Red Stamps and Gold Stars

Sarah Turner, editor, Red Stamps and Gold Stars: Fieldwork Dilemmas in Upland Socialist Asia

Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013. Pp. x, 295; maps, photgraphs, chapter bibliographies, list of contributors, index.

Reviewed by Keith Barney.

In the classic film “The Kitchen Stories”, a 1950s-era Swedish scientist is presented with the methodological dilemma whether to step down from his observational vantage point, an umpire’s chair in a kitchen, and actually engage in the lives of his purported research “subjects”–in this memorable case, a middle-aged Norwegian bachelor and his rural neighbours. Hilarity and touching human insight ensue, especially as the Norwegian bachelor reverses the researcher-subject relationship and starts secretly to observe his “guest scientist.” Red Stamps and Gold Stars: Fieldwork Dilemmas in Upland Socialist Asia, edited by Sarah Turner, finds all of its contributors stepping down from their metaphorical umpire’s chairs, and engaging in the grounded realities and ethical conundrums of conducting ethnographic research in contemporary Asia. The result is an admirably rich tapestry of narratives, reflections and insights drawn from extended fieldwork and assembled into a collection well worth delving into.

Arising out of a workshop held at McGill University in 2011, Red Stamps and Gold Stars examines current anthropological and geographical research in (post) socialist upland Southeast Asia. The “gold stars” of the title of course represent the communist parties of Vietnam, Laos and China. A core theme running through the book is the challenges that the researcher-authors experienced in obtaining access to field sites and upland minority communities, through either formal means, via the quest for an official “red stamp” from a bureaucratic gatekeeper, or through more informal approaches. In the first chapter, Sarah Turner argues that there are “unique elements” (page 17) and challenges to undertaking research on ethnic minorities in these countries and that these elements justify a book on fieldwork in upland socialist Asia. The volume makes a convincing case in support of this general argument, although I prefer to see “Zomia” (pages 6, 22) remain a concept-metaphor on the politics of scale and borders in area-studies research (see Jonsson, 2010) as opposed to a specific reference to the Southeast Asian massif. The political and bureaucratic challenges of community-level field research in other authoritarian Southeast Asian contexts–Sarawak, Myanmar, Cambodia or even Thailand under a military government–mean, too, that there are significant commonalities between the cases treated in this volume and the situation in neighbouring countries and probably in countries beyond the region.

The contributors to Red Stamps and Gold Stars include a range of younger researchers writing on their recent doctoral projects, mid-career scholars and more senior figures. The chapters are very well written, and they feature strong bibliographies. They are cross-referenced and speak to one another unusually well. A number of the younger contributors have proceeded to professional teaching and research positions–another indicator of the quality of writing in this collection.

Let me now turn briefly to each of the chapters in Red Stamps and Gold Stars.

In Chapter One, Sarah Turner provides an orientation to the core themes of the book, ethnographic research amongst ethnic minorities in (post) socialist Asia and the “messiness, compromises and ethical dilemmas” (page1) with which the authors have grappled during fieldwork. I might be forgiven for taking issue with Turner on one point. She asserts that “the cupboard is nearly bare” with respect to ethnographically informed insights on conducting fieldwork in the Lao PDR, and that “…. nuanced reflections… are rare” (page 4). Some of the work of Holly High (for example, High 2010) could well have been cited here.

In “Comrades of Minority Policy in China, Vietnam and Laos”, Jean Michaud presents a useful framework for understanding the positions of states in relation to ethnic minorities in upland Asia. Michaud notes that “greater empathy and respect” (page 33) from state institutions is still an issue for most ethnic minority communities in the countries discussed in his chapter, while cultural and economic-development policy is framed with integration into mainstream society as a goal. I was left looking for a bit more insight from Michaud on the structure of authoritarianism as this affects scholarly research, beyond the idea that bureaucratic gate-keepers govern research access and the public sphere.

Part Two of Red Stamps and Gold Stars represents the heart of the book. Its ten author chapters focus on different aspects of the practical operationalization of fieldwork and on the dilemmas and ethics of research in upland Vietnam, Laos and China. Every chapter offers something useful for readers to learn, and especially for younger scholars planning their research.

