Doing Research on Subways in Taiwan

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).]

4 thoughts on “Doing Research on Subways in Taiwan

  1. Welcome Anru! What a fascinating ethnographic project. Not that this observation answers the question at all, but I think this problem is maybe inherent to ethnography. Because the ethnographer *is* the principal research instrument, ethnographies are, for better or for worse, always human-scale. In my own doctoral fieldwork I had a similar sense of misgiving although I worked in a discrete “indigenous community”, which looks tiny on the map. But in human-scale terms, it is 25 villages spread along 100 km of a river, populated by 9,000 people. Getting around to different villages was always a huge problem, I only truly lived in 3 of those 25 villages, and personally met only several hundred of those several thousand people, and even then maybe knew 50 of them well. And I am still continually surprised by unexpected revelations about people’s life histories and community dynamics. But I still had the nerve to consider my dissertation an ethnography of Isoso! So — obviously the problem exists at a whole different scale in your urban setting. But I think it’s also something over which all conscientious ethnographers could lose some sleep.

    I don’t know if you have found this, but the experience has made me read journalism differently — just because as ethnographers we intimately know how difficult it is to really learn anything definitive about a place and its social relations.

  2. Anru asks,

    at what point can I claim that I have a full understanding of the subway system in Taipei—or Kaohsiung?

    The answer is simple—Never. In an infinitely interesting universe there is always another angle, another set of questions to be asked. Think how boring it would be otherwise!

    It is better, I believe, to reframe the question as,

    At what point do I have enough to say that I have made a significant addition to understanding whatever it is that I have chosen to study?

    I often begin my classes by noting to my students that to claim understanding we often say that we have created a picture of something. But what kind of picture is it?

    For elementary subjects in well-defined fields, we assume that the picture is like a jigsaw puzzle. The image is predefined, the number of pieces is finite, it is easy to see if the picture is complete or not and, if not, how much remains to be done. This picture is very convenient for teachers since it facilitates grading.

    Consider, however, an artist standing in front of a blank canvas, trying to produce a painting, a nude perhaps, a vase full of sunflowers, or a pond filled with waterlilies, or the sea as dawn breaks in the middle of a storm. It isn’t just that the subjects differ, the artist may be a Michaelangelo, a Van Gogh, a Manet, or a Turner. The artist might also be a Picasso or Klee (times change) or (place changes, too) a Hokusai or someone with an unpronounceable name from someplace we know nothing about.

    The result will be very different, depending on the artist as well as the subject. The artist may always wonder, is the painting good enough? Will the critics or potential buyers see it as bad, mediocre, good or insanely great? Will one more brushstroke or some other modification make it even better?

    From my work in advertising, I suspect that one of two things happens. There may be a magic moment, a sudden feeling of wholeness and completion and a sense that any further change will destroy what has been discovered. There may also be a deadline, so that pressure builds to say, “Good enough” (even if the result has flaws). Neither, however, should be considered the last word, the definitive answer.

    I often conclude this riff by pointing to Claude Levi-Strauss’s description in the “Overture” to The Raw and the Cooked. In a wonderful image he compares the creation of knowledge to the formation of a galaxy from a cloud of gas and dust. As the cloud condenses and begins to spin, the first stars form toward the center. As time goes on more and more stars appear. And, yes, I say to myself, it isn’t at all likely that all of the gas and dust will be turned into stars. As new stars form toward the edges, old ones are dying at the center. Some will collapse and explode into novas, some will fade into red dwarfs, some will disappear into black holes. The learning never stops.

    Definitive? No way.

  3. A year or so ago I came across an interdisciplinary humanities course entitled something like “Underground” that was just about all of the things that human beings imagine to be under the earth. I remember it sounding like a great class since it covered both the subway, hell, and carrots. However I can’t now remember where I saw it. I’ll keep looking and let you know if I run across it.

  4. Anru, This is a very interesting topic for research, and I will be looking forward to seeing your findings whenever they are publicized (whatever their state of “completion”).

    In the mean time, I wonder if you might have any comment on Annette Lu’s recent statement about the problems with the MRT construction in Kaohsiung, where she draws parallels between the engineering problems and state terror, and describes freedom from corruption in public works projects in terms of “human rights.”

    (Here is a link to an article:

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