What could diving deep into ethnographic fieldwork, a key tool of social science research, look like? What to do with the academic pressure of “objectivity”, the baggage of bias and emotions, and the responsibilities social science researchers carry in today’s world? Mattie Balagat, a clueless GDP student interested in pursuing anthropological research, seeks answers to such questions [which may or may not be answered] through conversations with Professor Haruna Miyagawa, who teaches sociology courses in GDP, including DCUL 331: Logic and Methods of Social Inquiry, a research method course. The following conversation occurred in September 2021 and it has been cleaned and edited for clarity.
In this second half of the conversation, Haruna and Mattie talk about entering into fieldwork, dealing with anxieties in building relationships with study participants, and having transformative moments during fieldwork. Read the first half of the conversation here.
Entering the field
Mattie Balagat: So your fieldwork, for how long did you conduct it?
Haruna Miyagawa: Oh gosh. I don’t know when I can say I started my fieldwork. Because before I actually interacted with the direct participants of my study, I did roam around the area to sort of understand the context. That’s me being a sociologist. For my PhD, I conducted a study with the aging immigrants in Phoenix, how they were interacting with each other and tapping into resources in the community. In order to approach that, I did start in the first year of my 7-year PhD life just roaming around, driving up and down the streets, and across the state, going down the border, being stopped by the Border Patrol, everything.
MB: That sounds so wild. *laughing*
HM: Taking photographs, tuning into different radio stations, stopping at the gas station and chit-chatting about people’s sentiments about immigration and you know—just chatting with your colleagues and friends and people of different social classes and ages to talk about and understand the “atmosphere.” And of course, you’ll be seeing various news reports that’s available in the media. So you do that prepwork-kind-of-thing, for however long, as extensively as possible, and then you start to narrow down what you want to focus on. I decided to focus on the aging immigrants in the city of Phoenix. Given my linguistic ability, feasibility of conducting research within the timeframe, I decided to focus on two senior centers in the city. I started to approach these places maybe like one year before starting to talk to people on a very individual basis, whether it’s okay for me to conduct an interview, for example. I wouldn’t know where I started exactly.
MB: Okay, it’s vague. So you were already kind of in it, before you even did it… it blurs.
HM: Yeah, I mean this is not the only way. I tend to take the longer route. I think other people find it easier in terms of how they are able to quickly immerse themselves in the field, know what they want, how to interact with people… but for me, it takes more time.
MB: Takes more time to immerse…
HM: Immerse and actually feel comfortable and ready enough to talk to people.
MB: Yeah, I feel like that’s going to be a hard part… It’s so intimidating, these people you’re going to be meeting for the first time, and you come to them upfront with this research idea.
HM: How do you think about your entry? Do you already have a relationship with the field that you’re interested in exploring?
MB: My connection is this alliance of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and community organizations, so I have connections with the organizers, but I don’t really know what it means to immerse with the community. Because I feel like it will probably be me introducing the research idea to the organizers, and they would already preselect people and then set up the interviews. I feel like that is the most convenient way, the most concrete idea of an entry I can think of, but also feel like it’s already so much narrowed down?
HM: Yeah, so much gatekeeping, right?
MB: Yeah, yeah.
HM: I don’t know what kind of NGOs you’re working with or what kind of relationship you have with the NGO organizers, but the people who are selected from the community through those “gatekeepers”, if you will, are often… not necessarily representative but often very eloquent, very political, very aware of things, very much in difficult situations… something is extreme oftentimes.
MB: Yeah, I feel like it will go that way.
HM: Is that something you want to see, or something a little more different?
MB: I want to see that, and at the same time I don’t want to limit myself to that. Like I’m pretty sure from what I’ve read, the community that NGOs get access to are not the voices of the community, immediately. That shouldn’t be the logic. At the same time, once I have that connection already, I don’t know how to immerse myself in a different way? Like honestly if I just go there, although I could just go there… No going through NGOs… Just going along the shore and chatting up… fisherfolk…? Of course, that’s an option. At the same time, I’m sure the attitude will be like, “why do you wanna know this?” You look too young and too out-of-place. *laughs*
HM: Oh you get that all the time. All the time.
