Conference report: "New orientations in fieldwork research"

Thomas David DuBois 杜博思's picture

Conference report: "New orientations in fieldwork research" interdisciplinary working group “田野研究的新趋向”跨学科学术工作坊

This event was held May 8-9 at Beijing Normal University, and broadcast to a lively online audience that ranged between 300 and 400 viewers. It was sponsored and organized by the BNU Cultural Heritage and Transmission Project, the BNU Intangible Cultural Heritage Research Center, and the BNU Folk Literature and Culture Department.

The seventh of the “warm blooded fieldwork” (有温度田野) series shared between Shandong University and BNU, this event sought to move beyond the disciplinary core of anthropology and folklore to include perspectives from ethnology and history. Each of the twelve participants conducts something known as "fieldwork" (田野), albeit in different ways and to different ends. 

The event opened with three questions: what are our disciplinary fieldwork methods; what values and standards do these practices reflect; and how have innovations in communication during the period of COVID lockdown accelerated the transformation of fieldwork to adopt new formats? Over the course of the discussions, a fourth question emerged: what is unique about the Chinese fieldwork experience, past, present, and future?

Certain disciplinary differences became immediately evident. The historians (Huang Sujuan, Liu Yonghua, and Mai Sijie) all emphasized the ways that fieldwork creates a dialogue between their sources and a sense of place, be that an understanding of distance, topography, agriculture or historical artifacts. The anthropologists (Li Geng) and folklorists (Peng Mu, Wan Jianzhong) focused on the challenges of working with a living community: the social and physical presence of the researcher, and the ethical and practical problems of serving as a translator for local cultural expression. Presenting a moving account of the meanings behind a seemingly mundane object, Zhang Shishan showed the profound possibilities of “home town fieldwork.” Using the methods of ethnographic psychology, Li Jing introduced her method to distill insights from long-term fieldwork into quantifiable variables.

Each of the presenters engaged the new methodological horizons of social media, and a few did so specifically. These included presentations on the use of social media to locate and interview informants (Liu Qinli and Du Bosi), and of social media expression as an object of ethnographic study (Xiao Kunbing, Yang Lihui). The many graduate students present were especially keen to explore this last topic.

Despite our initial concerns that the disciplinary net might have been cast too wide, we immediately found numerous points of discussion. The first was the different ways that we viewed our common signposts, including methodological forefathers such as Malinowski, and the exact meaning of such terms as “participant observation” (参与观察). The second was a strong cognizance of intermediation. Each presentation returned in some way to the inevitability of intermediation: be that by a written source, a secondary informant, the performance of online identity, the need for “coherence” in academic writing, or the social distance of the researcher. The meaning and significance of such intermediation was a point of especially fruitful discussion.

The third was as assumption so fundamental to the other participants that it took an outsider to vocalize it: that Chinese fieldwork across disciplines strongly privileges the perspective of depth. Some of the presenters discussed fieldwork projects that had been ongoing for decades, long enough to establish deep relationships, master local dialects, and personally witness the evolution of families over generations. This methodological preference seems to come from two sources: the unique possibilities for Chinese researchers to start their careers with group-based fieldwork in an evolving site, and an inflection of disciplinary roots that seeks to erase social and physical difference between the researcher and “the people.” Yet while this preference for extremely deep research provides unmatched insight into local community, establishing it as a universal methodological standard does potentially erect barriers to entry, and creates a blindness to breadth. (Even multi-site discussions by Liu Yonghua and Li Jing were based on deep roots in each place).

This final point returned us to another of the potential new directions: the sourcing of information online. In addition to being a channel for extending our own informant networks, or a site for observing technology-oriented communities like video gamers, social media is also an essentially gateless entry point for the expression of local culture, be that the self-published writings of village intellectuals, folk songs uploaded to 抖音, or amateur photography of local temples and historical sites. Rather than resisting this vast outpouring of information, the challenge is to adapt the existing tools of fieldwork to best understand and use it.

A longer version of these reflections is being planned for the journal 民间文化论坛

Best wishes to all,


Thomas David DuBois 杜博思
Professor of Humanities, Beijing Normal University | 北京范大学文学院教授