Discovery, Research (Re)Design, and Theory Building

DOING FIELDWORK IN CHINA, Maria Heimer and Stig Thogersen, eds., pp. 27-41, University of Hawaii Press, 2006

25 Pages Posted: 16 Mar 2008 Last revised: 6 Apr 2009

See all articles by Kevin J. O'Brien

Kevin J. O'Brien

University of California, Berkeley - Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science

Date Written: February 29, 2004

Abstract

This piece sketches an approach to research design that hinges on staying open to unforeseen ideas (and even new topics of inquiry) that emerge in the course of interviewing. I use my own study of local people's congresses in the early 1990s (as well as examples drawn from more recent work on village elections, policy implementation and popular resistance) to illustrate how one young fieldworker fumbled his way toward a type of research that aims to speak to both China scholars and disciplinary audiences. The strategy espoused bears some relationship to 'grounded theory' (Glaser and Strauss 1967) and is a form of 'exploratory' analysis (Gerring 2001: 231-32). It is a modest enterprise that accepts (even revels in the fact) that the best generalizations are usually bounded. It encourages us to shop for existing theories and concepts before and after we head to the field, but not to buy much of what we find, especially when interviews make it clear that our preconceived notions have led us to miss the real question or imagine a dilemma that does not exist. This strategy treats research design as an ongoing process and emphasizes discovery rather than verification. It attaches considerable importance to the subjective experience of interviewees and regards shoe-horning evidence into 'ill-fitting a priori categories' (Gerring 2001: 231) to be just about the greatest sin imaginable.

Keywords: research methods, interviewing, grounded theory, concepts, soaking and poking, generalization, area studies, China

JEL Classification: C99, O54

Suggested Citation

O'Brien, Kevin J., Discovery, Research (Re)Design, and Theory Building (February 29, 2004). DOING FIELDWORK IN CHINA, Maria Heimer and Stig Thogersen, eds., pp. 27-41, University of Hawaii Press, 2006. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1104758

Kevin J. O'Brien (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science ( email )

210 Barrows Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

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