Social studies

Fuzzy reality

Social science research in Vietnam is very exciting – but tricky. It involves negotiating with bureaucrats, depends on overcoming prejudices and requires a lot of patience.

By Gabi Waibel and Judith Ehlert

Anyone seeking information about Vietnam today will find heaps of literature on the Vietnam War. This conflict is still the subject of a disproportionate number of publications. Current social science issues, however, remain underresearched – despite being of prime interest in view of the rapid change the country is witnessing.

Vietnam was reunited only after the war ended in 1975. The country began opening up to the world market in the mid-1980s. For social scientists, it is a kind of paradise – a nation breaking with the past, undergoing social transformation and offering a stream of new research topics.

For many years, Vietnam was completely inaccessible to researchers, which is probably the main reason for literature being so one-sided today. But in the 1980s, things began to change as the country opened up and cooperation on research and development projects resumed. There has, for instance, been an upswing in academic cooperation between Vietnam and Germany in the past two decades (see box).

Even though access restrictions have steadily diminished for foreign scholars, Vietnam continues to closely supervise research. The centralised socialist system is not particularly open to critical social research. Accordingly, there are not many potential partners for cooperation in the social sciences – and very few outside the major centres of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Nonetheless, we managed to launch an interdisciplinary joint research with Vietnamese partners, tackling social science issues in the context of water resource management.

Criticism unwelcome

Vietnam traditionally adopts a positivist approach to social science research and tends to distrust more critical social science approaches. Many European scholars disagree with this view. There is a clash of different ideas about what constitutes “good” social science research and what research methods make sense.

In Vietnam, survey research predominates. It basically relies on assessing statistically representative samples. Ethnographic work which relies on qualitative methods such as participant observation and long in-depth interviews is considered unscientific or at least irrelevant. Such explorative research methods, however, are meaningful because they allow researchers to transcend their own preconceived views and, instead, understand people’s ideas of things.

For foreigners, moreover, ethnographic research would be challenging because they are not allowed to move about freely. Initially, for instance, we were not allowed to stay overnight with families in villages because of “security” concerns. Close interaction, however, is the basis for participant observation.

Similar issues arose when we wanted to interview experts. Our research was environment-related, and the statutory responsibility for managing natural resources such as water resides with the government. Therefore, most interviewees were government offi­cers. The interviews were extremely formal, with offi­cers basically reiterating government documents. At the same time, our access to local communities such as water user groups was carefully monitored. When conducting household interviews, we had to be accompanied by officials.

Before doing the interviews, moreover, we had to apply for a research permit – a protracted procedure in which the topic of the interview and individual points of discussion had to be disclosed and authorised by the government. This bureaucratic effort was necessary for every single interview – and no departure from the approved plan was permitted. To ensure compliance, the police occasionally made control ­visits. At the same time, our interview partners themselves made sure that all formalities were observed. Obviously, such a setting has a bearing on an interview’s results as people do not feel free to speak their mind.

In Vietnam, a great deal of information and data is considered sensitive. Even in informal conversation, many interview partners showed us documents only if we promised not to make the information available to third parties. As researchers, we faced a dilemma: on the one hand, we needed to respect and protect our informants; on the other, we would generally wish to validate our findings by disclosing our sources. Difficulties in obtaining information are generally symptomatic of research in the country.

Our research showed that knowledge is widely treated like an economic good in Vietnam. In academic circles and government agencies, there is little institutionalised exchange of information; information is mainly shared in personal relationships. Academics tend not to publish much because a great deal of their time is taken up by teaching duties and consulting work for foreign donors.

When they do publish professional articles, they typically write in Vietnamese and reach their audience through institute publications. As a result, Vietnamese academics are hardly visible at the international level. Language is another serious challenge for most foreigners because they need an interpreter as well as a translator in order to access written material. At the same time, research is highly politicised in Vietnam. Joint publications sometimes fail to materialise because Vietnamese professionals are keenly aware how far they can take critical analysis.

Beyond formal institutions

Social science research is immensely exciting in Vietnam despite such restrictions – or more precisely, because of them. Years of research and work in the country have helped us to gather a great deal of contextual insights and accumulate new methodological expertise.

Thanks to our local partners we learnt how to conduct social science research in Vietnam. After many attempts, we found out that it is indeed possible to work outside the formal institutions and gain insights into more than merely the official view. To do so, it is necessary to build a close and lasting relationship with partners. For this purpose, we set up a local office and ensured that a contact was present at all times.

Thanks to personal relationships built on trust, we secured internships in research institutes and were able to stay with local families. Both proved important ways of accessing valuable information.

Our Vietnamese partners and stakeholders were keen on our research results. We therefore compiled the results, translated them into English and Viet­namese and made them available to local partners, institutes, agencies and libraries. This was a lot of work, but worth the effort. We paid attention to peer review and bilingualism, publishing our analyses in Vietnam and drafting them in a way that made them suitable for teaching and training purposes. Moreover, we summarised our findings in a brochure specifically written for the technical staff of planning authorities.

However, there were limits to the policy recommendations we could make. Some of our institution-related findings proved too sensitive, which, in turn, was hard to explain to our German partners and sponsors. The German agencies want to run cooperation projects that use science to initiate change. At present, however, such comprehensive cooperation can only be a long-term objective. For all practical purposes, academic cooperation is still at a very early stage.

Understanding change

The conditions for social science research are challenging in Vietnam. Researchers face the laborious task of learning how to cope. Specific challenges are formulating questions and conducting interviews. Researchers need to plan for the long term because engaging with bureaucracy is extremely time-consuming. In the field, on the other hand, researchers have to be particularly flexible.

In any case, research is very important in Vietnam. Much of the socio-economic and cultural change that is sweeping the country has yet to be understood. In the long run, the findings and observations of social scientists will no doubt contribute to a better understanding of ­local working relations, decision-making and power structures.

Cooperation between universities in Germany and Vietnam has steadily increased since the mid-1990s. Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), in particular, fund projects in the areas of environmental research and technology. The projects are mostly interdisciplinary, incorpo­rating technological, scientific and social science components. Project management is generally in the hands of the technologists.

Social sciences, however, are particularly important in a country like Vietnam. Technological ­inventions bring progress only if politicians and society are also convinced of their usefulness. At the same time, scientists need to gain an understanding of ­socio-economic developments. And they need to appreciate how policy decisions are made. (gw/je)

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