Doing fieldwork in China… with Kids!

Amanda Shuman

“When will you return to do more fieldwork?” This is a question that I, as a researcher of modern China, often get asked. Discussions abound on how archival access has become increasingly difficult, but research in China has always been time consuming with no guarantees of success. The more looming question is how I’m going to accomplish that with a toddler. I was thus excited to read this collection of essays that addresses accompanied fieldwork in China. Dealing with family when conducting fieldwork is largely an unspoken part of the job, and as this volume notes it’s also a “missing” detail from most anthropologists’ position statements. Although some literature exists on the topic, that on China has been limited and circumstantial to particular cases; this volume marks an attempt to gather and reflect on the experience.

Making family life compatible with fieldwork

The primary research of the authors in this volume covers a geographic diverse terrain of urban and rural, Han and ethnic minorities, from Shenyang to Tibet. They also work on a range of topics, including gender, medicine, education, family, and religion. But the experience of doing fieldwork with children unites them in unique ways. A chart in the Introduction summarizes the seven logistical configurations these scholars employed for conducting fieldwork. These run the gamut from leaving children in the home country (with the scholar-parent making routine visits home) to bringing children directly into the field (with or without spouse). Most contributions in this volume are written by a female researcher that took her child, children, or entire family to China; two chapters are co-authored by a parent-child team. A summary chart notes the “consequences of doing fieldwork with children” that include negatives: children might need ‘amenities’ like better housing, education, and medical care, or they might disrupt meetings or slow down research; and positives: such as the ability to increase rapport or raise researcher status and provide greater access to specific kinds of information (e.g., gender politics, family life).

When bringing children, household and childcare support is often crucial. Jeanne Shea lived with her colleague’s multigenerational family in Shanghai where the grandparents helped shoulder responsibilities. Margaret Swain’s husband remained at home as a single parent for a year while she went to China with their teenage daughter. Tami Blumenfield went alone with her four-year-old son to do rural, multi-sited field research, but with only occasional help from villagers or college students, she found the task challenging as “one [day] blurred into another”. Still, as Candice Cornet notes, for emotional reasons it’s often preferable to have your children along even if you have to go it alone. Spouses in the field often contribute significantly to child rearing and household duties. Eriberto Lozada’s wife homeschooled his son, while Mette Halskov Hansen’s husband involvement in household duties led to interesting conversations about gender politics (culminating with a CCTV crew filming their “Western family” with “model husband”).

Age of children is another important criteria, particularly if they’re in school. Rural areas provide some options for the care of younger children (by older children, other villagers, or students), but make formal schooling difficult for older ones. Swain decided to homeschool her daughter, while Lozada’s decision to homeschool his 7-year-old son was made for him by village school administrators afraid that a non-Chinese-speaking child would be “disruptive”. Hansen and Cornet both note a catch-22 regarding education and pollution: while schooling options are more plentiful in big cities, the air quality is usually much better in rural areas.

Parenting, positionality, and the limits of cultural relativism

All essays pay close attention to how positionality as a parent influences research. Most reflect on how bringing children along influenced local relations, while providing greater access to discussions about family, women, children, marriage, divorce, or gender. Hansen notes that villagers perceived her differently when she brought her three daughters along as compared to prior trips because people found her easier to identify with as a parent than as a “foreign researcher”. She was also able to better discuss issues of birth control with people, even as staff at the family planning office continually emphasized her foreignness when handling locals’ questions. She became acutely aware of the “unequal levels of power and privilege” that determine how scholars like herself “account for and defend” their choices. Lozada states that fatherhood and bringing his family along allowed him interactions with a village widow and young women that would otherwise have been taboo as a single man. Announcing one’s motherhood can have drawbacks, however. Cornet found herself marginalized in official eyes, making it difficult at times to be taken seriously. These kinds of insights are illuminating because they affect potential (in)accessibility to research subjects or particular topics based on one’s positionality.

Several essays detail how bringing children along led to direct confrontations between positionality as a parent and the limits of one’s cultural relativism. Hansen, for instance, felt increasingly uncomfortable as a researcher “trying to understand rather than to judge or give advice” on the Chinese educational system considering she herself refused to send her own children to local schools. However, once she discarded these ‘objective’ attempts and openly criticized the system she was able to have more complex conversations with local teachers and administrators that included “mutual views on the practices of schooling”. Denise Glover also speaks directly to how her position as a parent forced her to confront bias in her own research. Glover is an expert in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicines, and herself is a consumer and patient of them, but a harrowing experience with her toddler had her questioning her own epistemological framework. Within a month of arrival in the Rgyalthang plain, her son came down with a fever and blisters. She worried about her decision to let doctors at a Tibetan hospital use “a [likely not sterile] needle sitting in an old coke can to open up the blister” and found herself unable to reconcile “germ theory, [where] fever is a sign of viral or bacterial infection” with traditional Chinese understandings of the body. On another trip, her 7-year-old daughter took antibiotics for an ear infection. Traditional medicine, Glover notes, seemed good enough for her but not for her children.

Shea, by living with her colleague’s urban middle-class family, discovered differences in childrearing practices, especially in parent-child relations and expectations of a child’s behavior. Children were not expected to express gratitude (i.e., “please” or “thank you”), but they were expected to finish meals. Shea’s daughter was small and a poor eater, and the family (especially the grandmother) admonished her approach to let her daughter choose what to eat. Her daughter’s kindergarten was also concerned about this, sending home a survey for those with “‘failure to thrive’ syndrome”. Unstructured play was another source of disagreement. Shea’s 7-year-old daughter, though closer in age to her colleague’s older child, instead often played with the younger child (four years her junior). The older child was in a prestigious, competitive school, and was often preoccupied with school work. The family felt that “each mouthful and each moment” should be spent cultivating a “child’s ‘quality’ or suzhi” and basically that play was a waste of time.

Overall, this collection of essays provides a nice balance between conceptual understandings and practicalities of fieldwork with children. The authors of the essays are all anthropologists, but much of what they say about their experiences could apply to a broader academic (and non-academic) audience of foreigners working in China. Given the number of researcher and expatriate families living in China today, of which increasing numbers are scattered across the country, a useful future approach to this topic might engage with their experiences as well.

Each essay is peppered with stories that make it a fun read. Swain and Swain has many such moments, including Melissa’s “intensely corporeal” experiences traveling as a teenager with her mother – some of which led to her becoming a vegetarian as an adult. The photos of Blumenfield’s son sleeping in various locations and positions is visually entertaining, as are the drawings by children that highlight important events in their lives (“I went on a plane to go to the south of China and we had McDonald’s”). But the most illuminating moments are when authors discuss how involving children opened up new possibilities for their research, shaped it in novel directions, or challenged their own understandings of positionality and cultural relativism. Anyone with children planning to do fieldwork in China should read this book.