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Department of Political and Social Sciences

EUI researcher Mariusz Bogacki on his fieldwork in Hong Kong

Mariusz Bogacki, researcher at the EUI Department of Political and Social Sciences, describes his research topic and fieldwork experience in Hong Kong.

04 June 2024 | Research

Bogacki_SPS fieldwork

Could you please tell us about your research at the EUI?

In my research, I am investigating the way cultural and national identities are formed and formulated in Hong Kong amid drastic socio-political transformation caused by the 2019 social movement and the subsequent introduction of the National Security Law (NSL). In doing so, I am evaluating and comparing the strategies aimed at promotion and (re)definition of cultural and national identities at the top-down institutional level of the government, as well as the bottom up and horizontal levels of ‘ordinary’ citizens. I am working ethnographically, and therefore fieldwork research is a crucial component of my study.

Where, when, and why have you done fieldwork in the context of your research?

Overall, I conducted over 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Hong Kong. The main component of the fieldwork took place in Autumn of 2021 (three months during the COVID-19 pandemic) and throughout 2023 (nine months, after lifting of all pandemic restrictions) in Hong Kong. I also managed to visit Taiwan for a couple of weeks while staying in Hong Kong and speak to Hong Kong diaspora during my time as visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, in California.

The reason for such as long term and multi-sited field work was threefold. Firstly, ethnographic approaches are one of the most fruitful ways to study identity. By its nature, they are also the most time consuming, requiring prolonged fieldwork research, which leads me to the second point. I wanted to get the more detailed, contextual insider perspective on the way Hong Kong identity is being transformed today. Survey data are good at telling us the levels and spread of certain forms of identification, but they are not good at telling us the meaning behind these numbers and (often imposed) categories. Finally, it was the socio-political situation in Hong Kong itself. In the current climate, it should be expected that people might not be willing to either engage in survey or experimental studies, nor to tell the truth in such studies. I myself struggled sometimes to find people to talk to me. Consequently, it was crucial for me to embed myself within the studied environment in order to gain people’s trust, observe, participate, and talk to people as they go about their everyday lives under an increasingly unsettling political situation.

What did you do during your fieldwork?

I was conducting ethnographic data collection, but, in order to do that, I designed a bespoke methodological framework based on a triangulation of qualitative methods. These methods included participant observation, interviews, and photo elicitation techniques, to access and analyse identity at the intersection of what people do, say, and see. During the fieldwork, I tried to embed myself as much as possible with the studied community – that is with a diverse range of Hongkongers living in Hong Kong (and beyond). I participated in private and public events, celebrations, and commemorations. I also ‘hung out’ with and ‘got bored’ with ‘locals’ during their free time. I drank (a lot) of tea, but also beers, and ate the strangest culinary delights of Canton. I visited galleries, museums, and art shows, but also communal gardens and cemeteries. I interviewed people on the street, at their homes, workplaces, as well as at bars and parties, and any other places of significance people took me to. I listened to local music, read popular books, and watched films that people recommended to me. Finally, I also distributed disposable cameras to 15 participants and asked them to photograph places, objects, and anything that for them is representative of their cultural and national identities. We then discussed these photos together, which allowed me to access a different layer of identity formation in Hong Kong. Overall, it was a holistic approach, but it was also a trial and error – trying to find out what is and is not significant to people and what approach is effective in understanding their sense of identity and belonging.

I also want to mention the importance of public engagement and public dissemination of academic research. Some people call it ‘giving back’ but I am not a big fan of this phrase as it makes the research sound transactional. In any case, what I tried to do was to actively take part in the social and public life in Hong Kong through volunteering, media, and public events. To that end, during my time in Hong Kong I volunteered with a charity in support of homeless people. I published a documentary photo-essay in the local media reflecting on the COVID-19 quarantine – which not only was one of my most difficult fieldwork experiences, but also part of the Hong Kong experience at the time. I also organised a Hong Kong themed photography exhibition, where I collaborated with local designers and musicians to celebrate contemporary Hong Kong culture. Finally, in the last week of the fieldwork I gave a public talk at the Hong Kong History Museum, where I discussed my research and shared some preliminary findings. The big idea behind all those activities was to make the fieldwork a little more about collaboration rather than just ‘knowledge extraction’, and to foster a dialogue between academia and the broader society.