MB: Okay, so how do I move past that? What’s your experience?
HM: You get it all that time. They would wonder why you’re hanging out, hanging around, being in a “wrong place”… some Asian girl doing what…. They would wonder all the time. You would be asked if you’re a spy or something, that’s also possible too. *laughs* Simply explain yourself–I’m just a student and I’m simply interested in this topic. I mean you have to be honest in that sense…
Because it’s so bizarre for them—sometimes you being young and vibrant, they will take you under their wings too. That happens too. So I think there is a benefit of being young. This is real. This is true. Being a student—not necessarily being young, but being a student— is a blessing if you were to do fieldwork. I wouldn’t say just simply exploit it, but you should understand the benefit of being a student, for sure.
MB: Okay, I have no idea how that will manifest.
MB: Okay, coming from very general assumptions here, there’s a Filipino nature of being very hospitable and very warm. So that’s there, yehey. But also would they really be all that welcoming? It’s scary. So that’s why I’m really thinking about the NGO route, out there, you know, who are going to be my backers?
HM: Well, if you’re a fieldworker, or if you’re gonna conduct a fieldwork, get used to rejections. Or if you want to become a researcher, get used to rejections. *laughs* You get rejected all the time. So… it’s part of the process. But then of course, you’ll get welcomed also on some other occasions. But you won’t be welcomed by everyone… Sou ne. *laughs*
At the end of the day, I wouldn’t say it plays a major role though, I think. In terms of conducting research, you just [need to] be very upfront about why you’re there and who you are. Initially they may reject you, or say what are you doing?, you have no business being here, or whatnot. But if you continue to visit, talk, like a human being. You introduce yourself initially as a researcher or student. But then once you do that, you are in the field, interacting with another human being. Just let them know about you. Try to understand where they come from. Try to understand what they are concerned about, or fearful about, interacting with a student, or a researcher. That whole process is just a matter of exchanging conversations like you are a human being, interacting with another human being.
Dealing with anxiety and building relationships
MB: The way that you put it, just act as a human being. That feels a lot more approachable, a lot easier, like I, I can do that. I think I’m a human being. But also—have you had that kind of struggle, or social anxiety doing this. You know, even conversation can be very difficult. So I guess, how do you deal with that? I’m curious.
HM: *laughs* Well, it’s always nice to bring food.
MB: Okay, noted!
HM: Always have something to share, always have a photograph of family, or something you feel very passionate about. And then you start talking about who you are and let them know about you a little bit… I mean, like think about it, in reality, how do you get to know people? … Outside of the research context.
MB: *visible wincing, shaking head*
HM: *laughs* How do you make friends??
MB: *continues wincing* I don’t know… The pandemic has made me very sheltered. Although yeah, I mean I get the direction, but also, any tried-and-tested tips? “How do you make friends?” That’s a good question. Yeah, I think that’s one of my fears.
MB: I tend to get tripped up actually, in conversation, like I’m gonna overthink… Like suddenly I overthink, is this what I’m supposed to say? How do I respond in a certain way that will go to this and that? Then when I get to that over-analyzing mindset, I’m stuck there. I already know it’s not gonna go smoothly.
I tend to have a different kind of persona going on when I meet people. I don’t know, it’s like something I got from [joining] clubs or organizations… So I guess, maybe the first conversation, I can get through that, but how can you build the relationship? That’s scary. ‘Cause if the first contact falls through, and I can’t find an excuse to follow up, then l just drop it. I don’t know. That’s my experience.
HM: Well, you know. Whether it’s a participant-researcher relationship or your relationship with friends, or family, or boyfriend, or whatnot, it’s a relationship. You are a part of the relationship, one end of the relationship, but there is another side, the other person(s) involved in the relationship… it’s a mutual dance, basically. Of course you have to be proactive, especially in the research context, perhaps, to develop and build this relationship. But at the same time, you don’t need to worry too much. Maybe like 30, 40% is in the other person’s hand, how the relationship unravels. So you don’t need to worry too much. I mean, just be… I wouldn’t say “just be who you are”, because that’s confusing. Depending on whom you’re interacting with, you may be showing different parts of you… You can only think so much beforehand, or even during the relationship.
