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 a conversation 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.
This first half of this conversation covers the backgrounds of Mattie and Haruna with regard to social science research, the topic of objectivity, and the act of wearing multiple “caps” in the field.
About us, and a few notes
“Oh, this could be my space.”
Mattie Balagat studied in a science high school in the Philippines before coming to GDP, where she thought she would continue studying the environmental sciences. But after jumping between classes and clusters, she is now cultivating an interest in environmental anthropology—a field she never considered, or even knew about back then. Stepping into the social sciences is for her a dizzying but strangely familiar journey, as someone who has always wanted to write about people. She is currently thinking of doing fieldwork with coastal communities in Manila.
Note: The idea of a conversation about social science research and fieldwork came about after Haruna replied to a discussion board question I had during the DCUL 331 class, which dealt with the position of a researcher especially in engaging with vulnerable communities. She gave a comment that could on its own be published as an article—but would be difficult to do so without much context. I personally thought more seriously about social science research after reading her answer; other classmates also had lingering questions on certain topics even after the course ended (to which Haruna smiled at, contentedly). I emailed her if we could have a conversation on such questions for Polyphony, and she agreed to it! (Go take the course, especially if you’re thinking of doing a Senior Project in social science!) – Mattie
“All these things, in hindsight, is sociology.”
Professor Haruna Miyagawa teaches sociology in GDP. She holds a PhD in Sociology from Arizona State University. “Sociology” was not a word she knew until her third year of college, but she had been training herself for the field much longer: Her family moved to the southern state of Tennessee in the U.S. when she was in middle school; she went on to spend four years there before returning to Japan. Then, as a young minority plunged into a totally different environment, she not only observed very “black-and-white” racial relations and other social divisions that cut across class and gender, but also experienced an “odd” place as an expat daughter of a middle class family from “the land of raw fish, ninja, and geisha” (sushi hadn’t arrived in the Appalachia; Karate Kid had a lasting impact; Teenage Ninja Turtles was then the new fad; and Memoirs of a Geisha was on the horizon). Her peers’ interest in her background was often mixed with curiosity on the one hand and contempt on the other. She traces her interest in sociology and migration to such experiences, later on returning to the U.S. to continue her research.
An “instinct” for the social sciences?
Haruna Miyagawa: How I ended up at the Discovery is also a result of the chains of coincidence. I am very happy and I feel very fortunate that I ended up here, for now at least. But I was pursuing things along the way that I felt were interesting for me, and they were often related to my experience in early adolescence. Back then, I was not able to speak English at all. For the very first year, I spoke no word of English—none. I never spoke up and I was always constantly observing, probably, to understand what was going on, trying to pick up people’s words, mannerism, their facial expressions, you know, everything that you would do as a researcher, being in the field. Fortunately or unfortunately, I trained myself in that first year in the US, not being able to understand the language, not being able to speak my mind or speak back… That has sort of become… I don’t know, what’s the word?
Mattie Balagat: Reflex? Instinct?
HM: Yeah, like instinct. Whether I want to do it or not, I feel like I’m 24/7 fieldworking. *laughs*
MB: Yeah, I mean, that’s not a surprising thing. It’s really an attitude you kind of… embody. It’s not something you can turn off, and be like, okay, I’m not going to pay attention to my surroundings right now… I feel like you get built into it.
HM: Yeah, do you feel like that too?
MB: Yeah. I think another thing that drew me to social sciences— I recalled this when you were basically recounting your experiences of just observing why things are that way, what brings people to treat people differently. I think I also have a kind of similar training. In high school, I was kind of the “writing person”. And even before—actually I didn’t really want to go to a science high school but the tuition was free— I really wanted to be a writer, that preceded all my other goals for life. Even before high school, [I was saying] “I’m going to publish a book, I’m going to write a lot, that’s me, that’s my identity.” So in the process, I picked up what it really means to be a writer. I remember one of my writing teachers telling me, “You need to learn to live life and to learn how to observe.” And that stuck with me. So for most of high school, I was just basically trying to make the most of what I could achieve there, and what I could experience there. And a lot of my high school experiences, I consistently translated it into writing, and that’s how I also fell into poetry.
I feel like the discipline of social sciences is so close to what I really wanted to achieve, even before I learned about all these disciplines—which is to understand people. So actually while I was taking Medical Anthropology — the earlier readings were talking about psychoanalysis, and it became very philosophical and theoretical. I was just like: the process of trying to understand this reading is the process of writing also. And I felt that the way that it connected was so creepy, and I was like: “This is not… that surprising to me. I’ve done this before, but also I haven’t. So maybe, there’s something here.”
On dealing with emotions and “objectivity”
HM: So you have multiple caps you would wear in the field. As a fieldworker, you’re taking on various roles in the site. Depending on the time, the place, who you are interacting with, that, perhaps, changes in the course of the fieldwork… How many caps do you think you would wear in the field? How would you integrate or work with the different caps?
MB: Oh, it’s so scary. I think this is a very people skills question. Because when I think about multiple caps, for some reason, I always think about my mom. She occupies all these different positions in life, daughter, mother, baker… And she’s really good at conversation. Conversation and interacting with different kinds of people. And I always think, I wanna be like that. I wanna be that seamless and try to, you know, open myself up, also talk to people at the very level they are comfortable with. So I feel like it’s a very contextual question. How many caps? Depending-on-who-I talk-to kind of deal.
