Dr. Jennifer Chun

What is sociology?

In my opinion, sociology is an opportunity for students to better understand the world we live in. It provides conceptual tools and frameworks for thinking about who we are as individuals and the political, economic, social, cultural forces that influence our everyday lives. A very well-known sociologist C. Wright Mills coined the term, “Sociological Imagination” and I have often used this definition to help students reflect on and analyze the connections between their own personal lives and the broader society in which we live. 

Sociology also de-centers our common sense understanding of the world. We often perceive the world as something that is difficult to change. However, just as our daily lives are the products of constant change, we can also proactively engage in the world and have the power to change it. 

Which area of sociology are you specialized in?

The areas that I research are labor, culture, politics, immigration, social inequality and social change. I have done much of my research on the experiences of workers employed on the bottom rungs of the economy in low-paid, precarious and socially devalued jobs, and explored the kinds of strategies that workers and their collective organizations have developed to try and challenge social and economic injustice in different countries such as Korea, the U.S. and Canada.

Why did you decide to study sociology and pursue a career in academia?

Up until my second year at Dartmouth College, I was a passive learner. I did not always understand why I was learning what I was learning, or how to apply what I was learning to real life. The 1992 Los Angeles Riots changed that.

I had grown up in a suburban community near Chicago and knew very little about Korean communities across the United States. The Korean American community in my town was quite small, I had difficulty communicating with my parents due to language barriers, and we really did not learn anything about Korea or Korean Americans in school. I remember this time when one of my high school teachers organized a trip to East Asia, and I got really excited. I thought this would be a great opportunity to learn something about Korea. I was surprised, disappointed and confused when the teacher said to me, “We will not be visiting Korea on the East Asia trip because historically speaking, Korea is irrelevant when compared to China or Japan.” This kind of dismissive attitude affected how I felt about Korea, and affected my interest in Korea. This is something that sociologists might call “Internalized Racism.” It is when we mistakenly and sometimes unknowingly subscribe to the dominant logic that we are somehow inferior or less valuable.

So in 1992, I was really shocked when I saw a group of students assembled together and holding picket signs that said, “Burn, Koreatown, burn!” I had lived a relatively sheltered life up until that point, and did not have the knowledge or the critical thinking skills to understand why a predominantly African-American student group was gathered in the middle of the campus holding these signs. Later, when I learned about the L.A. riots, I learned that there were many self-employed Korean Americans in Los Angeles who were affected by the civil unrest, and that what was happening in 1992 seemed related to urban rioting that took place decades early. I tried to gain more information in the library but found very few books about Korean or Asian immigrant communities on the shelves. Many of my professors were also not able to answer my questions.

My last year at Dartmouth, I decided to write a senior thesis that focused on the history and construction of Korean American identities and communities. For a semester, I went to UC Berkley to take Asian American studies courses and I realized that there was much to learn about Korean Americans, and that we are not historically irrelevant. Nobody is irrelevant. That was the starting point of my academic journey and I see myself as part of a generation of young Asian American scholars who have taken a similar path. Many Asian American professors in the US have similar stories about translating their personal experiences into broader historical and political awareness about inequality, injustice, racism and discrimination. I really wanted to enter academia so that the future generation of students would not negative and dismissive things about what it means to be Korean or Asian American, or an Immigrant of any background. 

What caused the 1992 LA riots to occur and what can we do to prevent future incidents of such nature?

There was not much written before about Korean Americans in Los Angeles,, but now there are several major books written by Korean American researchers. What sparked the riots at first was about Rodney King. He was an African American man who was brutally beaten by four white LA police officers. This incident was video recorded by a witness bystander, in what is known to be one of the earliest video recordings of police brutality. This type of racially charged police brutality was actually quite common in many poor and criminalized communities, but when the video was shown on television news, there was enormous public outrage and shock. Police brutality was exposed as an important issue, and the police officers were put on trial for their despicable conduct. While people waited for the verdict, some were worried about the possibility of urban uprisings if the trial ended with an unjust verdict. When the verdict was released, and the four police officers were found not guilty by an all-white jury, the outrage about brutality and racism turned into civil unrest and rioting throughout the Los Angeles Area. In particular, Koreatown was targeted in part because of its proximity to an impoverished and predominantly Black area, and many Korean-owned stores burned to the ground as riots continued for days. Many people thought of this as a “Black-Korean conflict,” and thought that at least some of this was caused by African Americans who were angry and deeply offended by racist Korean immigrant business owners

