The Global Researcher: Top Tips for Intercultural Research

In Spring 2019, Dr Ellie Chadwick, a theatre maker and Research Fellow at Bristol University, travelled to China for a four-month research trip to the Shanghai Theatre Academy on an AHRC International Placement Scheme (IPS) fellowship. In this blog post, Ellie shares some of her top tips for those considering undertaking a fellowship or placement scheme abroad.

Like many researchers, eager to place my findings in a global context, I have pursued opportunities to conduct research projects in various other countries. Researching abroad not only opens up new career opportunities, but also allows you to compare research cultures, gain exposure to new ways of thinking, utilise archives you wouldn’t otherwise have access to, and establish a global network of collaborators that could lead to future opportunities.

For those thinking of pursuing long-term postdoctoral fellowships abroad, a shorter research stint like those supported by the IPS is also an opportunity to figure out whether living and working in another part of the world is for you. Relocating to another country, even for a relatively short period of time, brings many benefits but is of course not without its challenges! From initial jet lag and culture shock to language barriers and difficulties with differing bureaucracy, there’s lots to consider that could affect your general wellbeing as well as your research.

While I was prepared practically for my trip to China and was excited to get started on my research (exploring tradition and innovation in intercultural UK/China theatre practice), there were still a few aspects of the experience that took me by surprise. Thinking back, my main tips to those considering a similar experience would be:

Top Tips

  • Remain open-minded to very different forms of intercultural research, practice, and collaboration.

As an interdisciplinary theatre-maker and academic, I’m used to collaborative practice. I enjoy sharing ideas and views across different artistic disciplines and academic fields, embracing multiplicities and varied perspectives. In my intercultural work, I’d previously taken these collaborative approaches into a context of working with people of various nationalities. I therefore readily understood how cultural factors naturally play into the manner in which intercultural research is pursued. However, the open, flexible collaborative styles I had previously been used to were vastly different to the typical approaches in China. In Shanghai, I found that intercultural practice involved much more structured approaches, and more one-way focused teaching, for example.

Intercultural engagement and collaboration occur in all kinds of ways and it is difficult to predict before arrival at the institution you are going to. While you of course need to have a research plan, it is equally as important to go with an open mind and enough flexibility to change the methodologies or approach of your research.

  • Don’t overlook the fact that decolonising intercultural research and education is an ongoing effort.

Colonial legacies don’t only affect previously-colonised countries. There is a tendency in many cultures (as I also found when conducting research in Indonesia) to prioritise Eurocentric ways of reasoning, putting Western “intellect” on a pedestal, while elevating “exotic” Eastern aesthetics on another. Chinese intercultural theatre productions, for example, tend to combine Western narrative classics like Shakespeare or Euripides with traditional Chinese aesthetics (costumes, dances, music and sets from Chinese Opera).

The result of this can be an unhelpful division, creating in the exoticising of the East ‘a positive stereotype which is negative in outcome’ (Huang 2008, 59). If we are not careful, problematic relationships can emerge as a default way of approaching intercultural engagement. These need to be exposed and interrogated in order to form mutually beneficial and genuinely forward-thinking collaborations and research links.

  • Don’t be discouraged by problems with communication, administration, or research dead ends.

In some cases, organisational aspects of an institution, or the way research is conducted there, will differ vastly from what you expect. I struggled at first with the language barrier in China as well as the difference in systems and ways of working, which led to multiple dead ends with my enquiries and requests to access facilities. I had to approach the situation differently, finding new ways to connect with those I needed to speak to in order to advance my research. The WeChat phone app, for example, was unexpectedly essential for my research – I used it much more than email to communicate with staff and students at the Academy (and the translate function was incredibly useful too).

You need to try and think outside the box – in what other ways could you get in touch with the people you need to? How else could you approach the research? What other techniques or methodologies might be a better fit for this new context? Who knows – the initial dead end might help you to find an innovative new route!

  • Don’t underestimate the importance and value of “time off” to simply explore the city and the culture.

Culture shock is very real! Allow yourself time to adjust when you arrive, and indeed throughout your trip. Give yourself a chance to absorb local culture, particularly if you are in a place that is extremely different from home. You will gain more, both personally and professionally, by getting out of the university environment and immersing yourself into the area on occasions.

It’s also so important to embrace those encounters that cannot be planned: casual conversations in hallways. Invites to students’ performance exam rehearsals. Lunch with colleagues in the canteen. Group trips to a museum or another city. An invite to a new acquaintance’s home, where they share family histories and local folklore (a true highlight for me). For me, these experiences were more valuable in some ways than any structured meeting, supervision, lecture, or taught sessions. Keep in mind that, for all your planning, there may not end up being so much structure to your research process as you originally thought. Go with the flow.

At the end of the day, any type of research exchange, and particularly intercultural research, begins with an aim as simple as connecting with each others’ ways of thinking. Make this, rather than any meticulously planned outputs and achievements, your number one goal when beginning on an intercultural research journey. The rest will follow.

Connections I made in Shanghai have led to several new research ideas, a funding proposal, a forthcoming article, and new professional and personal relationships. It is of course important to remain aware of the potential challenges of intercultural research and arrive at your destination prepared; but in the end, only by staying open, flexible and reflective will you gain the most from the experience and really develop as a global researcher.

Ellie is a theatre maker and Research Fellow at Bristol University. She is currently undertaking an Expanded Performance Research Fellowship with Bristol+Bath Creative R+D examining audience responses to immersive and multi-sensory theatrical experiences, and working on the Creative Histories of Witchcraft project, which explores creative/theatrical approaches to historical research. Since completing her PhD, Ellie has worked internationally, including in Europe, Bali, Borneo and China, teaching and researching theatre practice.

Photos by Aaron Hussain

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