Doing Research = Doing Dirty Work

When I was in college, I thought doing scholarly research meant something very fancy. I admired the professors who taught me then. Some of them were invited to testify before Congress for immigration reforms. Others presented cool research, and wrote beautiful novels. It seemed to me that a scholar, especially the public intellectual one, was highly regarded because they have read a lot of books, articles, and they know a lot.

I was so wrong.

I learned the hard way that doing research especially in an American institution means doing a lot of dirty work. By dirty work I mean the kind of unnamed, unappreciative, unglamorous labor like cleaning data, creating tables, organizing archival materials, recruiting participants via emails, phones, Facebook, writing research manuscripts, editing them many many times, and sometimes answering emails from your co-authors. Everything is labor intensive, time-consuming. Most of them I would categorize as clerical tasks.

I first learned about doing this type of work when I was working as a research assistant for a couple of anthropologists of religion after my college years. My job then was mostly doing archival research, plus writing ethnographic observations about community activities in Berlin. The work was lonely, very lonely. Everyday I went to the Federal Archive in Berlin-Lichterfelde, ordered folders of written materials, skimmed through them, took notes, and then ordered copies. It was my 9 to 5 job. There was no place to hang out at the archive. Everyone around me was either a seasoned historian writing a next book for their job promotion, or a PhD student in history or cultural studies trying to write their dissertation. We had nothing in common. People were quiet there. Maybe it’s just a German public space etiquette. People tend to speak in very low voice in public spaces especially one that is designated as a research area.

Sometimes I got bored with reading governmental administrative records, I would order film rolls to read and skim newspaper articles. The film room was in another hall. It was separated from the main archive reading room. The film room was full of machines where you can read newspaper articles that were digitized into film rolls. Thanks to digitalization of archive materials, most people nowadays would not know how these machines work. They look like archive newspaper reading machines from the 80s movies. The films are called microforms, or microfilms. A researcher often orders many film rolls. They would then place it on the machine properly, align the lenses for projection, and then would manually roll the films one negative at a time. There is no search button, there is no jump button, you just have to move one at a time to look for some relevant materials.

The only sound that came from that room was the clicking sound when one rolls the film from one negative to another. It was click click click…. Every once in a while, I would hear people print some articles. All the chitchats were kept very low, I could barely hear anything else.

My young adulthood was full of moments like those when I would venture into archives, explore ethnic cultural scenes alone. The process of writing memos each night was also very lonely. There was only me and my computer staring at each other. In many ways, this period living in Germany trained me to be extremely reflexive, writing with intensity, listening to whispering around me, and feeling comfortable in my skin because I knew that nobody was doing what I was doing, and people didn’t care about what I was doing. I was the only one who knew what I had to do, and that I had a deadline. Regardless of how boring and repetitive the job was, I had a sense of purpose. I became bolder during the process.

What motivated me every day to go to the archive 1 hour away from home was that I would be touching some historical artifacts that 99.99% of the world population did not even know that they existed. The topic of interest was so obscure that 99.99% of the world population did not care about. But I cared, and the fact that this event made me one of the very few people on earth care about it emboldened me. I had the privilege to care about something that most people did not care about. It felt empowering. That was the moment when I started to appreciate doing research dirty work: the data collection process.

Then I came to the PhD program. My first official research project that felt organized, and purposeful was a research about food startup founders in New York City. I interviewed food startup founders in the city to understand their challenges of producing food products for consumption in an ever changing food landscape, and in a city where food production has very limited space especially the shelf-stable items. The research process was intense. I had to email hundreds of people in order to score about 40 interviews. The processes of drafting the email, following up with them, going to their production space, interviewing and writing memos were tedious. It seemed that nobody appreciated my work. One professor in my program caught up with me in the elevator one day. I gave him a one-minute pitch of what I was doing. He told me that my research sounded fun. What an attitude! I thought to myself. I was doing it for myself, because I was curious, and that there was a small prize at the end: a publication.

Sometimes I asked myself often during this research. Is it really worth it to go through that extent the labor, the amount of work, the pain, and the various social anxiety, social isolation to produce a product of intellectual work, i.e., a publication? It felt that in the process of engaging in such a research, I learned so much about industrial policy of New York City, startup culture, and cultural changes in food consumption and distribution of the new economy, one that was filled with technological innovations, knowledge work, overeducated workers who were doing underpaid work.

Would I consider then what I learned through the process was valuable enough to justify for the time and labor investment that I put in such a project? It felt like worth it because I felt that on a personal level I have become so much more connected to the city that I live in: New York City. On a professional level, I can now speak with authority, and confidence about the startup culture in NYC, and some about industrial policy and urban culture of New York. It feels like I know so much more now than before I did the project.

Does it mean then doing research is to collect data and make sense of something that is going on, and that the researcher knows more about that subject matter than most people in the world? The idea that the researcher has dived deep into a particular subject matter, and is one of a few experts can justify all other costs including social isolation, psychological distresses when things don’t go well, not to mention financial losses. The social prestige of being a researcher, the fulfilling feeling of knowing might trump many of the moments when I sweat out collecting data, and the frustration that sometimes doing research means that there’s no outcome at all.

I feel more comfortable now than before about doing research. I also hedge more now than before when it comes to a research project. I care more about the concrete outcomes and impacts of each project now than simply focusing on the discovery aspect of research.

However, I think one thing hasn’t changed for me which is that for any research project regardless of the outcome (which is oftentimes a publication), I treasure the fact that I can and will learn something new in the process. That all what matters at the end of the journey.

Uncovering Social Assumptions

Your job as a researcher and an academic is to make known social assumptions.

In one of our regular phone calls, my advisor told me that I should be able to write about social assumptions, who has those, believes in them, and acts accordingly in the world. It was in the context when one of my dissertation chapters did not fully crystalize the social tension between content moderation and the often taken for granted absolutist freedom of speech in American culture. When I write, I take freedom of speech at face value. I assume that it is actually guaranteed for anyone living in the United States. My blindspot was pointed out. The assumption is that everyone interprets freedom of speech to mean that anyone can say whatever they want. But it’s not what actually is written in the law. The law protects dissents from government’s persecution.

This idea of absolute freedom of speech is a socially constructed idea, but it has had real life consequences. Thus as a sociologist, it’s my professional duty to make this assumption explicit, and to draw the various contours of the debate between content moderation and freedom of speech.

This is a challenge. I’m kind of stuck thinking about it at this moment. I feel like I want to throw the chapter in the air, and write something new.

Uncovering social assumptions is a hard job. Having the ability to observe how people behave, and translating this observation into words are not easy. It feels to me that my thinking is still not clear on this debate yet, thus writing about it is such a challenge.

I have two solutions to become unstuck. The first solution is keep reading on the debate, and think about it a lot. I often find running, going for a long walk, or sometimes taking a long bath helps. The second solution is to let it run in the back of my mind, while writing about something else. Maybe once I write about that something else, how to resolve the debate between content moderation and freedom of speech would come to me. The second option is sometimes labeled as”productive procrastination,” or honestly “wistful thinking.” It’s my wish that the writing would become clearer. Many a times, I find that laboring on a problem for a long period of time, and keeping at it might be a better idea. At this point, I will do intermittent thinking about this chapter while writing about another chapter to feel that I’m actually making some progress. Hopefully by the end of this week, I won’t feel too stuck anymore.

Techno-Developmentalism and Tech Talent Problem

I wrote a summary of the article “Upgrading China through Automation,” by Sociologist Ya-Wen Lei for Montreal AI Ethics Institute last year.

