Emotions of Friendship: The Psychological Challenges of Doing Fieldwork in Xinjiang


Lisa Ernst is trained in Cultural Anthropology, Chinese Studies and Islamic Studies and is currently a PhD student in Central Asian Studies at the Berlin Graduate School – Muslim Cultures and Societies. Using an ethnographic approach, her thesis aims to analyze how Uyghur minkaohan women perceive and negotiate their in-between position as women with a Muslim family background and an education at Han Chinese schools in Urumqi society. Using and ethnographic approach, Ernst is particularly interested in the enforcement of female gender norms in relation to feelings of exclusion and emotions of guilt among Uyghur minkaohan women.


“Participant observation is primarily an ‘advanced’ exercise in forming and maintaining intimate relationships for professional purposes. And therein lie its greatest strengths and its greatest weaknesses” (Hume & Mulcock 2004: xii)

It has long been acknowledged that not only participant observation but the whole process of fieldwork is a social process requiring interpersonal skills. Close friendships emerge in this process and often have a strong effect on the emotional state of both researcher and researched. Anthropologists have discussed at length the ethical dilemmas and power imbalances that may arise out of these field relationships and the emotions involved. Judith Stacey argues that fieldwork friendships are by nature exploitative for the research subjects (Stacey 1988), Lisa Tillmann-Healy has even proposed friendship as a method of research (Tillmann-Healy 2003); but the effect these relationships can have on the mental and emotional wellbeing of the ethnographer is still an understudied topic.

During my own fieldwork, friendship was not only a natural component but also an indispensable tool to maintain an atmosphere of trust in a very politically sensitive fieldwork site: Urumqi, Xinjiang. To give some background, my research aims to understand how Uyghur minkaohan women with a Muslim Uyghur family background but an education in Han Chinese schools negotiate their positions as Uyghur Muslim women in Urumqi society. My main research methods of data collection in the field were participant observation and ethnographic interviews.

Prior to starting my research, I had lived and worked in Gansu, the neighboring province of Xinjiang, for two years. I had moved there after finishing my Masters, with the possible plan in mind to stay there for years to come. Starting a new life in China in a relatively small Chinese city where I was the only foreigner, I had been eager to find a new social circle and new friends. In Gansu, I had only Han and Uyghur friends, saw myself as an insider in Northwest China, and considered the region my home at the time. So, when my first fieldwork started in Urumqi, I was beginning my study not as a stranger to the field but as somebody having lived in one part of China, moving to another. Without being aware of it, I had formed close friendships with many of my research participants as a way of integrating in this new city of Urumqi, just as I had tried before in other parts of China. As I became more aware of this, I tried to detach myself from the surroundings and build up some distance between other people and myself. That was only possible to a certain degree, but it enabled me to take a step back from time to time and examine my relationships.

At the time, Xinjiang was already considered a difficult and high-risk research site due to the sensitive position of the ethnic minority of Uyghurs in the People’s Republic in China. When I started my fieldwork, I was quite aware of the risks and I carefully listened to the advice I had received from other Xinjiang scholars in regard to meeting the locals as well as collecting and recording data.

When I returned to Xinjiang in 2018, the political circumstances in Xinjiang had intensified. which resulted in an atmosphere of extreme fear and mistrust among the Uyghur population. It was almost impossible to conduct any interviews and having friends in the field had become an ambiguous emotional state for me. In the tense atmosphere of today’s Urumqi, mutual trust may be the most important factor of feeling some kind of security in everyday life. In order to conduct any kind of research, friendship and the resulting trust were an indispensable precondition for meeting at all. At the same time, friendship could also turn out to be a high risk, as Uyghurs who are in contact with foreign researchers are under special surveillance from the police. Consequently, strong and reliable friendships that I had formed just two years ago, were now a matter of high risk.

An exception was one of my closest friends in the city, a forty-year-old Uyghur woman, I had already met in 2015. Initially I had considered her as an interview partner, but she did not fit into the sample of women I wanted to study. But in our conversations, we often discussed parts of my research topic and I found myself including her thoughts and opinions in my analysis and reflections on the data I had collected from other women. She initially considered me a language partner, since she had studied German for a few years and spoke the language fluently.

I was quite content that I had something to offer her, when it turned out that she had inherited a small fortune and invited me to dinner, to the spa, to the movies, horse-riding – always to places I could not possibly have afforded by myself. On numerous occasions we got into discussions about money: me trying to pay for myself or wanting to go to more affordable places and her being angry that I did not accept her as my jiejie – big sister – a term often used for close female friends of different age groups, a relationship in which this behavior would have been considered normal and appropriate. She told me that she hardly found anybody to go out with, as most Uyghur women her age had a husband and children. While that was a valid argument, I still felt uncomfortable. But our friendship continued, and I accepted many of her invitations. Still, this obvious utilitarianism on both sides – her inviting me to luxurious places while I provided her with an opportunity to speak German – did not diminish our sense of being friends. As we shared our emotions, problems, dreams, worries, and spend a lot of time together, I considered her my closest friend in the city. For me, she was both an informant and a friend – somebody I could not quite label within my fieldwork research.