But now we know it’s too simple to just say that Korean business owners were racist against Black people. Certainly, there were many who were, and still are, but that’s definitely not the whole story or maybe even not the most important story to tell. There are other dimensions to consider. First, when the LAPD prepared for the possible rioting, they went first to the wealthy areas of LA such as Beverley Hills, which is also very close to Koreatown. The police were there to protect the wealthy. Not only did the police leave Korean shop owners on their own and abandoned them, but they also in a way used Koreatown to contain the riots. As a result, Koreatown suffered a disproportionate amount of property damage in the riots, and the experience traumatized many Korean American immigrants who witnessed the destruction of family businesses and community spaces. 

The 1992 uprising was also an important example of class inequality. The police is publicly funded through tax dollars but when push came to shove, the LAPD went to protect the wealthy who were predominantly white, and left the Korean immigrants on their own. Like I said, many simplified this as a so-called “Black-Korean conflict,” but there were also a lot of Latinos and other racial, ethnic groups who were a part of the riot as well. But when the media started to cover it as a “Black-Korean conflict” and blamed everyone but the city officials, the police department, and the larger structures of racism, it was as though Koreans themselves were somehow responsible for what happened to Koreatown. Anti-Black racism is certainly an ongoing social problem, but we have to consider the broader and more complex context. Further studies suggest that the LA riots was actually not a race riot, but that it was a class riot. It was about how resources are distributed unequally, and how institutions protect a selected group but not others. 

An important dimension of this is that immigrant groups like Koreans move to a place seeking a better life. Many give up what they had before, such as professional occupation or status, when they move their families to a place where they don’t speak the language, and have no real understanding of the people who live and work there, people who also want a better life for themselves, their families, and their communities. Often times, immigrants simply think that if they work hard, then they can take care of themselves and their family. I think the LA Riots taught a lot of Korean Americans in LA how important it was for them to be involved in the political sphere. They needed political representation to say it wasn’t right for the police to abandon the Koreans or the media to demonize Korean business owners or African Americans. This led to a large number of Korean Americans who became political leaders on the local, state, and federal levels, who became more engaged in social and political activism around issues of racism and inequality, and people like me, who became academics to engage with the public in a different way.

Going forward, do you see today’s immigrants coming from Asia not being able to leverage their credentials and just settling for low paid jobs, especially in an age where South Korea, Japan, China and Hong-Kong have made so much economic progress?

Canadian immigration policy is becoming too narrowly focused on economic value, and because of this, there’s a tremendous waste of human capital. You have all these immigrants with skills and professional experience, but they are working at convenience stores, gas stations or as taxi drivers. This is much more pervasive in Canada than the US because Canada is an immigrant-recruiting country. Canada’s policy on immigration is very friendly on the surface. Since the 1970’s, if you have a university degree or professional experience, Canada opened its arms and promised opportunities. Immigrants came to Canada with high hopes since Canada was recruiting skilled and educated immigrants. The problem was that professional associations and employers were not on the same page as the government – they didn’t recognize their credentials. Therefore, many immigrants in Canada ended up working in low paid jobs. The mismatch in skills and employment is a problem that the government recognizes and has expressed the desire to change. The important question, though, is how will it be addressed in ways that do not reproduce familiar patterns of social inequality and discrimination.