In the article, Lei introduces the concept techno-developmentalism, which she defines as “developmental agendas that prioritize the pursuit of technological advances, R&D and industrial upgrading.” What I observed from the article is that in order to become a techno-state, the Chinese government incentivizes high tech research and development, using robots in industrial production with the goal to increase productivity. They also value inputs from high-skilled workers, ie. tech talents, while ignore concerns from low-skilled workers.

This article got me thinking about the state of digital economy transformation in Vietnam. If Vietnam was to follow China in implementing the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it would also have to put a lot of investment in infrastructure, and tech talent. This is an unavoidable path.

I then discussed with my colleague and favorite co-author, Khoa Lam, a Machine Learning researcher at BABL AI to write an op-ed and report about the state of tech talent in Vietnam, and the various challenges that AI companies would face given the current educational infrastructure. Together, we did research for a period of three months, and used the next three months to write and edit our article, which has been published on The Gradient.

We found that there seems to be a shortage of tech talent, or simply engineering talent. Many engineers in Vietnam work in outsourcing industry, which means that they work on products that are part of some systems for companies overseas. Many of Vietnamese overseas partners are game companies in China and Japan. The AI startup ecosystem is nascent, there’s a strong demand, but formal education in AI and data science has only been recently established. In fact, only starting from 2019, universities throughout the country could start to offer AI and data science as college majors.

Bootcamps are also stepping up to fill certain labor market gaps. However, they face strong cultural resistance because as a credential-based society, managers strongly prefer those with formal education in AI, data science, and computer science.

After outlining the various details around the lack of tech talent in Vietnam, we outline a few solutions. For more detail, you can read here…

Town Fairs and Political Recruitment

Last weekend, I went to a small town music and art festival in my small city. The entire main shopping street was blocked off for the fair. It was full of energy, activities. The entire street was bursting with smells of the summer: BBQ, popcorn, cotton candy, chocolate and frozen fruits, etc. Rock music was the order of the day. There were two stages at the beginning and the end of the street. Everyone was putting on their most festive summer clothes and sung glasses to enjoy the event. Kids had an entire block to paint. Dogs also had dog treats tent. Local stores could rent tents right in front of their stores to promote their foods, clothes, and crafts.

Almost at the end of the street, a sign caught my eye. It said “Republican Party of Town XYZ.” The line in front of it was bustling with noise. Three muscular looking young men were staying behind the table, and passing flyers to young folks who were inquiring about their activities. The visuals were striking to me. Instead of a plain elephant symbol that normally stands for the Republican Party, the chosen flag of this booth was the blue lives matter flag. It occupies more than half of the booth background. It often signifies threat to me: a woman of color. The many layers of symbolism and signals at the booth have kept me thinking about the various political currents in the small city I live in.

The folks who were behind the table, and the young folks, a pretty diverse group on the other side of the table talked with zeal about the various activities and ideology that they believe in. This signified to me that the Republican party at least in the era that I live in are trying to recruit younger members. This is an interesting phenomenon.

As I toured the entire street, I wonder whether I would encounter the equivalent of such booth from the Democratic Party of my town. It did not exist. On the other end of the street, there were three different separate booths that represent liberal political activism. One had to do with stopping nuclear weapons; another was about reproductive rights; and probably one was about environmental causes. However, none of these booths exhibited any zeal, the high level of energies that the other one exhibited. I felt sad. It looked to me that the liberal causes that used to energize a lot of people did not get the same level of excitement at this particular summer fair.

What is going on here? Has the the Democratic party in my town become complacent. Do they think that using micro-targeting recruitment online is enough? Or that since my town is squarely located in a blue state area, it’s not worth their efforts?

I am certainly not well-read or well-informed enough about these matters to make a prediction. However, what I saw last week definitely have raised many questions in my head about on-the-street political activism. Especially as the Mid-term election of 2022 is here, I cannot help but observe political movements with anxiety.

Withdrawing from Social Media

I quit Twitter two weeks ago. It used to be my place to go to for news. I followed reporters, opinion writers, commentators, and academics on the platform. They often retweet what they write, or their summaries of interesting articles. It was inspiring to read an author’s own summary of a research paper for example. I thought I could learn from their thread-writing style as an academic. Some people just do it so well.

I used to think that writing Twitter threads in a very succinct and interesting way is a young person thing. I was so wrong. I saw that many New York Times opinion writers including Paul Krugman roll their Twitter threads in a super engaging way. Maybe the New York Times provides them with Twitter engagement lessons such that they could go online and engage their readers through their own personal brands.

Then the richest man on earth bought Twitter.

Many academics, writers, and colleagues remain on the platform. To many, it’s their public square. Without it, their community disappears. Some have chosen to distance away from the platform but not necessarily quitting. They keep their presence on the platform, but stop producing new content. They become passive consumers of other people’s content. Maybe sometimes they would use it like a message board: posting some announcements about their book talks or TV appearances.

I quit.

The decision wasn’t particularly stressful or traumatic. It am not a famous academic. I don’t have a clearly well-defined community that I am attached to on Twitter. I didn’t have a lot of following. I wasn’t a micro celebrity. My purpose of using Twitter was to keep up with trends in research, and cool stuff in AI ethics. I was simply using Twitter to keep tabs on discourses that I care about. In other words, I have not gained much from the platform. So the idea of giving it up was very enticing to me when there’s a strong nudge.

There was a withdrawal period when I did not know what to do with my extra time. Theoretically, I should use that time to read books, articles, and write my dissertation. But my brain can only take in so much every day. It got bored, tired, and even hurt if I don’t take a break, or don’t give it a dose of inspiration, or social interaction.

I am learning to adjust to my new life without a Twitter account.

First, I get back to the practice suggested by Jaron Lanier: read newspapers on their own websites. Do not use social media to get the news. I used to disagree with Laron Lanier’s doom evaluation of social media. He believed that social media platforms are terrible. They destroy democracy, and our mental well-beings. My critique of his assessment of social media is in line with other social scientists such as Mary Gray. I argue that social media is not simply an economic engine where the users get information, and get some psychological rewards for scrolling through a lot of content. The part that Lanier forgot about is that it is “social.” That means, for a person who was coming of age when Facebook was getting on the scene, and maturing with Facebook, my identity and my generation’s identity are attached to Facebook’s identity. To keep up with my friends, the easiest way is to use Facebook. The social aspect of it makes it hard to quit. It’s not Facebook anymore for other folks such as Gen Zers. It might be Tik Tok or Snap, or Instagram for them. The idea is social media has become part of the social for everyone.

I am not really wedded to Twitter in the same way that I am to Facebook. Twitter is more like an informal networking place for professionals. It was useful for writers to brainstorm, to get their ideas out, and a lot of times to respond to angry readers, and harassers.

So to replace my news reading activities, I go to the New York Times website and read the news. Possibly I will subscribe to the Washington Post soon. My go-to news and magazines that I admire, and would like to contribute some day include the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. For news in Vietnamese, I read VNexpress, Vietcetera, and sometimes Vietnamnet.

This has become my new practice now: periodically checking the websites of the above-mentioned news organizations. Currently I have thoroughly enjoyed the Times’ 3-part series on Tucker Carlson. I highly recommend this series to anyone who is interested in how Fox News and talk shows have influenced American politics, as well as radicalizing American voters.

By my withdrawing from a platform, and not contributing to its statistics such as time spent scrolling, or producing content for the platform, I am actively withdrawing from the attention economy where information is the commodity. Sarah T. Roberts observes in Behind the Screen:

The content is just too valuable a commodity to the platforms; it is the bait that lures users in and keeps them coming back for updates to scroll, new pictures or videos to view, new posts to read, and new advertisements to be served.

