Sunday, October 4, 2015

Five pieces of advice for field researchers

Almost right after my arrival in Seoul, I excitedly called the Pan-National Committee for Truth Concerning Civilian Massacres Before and After the Korean War (hereafter the Pan-National Committee), an umbrella organization that includes most local associations of families of victims. Even though I had scheduled appointments with multiple experts related to my dissertation topic, civilian victimization during the Korean War, I still wanted to expand my network in Korea, and the committee seemed to be an ideal place to start my data collection. I expected to receive a warm welcome from the committee and endless support in collecting materials. However, things were slightly different from my expectations.

When I called the committee for the first time, I met with a cautious reaction. It took quite a while until this old gentleman picked up the phone (later, he turned out to be the president of the committee, Pastor Lim Tae-hwan). I briefly introduced myself and my dissertation project and asked him if I could schedule an appointment to visit the committee. He sighed. Yes, he sighed. He then asked me about my personal details including whether or not I am a South Korean citizen, the undergraduate and master programs from which I had graduated, the name of my master thesis advisor, and so forth. Being somewhat annoyed, I asked him why he asked so many personal questions, but he said he had to know me before letting me visit the committee. After 10 minutes on the phone, I was finally able to schedule a visit.

Pastor Lim was much friendlier in person than on the phone. He acknowledged the significance of my research and gave me some booklets published by the committee. He also gave me names of several researchers who are still investigating violence during the Korean War. However, it seemed that this was all he could do to help me. Even though he was the president of the Pan-National Committee, the organization did not seem to have the economic and human resources to support an independent researcher.

The moment I entered the committee’s office, I could see how bad its financial condition was. The office was old and small. There was no working staff, except for Pastor Lim, and all of the computers looked outdated. There were no beverages in the refrigerator, so he served me one of the soft drinks that I had brought there as a gift. Shortly after we started talking, the pastor’s son arrived. He did not tell me the reason why he asked his son to join us, but it is likely his son was there as a body guard. It might be unsafe for an elderly man to meet a complete stranger who is interested in a sensitive topic. 

It also seemed that the alliance between victims, advocacy groups and scholarship, which bolstered the activities of the Pan-National Committee, had broken down. I heard that there had been conflicts of interest between the government-established Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including scholars and members of advocacy groups who participated in TRC as investigators, and victims and their families. While the TRC had to investigate cases of violence with limited time (5 years) and resources, the demands from victims’ associations were extensive. There were several local associations of families of victims, scholars, or NGOs  that were working on human rights violation cases during the Korean War, but there was no actively working pan-national group. 

Situations outside the committee were not much different. I visited many researchers who published books and articles on atrocities that occurred during the Korean War, but many of them had moved towards a different research agenda. The Korean Genocide Research Association, which had served as a regular avenue for academic discussion on past violence for years, never published its journal after 2010. The only places that could provide me with fresh materials were a few local institutes that received especially strong support from local citizens such as Yeosu Community Research Institute and the Geumjung Cave Incident Peace Foundation. 

Overall, I was able to collect a significant amount of primary and secondary data, despite the unexpected situation in South Korea. After realizing that there was not much ongoing investigation on civilian victimization cases during the Korean War, I turned my focus to published data. There was considerable knowledge of the Korean War and civilian victimization that had been accumulated in the 2000s and that had not received attention from international scholarship. After getting through the long and boring process of photocopying and scanning at many libraries and archives, I collected more than 200GB of scanned documents, which is a good amount of information to use in my dissertation project.

However, it is still surprising that there was such a gap between me at the home institution and in the field, despite my personal advantages. I didn’t have language or cultural barriers. In addition, I took advantage of scholarly networks in South Korea as a graduate of a university in Seoul when preparing for the fieldwork. Moreover, I am living an era of Internet. I searched through websites and electronic journals in Korea, but still could not fully understand that the number of scholarly and non-scholarly investigation pieces on the related topics was decreasing. This suggests how hard it is to conduct fieldwork, even in this globalized age.

Based on my experience in Korea, my advice for future field researchers is as follows. First, secure as large a budget possible and allow for schedule flexibility for the duration of the stay, including a potential extension of the stay. Even for me, who is a native speaker of Korean and had some networks with local scholars, it was quite difficult to conduct the fieldwork as planned. Second, assume a slightly worse situation than situation you envision at your home institution. Local experts you have talked to via email and phone are less likely to provide you with up-to-date information about the field. Even if they genuinely like your project, you are an “interesting stranger” at best. Who would say to you, a stranger, that investigation in the field that you are interested in is not going very well? You are more likely to hear diplomatically positive responses from local people unless you meet them in person.

Third, don’t always go for well-known people. Sometimes in the field, people you didn’t know show up and help you. Before going to Korea, I had only contacted several “big shot” scholars in related fields. However, some of them turned out to be not very helpful. It would be lucky if famous scholars were willing to help you, but more often than not, they are busy. I personally believe that local doctoral students are the best potential helpers in creating a win-win relationship with you. Doctoral students are likely to have both extensive knowledge on your topic and incentive to work with you since they may consider you, a graduate student from an English-speaking country, as a potential coauthor in future international scholarship. 

Finally, not closely related to the main theme of this blog post, but as useful technical advice, bring a scanner or buy one in the field, especially when you are collecting primary documents. Papers are heavy. The only possible way to collect a large amount of data is to produce electronic copies of it, whether  from primary or secondary sources. Even in an advanced country like the US, scanners are not as ubiquitous as photocopiers. Unless you have your own scanner in your own room, you will need to carry a bunch of photocopied materials to a scanning station and spend lots of money every day. Small and effective scanners such as the Fujitsu ScanSnap series might still be inconvenient to carry, but they will definitely save you a considerable amount of time and money.

Seung Joon Paik
Ph.D. Political Science 2015
Sigur Center 2015 Field Research Fellow
Seoul, South Korea

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