Wandering Down the Rabbit Hole

Openness to new discoveries is at the heart of anthropological research.

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”

- Zora Neale Hurston

When Stephanie Tian Sang ’15 hopped on an airplane to Shanghai last summer, she took with her a hypothesis that would form the basis of the research she planned to conduct during her four-week journey in China.

Well, that’s the hypothesis she thought she’d be exploring.

Turns out Tian Sang got a crash course in what all anthropologists learn sooner or later: What you intend to discover and what actually unfolds are often two very different things.

“Dr. [Robert] Moore and I had the idea to do some research on how the youth talk about politics versus how the media portrays it,” says Tian Sang, an English major. “But once we got there and started interviewing people, we started to see more interesting patterns, which changed the research focus.”

As a result, Moore, a professor of anthropology, and Tian Sang ended up honing their research on Chinese slang, which has been historically associated with specific geographical locations and social classes.

“But as we conducted interviews in different parts of China, we realized that many of the words did not differ from city to city,” Moore says. “With the world getting smaller and smaller due to the internet and faster traveling options, what constitutes as slang can now be debated. It is fascinating to see that as the world gets smaller with technology, the concept and feel of slang is changing.”

The topic will form the basis of a paper Moore and Tian Sang will co-write together over Christmas break and present at a conference this February in Mobile, Alabama.

“Dr. Moore warned me that this always happens; that you intend to see something but when you get there you discover your hypothesis is not the case.”

Moore spoke from experience when he gave Tian Sang this sage advice. In the 1970s, he traveled to China as a graduate student with the intention of studying humor in Chinese culture.

“I had this image of China being a very formal, ritualistic culture. It seemed like it didn’t have very much humor,” says Moore.  “But when I got to Hong Kong, I was overwhelmed because it turned out that the everyday lives of the people of Hong Kong were filled with laughter and good times.”

Moore switched gears and started looking at the Chinese naming system, a topic he figured he would explore for a few weeks. “But it was so complex and interesting that I ended up spending months on this topic. I ended up writing a couple of articles on it.” In the end, Moore’s graduate thesis focused on culture changes in China, and how the western world was influencing Hong Kong.

“You imagine the world to be one way and then you plunge yourself in the middle of it and suddenly realize that this is not the world you thought you were going to see,” Moore said. “You start to see so much that you couldn’t have known without actually being there.”

Openness to the Anthropological Journey

For Rachel Newcomb, an associate professor of anthropology, openness to seeing where the research leads is critical to producing sound results.

“The problem with going to do research involving people while armed with a hypothesis is that many researchers will continue to find evidence that supports their hypothesis, while overlooking evidence to the contrary; whereas, I think it's better to be more open-ended (hence no hypothesis),” Newcomb says. “Also, the issues that we think are interesting are not always what the people in the field are interested in telling us about.”

That’s exactly the issue Newcomb ran into when she traveled to Morocco to conduct research as a graduate student.

“I went into the field to look at marginalized female entertainers—singers and dancers—who are often prostitutes,” Newcomb says. “It ended up being too difficult to pursue. All the Moroccans in my network thought that the topic itself was bizarre, and I realized it would dent my status with the community if I continued to pursue that topic. So I altered it to look at women and social marginalization more generally, and I found a lot of other outlets for that.”

Rollins professor Ashley Kistler also has a similar experience. In 2004, she traveled to Guatemala with the goal of studying a group of local marketers. That quickly changed.

“I thought this group’s story was the most interesting thing about Chamelco, but in the course of documenting market women’s lives, I realized that community members talked about Aj Pop B’atz’, their colonial founder who lived 450 years ago, in daily life,” says Kistler, an assistant professor of anthropology. “The significance of his story and salience over time struck me, and my research took a drastic change. This project, which was so unexpected and was not something that I could have ever anticipated without the experiences of fieldwork, has been the most rewarding and enriching of my life.”

That flexibility to being guided by the research versus guiding the research is something Moore thinks is a skill that can serve anyone doing research. “In a way, I guess you would say the motto is to always keep an open mind.”

Tian Sang’s lesson in open-mindedness turned out to be a lesson on listening—a critical tool for anthropological research.

“Dr. Moore taught me how to ask more open-ended questions, which would help participants to ‘paint their culture’ for me,” says Tian Sang. “I’ve learned to be less guided by my assumptions and more curious about what unfolds.”