Ethical dilemmas of fieldwork in China

Elly Leung, University of Western Australia:

In my PhD research ‘Exploring Worker Consciousness in China’ I am examining how the lived experience of everyday Chinese workers has influenced their willingness to improve their working and living conditions as a class for themselves and others in China. This research focus is justified by the explosion of China into a ‘world factory’ following the open market reforms of 1978 (Leung and Pun, 2009), and increased protest activities by Chinese workers under the socialist market economy in China. My research questions guiding this study are to understand how worker consciousness has been shaped in China, and how the shaping of worker consciousness affects labour activism and workers’ ability to improve their conditions for themselves and others as a class (or a group) of workers in their everyday lives.

Conducting Ethnographic Fieldwork in China

To understand how the daily experiences of everyday workers have shaped their consciousness and subsequently influenced activism in China, I adopted an ethnographic fieldwork approach. This method has been used extensively by Chinese labour scholars such as Pun Ngai (2005) and Chris Chan (2013), to explore the relations between work-based experiences and worker activism. These authors argue that protest actions by workers emerged from their rising class consciousness, which was shaped by prolonged exploitation and abuse in their workplace. While this concept is insightful, my study suggests that accounts to date have not fully appreciated the significance of how the non-work experiences of Chinese workers have also contributed to their consciousness development. My study aimed to bridge this gap in the existing literature.

I planned to conduct two phases of interviews with two groups of everyday workers, to explore how worker consciousness and activism was influenced by their work and non-work experiences across different industries and locations in China between 2011 and 2014. The first phase was predominately conducted through a combination of research methods and most participants had never participated in any protest actions (Group One: n = 55). The second phase of data collection was primarily organised through contacts with non-government labour organisations based in Hong Kong and China so that I could recruit people who had participated in protest actions (Group Two: n = 22).

Crucial to the success of ethnographic fieldwork is a bond of trust between researcher and participants that engenders confidence in the quality of the data (Brewer, 2000). However, crafting this bond in the research sites was difficult because conducting research in China is subject to many unspecified political restrictions, such as issues of activism, and hence it was difficult to predict whether the research would encounter these.  Furthermore, social polarisation and diversification in Chinese society have also constrained access to certain community members in China (Thogersen & Heimer, 2006). Some feared being held responsible for their comments while others were too busy. These issues made it difficult to initiate interviews and dialogue with workers in China. In response to these research difficulties, I adopted two major research strategies. The first was spending time with key informants, such as labour activists, to develop an understanding of the research context and cultural norms. The second was to live in residential areas where everyday workers were located, to develop familiarity with them by engaging in their daily behavioural patterns, such as dining at the same eateries and doing what they generally did in their cultural setting.

Using a ‘Guerrilla Street Interview’ Method for Data Collection

My efforts to understand the relations between workers’ experiences and activism extended to the public realm in research sites when I used a ‘guerrilla street interview’. Thomas Gold (1989, p. 180) describes a ‘guerrilla street interview’ as ‘unchaperoned, spontaneous but structured participant observation and interviews as opportunities present themselves’ on the streets. Thus, a guerrilla street interview involves observing people’s daily behaviour and ‘picking persons for research interviews by spontaneously engaging in seemingly idle, friendly conversation [with] people… on the streets’ (Gold, 1989; Solinger, 2006, p. 161). Taking opportunities to collect relevant data using the guerrilla street interview technique, I spent many hours on the streets and places frequented by workers, such as eateries and employment centres (known as Talent Markets or rencai shichang), and approached them by asking questions such as ‘Where are you from’ or ‘What sort of jobs are you looking for?’.  After establishing this minimal level of trust, I presented my credentials to these workers and, if they agreed, I conducted the ‘street interviews’. This approach enabled me to recruit everyday workers, for instance, hotel cleaners, waitpersons in small eateries or cafes, street hawkers, taxi drivers and factory workers.

Ethical Dilemmas of Personal Relationships and Expectations

One of my largest concerns when conducting guerrilla street interviews was that the participants had high expectations about my role and ability to help redress injustices or resolve problems for them. Although I had made certain to clarify my role to those speaking with me so they could understand who I was, why they were targeted for an interview and how my research study was directly related to their daily lives and experiences, workers generally perceived me as a journalist. Many lacked knowledge about academic research, while their narratives concerning wages and hardships also generated feelings of unease for me, in sympathy with their efforts to live their everyday lives. My sympathetic responses to the participants’ concerns thus created the dilemma of closeness and friendship in creating unrealistic expectations. To avoid high expectations and conflict among participants, I had to detach myself from being too close to the workers by emphasising that my interest and responsibility as a researcher was to understand and analyse the issues. Several workers felt disappointed and refused to be interviewed because they preferred to spend time with a journalist who could possibly help redress the issues they were experiencing in their present struggles.

Concluding Remarks

While I was annoyed by the attitudes of some workers, my experience sensitised me to an important ethical concern, namely that first and foremost the researcher owes loyalty and responsibility to actual and potential participants and thus must respect their choices. It is worth noting that although my efforts to balance the research interest and this responsibility discouraged some workers from talking to me, many of them were impressed by the fact that I was willing to take time to hear their personal stories on the streets. I believe that without conducting guerrilla street interviews my understanding of the lived experiences of workers and activist culture in China would have been simplistic, because it would have been easier to rely simply on extant written documentation. My conclusion is that as a supplement to prearranged interviews, data derived from guerrilla interviewing allowed me to gather a reservoir of rich ethnographic details, such as observing unrehearsed daily behaviour. Furthermore, the approach enabled me to collect uncensored personal opinions and life stories beyond the picture presented in media and academic journals. This rich vein of information enriched and deepened my understanding the relations between activism and work and non-work experiences of the workers which enabled me to re-evaluate my views to inform the research focus of my study.


Brewer, J. D. (2000) Ethnography. Buckingham, England: Open University Press.

Gold, T. (1989) ‘Guerrilla Interviewing Among the Getihu’, pp. 175–92 in P. Link, R. Madsen and P. Pickowicz (eds.) Unofficial China: Popular Culture and Thought in the People’s Republic. London: Westview Press.

Pun, N. (2005) Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Solinger, D. (2006) ‘Interviewing Chinese People: From High-Level Officials to the Unemployed’, pp. 153–67 in M. Heimer and S. Thogersen (eds.) Doing Fieldwork in China. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press.

Thogersen, S. and Heimer, M. (2006) ‘Introduction’, pp. 1–26 in M. Heimer and S. Thogersen (eds.) Doing Fieldwork in China. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press.



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