On Fieldwork

In conversation with Yun-Yun Li ‘17

Fieldwork is often – at least in my experience – a perfect storm of challenge. Our time is limited, our advisers are distant, and we are immersed in unfamiliar cultures and experiences. Fieldwork has given me some of my most dramatic and overwhelming challenges – and also my most transformative learning experiences.

Yun-Yun (center) with her interview enumerator (right) and friend (left) in a Dai temple in Xishuangbanna.

I was one of many rising seniors who spent time in the field this past summer, collecting the data which will (if all goes according to plan) serve as the foundation of my senior thesis. I wanted to understand better how fieldwork shapes other seniors’ personal growth and research paths. This week, I sat down over tea with Yun-Yun Li and Alice Frederick, who each did fieldwork last summer in foreign cultures and outside of their mother tongues. We talked about the experiences and lessons we have brought back to Princeton after spending the summer in the field. 

Yun-Yun is an EEB concentrator researching the social, economic, and environmental factors that affect rubber farmers in southern China. Here, we talk about how she found her research question and worked through self-doubt in the field.

Zoe: Yun-Yun, could you tell us a bit about your research question, and how you found it? What was that experience like for you?

Yun-Yun: The region of my study is Xishuangbanna, a prefecture in the southwesternmost province in China. I researched agricultural practices in the region for my fall and spring JP’s…but I didn’t feel completely comfortable with my research question before I went to China. The whole purpose of doing any kind of conservation study – particularly one that has to do with people – is to pursue a question that is useful to the region, not just to fill a theoretical hole, but to fill a real context in the place. 

A rubber plantation interplanted with tea bushes in Menghai County, Xishuangbanna.

So, I spent the first three or four weeks talking to researchers and local farmers of different ethnic groups about the problems that they thought were relevant in their lives. I inputted all these different perspectives and tried to see how they related to the papers I’d read.

I went through a crisis week – lying in bed, wallowing in confusion, and really not knowing what to do. And then I read one paper looking at the relationships between livelihoods, agriculture, and people’s access to economic and social capital. That paper hit on the nerve of what I was realizing was important, but that kind of thinking hadn’t been applied to this region before.

Zoe: Once you had your question, what was your biggest challenge in pursuing it?

Yun-Yun: The biggest challenge that I worked through that is unique to research was self-esteem as a student researcher.

“I just really didn’t think I could do it. Period. I don’t even think I knew what “it” was! I just couldn’t do it.”

Okay, this is my field notebook. Day one: ‘My research design is fundamentally flawed.’ [We both start laughing. She flips a few pages] ‘Being in a Chinese language environment is really helpful for examining my ego.’ Wow, there are so many gems in here.

I spent the months leading up to my research just really fundamentally base-level stressed out, undermining my project before I even started. I just really didn’t think I could do it. Period. I don’t even think I knew what “it” was! I just couldn’t do it.

Drinking tea with young village neighbors (and interview helpers!) in Nan nuo shan village.

We both laughed at this – I know exactly what Yun-Yun means. For me, the doubt and stress has come partly from a feeling of responsibility to my funders and advisers, and a sense of imposter syndrome – that this responsibility is misplaced. But, even more, the pressure has come from myself, and my concerns about living up to my own expectations. 

Zoe: Right – so how did you work through that feeling?

Yun-Yun: I discovered, once I was in China, that research of this nature is a very day-by-day process. You problem-solve each day. It’s beautiful in that way – you can let each day’s investigation guide where you’re going…I was at a research station with mostly Ph.D and Postdocs and professors, so they were all researchers – but they weren’t doubting me and my project.

It really was the most empowering intellectual-personal growth meshed experience that I’ve had.

Next week, we’ll hear from Alice Frederick, with her thoughts on finding her feet as an autonomous researcher and the challenges of conducting fieldwork in a new language. Stay tuned!

-Zoe Sims, Natural Sciences Correspondent