Meeting again on my second fieldwork – now under more difficult circumstances – we laid down some ground rules of how to each other and where to meet to ensure our safety. Not meeting at all was not an option and I did not question that decision on her side, as I was grateful to at least be able to meet one of my friends. We tried to ignore the circumstances as best as we could, going out to the movies, eating at fancy restaurants, or visiting the spa – while talking about anything other than politics.

After one and a half months into my second fieldwork, she wrote to me in the middle of the night, saying we could no longer meet. She blocked me from her phone, and I was not able to contact her again. This sudden change of behavior suggested that she had been contacted by the police because of me. The incident strongly impacted my decision to cancel my fieldwork as I was no longer morally or ethically comfortable with meeting people. Although I had encountered similar situations with other informants, this friendship had become a more emotional dilemma for me than others. Emotions of guilt made me question my position in this friendship: I had not only been the reason she encountered problems with the police, but I had also happily accepted her numerous invitations – while denying the circumstances around us. Constantly worried about her situation, I stayed for about three more weeks and then flew back home. I felt depressed for the rest of the stay, barely left my room and had no motivation to meet any new people for interviews. Not so much caring about my research anymore, I was devastated to not be able to see her again before I would have to leave, not knowing if she was ok.

This challenging situation and the intimate relationship it involved made me realize that there is no preparation or practical support for fieldworkers encountering such problems and having to deal with emotions of guilt and depression. I had internalized numerous classes and workshops on ethical and moral behavior during fieldwork, which led me to constantly being on the lookout for the safety and wellbeing of my research participants. But in the course of my efforts to behave like a professional researcher, I lost sight of my own psychological wellbeing. During fieldwork, I felt there was no appropriate or helpful outlet for me to talk about the fieldwork with other anthropologists. Having returned, I felt reluctant to admit that it was not only the professional side that bothered me, but that actually the most difficult issue to overcome was the feeling of having lost close friends. Maintaining intimate relationships for professional purposes is not only an ethical and moral dilemma but also a personal and very emotional one. However, for the young ethnographer, or graduate student conducting their first fieldwork, there is hardly any preparation for these kind of emotions, nor are there professional guidelines for dealing with mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD after a challenging fieldwork. While it is our duty as researchers to behave ethically and worry about the mental and physical wellbeing of the research subjects, our own emotional wellbeing is somehow not considered to be part of the project. In any case, the researcher is supposed to help him- or herself. However, how that is to be done, is up to him- or herself.

I think, a crucial part in helping students deal with these issues is a more elaborate and applied fieldwork preparation, with a stronger emphasis on fieldwork relationships. As a master student in Cultural Anthropology, I was trained in how to take fieldnotes and conduct interviews. The issue of friendship however, was only discussed in relation to ethical dilemmas. As a first step, I propose focusing on raising students’ awareness of friendship being a cultural construct and their own understanding of friendship. This could be a start in helping students become aware of the nature of different field relationships and critically examine how friendships begin and evolve in the field and how that may affect them emotionally.

However, the lack of an adequate fieldwork preparation is only part of the problem. The problem with mental health issues in academia is the stigma attached to it. Many universities do offer psychological support, which theoretically could also be accessed during fieldwork. But individuals dealing with mental health issues – both acute and chronic – often experience passive and lethargic feelings. Actively reaching out for help concerning an already stigmatized issue takes confidence, initiative, and energy – all of which people suffering from depression or anxiety do not have. There needs to be an easy accessed platform through which students can seek help and support throughout their whole fieldwork time.

While it has been long acknowledged that forming friendships with people in the field is a normal part of fieldwork, the nature of the relationship and the significance it had for the research is not dealt with systematically. Most studies still do not make explicit what the term means to either the ethnographer or the ‘friend’, assuming that friendship is a universally understood term – with all its conditions and consequences, and emotions. As a result, the psychological effect friendship can have on the ethnographer is also not discussed in detail as that is usually not seen as part of the study. While there are countless books on fieldwork dilemmas and difficult fieldwork situations, at the same time, the mental health of the ethnographer during and after fieldwork are still taboo topics. Experiencing psychological stress not only during the fieldwork but also especially after returning from the field, is a common experience among anthropologists researching in politically sensitive regions and contexts. However, there is a lack of preparation and of a practical support system, especially among graduate students who feel the need to establish themselves as responsible and successful researchers during their very first fieldwork. Students contact supervisors for professional advice, while emotional support is to be given by family and friends, most of whom cannot relate to conducting fieldwork at all. But many fieldwork issues cannot be separated in a personal-emotional and a more professional part. While nobody would deny that emotions are a crucial part of fieldwork, it is still rather difficult to find the right outlet or platform to express or discuss these emotions without the risk of seeming unprofessional. As a student I am still missing a more approachable, applied, non-theoretical discussion in preparation for these types of fieldwork issues as well as a platform to support mental health issues among students – before, during and after fieldwork.




Hume, Lynne & Mulcock, Jane (eds.), 2004. Anthropologists in the Field: Cases in Participant Observation, New York: Columbia University Press.

Stacey, Judith, 1988. Can there be a Feminist Ethnography? Women’s Studies Int. Forum, 11 (1), pp. 21–27.

Tillmann-Healy, Lisa M., 2003. Friendship as Method, Qualitative Inquiry, 9.5, pp. 729-749.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s