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Knowledge production the core mission of fieldwork

LI XIANGZHEN | 2022-07-07 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Chinese anthropologist Zhang Jianghua (1st Left) communicates with villagers at a village in Tibet to survey the village’s social and economic conditions. Photo: INSTITUTE OF ETHNOLOGY AND ANTHROPOLOGY, CASS 


Over the last century, fieldwork was confirmed again and again as the most important research approach for disciplines such as anthropology and folkloristics, amid academics’ continual reflections on the method. After a period of extensive usage, fieldwork seems to have become a perfect research methodology, which means it is at risk of being understood as knowledge itself, instead of being a means of knowledge production as it should be. 

 
Reflecting on the reflections
Through the past decades, many scholars have realized that fieldwork is actually not the work of researchers alone, but a joint undertaking involving objects of their research. To a large extent, data obtained by scholars has even been interpreted by these objects. As American cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who pioneered the term “thick description” in anthropology, famously said, “What we call our data are really our own constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to.” 
 
If the mission of fieldwork is to make and write ethnography, then what’s the mission of ethnography? What exactly were scholars doing in their waves after waves of reflections on fieldwork in the past decades? What do these reflections and criticisms mean to disciplinary knowledge of folkloristics and anthropology? Is overemphasis on reassessing ethnographic production, as well as rhetoric devices used in writing, conducive to increasing folkloristic and anthropological expertise? To what extent do diverse fresh and popular concepts, such as multi-sited ethnography, subject ethnography, and WeChat ethnography or internet ethnography, belong to knowledge production in the strict sense?
 
To answer these questions, it is necessary to return to renowned anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, an advocate for, and practitioner of, scientific fieldwork, and reexamine ethnography’s academic mission. Now we can probably discuss fieldwork from another perspective: how did it become the practical foundation for folkloristics and anthropology to establish theoretical discourse? 
 
It is not difficult to review the history of fieldwork as a research methodology. The real difficulty lies in understanding why this approach immediately drew so much attention and secured dominance in scholarly practices following the first attempt. In other words, what is the historic and academic mission of fieldwork? 
 
Resulting from scholarly construction 
Undoubtedly, knowledge production should be the historic and academic mission of fieldwork. Therefore, the field is a product of scholarly construction. Originally the so-called “field” is just part of local people’s uninterrupted and uncompleted lives. Based on some scholarly assumptions, we “section” their lives and employ a range of academic tools or discourse systems to interpret and analyze the “tissue” of these sections, ultimately putting them in writing. 
 
Starting from Malinowski, fieldwork has gradually been regarded as the only proper course to take for disciplines like anthropology and folkloristics. In the metaphorical “field,” scholars are like farmers cultivating the land, collecting what they need there. However, “academic fields” don’t always wait for us to cultivate them. They are, more often than not, created and discovered by researchers. In other words, the field is discovered by researchers who are conscious of problems. It is a bounded social space. Its boundaries indicate ownership of life. It is not perfectly justified for researchers, “intruders,” to enter the field.  
 
Fieldwork, after all, is not about sightseeing. In preparation, there must be an assumption, or several assumptions, which make up the theme of fieldwork and ensure that survey data is professional. Otherwise, in theory all locals in the field would be real experts of native culture, society, and life, but experience tells us that it’s not the case. Locals don’t often reflect on their everyday life, because it’s unnecessary. It’s hard to say that an unexamined life is a kind of professional knowledge. 
 
When we regard data in the field as research content, we should realize that to locals, our fieldwork itself is an incident in their daily lives. In this incident, their attitudes and reactions to our inquiries, and us, are essentially not different from how they would act in other incidents in their lives. To them, we are simply insignificant strangers. The insignificance doesn’t mean that local people are unaware of our value or the social resources embedded in our identity as scholars. It means we, as temporary intruders and strangers, will not cause any substantive impact on their lives. We are simply topics for them to chat about, and traces of our being there will also disappear quickly. Then, what’s the relationship between researchers and local people?
 
Two stages of fieldwork 
Verbal communication and writing are the two stages of fieldwork in practice, which run parallel to two functions of fieldwork: effectuating information exchange between researchers and locals, and functioning as a knowledge production method for folkloristics or anthropology. The first stage generally features expressive knowledge, which refers to knowledge produced by researchers after they excerpt, select, translate, and adapt the populace’s everyday knowledge. In the second stage, productive knowledge is predominant. Productive knowledge is knowledge packaged by researchers with academically accepted expressions and rhetorical techniques, and presented in the form of shared discourse to the academic community.
 
