When I was in college, I thought doing scholarly research meant something very fancy. I admired the professors who taught me then. Some of them were invited to testify before Congress for immigration reforms. Others presented cool research, and wrote beautiful novels. It seemed to me that a scholar, especially the public intellectual one, was highly regarded because they have read a lot of books, articles, and they know a lot.
I was so wrong.
I learned the hard way that doing research especially in an American institution means doing a lot of dirty work. By dirty work I mean the kind of unnamed, unappreciative, unglamorous labor like cleaning data, creating tables, organizing archival materials, recruiting participants via emails, phones, Facebook, writing research manuscripts, editing them many many times, and sometimes answering emails from your co-authors. Everything is labor intensive, time-consuming. Most of them I would categorize as clerical tasks.
I first learned about doing this type of work when I was working as a research assistant for a couple of anthropologists of religion after my college years. My job then was mostly doing archival research, plus writing ethnographic observations about community activities in Berlin. The work was lonely, very lonely. Everyday I went to the Federal Archive in Berlin-Lichterfelde, ordered folders of written materials, skimmed through them, took notes, and then ordered copies. It was my 9 to 5 job. There was no place to hang out at the archive. Everyone around me was either a seasoned historian writing a next book for their job promotion, or a PhD student in history or cultural studies trying to write their dissertation. We had nothing in common. People were quiet there. Maybe it’s just a German public space etiquette. People tend to speak in very low voice in public spaces especially one that is designated as a research area.
Sometimes I got bored with reading governmental administrative records, I would order film rolls to read and skim newspaper articles. The film room was in another hall. It was separated from the main archive reading room. The film room was full of machines where you can read newspaper articles that were digitized into film rolls. Thanks to digitalization of archive materials, most people nowadays would not know how these machines work. They look like archive newspaper reading machines from the 80s movies. The films are called microforms, or microfilms. A researcher often orders many film rolls. They would then place it on the machine properly, align the lenses for projection, and then would manually roll the films one negative at a time. There is no search button, there is no jump button, you just have to move one at a time to look for some relevant materials.
The only sound that came from that room was the clicking sound when one rolls the film from one negative to another. It was click click click…. Every once in a while, I would hear people print some articles. All the chitchats were kept very low, I could barely hear anything else.
My young adulthood was full of moments like those when I would venture into archives, explore ethnic cultural scenes alone. The process of writing memos each night was also very lonely. There was only me and my computer staring at each other. In many ways, this period living in Germany trained me to be extremely reflexive, writing with intensity, listening to whispering around me, and feeling comfortable in my skin because I knew that nobody was doing what I was doing, and people didn’t care about what I was doing. I was the only one who knew what I had to do, and that I had a deadline. Regardless of how boring and repetitive the job was, I had a sense of purpose. I became bolder during the process.
What motivated me every day to go to the archive 1 hour away from home was that I would be touching some historical artifacts that 99.99% of the world population did not even know that they existed. The topic of interest was so obscure that 99.99% of the world population did not care about. But I cared, and the fact that this event made me one of the very few people on earth care about it emboldened me. I had the privilege to care about something that most people did not care about. It felt empowering. That was the moment when I started to appreciate doing research dirty work: the data collection process.
Then I came to the PhD program. My first official research project that felt organized, and purposeful was a research about food startup founders in New York City. I interviewed food startup founders in the city to understand their challenges of producing food products for consumption in an ever changing food landscape, and in a city where food production has very limited space especially the shelf-stable items. The research process was intense. I had to email hundreds of people in order to score about 40 interviews. The processes of drafting the email, following up with them, going to their production space, interviewing and writing memos were tedious. It seemed that nobody appreciated my work. One professor in my program caught up with me in the elevator one day. I gave him a one-minute pitch of what I was doing. He told me that my research sounded fun. What an attitude! I thought to myself. I was doing it for myself, because I was curious, and that there was a small prize at the end: a publication.
Sometimes I asked myself often during this research. Is it really worth it to go through that extent the labor, the amount of work, the pain, and the various social anxiety, social isolation to produce a product of intellectual work, i.e., a publication? It felt that in the process of engaging in such a research, I learned so much about industrial policy of New York City, startup culture, and cultural changes in food consumption and distribution of the new economy, one that was filled with technological innovations, knowledge work, overeducated workers who were doing underpaid work.
Would I consider then what I learned through the process was valuable enough to justify for the time and labor investment that I put in such a project? It felt like worth it because I felt that on a personal level I have become so much more connected to the city that I live in: New York City. On a professional level, I can now speak with authority, and confidence about the startup culture in NYC, and some about industrial policy and urban culture of New York. It feels like I know so much more now than before I did the project.
Does it mean then doing research is to collect data and make sense of something that is going on, and that the researcher knows more about that subject matter than most people in the world? The idea that the researcher has dived deep into a particular subject matter, and is one of a few experts can justify all other costs including social isolation, psychological distresses when things don’t go well, not to mention financial losses. The social prestige of being a researcher, the fulfilling feeling of knowing might trump many of the moments when I sweat out collecting data, and the frustration that sometimes doing research means that there’s no outcome at all.
I feel more comfortable now than before about doing research. I also hedge more now than before when it comes to a research project. I care more about the concrete outcomes and impacts of each project now than simply focusing on the discovery aspect of research.
However, I think one thing hasn’t changed for me which is that for any research project regardless of the outcome (which is oftentimes a publication), I treasure the fact that I can and will learn something new in the process. That all what matters at the end of the journey.