Friday, May 30, 2014

Tips for Field Research in Asia

1. Start before going. This is a list of things you should get together before leaving: letter from advisor(s); letter from university; letter from local affiliated institution (if you have one); business card; and short summary of your project. You will probably need this to access local libraries such as the Jawarhalal Nehru University's (below). Make a rough draft of your research schedule detailing the aims of your trip and how you intend to achieve them. Save up time upon arrival by making a list with addresses of places you want to go (e.g., libraries, archives, government offices, universities) and take some time to become acquainted with their location. The same goes for people who you might want to meet: make a list of contacts and email them in advance (but don't rely on this, see below). I'm assuming you have visited your research area previously, but if not, you need to think about items such as local phone, Internet and transport.

Jawarhalal Nehru University, New Delhi

2. Don't rely on e-mails. Few things will hamper down your research as waiting for people to reply to your emails. The truth is that most people will never prioritize (or even read) an email from an unknown student posing strange questions about a remote topic. In the hierarchy of research communication, emails should come last, followed shortly by the telephone. Of course, getting hold of someone's mobile number is always better than having his or her office number. But even phone conversations can lead to dead ends. As many researchers discover, scheduled meetings often get cancelled at the last minute. If this happens, the fallback option is simply to show up at the person's workplace - sometimes you do need to be a bit pushy. Naturally, you must be careful not to come across as rude (i.e., apologize, explain that you won't take much time) but, in general, it's worth taking the risk. My experience is that once people see you they'll grant you a couple of minutes or so, mainly because it will get you out off their backs.

3. Sort out your office space. Unless you to intend to spend your day at home (and then you should be asking yourself why going?), you need to take some time to consider where you will be working. Researchers conducting archival research will have a slight easier life on this point. Nonetheless, they still need to think about library opening hours, where to have lunch/water and, most importantly, Internet access (none of the libraries/archives that I visited in India provides wireless access). Alternatives are, in my experience, limited to two options: (1) Internet cafes and (2) co-working spaces. In regards to the former, you should prepare beforehand a list of Internet cafes that are convenient for you and that will enable you to work for extended periods of time (i.e., a bar or a sports bar will probably not be a very good choice). Moreover, in India, I have found that many of the places offering Internet access online, do not once you are there (e.g., most Coffee Days and Costa Cafes do not). Ideally, you should check with someone and/or ask recommendations from locals. Online resources (such as blogs) often provide lists of Internets cafes in your research area (in the case of Mumbai, I found a very helpful map at the Mumbai Boss). The other option is co-working spaces. In Delhi, I was lucky enough to find a social networking cafe in Hauz Khaz village called Book Your Dream, which offers Wi-Fi, coffee with cookies and a beautiful lake view. All this in exchange for a contribution (left to your discretion) to an NGO promoting education in local slums.

My office at Book Your Dream in Haus Khaz Village, Delhi

4. Organize a photo library. Turns out your phone camera and tablet are an excellent field research tool. If you are like me, then you'll have filled their memory after a couple of days with pictures of libraries, interview subjects, street scenes, posters, slums, pages of books, documents and videos of political rallies. My advise on this unfolds in five parts. First, create a folder in your computer for all the photos that you will take during your field trip. Do not mix these with the non-research related photos that you might have taken during this trip. Second, you should to copy your phone/tablet photos to your laptop as often as possible so that you always have sufficient space for new pictures/videos. It is always frustrating to delete potentially important material from your phone in order to make up space for more. Third, once you have copied them, reduce the size of the files so that they do not take an inordinate amount of space. Fourth, after doing this, you should copy them again to a backup device (e.g., external drive, dropbox, self-email, etc). The thing to remember here is to have the photos saved in more than one source. Finally, when possible (this can be done once you're back from field research), organize the photo files in your computer into categories. This will facilitate searching through them.

Note to self: do not ride the Delhi metro at rush hour

5. Don't scare people with your CV. Extensive experience with grant application might give researchers the impression that listing their achievements is a natural way to introduce oneself. Yet, when it comes to field research, the opposite may well be true. Unless your CV increases the chances of interviewing someone or being entrusted with data, you should seek to reduce the information about you to the bare minimum: you name, your university and your field of study. In my experience researching in India, I have found that interview subject are sometimes scared off by too much information about my academic curriculum (or my personal trajectory). Instead, a much better strategy is to compliment the person who you are talking to and thanking her for the time granted. Naturally, this involves doing some background work about the person (i.e., if you want to talk to an academic, you should read some of her or his articles in advance) before meeting her.

Diogo Lemos
PhD candidate 
Department of Political Science 

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