Advice on Conducting Field Research Abroad: Experiences from Russia and China

Ph.D. Candidate Michael Zboray shares his field research experience in Russia and China. Michael received a fellowship from IREX Individual Advanced Research Opportunities program, sponsored by U.S. Department of State that provided him with the opportunity to perform research abroad:

I recently had the opportunity to conduct a half-year of field research in Russia working on my dissertation under the auspices of IREX’s Individual Advanced Research Opportunities Program (IARO).  The IARO fellowship is sponsored by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) and the U.S. Department of State and provided me with invaluable financial support.  From January 2014 to August 2014, I conducted semi-structured interviews with policy experts, journalists, academics, and government officials on the reasons for Russia’s participation in one of the world’s largest regional organizations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).  In conjunction with these interviews, I collected archival material from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to answer a specific question: “Under what conditions does Russia cooperate with China in the SCO given decades of political tensions between Moscow and Beijing?” I collected data to evaluate three possible alternative explanations: first, broad geopolitical concerns about American involvement in the region; second, the desire for greater economic integration between the two countries; and finally, their mutual security concern about growing radicalism and claims for independence in their two countries. 

I pursued the majority of my research in Moscow where Moscow State University helped organize my living and logistical arrangements.  The interviews were with experts from a variety of institutions that included, for example, The Moscow Times, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Federation Council, and Moscow’s Carnegie Center.  In addition to my primary archival work at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I also visited other archives including the Central Archive of the Federal Security Service (FSB), State Archive of the Russian Federation, Operational Archive of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Services (SVR), the Archive of the President of Russia, and the State Archive of Russian Political and Social History.

 In addition to my work in Moscow, I researched a “crucial case” study in Kazan for two weeks.  My purpose was to examine the extent to which the domestic growth of Wahhabism serves as a potential motivation for Russian rapprochement with China in the context of the SCO.  I chose Kazan for this case study because it serves as a hub for about 30 percent of the population of Tatarstan, an economically prosperous and culturally well-integrated area of Russia.  There is a conventional view that economic development reduces the propensity for conflict. If so, then Kazan’s inhabitants should reject militant forms of Islam.  If, however, they embrace such radical views, then radical Islam could likely pose a systemic and existential danger for Russia.   In order to help evaluate this issue, I conducted interviews with officials at the Russian Islamic University, Kazan Federal University, and local religious leaders.

Finally, I spent 18 days in Shanghai, China interviewing a number of senior-level researchers at Shanghai University, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Tongji University.  In the near future, I will return to China to examine archival documents at the SCO Secretariat and to pursue additional interviews with researchers at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.  My findings from these interviews and archival research can be found in my final “Scholar Research Brief” at IREX’s online library.

My trip overall was very hard at times.  Organizing the logistics of life in another country proved very challenging, and I dealt with the seemingly inevitable bout of illness in the middle of a Russian winter.   Yet, I found the experience invaluable, and the benefits will stay with me throughout my future career. 

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