Chapter Three by Stephane Gros, on “Blunders in the Field” in southwest China, could have been subtitled “Faux Pas and Red Faces.” It is a refreshingly honest account of the author’s history of “putting one’s foot in it” (page 44). The context is the politics of sponsoring a revival of a village New Year’s festival in an ethnic Dulong village, in Yunnan province, which comes to involve local officials and administrators from the Communist Party of China and devolves unexpectedly into a sort of cultural competition between two minority communes. Gros is left reflecting upon whether he went “… beyond his role as an ethnographer”. Was his presence in the village “manipulated”, or was he the “manipulator”? (page 52).

In Chapter Four, Magnus Fiskesjö treats the idea of “Gifts and Debts” in an ethnic Wa village along the China-Burma border. Despite being confronted early in his fieldwork by a local woman who dreamt that he committed a massacre her village, by the end of his research he has earned social standing as a “person of decency” (page 71), in part through judicious application of the time-honoured tradition of “participant intoxication” (page 70).

In Chapter Five, Candice Cornet explores the Fun and Games of Taking Children to the Field.” The dilemma–and subsequent opportunity–that Candice experienced relates to the fact that, three days before her doctoral fieldwork in the Miao-Dong Autonomous Region in southeastern Guizhou Province, China, was to start, she and her partner discovered that she was pregnant. The joys and challenges of conducting subsequent research with a both a partner and a child opened up new spaces of research engagement and shared experiences with local women, while at the same time closing off some access to official male informants who did not view her research as serious. The lessons learnt, about researcher subjectivity and positionalities, are very well described. This chapter makes a very useful contribution, especially for anyone heading to the field with a young family.

In the next chapter, Jennifer Sowerine examines the “politics of [American] nationality in fieldwork in a postwar context” (page 102). The setting is a number of ethnic Yao villages in Sa Pa province, northern Vietnam. The quest for a memorandum of understanding MoU, tedious requirements for permission and reporting to local authorities, ongoing surveillance and complex three-way negotiations and translations among Sowerine, her Yao informants and her Kinh field assistants are the highlights of this chapter. While her initial experience is marked by frustration, through patience and flexibility, Sowerine slowly gains the trust of research assistants, host institutions, district officials and even the village police. In the end, she was “able to get at the crux of local issues while remaining accountable to the state, to the villagers and to the scholarly product” (page 118).

I found Christine Bonnin’s “Doing Fieldwork and Making Friends in Upland Vietnam amongst the strongest and most reflective chapters of Red Stamps and Red Stars. In her work in Lao Cai Province, Bonnin’s dilemma involves witnessing her Hmong and Yao informants–who had become her close friends–experience socio-economic hardships and ethnic discrimination. These friendships introduced the challenge of drawing clear boundaries around her research project.

Being a witness to social discrimination against ethnic minorities was an ongoing part of my fieldwork experience…. I could see clearly how Hmong individuals routinely encounter negative stereotyping and face barriers in a variety of social and economic fields… (page 132)

Bonnin is left wary of the potential for political ethnography in an authoritarian setting, noting a tendency towards an “overestimation of subjugated people’s agency to share their experiences of domination, and also the researcher’s agency to initiate practical contributions to this situation” (page 136). For Bonnin, “politically engaged research” (page 136) comes to include alternate forms, such as everyday practices of support friendship, and socio-cultural critique.

In Chapter Eight, Pierre Petit writes about the ethnography of the state in Laos, the quest for a research permit and “saving face” with Lao officials. He argues against the view of the state as a leviathan, and writes, “a reflexive approach to our dealings with administrations has a lot to tell us about the state as a process” (page 162). There is much to be said for such approach, although an important distinction is to be made between the ways in which a foreign researcher encounters the practices of the Lao state and the ways in which different groups of Lao citizens might experience those practices. Some in the latter category seem to have experienced the harder edge of the Lao party-state and its capacity to act as a totalitarian leviathan (Creak and Barney, 2012).

