In their recent article in this journal entitled, Undertaking Qualitative Research in Ambiguous, Conflictual, and Changing Contexts, Kacen and Chaitin (2006) pose an interesting and increasingly important question researchers can face when studying populations in ambiguous, conflictual circumstances. They ask: "how does the researcher know what events are 'worthy' of study when the context in which s/he is working is uncertain, ambiguous, and constantly changing?" (p. 210). Even more relevant to our essay is a second issue they raise: "once a topic of inquiry is chosen, and the field abruptly and significantly changes on the researcher, how [does] s/he deals with these rapid changes; changes which might result in a severe revision, or even worse, the end of the planned research?" (p. 210).
The Kacen and Chaitin (2006) article explores qualitative research issues that arise when researchers engage in study within their own society. They argue that "the researcher who is in the middle of such 'action' may have quite a lot to offer not only to audiences from his/her society, and to audiences from other places around the world, but also to herself as she reflects on her special place within the society and within the research" (p. 223). For example, one of the authors contributes important insights about insider issues, such as waiting to present research results until her children were no longer at the age for compulsory military service.
Our essay extends discussion about ways to consider managing uncertainty when the research field abruptly and significantly changes on the researcher. We describe how we confronted a series of dilemmas with our project, based on a modification of the question posed by Kacen and Chaitin (2006). Our question states: "When researchers engage in study outside their own society, how do they manage unstable, conflictual, and rapidly changing events?"
Our data collection experience coincidentally began one week before the Urumqi city, Xinjiang, China, riots of 2009 in which over 200 people were reported as killed and many more injured. Our essay is comprised of three topics: (a) our original research agenda and the uncertain situation in Xinjiang in recent years, (b) how we modified our research project and approach to data collection, and (c) what we learned that can contribute to knowledge about conducting research under ambiguous, potentially unstable, and rapidly changing socio-political conditions.
Our Research Agenda and the Uncertain Situation We Confronted
For the last several years we have been studying ethnic minorities in China, with special attention to the Uyghur population of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, a Muslim group. Nearly all Uyghur people live in Xinjiang, where they comprise 43.35% of the region's total (Li, 2005). Racial tension and conflict in ethnic minority regions of inland and Western China, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, have a long history and have been escalating in recent years. Racial conflicts in areas inhabited by minority nationalities have been the subject of many studies (e.g., Clarke, 2009; Gladney, 2004; Harrell, 2001; Lipman, 1997; Tyler 2004), but very little research has been conducted to analyze the impact of racial conflict on the health of elderly populations of these geographic areas.
We became interested in studying the health status of ethnic minorities in China, including the impact of racial conflict on health, for personal and professional reasons. Dr. Li was born and has lived in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China. However, she has lived in the U.S. for the last 25 years and now is an American citizen. Because of her early life experiences, she has developed an ongoing interest in racial conflict and the effects of globalization in Xinjiang. Her research focuses on the social and economic impact of developmental policies on marginalized groups in China, and racial tensions in Xinjiang and how they are likely to be intensified through Xinjiang's increasing levels of urbanization and modernization. …