Roberts writes about content in the context of commercial content moderation where social media platforms would keep using content moderators to sort through illegal content such as child pornography, terrorism, copyright infringement, etc. The workers would be psychologically affected and would never recover from the demange of seeing those content. Even with artificial intelligence, real human beings are still literally behind the screen working to ensure that the Internet is usable for the majority of people. Platforms want users to continuously generate content because that’s their commodity. There would be no way that content moderators’ job would disappear in any time soon.

My act of stopping using a platform is a way to stay away from this cycle of content production, moderation, and attention.

Finally, to get my dose of social interaction, I have started to talk to a friend, a colleague or a reader at least once or twice a week to generate new ideas, and feeling that I am a part of some loosely defined community. This is working for now. I hope that I will be able to truly exercise digital minimalism at some point. As of now, I think my distancing away from social media suffices for this period of my life.

The Problem with Students’ Mental Health

In April, the discussion around mental health issues among students increased significantly within the Vietnamese diaspora. Whenever I visited a Vietnamese speaking Facebook group, some people would talk about mental health awareness, or mental health service access for students. These discussions started because a student from a highly selected high school in Hanoi committed suicide. The media response was intense. Commentators wrote about depression, high school pressure, tiger parenting, etc.

As I argue in my latest piece for VnExpress, “We Need Professional Mental Health Services in Schools,” to understand students’ various mental health problems, one has to connect these issues to institutions where the students are embedded in. These institutions include the family, the school, and others. Furthermore, the fundamental lack of knowledge of psychology and mental health in general makes the problem worse. Mental health problems become invisible, and they should not be. Finally, I also argue that students’ (and everyone’s) mental health was worsened during the COVID-19.

By pointing out that the lack of care to students’ mental health problems as a problem that schools and families can work together, I argue that each group of actors can contribute to solve this problem. Parents can learn about different types of mental health issues. Teachers can get training about mental health issues. Schools can have therapists and counselors on staff, or work with community organizations to provide services to students. These actionable steps could be implemented at home, at school, and by civic organizations.

For more detail about the case that I was arguing for, see the full article…


White by Law

Law then constructs racial differences on several levels through the promulgation and enforcement of rules that determine permissible behavior. The naturalization laws governed who was and was not welcome to join the polity, anti-miscegenation laws regulated sexual relations, and segregation laws told people where they could and could not live and work. Together, such laws altered the physical appearances of this country’s people, attached racial identities to certain types of features and ancestry, and established material conditions of belonging and exclusion that code as race. In all of these ways, legal rules constructed race.

White by Law by Ian Haney López

In White by Law, Ian Haney López examines prerequisite cases–cases based on racial restrictions on naturalization. By closely deconstructing supreme court justices’ and judges’ arguments on why certain people could be naturalized based on their “whiteness.” According to the 1790 Naturalization Act, only “free white persons” were allowed to be naturalized. Free Black people were also allowed naturalization in certain places. However, according to this act, everyone else including native Americans, and Asians was excluded based on their race.

Only in 1952, the new Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 barred racial and gender discrimination in naturalization. This means for almost 200 years, immigrants who lived in the United States who were not defined as white would not be able to obtain naturalization, and thus many rights. Many of those naturalization cases went all the way to the supreme court, where justices actually decided whether they were white enough based either on “scientific” definition of who a white person was, or on “common,” i.e. social, understanding of who a white person was. By actively defining whether the person who is seeking naturalization was white enough, the judges, and justices contributed to the social project of racial categorization.

What I really appreciate in Lopez’s work is that he argues that whiteness is a relational category. It cannot be defined by itself. It has to be defined in relation to what non-white means. By defining the people who were seeking naturalization as none-white, the justices, and judges, even the plaintiffs themselves solidified the white racial category.

Laws are powerful, and in this case of naturalization law it decides what the makeup of the population should be. This point is powerful. Laws and demography are actually related. Those are not two separate fields. The interactions between those two fields shape the society that we live in.

This brings me to the recent story of Amy Wax, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, who has consistently expressed racist views against Asian and Black students and scientists. Most recently she made national news by expressing such views on Fox News. Many have called for UPenn to fire her for expressing racist views. Other are angry because she said that people of color are angry and envious of Western people’s achievements. To them, it’s not that people of color are angry against any Western achievement. The truth is that people of colors’ contributions in those achievements were written off, silenced, and stolen. Credits are never given where they were due is the main point of contention.

What is most worrisome in this case to me was that her view might be the view of many in the legal profession. The legal profession still behind in diversity, people of color particularly women of color still hear that they do not belong in the profession. Research in sociology has shown that elite law firms have a “pedigree” hiring practice, meaning that they prefer to hire students from elite schools who would participate in the same kind of elite extracurricular activities, and internships. One aspect of this homophily coded language is the race factor, where racial homophily between the interviewers and interviewees plays a role.

The racial and class makeup of the legal profession aside, I wonder how many people of color would succeed in such a profession where the partnership system in large firms in a long run ultimately weeds out who would rise to the top of such firms. I have heard cases of women and people of color either get laid off or voluntarily leave the firms because they did not fit in or did not appear to be the partner type.

I think that this problem of racial diversity in law would not go away. It does not look to me that after the 2020 success of Black Lives Matter movement, the legal profession would suddenly want to diversify itself. Most organizations in the United States reacted after the societal change after #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter. However, it feels to me that the legal profession is a much more conservative industry than others such as tech or media.

While the nation is celebrating the appointment of the first black female supreme court justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, the legal profession also gave me a chilling feeling from what a female professor could say about other racial groups especially the highly educated ones.

When I was in college, I was convinced that I should go to college. The first class that I took was a first year seminar entitled “The First Amendment.” We wrote memos on First Amendment cases, spanning from the 18th century to the digital age. I enjoyed the class thoroughly, and had high hope of my being able to become an employment lawyer. However, the more I read about how expensive a law education was, and how as a women of color I would be sidelined, I gave up shortly after. It was not for me. Many things screamed out loud that it would be such a suffering journey, and I would not even know why I had to endure such a journey, and to what end.

Eventually I ended up in sociology, I feel much happier in this profession. I find values in my identity, and that my many different identities would give me an edge in knowledge production. Not only has sociology empowered me with knowledge to describe the socio-political and cultural forces that shape who I am, it also has appreciated the unique point of view that my lived experience allows me to provide. I feel like I do not have to follow any mold to be successful, but instead I have been inspired continuously by great work of other scholars whose identities are also very unique.

Which Company has Sabbatical Policies?

As I am about to leave academia shortly, I have already started missing the idea of academia. I miss writing about a topic that takes a lot of thinking and debates to crystalize. I miss days on end spending on reading, reading, reading, and nothing else. I miss debating with my colleagues. I miss inspiring young students, and guiding them through their research projects. And most intensely I miss the idea of “a sabbatical year.”

Before I started my entry into the scholarly life of a researcher, many struggling postdocs and researchers that I met at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Ethnic and Religious Diversity justified to me their decision to become academics to be the “flexible hours, and life style.” To them, becoming an academic is a vocational calling, an almost religious idea that your career, your vocation is made out for you, and predetermined. It has an air of prestige, of honor, and of divinity to it. This divine calling of the profession also cloaks in it many dark sides, and corners of academia. The many factors that as an undergraduate I never thought about: exploitation, racial dynamics, immigration, and the two-body problem. Furthermore the idea that one can choose one’s vocation signals a privilege idea that it’s within one’s power to choose it or not.