But there is another reality too: the Canadian labour market needs people to work in lower-paid and often undesirable jobs. Due to changes in the economy and the growth of urban service economies, there is tremendous polarization in the labour market. There is increasing demand for highly-skilled and highly-paid professionals in finance, banking, engineering, marketing, research and design, and information technology alongside increasing demand for lower-paid service workers in the janitorial sector, food services, domestic care work, personal care, etc. Due to concerns that there are not enough Canadians to work in low-paid and often undesirable jobs, the government has been creating Temporary Foreign Worker programs in low-skilled sectors such as agriculture, domestic care work, hospitality and food services. Temporary Foreign Worker programs are touted as a “win-win” situation because they allow migrants who may be looking for economic opportunities to legally enter and work in Canada, but, in reality, they contribute to systematic racism and a two-tiered system that denies existing rights, welfare benefits and entitlements to certain people just because of their status as temporary foreign workers. Researchers who study temporary worker programs have alerted us to the systemic racism and inequality of this system, and some community groups and labour unions have begun to demand fundamental reforms in this immigration program. However, much more work needs to be done to raise awareness about the discriminatory aspects of temporary work and reject efforts to meet Canada’s labour needs by creating a second-class tier of workers.

Another issue is that some countries like India, China, Korea and Singapore which have experienced a so-called brain drain for several decades are trying to attract immigrants to return. There are new opportunities bring created for people to go back and work in their respective fields, as well as active recruitment efforts to entice “foreign talent.” This might seem like an important reversal of historical brain drain flows, but these efforts also tend to reproduce existing inequalities and hierarchies. For example, if you are educated in Canada or the US, and return to Korea, you are often viewed as more desirable and competitive than people who stayed in Korea because you have experience studying and working in an English-speaking country. So it’s creating new hierarchies there too. 

As low paid immigrant Koreans age, do you think that Korean-North American communities will experience challenges supporting these groups?

Poverty and economic hardship are things that do not discriminate in terms of ethnicity, gender, and age. Certainly, there are factors that make it more likely for someone to be be poor and have economic hardship in their life such as gender, race, education, and mental health issues. There are some community institutions that try to mediate the effects of economic hardship and poverty and provide social support for people with limited access to resources or assistance. But today, the welfare state is either being dismantled or on its way to be dismantled. Ironically, in Korea, the welfare state is being put into place but in ways that promote profit accumulation rather than actually protecting the poor and creating a genuine safety net. The idea that it is the government’s responsibility to protect the poor or to create a safety net is disappearing when these measures are in fact much needed. Even in Canada, the welfare state is eroding and government is providing less support to the poor. Many people are being entrepreneurial to earn money so that they can meet their most basic needs. 

We need to ask ourselves, what’s really important for us? What causes and exacerbates poverty? What is the government’s responsibility in creating decent jobs and raising the living standard? I remember reading about a soup kitchen in Baltimore, Maryland. The volunteer staff there noticed that same people seemed to be coming again and again to the soup kitchen over time, and that they didn’t look homeless. It turns out, one man had two jobs – one as a janitor at a university. He came to the soup kitchen to eat because even though he was working two jobs, he still did not earn enough money to pay for food. We have jobs that force people to live in poverty. There are people who can’t move out of poverty no matter how hard they work. The term “working poor” is a conundrum because if you work, you shouldn’t live in poverty, yet this is the reality facing so many people in our community. Korean immigrants are no exception. 

We would like to get a sense of how sociologists view current event today. What is the significance in your opinion having Ki-Moon Ban as head of the UN and Jim Kim as head of the World Bank? What does this mean to Koreans, Americans and to the world? 