With “Marginality at the Margins”, Karen McAllister presents a strong chapter on navigating gender relations and intersecting positionalities during fieldwork in upland Laos. In McAllister’s dilemma, her status as a foreign researcher tended to place her within the social sphere of men rather than in that of the Khmu ethnic minority women from whom she was especially interested in learning. A year-long delay with research permissions also introduced challenges to her project. In upland Luang Phrabang Province, local gender norms, and specifically male gate-keepers, seemed to impede her research at every turn, particularly in the context of the perceived formality of research interviews. Patience, persistence and flexibility–along with a dash of serendipity in the form of a charging water buffalo!–eventually opened up a series of informal and very rewarding ethnographic encounters.

Janet Sturgeon presents Chapter Ten, on “Field Research on the Margins of China and Thailand, which usefully focuses on the significant logistical challenges involved in cross-country comparative research. Sturgeon poses the question of whether she was “crazy” (page 199) to select field sites in different non-contiguous countries. But the drama of historical comparison, her sheer enthusiasm and perhaps even the experience and guile of a veteran researcher guided Sturgeon’s doctoral project to very successful completion.

Writing on researching Tibetan folklore in both China and India, Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy in Chapter Eleven wonders whether it is really “Easier in Exile?” The paradox of her project is that, in authoritarian Tibet and under an all-pervasive state apparatus, she conducted research informally, while in more liberal India, her research ended up proceeding under formal auspices. This difference introduced a series of ethical issues and complex positionalities, shaped by the politics of the two Tibetan “capitals.” In Tibet, she successfully adopted a posture of “feigned ignorance” to avoid placing any of her research subjects in difficulties with authorities, while in India her dilemma was how more assertively to establish her credentials as a scholar knowledgeable about Tibetan language, history and culture as she engaged with more skeptical informants from the Tibetan diaspora.

Sarah Turner’s chapter on “A Silenced Research Assistant Speaks Her Mind” should be required reading for any researcher planning to work with a local assistant. Turner convincingly argues,

If researchers do not reflect on … elements of their assistant’s situatedness, the consequences remain masked and the rigour of fieldwork becomes compromised. (page 226).

In this chapter Turner interviews two research assistants: Chloe, who was working with Candice Cornet in China, and Vi, who was working with Christine Bonnin in Vietnam. The focus is on the personal and emotional responses of these field assistants to the research project, and there are some very useful insights into their experience of the stresses and tribulations, and also into some of the positive aspects, of collaborative fieldwork.

Here I might note that I have also worked with a number of incredibly helpful assistants in Laos. I think the fact that my key assistants themselves came from farming backgrounds, and had worked in swidden agriculture with their families, was very important to the manner in which they related to villagers and in turn to villagers’ engagement with us during our stays–the “triple subjectivity” (page 221) of fieldwork with an assistant noted in this book. I also gained invaluable ethnographic insight from working with research assistants, not least on the judicious use of scented green soap for warding off upland Savannakhet and Salavane Lao Theung “black magic”, a potent identity marker for my research assistants. Local assistants are often fundamental to ethnographic and qualitative research projects, and their important role should be both fully acknowledged and considered reflexively.

Rounding out the book’s journey with Part Three, on “Post-Fieldwork”, scholars Oscar Salemink, Stevan Harrell and Li Xingxing, and Sarah Turner look at the challenges of writing and ethical political engagement with ethnic minorities living on the geographical and political margins of state power.

In Chapter Thirteen, Oscar Salemink reflects on the uses of ethnographic research in historical and contemporary Vietnam. Salemink recalls the abuse of Georges Condiminas’s and Gerald Hickey’s research data and writing on ethnic minorities in Vietnam in the context of the Indochina conflicts by the US military and Vietnamese security officials, respectively. He also describes an incident in 1991, in which Vietnamese scholars who had facilitated some of Salemink’s own early research in Dak Lak Province were subsequently interrogated by security officials. Salemink presents the requirement for a type of “bland ethnography” (page 244) that anonymizes local informants and carefully protects their interests. The second part of the chapter focuses on his subsequent efforts and ethical dilemmas in trying to engage with policy-makers around issues of human rights, religious conversion and ethnic minorities in Vietnam’s uplands. But instead of retreating from such challenges, Salemink argues the ethical principle of “no harm” can no longer be sufficient, and engagement becomes not just possible but perhaps ethically desirable or even mandatory, as long as the researcher realizes that both publication and public engagement are risky ventures that require a careful reading of the wider field. (page 255)