Credit: Unsplash

I gave academia a try. The only time that I really felt as though I belong, and this is my calling was my last year. Only more than half a decade into the journey did I feel like I got a hang of it. I had a strong collaboration circle, people with whom I can bounce ideas, and write articles with. I started to have fun writing articles, and writing responses as well as rebuttals against some of the most harsh and unreasonable comments from journal reviewers. I felt like eventually I understood what this profession meant. I also started writing op-eds for various venues, and felt that the public also engaged with me. Maybe I could eventually become a public intellectual one day.

Yet, I am leaving academia in about a month. Many of those skills, and accomplishments that I have been building for a career that I deemed not really for me might all go wasted. Furthermore, I already feel nostalgic for the idea of sabbatical. How would I be able to take a year off to research and write about something that I am extremely passionate about, to engage with cutting edge research in my discipline(s), field(s).

In the United States merely 4 percent of companies offer paid sabbaticals, and 16 percent unpaid ones. An employee only gets to enjoy one to two-weeks of sabbatical after five, seven to ten years in service. These statistics don’t look really appealing for a book project for example. The lengths of the break are too short. Who can do anything substantial within only one to two weeks? This version of sabbatical is more like having time to deal with long-term employees’ burnout instead. Job burnout should be considered as physical and mental health problem that the government and companies should simply have policies to address their employees’ emotional, physical and emotional healths. Instead, they borrow academia’s sabbatical idea as a way to not have to deal with the problem of burnout in a systematic way. I am not arguing that academics do not get burnout. As the prime examples of the intellectual workforce, academics might have more burnout than others due to the amount of administrative work, and the publication demand especially for young faculty members who might or might not have tenure.

I know cases where so-called “independent researchers” resigned from a job, got affiliated with a university as an unpaid fellow for a year to write a book, and then independently found another job after the book project was completed. This round did not sound enticing to me. Maybe for a rich person who was born with a trust fund, it would not be a bad option if they are really passionate about their writing project. I do not want to go back in time when only the rich and the privileged can produce intellectual work. I want to be a part of the enterprise as who I am, and I want to write on the side, or on the job. I just want to be acknowledged, and the credit for the work that I do, and get supported from any organization that I will be a part of.

Google used to have a 20% rule where employees can devote 20% of their time towards side projects that they think might help Google’s products in some shape or form. This sounds like a cool idea for a tech company where products change very quickly. The company however discontinued this program in 2013. Though this idea is not really similar to a sabbatical year, it is akin to a sabbatical day of the week. I can use that day to read, write, and recharge. At the end of the day, it was a good way to use my creative energy.

Because of the transformation of the academy whereby the majority of faculty now are adjuncts, the phenomenon of adjunctification. The neoliberal university cuts costs by reducing tenure lines, overtraining PhD holders, and increasing class sizes. These changes make securing a tenure track job more of a myth than a career choice. With these changes, I can foresee that there would be more PhD holders in industry. This effect would not necessarily colossal, but the impacts would be palpable in many industries.

With more academics going into industry, I can foresee the idea that some of them still want to keep produce rigorous academic research work. Every once in a while they also want to write a high impact book. Some of them still regularly write op-eds. Those these activities are not necessarily rewarded in annual evaluations. They are part of these people’s identities. Maybe their identities were what got them the job to start with. I wonder how companies can start incorporate these eccentricities of employing a PhD holder into their yearly evaluation. I wonder which companies have more generous sabbatical policies for employees to take advantage of.

If such a place exists, I would love to know. That work place would be a dream come true for me.

I finished My First Marathon

Last sunday (April 25), I finished running a marathon, the Brooklyn Marathon. I was the first time I ran it, and I finished it. The result was abysmal. I came last out of 2800+ people who ran. To me, it was a badge of honor because what mattered was that I ran and finished.

I believe that running a marathon is a perfect analogy to conducting a dissertation research. In the fourth year in my PhD studies, I signed up for the first half marathon (13.1 miles). It took a lot of time and effort, but I also finished it. The first time I felt like I could push myself to finish something quite strenuous. Running and finishing a marathon is also a way for me to validate my own perseverance, and to believe in myself when few or no-one around me seem to quite believe that I can do something that arduous.

This time around I attempted a full marathon, a full 26.2 mile run instead of a 13.1 mile half marathon. I know by now that I could run a half marathon fine, especially if I train myself a bit before the run.

Starting about 7 weeks before the race, I signed up for a membership at a nearby gym. The weather in New York City has been very cold this year even now when May is almost here. I thought running on a treadmill could resemble some part of running for a marathon. I went to the gym every other day. Each time I ran for about 5 miles within an hour. It’s not too bad of a speed for me. I did that pretty regularly for about the last 3 weeks prior to the race. One would think: 5 miles per hour means about 5.5 hours for the entire marathon. This is very slow, but not too bad. I feel like I can handle 5.5 miles of running outside in the cold weather of New York.

I was so wrong!

On the day, I maintained about 5 miles per hour speed for the first half marathon. I finished the half marathon (13.1 miles) within about 2 hours and 40 minutes. That went as expected, and it was the fastest that I ever ran a half marathon. My training did work.

Then at the point where all the half-marathoners went to the finish line, I was directed to the 14 mile. It was such a lonely mile. Nobody else was running with me anymore. The audience who was holding signs for their loved ones was all there for the half marathon runners. The moment that I turned to the second loop, no more audience on either side of the road. There were only neighborhood people who went about with their sunday activities such as going to church, to synagogue, or to do chores. The worst feeling is that it seems like other marathoners were slowly passing me by. One after another told me that I could do it, but left me behind for like miles.

The second half of the marathon was an intense inner fight between my head, my legs, and my feet. I kept thinking to myself: “Ok, one more mile would already be the longest race that I have ever run. If I quit, I would still win.” I kept counting in my head: “one step at a time, and one mile at a time.” The race could only be run and be won that way. This is similar to writing a dissertation, one word at a time. There is no other way around this process.

My training did not prepare me for the last third of the race. By mile 20, I was no longer running. My legs and my feet, especially my ankles were giving up on me. They were overworked. My training never prepared me for hours number 3, 4, 5, 6, and even hour 7. I started walking. Ever once in a while, when the cops parking on Ocean Parkway Avenue to protect the race looked at me, I would pick up myself and jog a bit. But my feet were under great stress.

I thought to myself: even if I have to walk this walk of shame, I would walk. So I walked the last 7 miles of the race.

Instead of 5 and a half hours as expected, the race lasted 7 hours for me. It was also with great pain.


Another part that I did a disservice to myself was that I did not fuel myself up before the race. I saw other runners bringing bananas, and energy gels to keep themselves excited, and strong for the race. I did not eat anything. That was a huge mistake. The only thing I had that morning was half a liter of water. I did remember to hydrate myself throughout the race. This was not difficult. I also carb-loaded myself the night before according to a friend’s suggestion. After the marathon, I read more about carb-loading, and realized that I should have done it at least 3-7 days before the race. Well, lesson learned. I will do it properly before the next marathon.

Energy Gels

Regardless of the intense inner struggle between me and my body, I did enjoy the scenery of the race. Brooklyn during the spring, and early in the morning was exquisite. I was able to get a glimpse of Manhattan, of the Williamsburg bridge early during the race. We ran by Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Steiner Studios. I was in awe of the idea that Brooklyn has such huge studios. I knew that many movies have been made in New York, but such large area dedicated to film sets in precious real estate of Brooklyn was a surprise to me.

In the second half of the race, we ran inside Prospect Park, and around the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I smelled nature. Cherry blossoms were blooming. They filled the space with a sweet, pleasing, and refreshing smell that reminds me of college time.