When the top job at the World Bank opened up, there was an outcry from leaders of developing countries – it’s time to end this practice where being American is the main criteria for heading the World Bank. In a town called Breton Woods in New Hampshire, where the US and European Allied forces met in 1944 to discuss how to prevent another World War. They created multi-lateral organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank. They decided that the Europeans would select the IMF President, and the Americans would select the World Bank president. It has been this way since 1944. In 2012, people in developing countries who have been directly impacted by the World Bank’s policies and programs called for an end to this practice, and demanded a merit-based selection process. That’s the context for the World Bank presidency. So, for me, I have mixed feeling about Jim Yong Kim. I was happy to see that he became the president of my alma mater, Dartmouth College, because no Asian American had ever served as the president of an Ivy League. But when he took the World Bank job, articles said things like “Seoul-born Jim Kim to assume post at the World Bank,” not “US citizen Jim Kim”. He’s different from former presidents of the World Bank because he wasn’t a former secretary of defense, elected politician, or corporate CEO. He’s a physician by trade, headed up the HIV AIDS unit at the WHO, and he started a respected humanitarian organization called Partners in Health whose work was really critical for relief and rebuilding efforts after the devastating earthquakes in Haiti in 2010. Sure, he’s a leader in global health and a respected activist, and so he is more acceptable for the people in developing countries that were demanding a change in leadership. But the fact of the matter is that Mr. Kim continues the US’s control over that post. Similar things can be said about Mr. Ban in the United Nations. What should be more important than their ethnicity or nationality is the politics of power and the history of their position, and whether these individuals promote colonial domination and corporate interests or pursue an agenda of social justice and equality.

There was movement in social media regarding a Korean child with a disability. Long story short, the Canadian government rejected to support the child and his family’s immigration into Canada due to the child’s disability and the burden it would have on the tax payers. How would you evaluate this decision? 

This was a heartbreaking case. The child was diagnosed after they moved to Canada and it’s absolutely outrageous to reject his family’s application because of what his condition may cost the healthcare system. And yet things like this happen everyday, not only to Korean families but other immigrants as well.

Many cases get rejected based on narrowly economic view and this is a problem. Canada recruits immigrants who can contribute to the Canadian economic prosperity, but immigrants are not just economic contributions. They are whole human beings. They have families, bodies, and bodies that need care… Policymakers need to understand that when they recruit immigrants, they are recruiting human beings with a whole set of needs. You can’t just say, “we will just take the mother or the father, but leave the sick children.” This is even more outrageous when you think about Canada’s programs like the Live-in Care Program that recruits migrant workers to care for the sick and the elderly in Canada, without regard for their own families or sick children.

Immigration policies tend to see immigrants only for their economic and labor potential, and that’s why you have situations where their dependents are not wanted. There are ethical issues here. Immigration policy should be about building an infrastructure of support and mutual exchange of caring. In actuality, immigration policy has always been about social engineering, using a narrow criteria to determine which applicants can enter the country. Historically, the criteria was explicitly based on race and nationality, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in the US and Canada’s own Continuous Journey Regulation in 1908 targeting immigrants from India. But these days, it’s more difficult to justify such explicitly race and nationality-based policies of exclusion. Instead, we have economic rationale that accomplishes similar results of exclusion and selective inclusion. In a sense, economic logic is the new cultural racism.

How would sociologists evaluate US-Korea FTA? 

The US-Korea FTA was first signed in 2007. It was delayed for a while in part because the US wanted more import restrictions lifted for American cars and because Koreans were holding mass protests against the US-Korea FTA. It’s important to note that the protesters were not the usual suspects – the large-scale candlelight vigils brought out middle school students and housewives as well as farmers and political activists. The opposition to the FTA consisted of a diverse group of people, exercising their right to assemble and protest in a democratic society, and yet many ended up facing intense government repression and police brutality that was reminiscent of the authoritarian era of the past. Many were outraged by the continuing inequality in the relationship between the US and South Korea, and the ways that the Korean government prioritized business interests over public health.

Farmers have been particularly devastated by free trade agreements that open up the Korean market to US agricultural products. Korean farmers face an uphill battle in staying competitive and solvent when free trade agreements go into effect. US products are not necessarily cheaper because they are produced more efficiently; the US has a long history of heavily subsidizing their domestic agricultural sector making U.S. agricultural exports cheaper. Many scholars, especially in development studies, have studied cases of U.S. food subsidy practices and their devastating impact on farmers and the agricultural sectors of developing countries. 