The penultimate chapter of Red Stamps and Gold Stars, co-authored by Stevan Harrell and Li Xingxing, brought a smile to this reviewer’s face, in that I recognised some of their reticence actually to conduct ethnographic research. In a frank admission, Harrell writes that he is often

… afraid to ask, afraid to pursue information. I dare not disturb people’s work time or leisure time, and do not dare intrude into their lives. At the same time, I am afraid that people will refuse to answer my questions or will answer with random nonsense. Because of this, I do not actively pursue important information. (page 267)

Co-author Li Xingxing shares many of Harrell’s orientations, noting that extended ethnographic fieldwork can itself present obstacles to rapid-release publication.

As soon as the time gets longer, the things you discover you don’t know increase, the questions you discover increase and the more complicated things get, the harder it is to act and put pen to paper. (page 272)

At the same time, Harrell maintains his enthusiasm to head to the field

Every time I get on the dirt road from Baiwu town to Yangjuan Primary School, my pulse speeds up, and I cannot restrain myself from looking out the jeep window… are we there yet? Do I see anybody I know? Has the environment changed? … I need to see everything… (page 270)

Indeed, this stance introduces some obstacles to conducting research and getting it published. But I would think most scholars have also experienced Harrell’s dilemma, at one time or another. Experiencing the research process in terms of contradictions, as most of us do, Harrell confides that sometimes he thinks, “Attachment is more important than scholarship; doing practical work is more important than analysis” (page 271). But then he aspires that he will write, in the future, perhaps even a lot. He concludes,

Perhaps a real method of participant observation requires one to first go through the process of developing “attachment” to individuals, “attachment” to a community, and only afterwards returning to analysis … Through the process of developing human attachments, we can move beyond pseudo-science and begin to invent a true humanistic science. (page 277)

With insightful and enjoyable writing like this, we can only hope that Stevan Harrell and Li Xingxing continue to ask questions, to write about their research in an informed and ethical manner and to continue to “green the textual desert” (page 271).

In the fifteenth and last chapter, Sarah Turner closes the book with a reflection on the perennial questions of ethnography and scholarly research. How does one act ethically in the field and through research? How do we meaningfully give back to communities? How should one speak out on behalf of informants? There are no simple answers. In a fitting closing to a rewarding book, Turner writes,

It is with careful ethnographic fieldwork, after those red stamps are dry and trusting relationships are forged, and while critical reflexivity unfolds, that these questions can begin to be tackled efficiently and important insights gained into how policies launched at national and global levels are negotiated at the local level. Researchers who accept this investment of their time and energy will better understand how marginalized groups reinterpret the rules of the majority, how local livelihoods are shaped and remolded, and how knowledge and power are mediated and transformed through culturally rooted frames in these uplands. (page 285)

This book will be a very useful resource for both senior scholars and younger researchers embarking upon fieldwork for the first time. I plan to use at least one chapter for my graduate course in research methods next semester. And, while one cannot judge a book by its cover, Red Stamps and Gold Stars is very handsomely designed, making it both a useful and an attractive addition to anyone’s research library. Félicitations to Sarah Turner and the contributors!

Keith Barney is Lecturer in the Resources, Environment and Development Group, Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.


Creak, Simon, and Keith Barney. “Distressing developments in Laos.” New Mandala. 23 December 2012.

High, Holly. “Ethnographic exposures: Motivations for donations in the south of Laos (and beyond).” American Ethnologist XXXVII, 2 (2010): 308-322.

Jonsson, Hjorleifur. “Above and beyond: Zomia and the Ethnographic Challenge of/for Regional History.” History and Anthropology XXI, 2 (2010): 191-212.