Now the race was behind me, these sweet memories really made me feel like it was worth it. My sister told me to stop running marathons. To her I could keep training on the treadmill with her, but running a marathon was too taxing on my body. However, I disagree. I feel like I have become hooked to long distance running. It is all the memories associated with the race that really make me want to come back. So I will keep doing it. I will keep signing up for races in neighborhoods and cities that I would never have otherwise discovered on foot. My next stops are the Newport Half Marathon, Prospect Park Half Marathon, and the Philly Marathon. The training will restart again next week.

Fox News at Fitness Center

Sociologist Cynthia Miller-Idriss wrote an op-ed piece “Pandemic fitness trends have gone extreme — literally.” The piece is about the social phenomena whereby far-right extremists in the United States and Europe have opened gyms, fitness classes, martial arts centers, as gateways to recruit young people, especially men. She argues that there is a long history of extremism and fitness because of the obsession of masculinity, strength, and competition. Youths are then invited to join private discords where radicalized ideas, images would then be shared. These online off the public square spaces that are supposed to be about fitness are dangerous places, and which are often go under the radar.

She then got a lot of push back from Twitter users criticizing that the title was click-baity.

Her main response was that title was not under her control, which I highly doubt. If the title is not under her control, she should have boycotted the outlet, in this case MSNBC for engaging in unethical journalism–using clickbait headlines to get views, which mainly benefits their ads income.

Misleading title aside, what is relevant for the discussion of this blog post is the idea that the fitness culture and whiteness culture are intertwined in the U.S. And that fitness centers can be gateways to radicalism.

In preparation for my marathon in April, I diligently went to the gym to run 5-6 miles every other day on the treadmill. Professional runners would can argue that it was not really marathon training because the treadmill is different from real roads. However, I did see a difference. What mattered to me was that I trained regularly, and that my breathing was regular, and that I felt that I could endure a long race.

What became a surprise to me was the availability of TV stations in my gym: 10 of them in total with number on each screen. I never actually paid attention to TVs at the gym because I am short sighted and when I run on the treadmill I often take my glasses off.

It changed, when I went to an optometrist’s to have my eye checked up to renew my driver’s license. The doctor said that my eyesight has worsened. The only reason that my eyesight got deteriorated so quickly from the previous checkup was that I did not wear my glasses regularly enough. Since then, I decided that I need to wear contact lenses anytime I would go to the gym. This was the moment when I started to see.

The first thing I noticed when I actually could see when I run was Fox News. The station is number one. It had always been in front of me. I just never paid attention until now. Next to it is CNN, then ESPN, and the rest. I never paid attention to anything else but those three.

This is when the trouble started!

I have a moral opposition to Fox News. This opposition has nothing to do with information, or communications. This opposition has to do with how Fox News has become more radicalized, and single handedly made the American polity more polarized. Researchers at Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard have documented in detail how Fox News during the 2016 Presidential election did not exercise professional journalism ethics, i.e. fact-checking, trafficked into the mainstream conspiracy theory, and misinformation. Fox News becoming radicalized was a long process, and it happened long time prior to the 2016 election. Given that it’s a mainstream news organization, without professional journalism ethics, its products should not be circulated. Period!

I then started asking many questions about the relationship between Fox News and fitness centers.

Why is Fox News is prioritized in fitness centers? Are fitness centers right-leaning? Are fitness centers contributing to radicalization of American people? By juxtaposing Fox News next to its main competitor: CNN, does it help counter the amount of misinformation that Fox News blasts out everyday? When Fox News is “on mute,” does it reduce the essentialization, and emotions involved in listening to such a channel, does it reduce its radical effects?

Regardless of the answers to those questions, I feel bothered by the fact that I have to see it whenever I am in the gym. Is there a way for me to boycott it besides cancelling my membership? I cannot pretend that I am not seeing it, and the channel being #1 signals that the gym (in this case a chain) situates itself in a particular political position as well as a particular culture that appears to be at best unwelcoming, and at worst threatening to me: a woman of color.

What should I do? Am I to boycott the gym by canceling my membership, engaging in consumer activism? Or am I to keep going to the gym, and subject myself to Fox News, which I 100 percent object for its lack of journalism ethics, bad effects to democracy, and it’s clear political as well as moral opposition to people like me? Or shall I point it out to the gym for them to change? I highly doubt the last option is a viable option for me.

They just don’t get it!

Recently I read a New York Times op-ed entitled “The Limits of ‘Lived Experience.” The title caught my eye. I thought I would gain some brilliant insights about phenomenology, a branch of philosophy where the concept “lived experience” came from. I thought I would be enlightened by some sophisticated critique of the “lived experience” idea.

I was so wrong! I got upset, even angry after reading it. The title is misleading.

The article turned out to a bemoaning of a bygone era where privilege people can go to any underprivileged community to write about them. It’s a grievance about something they were entitled to, and that entitlement was lost as the result of other groups have gained more power vis a vis the privileged. The author totally did not understand the concept “lived experience.” They wrote:

So what is this vaunted “lived experience”? You may recognize it by its longstanding name, “personal experience,” or less excitingly, “experience.” But “lived experience,” with its earthy suggestion of authority, says to other people: Unless you have walked in my shoes, you have no business telling my story.

No, I screamed in my head. Personal experience is not lived experience. Who taught you that? If you know how to Google, Wikipedia tells you:

In qualitative phenomenological research, lived experience refers to a representation of the experiences and choices of a given person, and the knowledge that they gain from these experiences and choices.

The Wikipedia definition suggests that lived experience is an epistemology. Simple put the idea is that the knowledge that you gain about life is filtered through not only your “personal experience,” but also your identity, and who you are.

I had no idea why the op-ed was published. I used to have very high opinion about the Times’ editorial board, but maybe I thought of it too highly. At the end of the day op-ed editors are not academics who are versed in ethnography, research ethics, or philosophy. They were also not peer-reviewers who would reject this op-ed based on its lack of theoretical sophistication.

Some readers recognized the privilege and whiteness framing of the argument. They sense that the op-ed was about gatekeeping. It is about underprivileged communities after decades or centuries of oppression who have learned to gate keep their experiences, and their stories to have them not told by a privilege person any more.

One reader commented:

it is clear from this tired and reductionist “argument” that Pamela Paul does not understand the concept of lived experience in its entirety or within the context of any kind of framework or theory about systemic oppression. She gets so many things wrong in this puff piece–from her reframing of what she thinks is the main argument to the “turf war” to what people of color and especially artists of color are actually asking for–that I wonder about her merits in scoring such an esteemed position as an opinion columnist at this newspaper. Rather than a nuanced examination of an issue that requires a dialectical approach and the necessary weigh-in of field experts, all I see here is merely a person with an opinion–and an uninformed one at that. And, well, there are lots of people who have those.

Yet another:

This neglects an awareness of power and the historical dimension where privileged groups have been telling the stories of others for a long, long time, and currently make up the vast majority of storytellers. I’m all for people who are not in privileged groups telling the stories of dominant groups– that outside perspective makes sense as we have been forced to adapt to the dominant culture- but I don’t think it works as well the other way around, as evidenced by some of the off, distorted, and frankly at this point unneeded, continuous portrayals of less powerful groups by more powerful groups- I’m thinking west side story, the help, aunt Jen ima, every sports team with a native mascot- and the argument that it works both ways just reeks of a giant blind spot

The article did not mention a single word “white writer.” However, the arguments were entirely based on a white racial frame, the idea that society is centered around whiteness, and that whiteness allows itself to intrude, and hurt another group or many other groups, and extract from them.

