors, but the strength of this collection emerges in the co-construction of the multiple relations that link science and adventure, from both human and physical sides of geography. As Couper and Yarwood (2012) emphasise in the introduction to this collection, ‘outdoors’ provides a conceptual field from which to transgress this geographical boundary.

Providing an overview of this collection, Couper and Yarwood also acknowledge its limitations. They note, among other things, that “it remains predominantly land-based in its consideration of outdoor-spaces” (p.5).  With this in mind, Baumgartner’s upcoming adventure may offer some alternative approaches for geographic engagement with the outdoors.

  Skydiving from the edge of space: can a human break the sound barrier?, The Guardian

  Sky diver to break sound barrier with jump from edge of space, The Telegraph

  Pauline Couper & Richard Yarwood, 2012, Confluences of human and physical geography research on the outdoors: an introduction to the special section on ‘Exploring the outdoors’, Area 44 2-6

Area Content Alert: Volume 44, Issue 1 (March 2012)

The latest issue of Area is available on Wiley Online Library.

Click past the break to view the full table of contents.

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Remotely Piloted Vehicles in Ecological Research?

by Caitlin Douglas,

Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) are fixed or rotary winged aircraft operated without a pilot on board. There are three main types of RPVs: small-scale, tactical, and endurance RPVs which are able to operate at differing altitudes and ranges. Hardin and Hardin (2010) wrote in Geography Compass about the application of small-scale remotely piloted vehicles in environmental research.

Current applications include habitat/wildlife management and agricultural monitoring. Most uses involve taking aerial photography to monitor wildlife/vegetation populations and assess crop damage, but some applications involve biological sampling such as the collection of pollen and insects. Potential future uses include tasks that may be too dangerous for manned operations because the monitoring is taking place in hazardous areas. For example, a common problem with traditional aerial photography is cloud cover, and RPVs can be flown below the clouds.

Financial and technological hurdles prevent RPVs from being more widely adopted in ecological research; however, RPVs have been developed and successfully used at the Zoological Society of London.  A remotely operated ‘toy’ helicopter is flown through the ‘blows’ of whales to collect mucous and gas samples in order to study whale diseases. There appears to be a cautious but optimistic future for RPVs in ecological research.

Hardin, P. and Hardin, T. 2010. Small-Scale Remotely Piloted Vehicles in Environmental Research. Geography Compass, 4(9): 1297-1311.

The Institute of Zoology, 2008. Toy helicopter used to sample whale health. Zoological Society of London Website.

Fieldwork as Learning and Bonding in the Great Outdoors: a lesson to be taken to Everest

by Fiona Ferbrache

“Fieldwork is an integral component of the geography degree” (Fuller, 2011:1).

The above quotation comes from an early view Area paper analysing the role of residential and non-residential fieldwork in geographical education.  The paper argues that the outdoors has much to offer in the process of learning and enhancing geographical knowledge.  It also touches on what many of us have experienced: the beneficial integration between students that working together in real world settings can evoke.  While discussing the advantages of “taking students outdoors to learn in high places”, Fuller advises: “care is required to maximise its potential” (p.1).

Fuller’s reference to “high places” (defined in terms of altitude and geographical value), links to a recent project undertaken at Mount Everest’s Base Camp.  Sociologists, Tumbat and Belk (Science Daily, 2010), undertook an ethnographic study of commercialised climbing expeditions and interviewed clients paying for the experience of climbing Mount Everest.  Their findings indicate that Base Camp can be characterised by extreme selfishness, competitiveness and power-seeking behaviour, which the researchers link to consumer behaviour and the marketplace.  This contrasts with many outdoor activities that report communitarian spirit and camaraderie among those taking part.  This perhaps supports Fuller’s argument that care is required to maximise the potential of extraordinary experiences for, as he notes, learning and experiencing together outdoors can provide “the glue which bonds together a student cohort” (Fuller, 2011:2).

Fuller, I.C. (2011) Taking students outdoors to learn in high places. Area (forthcoming)

Science Daily (2010) Climbing Mount Everest: Noble Adventure or Selfish Pursuit? 22 December, 2010 [online]