What are the main findings and lessons learnt from this experience?

At the moment, I am in the process of analysing all the collected empirical data. It is quite a lot, I must admit. So, I guess that would be the first lesson – think carefully how much, what type, and for what purpose you are collecting your data! I think that is a challenge in all fieldwork research, but especially when engaging with ethnography. When it comes to lessons learnt from the fieldwork experience, I think I should also add that in some ways you can leave the fieldwork, but the fieldwork never leaves you. The personal and professional connections I made in Hong Kong will stay with me forever. Of course, it was a lot of fun most of the time, but the experience of sharing and trying to understand the difficult predicament of people of Hong Kong has also affected me personally. I was very fortunate and privileged to have this opportunity. Most of my friends and study participants cannot be so flexible when it comes to where they can and cannot live or work. I think that as researchers from ‘Western’ institutions we should all keep that in mind. I was also very lucky not to have any difficult or unpleasant situations during the fieldwork. Not all people who engage with fieldwork can say that. I guess what I am trying to say here is to be wary of where and how you conduct your fieldwork research. This is not traveling or 'holidaying', it can be hard and all-encompassing physical and psychological labour.

How has being a researcher at the EUI facilitated your experience of fieldwork?

I would summarise it as a learning experience. On the one hand, there were times when it was difficult to convince the SPS Department of the importance of a long-term fieldwork. On the other hand, my supervisor and other professors were very supportive and understanding. I managed to secure the competitive Early-Stage Research funding for my fieldwork, reflecting not only my hard work spent on designing the study but also the good will of the Department in trusting me to spend the funds well. I am very grateful for this. I also feel very lucky to have other financial opportunities available at the EUI - all researchers should realise and appreciate the fact that the EUI is a very well-funded institution.

Another factor in the learning experience was dealing with the ethics committee. Even though at the time of my fieldwork securing an opinion from the EUI Ethics Committee was not mandatory, it was very important for me to conduct the study ethically and with upmost attention to the safety of my study participants. Due to the sensitive nature of my research, I had to come up with novel ways of addressing and preparing for certain dangers and issues. In addition, it was crucial to keep everything as anonymous as possible. I am thankful to the Ethics Committee for their cooperation in that regard and for their valuable feedback, which helped me prepare better for the fieldwork. I would advise all researchers embarking on fieldwork research to conduct an ethical review with their home institutions – whether it is required or not.

What do you believe is the added value of being a PhD researcher at the EUI?

The combination of learning and financial resources and the community of researchers. The EUI provides a great academic training when it comes to social and political sciences. This is achieved not only through world renowned scholars working at the Institute, but also in the way that the classes, workshops, and working groups are organised. Secondly, the financial resources afforded to researchers allow us to pursue additional training that might not be available at the EUI. For example, thanks to the mission funding, I attended a couple of summer schools in order to further hone in on methods and substantial subjects, and also went for an exchange at UC Berkeley in order to receive further training in ethnographic research.

Last, but most certainly not least, is the community of researchers. Studying does not only take place in the lecture halls – it is also carried out during coffee and lunch breaks, as well as at evening get togethers. The amount of knowledge and inspiration one can get from other researchers studying, very often, much different projects to your own, has been one of the most valuable and enriching experiences for me. Not to mention the friendships you make and the support you can get from other people who are in the ‘same boat’ as you. I really think the fact the EUI has a cohort structure is what makes this place what it is. Oh, and one more thing: Tuscany. I don't think I need to explain that one!


Mariusz Bogacki is a researcher at the EUI Department of Political and Social Sciences (SPS), where he is working on his PhD thesis entitled, 'What Comes After the Storm? Mapping and Defining Identity in post-2019 Hong Kong’. Mariusz is also a member of the research project ‘Institutions at Bay? Regional Integration and Identity’, as well as a coordinator of the Qualifie – Qualitative and Fieldwork Working Group.

Last update: 04 June 2024

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