The argument of the article screams in my face: “I am a white person. I want to write about group X, Y, Z. Why can’t I not write about them anymore?”

Nobody would say no. You can write about them, but coming from your own experience. Do not steal their materials. Do not pretend that you understand them. Do not pretend that you do not get financial rewards, prestige, and power over them. Some critics also pointed out that writing “with lived experience” is different from “writing from lived experience.” The idea of having some “lived experience” opens oneself to the worldview of another group through their daily experiences is powerful. No one would reject a writer of that time-consuming yet rewarding practice.

As a sociologist, I love reading ethnographies coming from anthropology, and sociology. However, when the writer, often a privileged PhD student coming from a prestigious university in the U.S. or in Europe tries to understand how a suburban Vietnamese family navigates the urbanization process at the edge of Saigon, I feel icky. On the one hand, I appreciate that they have tried to understand their world view, their struggles, and that their writing helps me understand certain bigger socio-cultural and political processes that happen in Vietnam. On the other hand, I feel disappointed, and unjust because after the fieldwork, when the data was totally extracted out of a town on the edge of a third-world metropolis, the anthropologist is gone, disappeared, got back to the comfort of his university to write, and publish the book, and got the tenure with a 6-figure salary. The family might be contacted or might never be contacted ever again. The cycle then repeats. It’s a cycle of extraction, a cycle of silencing. It could also be empowering, but the work is barely translated to Vietnamese to empower the locals. Empowerment remains the job of local civil society workers, and local social activists.

I am not arguing that a native Vietnamese would have done a better job in producing knowledge or treating the research subjects with more care, or giving them more dignity through daily interactions or through the pages. However, at least I don’t feel like the knowledge that should have been coming from Vietnamese subjects is now attributed to a often privileged man.

I am also recognizing that this is not a black and white world where a writer/researcher should or should not do it. I want to emphasize that writing “from lived experience” or “with lived experience” is a very grey area. It is an ethically slippery slope. In order to do it the practitioner needs to take a lot of care, to be reflexive, and to be aware that the imbalanced power relation between them and the subjects that they are writing about exists.

The author of the New York Times op-ed was not the first person who has raised the question why that is that a privileged person has been excluded from opportunities to write about another group. However, my question is why other groups don’t ask the other way around? That is, why people of color don’t have the nostalgic feeling that they have lost the chance to write about white people from a white person’s perspective?

The answer is simple. That was not allowed, thus not a common practice. I was never encouraged to write about myself my entire life. My parents were never encouraged to write about theirs. So were my grandparents, and my great grandparents. Their stories have always been lost. I never had the urge to pretend to be someone else and try to write about them. I never had the time, resources, or even the opportunity to do so. However, the group who felt as though their opportunities of a practice that used to be theirs have been taken away because it’s no longer appropriate suddenly questions about their declining opportunities: the opportunity to have a faux identity and write about that.

I actually feel bad for the writer. One the one hand, probably they have always wanted to write. Yet sometimes their writings resulted in rejection because what they write no longer fits in the current political economy of multiculturalism. On the other hand, subconsciously they feel that they deserve to do it the way it used to be.

However, the right question to be asked is not about what to write about, and how to deliver it, or where to have it published. The right question to ask is what is the political economy of writing, why there are so many writers, who have produced a genre of what I would call “ethnic voyeurism?” Why has such a genre been valorized for such an extended period of time, and why everyone is trained to like it, to emulate it, and to hope that one day similar pieces of writings would share similar subject matters, aesthetics, and appraisal?

Writing is political. The writer is shaped by the institutions, the environment around them. If all writers go through similar creative writing curriculum, they would share similar aesthetics, similar tastes in subject matters, and how they could execute their writings.

Writing is a career, and an occupation that is subject to not only cultural changes but also macro-economic forces. According to the Census Bureau, there are currently almost 50,000 writers currently in the United States. This number excludes all the self-employed writers, and underemployed writers who work at odd-jobs while writing their next big novels or screenplays.

I wish I can help this writer by giving them Sein und Zeit by Heidegger so that they could first correct their theoretical mistake in trying not to understanding the term “lived experience.” However, having read the article, I feel that it would be a serious waste of time because they would just never get it–the idea that a privileged person descends on someone else’s life to write about it without having to think about all the socio-cultural and political implications is over.

Last Mile of Dissertation Writing

I am currently running against time. My dissertation deposit date has been set. The only job I have at this point is that of a full time writer.

My day is typically organized as follows: waking up, getting a cup of coffee or tea, reading a bit, writing 200-300 words of summary of the reading, saving that little piece of writing somewhere, resolving some comments from my advisor, reading some more, writing some more …. I then take a one to two hours of lunch break like what I am doing now: writing a blog post while taking a break from thinking about or thinking through the dissertation project.

Credit: Unsplash

A dissertation project involves a lot of discrete and unnamed tasks. For a person who has never written a book before, this would be considered as the most demanding book-length research and writing project that I have ever undertaken. It means one immerses in the process, and figures out necessary steps along the way. It takes a lot of courage, and lots of inspiration to be able to wake up and immerse in this cognitive demanding work.

I was overwhelmed at the beginning. It felt like there were so many words to be written. It felt like there were many data analyses to be done in Python and R. It felt like so much literature review needed to be done. It felt like there were so many more books to be read. It felt like so many more conversations should be had for me to clarify my thoughts, and solidify what I think or believe in. It felt like I did not have a strong position or any argument at all. It felt like there were many outlines that need to be written. Those steps were all mixed in my head at the beginning. They are still pretty much like that in my head now. It still feels like a mess.

Now having finished some part of the dissertation, I feel much more appreciative of the mutual relationship between reading and writing. Whenever I am stuck, I would pick up a research book, disappear into a room, read it from cover to cover, take notes of important insights. The next day, I wake up, everything feels still fresh in my mind, and I would feel guilty that the previous day I did not produce any writing the previous day. Then I would sit down at my work table, and produce some amount of writing materials. At this point, ideas, and insights are still very messy. They are not necessarily organized. However, I feel happy that I have produced something concrete. At that point, I tap myself in the back, and then repeat the process.

A friend of mine suggested that writing a dissertation is like walking or more like running a marathon. You put one foot in front of the other. You repeat the process until you reach the finish line. Regardless of how lonely, how painful, or how boring the process is, that is how all dissertations have been written. I agree.

Credit: Unsplash

Shifting my focus away from the arguments, the structure and the final product of a dissertation makes it less stressful. Focusing my attention on the process of how the dissertation is being produced has a liberatory effect. I have actually grown into enjoying the writing process. I can now say that I embrace the many discoveries I find along the way. The more I read, and the more I write, the more I feel like I have immersed into a world of arguments, and scholarship which would inform me, and shape my opinions about the social phenomena that I am investigating. I feel content.

It seems finally I know what it means to be a full time writer.

Cultural Barriers in Tech for Women

It’s frustrating to me that women are still facing hostile cultures in many fields today, and I’m especially upset that these issues are keeping women out of the tech industry. These are such exciting jobs. They’re fun. They’re innovative. They pay well. They have a growing impact on our future, and there are more of them every year. But it’s more than that. Tech is the most powerful industry in the world. It’s creating the ways we will live our lives. If women are not in tech, women will not have power.

As the number of men in the sector grew, fewer women went into tech. Which made it even harder to be a woman in tech. So even fewer women went into tech, and men began to dominate the field.

Moment of Lift : How Empowering Women Changes the World

The question of gender imbalance in the tech industry is the question of power. It has partly to do with how culture exacerbates and reinforces the problem. It has a lot more to do with how power recreates itself, and perpetuates inequality.

