“So, independent research… what does that mean?”
Excellent question. Still figuring out the answer myself.
Moving to a strange country by yourself is hard. Doing field research is hard. Getting things done with no supervision, deadlines, or accountability is hard. Staying motivated in the face of setbacks (some personal, some institutional) is hard. Combine all of the above, and I really think this might be the most challenging experience I’ve ever had.
By some stroke of luck (or something… really not sure) I possess this crazy passion for migration, an intense work ethic, and maybe a bit more perfectionism than most. I really need everything I’ve got to want to keep doing this every day. Lies – I don’t want to do this every day. Some days I can’t wait to get out of whatever government ministry I’m waiting in and come home and make elaborate desserts and watch The Wire. But that’s part of it too. I’m really trying my hardest to maintain my sanity as well as accomplishing as much as possible.
I think one of the hardest things for me has been the lack of definite goal or final product. As far as Fulbright is concerned, I don’t have to produce anything at all. This is the first time I haven’t had some sort of assignment or deadline or someone to report to, and it’s been really difficult to try to create this sort of structure for myself. I feel pretty fortunate to be studying a topic so relevant to so many different organizations: I’ve met with dozens of different government agencies, NGO’s, multilaterals, etc, all of whom are interested in the topic. Even though China in Africa affects their work, they aren’t able to study it in much detail as it doesn’t fall in their direct purview. I definitely feel accountable to them to learn as much as I can and present it in a helpful manner.
I’m also learning how broad of a topic “China in Africa” really is. Though my number one priority is to look into the actual migration process and demographic trends, nine months is long enough to look into other aspects of the relationship as well. Unfortunately, when it comes down to it all of these themes are completely different. The literature and people involved in investment and diaspora studies and foreign aid have almost nothing in common. So, I have been reading my face off. It’s been a tricky balance between preparing for interviews (knowing enough about each specific topic to not sound like an idiot when I talk to people) and spending all of my time going over documents I really don’t need to be here in Zambia to read. I’ve probably been leaning too far towards the latter, likely out of a lack of self-confidence in my “research” skills (what are those anyway? How does one prepare? Still a total mystery to me). One of my new years’ resolutions should probably be balance that a bit better.
So, this is all still pretty vague. What do I actually spend my time doing? Here’s a selection of activities from the past week:
Being a complete creeper and taking pictures of all of the lists of permits available to be picked up at Immigration. I need some sort of sampling frame, and none is officially available. On those sheets place of work/residence is listed next to the name/nationality/permit number; I’m hoping to be able to at least generally map work and residence patterns. Now I get to type them all into my computer from individual photos on my iphone. Yay primary documents.
Going through old newspapers at the National Archives to find public notices of government contracts awarded to Chinese companies. Tried going directly to all the ministries as well and was dumbfounded by how many said they only had 2012 data (if that). I’m not sure enough have been published in the papers to make it worthwhile, but thought I’d give it a shot.
Picking up data I requested from various agencies. To get anything accomplished with a government office here, you need a formal letter (preferably from another government agency) stating what you’re looking for and why. I feel so lucky to have happened upon ZDA (Zambia Development Agency) as a sponsor because they have completely hooked me up in this regard. Things move extremely slowly here; just this week I picked up some census data that I requested about two months ago… yay. At least I got it. Definitely not guaranteed.
Going through ZDA files. They’ve been super accommodating in letting me look through their records – as the government investment promotion agency they work with foreign investors planning to invest at least half a million dollars in Zambia. It’s been pretty cool to be able to look at specific cases and (hopefully) better understand overall trends.
Reading reading reading. Data entry like crazy. Interviews. Trying to get to as many Chinese-owned companies as possible (not doing so well at this). Creating my actual survey form (ideally to start distributing after the holidays). Did I mention reading?
At this point I think I’m going to write and publish something extra awesome out of sheer stubbornness.