Writing is the stage in which fieldwork fulfills its historic and academic mission of producing knowledge. After leaving the field, researchers reprocess data or information they have gathered to generate written works. At this point, researchers act as writers. Through words, they transform text created from communication with local people into scholarly works, and then market them to readers, who are consumers of knowledge, to stand their test. The writing process is strictly a process of literary or academic review. Now, locals are obviously the subjects, and should be absent. Even if they read the works, they are readers, rather than protagonists of their lives. 
 
Surely, the locals never disappear. Their lives have become text. Under conceptual and theoretical systems, their textualized lives have become academic knowledge in anthropology or folkloristics, which means, their lives are eternal as objects. 
 
When it comes to life, eternity is a poetic fantasy, because life itself is fluid, unfulfilled, and always present. It goes beyond individual lives, coming from the past, going through the present, and heading towards the future. In the perpetually long historical course, eternity will not be achieved without others’ help. Hence the biggest contribution made by researchers to locals is that they translate the two-way communication over life practices into works through words to attain eternity. By eternalizing others’ lives through works, researchers also reap eternal glory as authors. 
 
Researchers’ dual identities
In general, there are two fundamental relationships to handle in fieldwork: one between researchers and locals, and the other between researchers and readers. They correspond to the dual identities of researchers: as interlocutors (communication subjects in speech) and writers (text creators).
 
In this light, researchers shift the bond with locals to one with readers through ethnographic writing. To researchers and locals, fieldwork is a common cause. In shared discourse practices, they exchange knowledge and information with each other, as they are subjects to each other. 
 
To researchers and readers, ethnography is an outcome of writing. Researchers now become writers. They are not subjects to readers and vice versa. Instead, the two form a relationship of understanding and being understood through ethnographical texts. This relational model of “interlocutors-writers” and “locals-researchers-readers” formed out of “field ethnography” can illuminate our comprehension of ethnographical writings. 
 
Moreover, it is vital to give the discourse power back to locals, because letting locals speak is a basic ethic for any anthropologist and folklorist who adheres to people-centered principles. However, the power of writing should not be granted to locals. To some degree, the power to write is foundational to a scholar’s career. 
 
Through an introduction to the relational models of “interlocutors-writers” and “locals-researchers-readers,” we will discover that fieldwork is probably just a practice in which researchers and locals exchange discourse and information. It never really shoulders the responsibility of academic writing, so there is never a question of whether locals should be allowed to participate in writing. In addition, locals have withdrawn themselves from contributing to folkloristic recording or ethnographic writing. In the “writing-reading” field, researchers, who now serve as writers, and readers play the leading roles, so there is little point to discussing whether the power of writing should be returned to locals or not. 
 
Thus it is necessary to clarify the relationships of researchers with locals and with readers in fieldwork. The distinction is by no means a simple game of words. It involves the academic mission of field ethnography. As an academic product, field ethnography can only be counted as disciplinary knowledge after it withstands the test of readers, so readers’ demands are the primary force driving scholars to go to the field and converse with locals. 
 
As a research methodology, fieldwork not only includes verbal communication, but also the knowledge production process of compiling ethnography or folkloristic documents. These are the two stages of fieldwork, and reflect the two relationships mentioned above. The former stage embodies the ties between researchers and locals, and the latter is a reflection of the researcher-reader relationship. In the process of verbal communication, researchers act as interlocutors, forming discourse together with locals while gaining the full right of interpretation. In knowledge production, researchers are writers, mainly producing texts with discourse that they are entitled to interpret through fieldwork, and with rhetoric. By virtue of written works (ethnography or folkloristic chronicles), communication discourse is translated into academic knowledge, through which fieldwork finally fulfills its academic mission of producing knowledge. Meanwhile, producing academic knowledge that is recognized by readers also illustrates the legitimacy of fieldwork as the most important research approach for folkloristics and anthropology. 
 
Li Xiangzhen is an associate professor from the School of Sociology at Wuhan University. 
 
 
 
Edited by CHEN MIRONG