On Catching Up

The idea that one ought to catch up with something that one is supposed to know but not knowing it before hand is prevalent among academics. Lately I have been reflecting on the instances that I felt like catching up to my peers was the overwhelming urge, and feeling.

The first time this happened was when I entered college. I felt like I had to catch up with everyone. First, as a non-native English speaker, I felt like I had to catch up with everyone regarding English. The idea of catching up with a native speaker in their terms was overwhelming. English is not a simple subject matter. It’s a whole life experience. As a native speaker, one gets at least 18 years before me to master the language. In my case, I had to catch up with academic English mostly. It was something that I struggled with especially in terms of vocabulary. My strategy then was to read a lot of books especially non-fictions. Somehow I had no desire to read fictions back then. Fictions were convoluted, not straight-forward. One had to read between the lines in order to figure out the themes, and arguments in a work of fiction; whereas non-fictions provided me with the arguments early on, and laid out evidence in ways that my mind seemed to be able to appreciate. That’s how I started acquiring more vocabulary. Now having learned a couple more languages, I wished I should have just spent lots of time talking, chatting, and debating with my friends. It would have been a faster way to acquire working vocabulary. However, I made do with the way that my 19 year old mind came up with.

At the end of my college career, one of the school administrators asked me at a lunch or breakfast meeting regarding international students. She asked what my college experience was like. I answered honestly: I had a lot of fun. I learned a lot, made friends, and got a fellowship in Germany waiting for me. This sounded like I had a good time. Then the subject changed. She asked if it was a good idea to separate international students at the beginning, and have them take an “English catch-up” course in the first semester. I was fuming with the question but trying to answer it in a polite way. I remember vividly, I said “No. I think the best way is for them to take a lot of humanities classes and do group projects.” That was how I learned, and I thought “English catching up classes” was a total bullshit idea. There’s no class that could help me to catch up with “English,” a living entity that changes every day. Plus, making students sit in a formal class, and telling them that they are deficient seemed like a terrible idea to me. I hate people to tell me that I was deficient in something. I’d rather learn it on the side, and prove them otherwise. Another piece of evidence was that I took classes with my peers without any of those catch up classes, and I felt that not only I was able to perform well, I was pretty sure that I outperformed most of them. And I am not talking about stereotypical Asian/International Students majors like math, economics, and STEM. I was taking one to two humanities courses such as history, arts history, philosophy, and cultural studies every semester. They were not easy, and I managed well. The question was coming from good intention, but it revealed this “veil of ignorance” from an administrator who had no idea how education actually worked.

The second moment that I felt like I had to catch up with people around me was when I moved to Germany, and working with social science researchers. I felt completely out of my element. Everyone was able to speak 4-5 languages. They all had earned their Ph.D.s from fancy name institutions. They had years of training in field methods. And they seemed to know so much that my little reading experience seemed to pale in comparison. They asked difficult questions, and often raised the question “why do you want to research this/that?.” This question made me extremely uncomfortable. They also seemed to work in cliques, camps, and they seemed to all know each other. I felt dizzy as I was figuring out how life worked among established and rising scholars. It seemed to me that catching up in this context was so much more difficult because the goals were utterly blurry. Was the goal of catching-up to be able to converse with these people? Was the goal to be able to publish scholarly articles? Was the goal to obtain a PhD title like them? Was the goal to gain respect? Those were competing goals that I was not able to sort through which one was priority.

I realized at the end of my stay in Germany that obtaining a PhD credential would probably help me achieve a few of those goals along the way. So I applied to doctoral programs, and got in a few. Ironically, I ended up accepting an offer to a Sociology program, which was again totally out of my element. So the process of catching up started all over again. I had never known what sociology meant prior to my PhD courses. I had never taken a sociology course in my undergraduate career. The only thing I knew in college was that my economics advisor told me to not take statistics with sociology and other social science students because it would be too easy, and not well structured. My impression in college was that sociology was not as dogmatic as economics, and that the structure was relatively loose.

So there I was, entering a terminal degree in social sciences without knowing much about it. I felt an immense desire to catch up with my peers who had read Marx, Weber, and Durkheim throughout their undergraduate studies. They seemed to know who the classical sociologists were. They knew the professional rumors. They raised questions about the importance of W. E. B. Du Bois’s writings in American sociological tradition. I felt like these debates totally went out of my ears. There was no context for me to fully grasp the discussion. Even now, 6 years down the road, I still feel that I am catching up with my own profession. I am never fully comfortable talking with another sociologist. There always seems to be something that I do not fully understand. It’s the feeling of being a non-native speaker all over again. There were always contexts whereby certain phenomena arose and I just didn’t know those behind-the-scene stories.

The catching up feeling to me is similar to how I feel like a non-native speaker. If I’ve gotten over the initial hurdle of shame, and utter my first words in a foreign language, I would ask simple but important questions. Sometimes, it feels like I ought to sit there and listen while others bullshit about things in a language that I was not supposed to be good at. Though I’m not eloquent in the language, I knew that the content being uttered was totally garbage. The feeling of being invisible, and being silent without anyone forces you to is irksome at best, and defeating at worst. Yet, I’ve gotta carry on, and work my way through.

Sometimes I ask myself, at what point would I stop “catching up?” It feels like never. There would always be situation where I have to catch up with something. However, there are some catch-up moments that feel manageable, and that one knows how to do it. Other catch-up moments feel like a life time project. Maybe catching up is a frame of mind. Some people conceptualize catching up as a challenging exercise to gain knowledge and skills that they had not gained before. I sometimes get into situations where catching up seems to be a mode of being, my Dasein. It is the way how I relate to the world, to human relations. It’s my Dasein moving through the Western world, having both “minor feelings” as well as out of element feelings. Maybe some day I will feel at home in my profession, and my surrounding environment. Maybe I will continue to feel like I need to catch up painstakingly with other people, and feel that I have never arrived.

On the Mekong River: The Latehomecomer

The twelfth longest river in the world, the Mekong is known in both Laos and Thailand as the mother river. Along the border between Laos and Thailand it stretched three-fourths of a mile wide. The Mekong River saw the deaths of more Hmong people than any other river.

The Hmong had been people from the mountains. They were not good swimmers. Only the men, when they were boys, had gone shing and learned a little bit about the push and pull of water. They knew how to keep aoat. They knew a little about how to move in water. Few of the women or children could swim at all. My mother and my grandmother both did not.

The Latehomeomer – Kao Kalia Yang

A World without Email: Initial Reactions

As I am reading the new book A World without Email by Cal Newport, I cannot help but thinking about the neoliberal self-help undertone of the book. The book’s premise is that our way of work communication is deeply broken, and in order to increase work productivity, we should change this emailing system. Besides, the book’s various big claims without any evidence such as emailing has stalled America’s GDP growth rate has given me many cringes. The book falls into the self-governing genre, or the idea of self-governance if there’s a problem. This idea is akin to Facebook’s attempt to self-govern hate-speech, harassment, misinformation, and porn. Third party’s involvement in making sure that Facebook is held accountable is irrelevant. I value that the book indeed points out an important workplace communication problem, which is emailing. However, the explanation, and the possible solutions that the book proposes are alarming to me. The goal of the book is to help knowledge workers unlock productivity. In other words, if you follow the book’s advice, you will be more productive. Read: produce more outputs in a shorter amount of time. The goal of the book is not to help knowledge workers to figure out work/life balance, and get back to the managers and say that it’s way too much, and you’ve gotta stop.