MB: Yeah. So… jump into it.
I feel like general encounters with people we do not know is such a tricky thing. For people my age group, particularly right now. But okay, maybe we’re thinking too much about it. We have too much time, and we’re in our homes, just thinking about it. So maybe if we actually jump into it, we don’t have to worry too much.
HM: You probably will have other things to worry about. How to gather food, how to get back to the city, depending on where you are.
On being a social science researcher
MB: What do you think of the role and responsibility of social science researchers in today’s society?
HM: Whether the role or the responsibility of social science research has changed or not, from the past, I don’t know. But I think the importance of social science research is sort of like, shedding light on something that’s mundane, or miniscule, or bizarre, strange… digging deep into it and then exploring why something is as such. Why do people see some things as mundane while something is considered to be extraordinary? Or you know, they give all these adjectives that kind of create and construct people’s everyday lives and value systems. So just unwrapping, untangling why all these value systems are attached, why society works the way it does, by shedding light on something that’s commonplace. I think that’s something necessary. It’s not only something that’s “foreign” that we explore, but something that’s there in our everyday lives. And going deeper into it, seeing beyond the facade of things—I think that’s the perspective that the social sciences can bring into. Because, ultimately, that poses questions to how we see and how we appreciate oneself, each other, society, you know, all that stuff. I think that is the role and responsibility of research.
MB: What advice do you have for people interested in social science research?
HM: Just observe and be aware. Just do it. If you want to do social science research. All the ingredients are there, so if you want to do it, do it.
MB: Okay, if I can rephrase the question you had for the class—What is the most important thing when it comes to social science research?
MB: That’s a loaded word, I think. Okay… honesty.
HM: Honesty… honesty to yourself, honesty to the participants, honesty to how you deal with data—how you interpret, analyze, how you present… Honesty to your own passion and human self. And honesty to your own limitations.
MB: Mmm. What about when being honest to one of these means that you have to be dishonest about others? When you say be honest to yourself and to participants, is it a principle or attitude you find easy to stick to? Or are there actually a lot of compromises that you have to make when you think about this? Is there a concrete way that this has manifested in your experiences?
HM: Hmm…In one of the communities that I conducted a study, especially the older generation considers that women should be at home, to serve for the family, husband, and all those things… That was considered to be what many of the women in the study valued. And then I was away from my family in my late 20s, not having a child, and then they would question, tell us about your family. Or what’s your marital status, that kind of thing. I was married at that point, actually, but I didn’t have a child, my husband then was in Japan, and we were not on good terms—on my personal side of the story—and I wasn’t sure what to say in response to that question. So, okay, should I just simply say that I am single, I am already [in my] late 20s, I have no children, I’m not married, I’m single, just devoted to my studies—an old miss character that I should pose. Or [should I] simply tell them that I’m actually in this situation: I am actually married, unfortunately not having any children then, my husband is away in Japan, he has his life, and I have my life, we are apart, and we are not doing well. And I was like… hm, which should I go with? One is an honest story, the other is a made-up story. But I had to go with my decision, and I decided to share my story, the honest version. And that sort of opened up a lot of things. Because many women who had migrated earlier in their time had left their family back home in their youthful days, or they met someone else, while they were away, that kind of thing. They opened up many stories, simply by virtue of me being honest about my own story. But that for me was a big judgment call that I had to make in the field, because I knew that would change the dynamics between me and the study participants, because, after all, marriage is a big thing for these women. Having a partner, having a child, you know, being a mother, is a big thing.
So I’m like… uuh, dou shiyou. *laughs* So I had to make that call, yeah. Things like that… I don’t know, something you don’t wanna bring up necessarily or you wouldn’t go around talking about it until that very moment, but since you’re asked that question, and if you are to be honest with yourself and to the study participants, then… There is a transition for sure after that. The type of relationship that you had developed in your study is going to be different from that point on, before and after. So you’re kind of like putting your life on the line, in a way, as a researcher, being in the field. Mmm, sou ne.