So the question is: under the profit driven economy, people think free trade relationships are the best ways for everyone to be prosperous. But is the lower price all that matters? What if you are a farmer who’s been growing a particular product for generations, but cannot compete against subsidized American products that flood the market? What happens to the farmers, their families, their communities and villages? What happens to the land? What if no one can afford to grow food in Korea anymore because it can’t be profitable? What if Korea became entirely dependent on food imported from other countries? What if US food supply became contaminated or otherwise compromised? And then what would happen to food security? This is why the whole “mad cow” scare in the US was so alarming for Koreans who opposed the FTA—it reminded the public that cheap US beef could lead to an unhealthy and unsustainable relationship of dependency. 

A lot of people blame unions for failures and financial difficulties of recently troubled companies. Do you feel that unions are still necessary in developed countries like Canada where social welfare is well-established? 

In theory, unions are meant to protect the collective interest of workers in a particular workplace or industry. But, there are different kinds of unions. There is also much debate over the continued importance of unions and many businesses, governments and people have become hostile to their existence. Some people think unions are in it for themselves, and that they only protect their own members. But there are unions that improve workplace conditions, and historically, unions are the reason we have things like workplace safety standards, overtime pay, and even the weekend. Without unions, individual workers would be at the mercy of their bosses, and we cannot take for granted that social welfare or labor standards will be upheld. Without unions, who will represent the interest of workers? I definitely don’t romanticize unions, but ultimately, we need unions. We need good unions and a strong labour movement that carries a political voice.  In the U.S., corporations constantly lobby the government and CEOs constantly come up with ways to increase profit, often times by making workers work harder for less money. It may be easy for troubled companies to blame unions, but they have to look harder. Unions are no more outdated than fair employment standards or safe working conditions.

As much as I recognize the importance of unions, I’m critical of unions, too. Many labor unions need to pay attention to workers that they haven’t historically protected—women workers, immigrants, and people of color.  They also need to be more reflective about the ways in which they contribute to racism and discrimination, and develop more inclusionary and democratic strategies for genuinely representing the interests of workers, especially low-paid and socially disadvantaged workers. At the end of the day, all workers need a collective voice, and unions are a way to build power and accountability. 

If today was your last day as a professor, what would be your final words to your students?

I see Sociology as an academic discipline that give students the knowledge, the tools, whether they are concepts, theories, or frameworks, and the critical thinking skills to engage in the world in meaningful ways.

In my development classes, I tell students, “Work for community organizations. Work for the World Bank or the UN if you want. Work for a corporation or the government if that’s what you want to do. But remember that whatever you choose to do, bring the tools, concepts, theories, and analytical skills you learned in Sociology with you wherever you go so that you have sophisticated, just and ethical ways of solving problems.” That’s what sociology is about – it provides the theories, skills and ability for interpreting and ultimately, changing the world.

About Dr. Jennifer Chun

Dr. Chun is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia, and has recently joined the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. She obtained her BA at Dartmouth College and her MA and PhD at University of California, Berkeley. At UBC, she was affiliated with Liu Institute for Global Issues, Centre for Women and Gender Studies, Centre for Korean Research, and Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies. Her teaching areas are development and globalization, racial and ethnic inequality, immigration and transnationalism, political sociology, work and labour, and ethnography. Her research interests are animated by questions about the dynamics of power, inequality and social change under global capitalism, and her work explores how individuals and organizations negotiate economic and political shifts associated with transnational flows of labour, capital and goods across borders. In 2009, she wrote her first book, Organizing at the Margins: The Symbolic Politics of Labor in South Korea and the United States (Cornell University Press, 2009) which, in her own words,” examines how workers and labour unions in two different national contexts have attempted to challenge the downward pressures on wages and working conditions associated with neoliberal economic restructuring.” Dr. Chun is currently working on her second book project, Revaluing Immigrant Women’s Labour, which explores efforts to organize immigrant women workers in the San Francisco Bay Area and Vancouver. She has conducted numerous interdisciplinary projects and community-based research collaborations, and has published widely in her areas of expertise. 

Interview Date: May 15, 2012
Interviewers: Paul Lee, Alice Kim
Photographer: Brian Hansol Kang
Editors: Susan Hwang, Stella Chun, Paul Lee, Jason Park

The views expressed in the interviews are not necessarily reflective of JoinTheLeaders’s opinion