Kerim Friedman invited me to guest blog on Savage Minds. I thought about throwing out for discussion some questions that I encountered while doing research on the subway systems in Taiwan.
My current research focuses on the subway systems in the two largest cities in Taiwan: Taipei, the capital and economic-cultural center of Taiwan, whose first subway line was completed in 1996; and Kaohsiung, the country’s hub of heavy industries and one of the world’s largest container ports, whose subway system is now under construction. I use the subway systems as a focal point to understand the regional, national, and global processes that are unfolding in Taiwan. Given that many Asian countries are investing heavily on infrastructure including highways and subways (to boost the country’s global economic competitiveness), my research is not just about Taiwan but carries comparative angles.
In the course of my research — as well as on occasions when I presented my work at professional conferences — I repeatedly faced the question: How do you do research on the subway system in a big city? Indeed, metropolitan Taipei has a population of 6 million, whereas Kaohsiung is a city of 1.5 million people. Over time, I sort of worked out an answer. My involvement with Taipei’s subways was as both a passenger and an ethnographer. That is, the subways constituted the nearly exclusive means of transportation during my stay in Taipei, except for the times when I took a taxi or was driven by friends or families (Research in Kaohsiung is a different story, as the subways are sill under construction). To acquire a broader understanding of the system, I also rode the different routes of Taipei’s subways at different hours of the day as well as on different days of the week, to observe who rode from where, and how and when. The subways also entered in literally every conversation I had with people, both native Taiwanese and foreign-born residents and visitors, in Taipei and elsewhere in Taiwan (and frequently in North America). This fieldwork was blessed with the fact that the subways were, and continue to be, a novelty in the social life of Taiwan; almost everybody had something to say about their personal experience with, or perception and knowledge about, the subways. By extension, with few exceptions, my subway project seemed to generate genuine interests among the people I met, who were often eager to talk to me about the subways. In addition to participant observation, I also had formal interviews with (past and present) government officials who were in charge of the subway construction and of the making and implementation of Taipei City transportation policy prior to the subways, and with civil engineers and urban planners involved in the planning and building of Taiwan’s subway systems (in Taipei and Kaohsiung). In addition, I read intensively literature, popular reports, newspaper and magazine articles on the subways.
But again, at what point can I claim that I have a full understanding of the subway system in Taipei — or Kaohsiung? How many people do I have to interview or talk to in order to say that I have had enough? Or, to put it generally, when can one call it an end when one’s research site is a city with a few million people?
[Anru Lee is an assistant professor at the Department of Anthropology of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the City University of New York. She is the author of In the Name of Harmony and Prosperity: Labor and Gender Politics in Taiwan’s Economic Restructuring (2004) and a co-editor of Women in the New Taiwan: Gender Roles and Gender Consciousness in a Changing Society (2004).]