MB: Was it a good call, sharing the honest side?
HM: Well I think it was a good call. It was a hard call, because I had to reflect [on] myself. Like my life is… in shambles! And suddenly, I had to deal with these emotions that they were not aware of. But then… you do what you do. From that point onward, talking about myself, including that aspect of myself… I guess it became natural after all. But… you know, it was one of those moments. So yeah.
MB: That’s hard, that’s hard.
HM: Because it had opened up different aspects, different dynamics of the researcher-study participant relationship… and that had ramifications in my private life as well—how I deal with the situation, how I talk about the things that make me who I am to people, not limited to the study participants… I think it was a transformative event, in many ways. You will tap into an area of emotions that you wouldn’t have had an opportunity to excavate had there not been such an opportunity with the participants in the study. In that sense, it was life-changing as a human being as well.
Many people have… not necessarily similar kinds of experiences, but equally transformative experiences in their fieldwork at some point, I think. Whether it has to do with your personal life, or it has to do with your own value system being shaken. …I don’t want to talk about myself in my research, but many people are used to talking [about themselves]… it’s like autoethnography. People are used to talking about themselves, very much in the work that they produce; I’m not on that end, necessarily. But even then, ethnographic fieldwork really positions you in that situation where you have to constantly reflect upon yourself, in many, many ways, some of which could be very transformative.
MB: Okay, so what I’m getting is that fieldwork generally involves, you know, going into… not just encounters, but also relationships with people… And in relationships with people, to build something that is true and fruitful, it requires you to be honest about yourself. And that’s a scary thing, but from what you shared, it also feels required. That kind of vulnerability. It’s scary, but it feels like having that makes it all the more richer not just for you, but for your participants in the research. I guess it goes back to being a human being.
HM: Right, exactly.
MB: …Wow! *laughing*
HM: What a big one ah!
MB: That’s scary for me, that it opens up… of course it would depend on the kind of fieldwork, but it would open you up. You’re not in control of where, how these relationships go, where they take you….
HM: But I could have controlled it, right? I could have offered the scenario that I have prepped, because I knew I would be asked that question, and I was constantly debating whether to give this script… I don’t know, perhaps that day, I just happened to be ready to talk about it. I don’t know how it happened, I don’t remember it.
MB: Okay, up for long internal debates, I see. Hm. Do you wonder what it would be like if you had just followed the script?
HM: Right, it probably would have been very non-dynamic in terms of our interactions; transactional even. I would have missed out conducting an extensive ethnographic fieldwork type of study. Ultimately, I think it was a very good idea. I pat myself on the back after all. *laughs* But it was indeed scary but exhilarating at the same time, because you get to be welcomed into the women’s world a little bit differently than if you were just a young, graduate student. They probably thought that I was this ambitious international student who wanted to sort of peep into people’s lives in a foreign land. But I think the dynamics very much changed [after sharing]. So it was a very good idea after all and a necessary one.
HM: You don’t know how much you actually cry and laugh. You ride all these emotional waves in the field. Of course it depends on the topic of your study… But when you’re engaging with human beings deeply and closely, you cannot help having these emotions.
MB: Yeah, I can’t imagine doing fieldwork with elders. I guess, cry every other day.
HM: There are funny people too.
MB: No, I bet. I did have to take care of my grandfather. Home for the aged, it’s a …place. It’s scary, but at the same time, that’s also the very fulfilling part of it. Having these very human, vulnerable encounters. Cool! I love that, as a writer. You kinda fantasize about it, like, oh I want these rich moments for my writing. I feel like a lot of people—this is just a reflection, off the top of my head—that’s what people are looking for right now, you know. That kind of human connection that is seldomly found, which makes you open up yourself and connect with others … and social science research is one of the ways in! We can market it that way.
HM: Great! A sell. *laughs*
DCUL 331: Logic and Methods of Social Inquiry is taught by Professor Haruna Miyagawa every Term 1 and 2.