But I’m trying to occupy a lot of spaces, I feel like that’s a lot of identities. Student, environmental advocate-slash-activist, NGO worker, youth, Manila city girl, from a very upper-middle-class background, researcher, studies in Japan, probably very “landed”… I know about all of those, but the second question… I don’t know! That is the question I wanted to ask you. Like how do you work with all that!
Okay, for example, I’m going to interview, of course, I have to introduce myself as a researcher. But I see myself during the interview, I’ll jump in and be like… ah, I know about that situation, I’m from this, bla bla. So, [this matter] really messes with my brain, it calls this whole discussion about distance and emotion. Because I know I’m just not able to like… compartmentalize. I can’t do that.
HM: Right, but then do you have to [compartmentalize]?—is my question. It seems the way you pose it, you feel like you have to have a distance from the participants, but do you?
MB:. I don’t know if this is just my assumption, but is it really possible to do this fieldwork about this environmental NGO stuff while I’m in it? I think you have to put distance between what you want to do and the whole position of a researcher. There’s also the pressure of “objectivity”—I don’t like that word anymore because I don’t know what it means.*laughing*
HM: Well, I think anything that has to involve human action, whether it’s social science, humanities, or natural science, or creative art, I think it can never be purely objective, because you observe. Of course, the process has to be somewhat systematic, to be somewhat objective. But there is a limit to objectivity, even in the natural sciences. Because it’s in the eyes that you’re observing. And then of course, you’re testing things, or using measurements, but who created those measurements, right? Humans, and humans exist in social relations. Objectivity, in the pure sense, is questionable from my perspective, in any sciences, social sciences or natural sciences.
[On compartmentalizing:] If you didn’t have the passion to begin with, how can you even start? You may be able to start because your advisor told you to do it, or because there is a grant that will allow you to work on this project. But how can you sustain the interest, and how can you be very interested in the people you talk to, unless you have some sort of passion that drives the research, right? So I don’t know about compartmentalizing things. And if there is the need to do so, I don’t necessarily agree. I think without passion, without emotion… it won’t be fun and interesting to begin with. Let alone to continue it would be torturous, I think.
MB: Yeah… that’s a good word, torturous.
HM: And if the researcher himself or herself feels torturous, what about the readers, right? It shows.
MB: Even though we acknowledge that there is really no objectivity in a pure sense, there are still standards that your research or your observations will be measured against. How do you balance that kind of need to seek credibility and your personal emotions? Like is it just in the writing? In the fieldwork, you can all be so engaged, and in the writing, you kind of have to withhold…?
HM: Well, depends on the audience, I think. Who would you like to “impress”? Who are you writing for? And for what purpose? That depends on how you write and how you present the same material that you have generated in conducting research. So if you were to be “well-respected” in the academe, you have to present the data in the way that is agreed upon in that community. But that’s not the only way to go about in presenting your findings, even if you have the same material. One of the ways is writing about yourself clearly, where you stand, upfront. So that the data that you present, in like the Findings section, is understood with the presumption of that—where you stand politically. Of course, if you do that, people could argue, “okay this data was biased, or it speaks as such, because the scholar or the researcher has a certain perspective to begin with.” And that happens all the time. Everything scholars produce is always infused with their values, including their political position, whether it’s obvious or not. There is some level of subjectivity involved. Whether the readers agree upon it or not, it’s good to debate. So long as you make your position clear, you provide your argument with the source that people can debate upon, and if they can refute your position by bringing another perspective and different types of data, then that’s okay, right? Because of this, knowledge can continue to grow and expand and be critiqued.
MB: This is more on the writing part. It depends on who you want to write for and how those people would want it presented, but how do you deal with these concerns of objectivity and bias during your fieldwork, like what do you consider, what do you have to resolve when you do fieldwork?
HM: Right. You go in with who you are, and it’s a whole baggage that you carry—that’s been influenced by your education, previous training, your previous experiences, very much your lifelong history, personal biography—to the field. And then you interact with the event or the people there. Based on your background, what you observe, or what catches your eyes is unavoidably influenced. In that sense there is a bias, because you are selectively choosing to see something though unconsciously. That’s influenced by your biography. But try to make use of everything that you have been exposed to… It’s related to your earlier point about being a writer, having experienced everything you can when you are given the situation. Even then there is a limitation to the experience you can actually bring in. But try to have as much things in your stuffed bag, so that once you’re in the field you’ll be able to see more or as widely as possible.
Another important thing I think is not to make quick judgments. Because we are biased, or tend to see or pay attention to certain things, we tend to check boxes—once that’s observed, we tend to move on, and see something else that’s within our scope. Try not to move on that quickly, try not to make quick judgments that you have seen what you have seen or heard what you think you have heard. So I guess, [have] patience with yourself, patience with what you hear from others, patience with what you can see… hmm…yes, patience. *laughs*
Read the second part of the conversation here.
DCUL 331: Logic and Methods of Social Inquiry is taught by Professor Haruna Miyagawa every Term 1 and 2.