Research and Adventure

by brachbach

In my experience, the two don’t mix well.

A strong sense of adventure while I’m researching is usually a good sign that I’m forcing the research. For example, when I was doing my thesis research in Beijing, I mentally cast myself as the hero of a mythic quest to collect my data from the distant Orient and bring it home to Swarthmore. It felt adventurous, but trying to live up to those heroic expectations made me very anxious. My inflated sense of purpose in Beijing that summer also led me to undertake a hastily put together and rather ill-conceived experiment testing the effectiveness of cell phone games to teach Chinese characters. We ended up exhausted from herding 40 elementary-schoolers into experimental and control (read: don’t get to play with the games) groups, we disrupted their school day, and we got rather poor data.

My field research for my current project on a computer tutoring program in rural schools sounds pretty adventurous: blasting down narrow mountain roads in the countryside of Shaanxi and remote Qinghai provinces to get to the schools in time to breeze in for class. But thankfully, the research itself wasn’t that adventurous. At each school, we figured out when we could interview teachers and students and when we could observe the computer tutoring class, and then we executed our plan over two days. The fewer disruptions to the plan, the easier to collect data. It’s hard to feel like Indiana Jones when you’re spending half of your time in the field doing such boring things as setting up video cameras, typing up fieldnotes, and figuring out which students names in the fieldnotes correlate to which interview recordings while impaired both by your limited Chinese skills and by the grain alcohol that the local education officials just made you drink. In fact, you start to feel downright bored.

Did we have to deal with surprising complications? Sure: We arrived at one school only to find that power was out in the town, and we had to go extract a promise from an employee at the local power station that power would come back the next day so that we could observe computer classes. Did we explore new territory via the research? Absolutely: the interview questions went through about six drafts as we got to understand the situation better and better. But overall, everything felt manageable, and I never had to be a hero facing down unknown dangers, just a researcher trying to understand and navigate a complex and ever-shifting social scene.

On the other hand, our extracurricular activities really were adventurous, and pleasantly so.  There was my adventure run in Shannan (southern Shaanxi province), where I encountered clusters of old graves amidst a near-tropical forest on a mountain road.

I ran up the mountain towards this ridge until the slope got so steep and gravelly that I couldn't continue.


Northwest University junior Hao Xue (薛浩)came with me to Qinghai to help with the research. When we finished with research at the school each day, we wandered around the surrounding area. One day, we walked up the mountain from the school we were researching. We came upon a vast deserted village.

The tile and metal courtyard door still stands; the courtyard and rooms within are completely gone. Photo by Hao Xue.

Photo by Hao Xue.

These houses were made by packing adobe (dirt, straw, and other ingredients) between planks of wood. Since the dirt gets washed away easily, they decay quickly. In fact, despite how archeological the village looked, Hao Xue and I estimated that it had been abandoned no more than 20 or 30 years ago, when the rapid development ushered in by the Reform and Openness Policy caused villagers to move down into the new village in the valley. We didn’t get the chance to confirm with the locals, but we’ve seen the same thing in Shaanbei in northern Shaanxi province. There, villagers have moved from their earthen yaodongs carved into the hills down into modern houses in the valleys.

Building a new porch. The new village is made of brick row houses, some of which, like this one, even have sunrooms. Photo by Hao Xue.

Building a new porch. The new village is made of brick row houses, some of which, like this one, even have sun rooms. Photo by Hao Xue.

Altogether a pleasant couple of months of field research alongside adventures. Now it’s time to sit at my computer and do the analysis and writing. Actually, exploring the data and trying out different ways to theorize them often feels more adventurous that the field research. It’s an intellectual adventure rather than a physical one, but it can be exciting enough that when I shut the computer for the night, I’m too keyed up to go to sleep. Check this space for updates on my adventures, sedentary, ambulatory, and otherwise!

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