Reconsidering Plans in Asia
February 28, 2007 3:29 PM   Subscribe

A friend of mine recently posted this question about doing research in Tibet . His university has decided that it would like to err on the side of caution - thus, they are restricting him from going to Tibet. So, he needs a new plan and potentially a new topic of research - probably still focusing on Sino-Globalization as it relates to Tibetans. His university suggested Yunnan Province as a possibility, but do you Mefites have any suggestions? (Budget is $3000 for 3 weeks)
posted by jne1813 to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The Tibetan part of Yunnan centres around Gyalthang in Dechen prefecture. The Chinese name used to be Zhongdian; now it's Shangrila to get the tourists in, which in itself might be one avenue of inquiry - the impact of Chinese-domestic and international tourism.
Yunnan province has been far more open to the presence of international NGOs than many other parts of China; one of them may be working in the area and provide an "in". I've met the folks at the Centre for Biodiversity and Indigenous Knowledge in Kunming who may also help with suggestions; I see they work in Dechen.
I have also met some interesting ethnic Tibetan scholars at the Beijing-based China Tibetology Research Center and ouldn't write them off out of hand. As with so many things in China, what you really need is an introduction to someone worthwhile; can your friend's professors suggest anything? (I am assuming your friend is aware that cultural Tibet includes also areas in what is now west Sichuan, southern Gansy and most of Qinghai)
Lastly, in my (limited) experience, you can get yourself and your interlocutors in trouble anywhere - the main monastery in Gyalthang was bombed by the PLA airforce in the uprising of 1959 and the area will be subject to political controls too.
Hope any of the above might help.
posted by Abiezer at 4:10 PM on February 28, 2007

Gansu that should be, of course.
posted by Abiezer at 4:11 PM on February 28, 2007

I know nothing at all about Sino-Globalization or Tibet, so I'm going to post more generally about how to find a research topic.

First of all, I would set "Sino-Globalization as it relates to Tibetans" aside for a minute. That's a topic, and what you need right now is a question. A question should be something much more concrete, and if I were you I would avoid jargon when you ask it. (I'm going to get kicked out of grad school for saying that, but I think that jargon isn't entirely useful at this stage of a project. It can encourage lazy thinking, and at any rate it often pushes you to think about your topic in someone else's terms.)

So anyway, you should come up with some questions that interest you. I don't actually know what Sino-Globalization means, so this may be an entirely wrong kind of question, but let's say that your initial question is "how has the Chinese government attempted to change Tibet's culture in order to make China more powerful on the world stage?"

The next thing you need to do is figure out what kind of sources would answer your question. In an ideal world, what kind of sources would you need access to in order to address your question adequately? At this stage, don't be limited by what's realistic.

Step number three is to figure out what kind of sources you actually have access to. It might be that Chinese state archives would be fabulously helpful, but you can't get into them. And you should also carefully consider your own language skills and those of your subjects, because a source isn't helpful to you if you can't understand it.

Step four is to figure out, once you've identified realistic sources, what questions those sources can answer. You will probably need to tweak your original question at this point. It is very likely, considering that 3 weeks is really nothing in research time, that you will need to scale down your question considerably. (I've supervised a lot of undergraduate research, and the big mistake that almost everyone makes is that they try to answer a really huge, sweeping question that is beyond the scope of what they can do in the time they have.) Try to figure out something interesting and related to your original question that can actually be approached with the sources and the time that you have.

Finally, realize that you'll have to reevaluate your question again as you do your research. Sometimes research doesn't reveal what you expect it to. Sometimes sources don't say anything interesting about your original topic but turn out to have fascinating things to say about something you never even considered. That's fine. That's actually the fun of doing research. But in the meantime, you need to come up with a topic that will get you funded.
posted by craichead at 4:13 PM on February 28, 2007 [3 favorites]

And also, on a completely different topic, I'm not sure why your friend is so anxious to study a terribly contentious topic in a pretty repressive country. Could he not either find something a little less explosive to study or choose to study it somewhere in which the government isn't quite so likely to hurt people for talking to him?
posted by craichead at 4:17 PM on February 28, 2007

I traveled through west Yunnan for a little over a week, and from my brief interaction, it seemed that the Tibetans were just another minority in the area.

My recommendation? Go to Xinjiang and try to do a comparative study on the development there. I suspect that it would be easier to research there, as the gov't is quite proud of the development efforts. I'm not familiar with the administrative structure in Tibet, but I imagine they will try to mimic the successful efforts in Xinjiang (where there's the military/development structure controlled by Han, and most everything else controlled by local authorities).
posted by FuManchu at 4:19 PM on February 28, 2007

I'd say the reverse FuManchu - Xinjiang is far more charged - they had a shoot-out with Uighur guerillas not but a month or so back.
Drew Gladney, who was at U. of Hawaii, has done some good work on China's Muslims (I might be spelling his name wrong as Google gives little).
posted by Abiezer at 4:26 PM on February 28, 2007

I was spelling it wrong, it's Dru Gladney
posted by Abiezer at 4:30 PM on February 28, 2007

What are his language skills like? If they are pretty rusty, then a great way to do research (and avoid some political pitfalls, while maybe encountering some others) would be to take the western NGOs in the area, and their foreign staff, as his research subjects.

Then the research question can be something about how the foreign staff at one or two international NGOs define their work, identify subjects, and so on. He can avoid the issues surrounding vulnerable subjects and a certain amount of the political tension surrounding the big-picture issues, although in practice things may not be so neat.
posted by Forktine at 4:58 PM on February 28, 2007

Just to add: three weeks is a ridiculously short time to try and do "research" about a place you don't know well, in a language that isn't your own, without training in research methods and project design, etc. Maybe he should stop thinking about it as "research" with all the rigor and seriousness that that implies, and instead think along the lines of, "what can I do in three weeks to learn a lot about place X?" Because I think that no matter what, the "research" will be useless (in a scholarly sense), but the experience could be mind-blowingly amazing.
posted by Forktine at 5:11 PM on February 28, 2007

If he wants to study this subject without running into the Chinese police, maybe he should visit Dharamsala.
posted by alms at 6:03 PM on February 28, 2007

i've just got back from dolanji near solan in himachal pradesh, india(on monday). there are currently 2 other phd students doing research there.... namely ushen and chris.... both fabbo folk.

i can pass on your email to them if you like.

my email is

my evil twin beryl at hot mail dot com
posted by taff at 10:49 PM on February 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

If your friend wanted to go somewhere a lot more easygoing and much less polluted than China, he could maybe find a way to make it work in Ladakh. It was once known as "Little Tibet," and as it hasn't been occupied by the Chinese for half a century, it's considered to be in some ways a closer analogue to traditional Tibetan culture than modern Tibet or the diaspora elsewhere in India.

The only obvious connection to Sino-Globalization that I can think of is that the Indian military has a huge presence in Ladakh because of a long-standing border dispute with China, but it is at any rate one heckuva place to spend some time.

My username, for example, is a reference to a Ladakhi monastery I spent some time in, which is one of the most calming places I've ever been in my life.
posted by gompa at 11:36 PM on February 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I went to tibet in the summer of 2005 through Wisdom Tours, which is run by two college professors from Vermont. The trip was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Our guide, Jim, was very professional and knowledgable. I always felt vey safe. Also, our group was about 1/2 college students. Perhaps your friend's school would be more amenable to letting him go with a trust-worthy tour group.
posted by tanglewoodtree at 4:36 AM on March 1, 2007

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