Even though the book never self-claims that it’s a research book, it is definitely filled with social science research, mostly coming from psychology. This is a strength of Cal Newport’s writing. He’s able to summarize a vast amount of literature, and makes academic literature read-able to the wider public. Well yes psychology and organization psychology in particularly has been obsessed with the idea of how one could self-govern, and self-improve to increase organizational productivity. The field definitely embodies the modern science of governmentality, a term that Foucault coined. In a capitalist society, in our case now more like a neoliberal society, one has to self-govern to fit its goal. In the classical capitalism, workers need to be on time, and clock in the appropriate number of hours to fit its production goals. In the neoliberal society, everyone is an entrepreneur. They should take risks, and achieve financial fulfillment while also having an authentic sense of self. In the current incarnation of neoliberalism whereby knowledge workers such as AI researchers, ML engineers, academics, and journalists are delivering more valuable outputs for society, their ways of working should be scrutinized. And of course, there’s a way to fix their supposedly “broken way of working.” There are more hours to squeeze in for them to produce more knowledge work.

The book sometimes lacks the “epistemological humility” if it is a research book. At one point in the introduction, the book posits that probably email is the reason why American GDP growth rate has been stalled in the past three decades. This is a totally unsubstantiated idea without any data and real evidence to back up. Connecting GDP growth to the cause of email as a mechanism is totally a wild conjecture. Maybe there’s some evidence to suggest this idea at a firm level, which I highly doubt. Projecting this idea on an economy level is simply not true, and dangerous.

On the one hand, I appreciate Newport’s well written analysis of how emailing interferes with one’s ability to do “deep work.” As an academic, I acknowledge that emailing does get in the way my brain works. Sociologists of technology and work have also written about how communications tools such as cell phone and email have affected workers’ subjectivity, concentration, and interfered into their personal lives. Most sociological research shows that these communications tools are way to squeeze more productivity out of workers without much successful large-scale resistance strategies. In other words, workers are entering in a rat race, and feeling burned out over time. On the other hand, I think he totally misses the entire political economy of how knowledge workers currently work. Maybe cutting down on email is an option for a professor with tenure (such as himself), a software engineer with a 6-figure salary. It’s not an option for an adjunct (like myself), or a freelance journalist (such as the majority of journalists), or podcast editors (such as most professional podcast editors).

Knowledge workers mean many different categories in this current world, and the type of workers that Cal Newport talks about are the few that have the luxury of full-time work, and not having to worry about where their next gig is. In other words, Newport writes for the privilege few whose jobs are not yet affected by the gigification of the economy. Knowledge gig workers such as freelance graphic designers have Upwork and Fiverr to work as their main platforms to find gigs. While it’s true that their work requires concentration, it’s also true that most of their “work” hours are spent on finding another gig. They have to be “always on” if they want to get a request from another work “requester.” Their boss will not wait if they do not respond to the on-demand request immediately. Similarly, freelance journalists’ work hours are not only in writing an important investigative piece, but spending almost the same number of hours to pitch the idea to news organizations that would constantly bid down their price per piece, thus make them work even longer hours.

What is dangerous about what Cal Newport suggests is that only our way of working is broken, our economy and how the work structure is designed is completely flawless. I call this “aspirational neoliberal thinking.” If you can think and work like the winners of this knowledge economy, you will come out at the end successful. The entire background of full-time jobs disappearing is irrelevant in Newport’s increasing productivity discussion. Put it simply, the picture that he is painting is that if you have a job, be ultra-productive with or without email. If you don’t have a job, it’s also ok to not have emails and be productive. This book fits into the dominant narrative of American society: productivity is important, and we should all strive to be productive all the time. The book serves to validate the dominant self-governing ideology and disregards structural issues such as unionization, automation, labor law, compensations, and workers’ bargaining power.

At one point in the book Newport cites an example of an American academic couple who spent a short amount of time in Germany then came back to the US. They described their work time in Germany as “leisurely,” taking long lunch breaks walking around the campus which has a castle on it. They romanticized their time in Germany and attributed their feeling good time in Germany as not having emails. This recounting of a story again totally misses the entire work, organization, and cultural structure of Germany that separates work/life, and leave workers (in this case tenured academic workers) with a lot of bargaining power. In other words, the retelling of the story is relatively naive, and missing a lot of the causal factors that actually shape how a worker feels at work. Emailing is not the only reason that an American knowledge worker feels burned out. Emailing is one of the many ways that shape American workers’ subjectivity at work and outside of work hours. The underlying issue is that they have less power relative to capital owners, who are increasingly relying on technology to monitor, and extract their labor. Legal systems, organization work culture, and even self-help books are reinforcing, and upholding this existing power structure that makes the worker feel like they have to work more to get more out of their knowledge. But the question is to what end?

I am still reading the book. Once I finish the book, I will write another follow up about whether the framework espoused in this book actually works, or whether the book is another self-help book that valorizes the self-governing productivity ideology, and helps cement a toxic work structure and culture that suggests that workers burnout problem is their own problem. Why burnout not a medical condition whereby workers can legally take paid days off? Why it’s either super productive and burnt out, or quitting your job? Why workers have to choose between being super productive or not having a job at all?

Anti-vaccination & Dying of Whiteness

Yesterday, I watched a news segment that reported the rates of COVID vaccination in rural counties in the Midlands of America. One county had only 5% vaccination rate despite the relative abundance of vaccines. This scene was the opposite of what has been happening in urban centers of America. New Yorkers have been scrambling to get a vaccine appointment as the New York state just announced that people who are 30 years and older are now eligible. The bottleneck in big cities are the lack of supplies, and the availability of vaccine appointments which are released on a daily basis by different vaccine centers. This entire labyrinth of bureaucratic mess has created so much anxiety for residents. In theory the technology is there to make things more streamlined. But well it’s America! There are an abundance of resources as well as an abundance of systematic redundancies and bureaucratic paperwork that everyone has to go through.

Now back to the story of lower rates of vaccination in rural counties, whose demographics are almost exclusively white. The news reporter interviews folks who are on both sides of the vaccination debate: those who have been vaccinated, and those who refuse to get vaccinated. The reasons anti-vaccine people give have to do with freedom of choice, that they know how to protect their bodies, and they don’t want government’s intrusion in personal choices. This is the narrative that one often hears about in the US: the government violates one’s choices over one’s body, and lifestyle. In a sense, these folks reproduce the narrative that the government is not in the business of my governing my body. The government should be out. The few who have been vaccinated make the case that they don’t understand why people do not take it. There are no reasons not not get a shot. I wish that the news segment would go deeper into presenting more voices because I want to hear more about the nuanced differences in perspectives between genders, households, and age cohorts. However, the viewers are only given a limited amount of information in this 24/7 news cycle. In order to do a more systematic analysis of why and how anti-vaxxers deny their right to be protected, one would have to conduct a lengthy social research. I ought to say this is an extremely important and interesting research right now.

One interesting bit of information that folks on both sides of the vaccine debate both agree on in that particular town is that everyone has received information from Facebook. In other words, what we are seeing during the COVID-19 pandemic is the rise of health information sharing groups on Facebook which provide users with both information, and misinformation. Facebook has become a public square where important public health information is being distributed, debated, and also distorted. This piece of information gives us some insights in the importance of Facebook in our public life in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

The moment when the news segment fades away to give air time to other news, I could not help but think about the book “Dying of Whiteness.” The main argument in the book is that rural white folks in the heartland of America would rather die or make themselves and their families suffer in regards to public health because of the deep rooted resentment towards imagined others (mostly black and brown folks, and immigrants). This resentment politics permeates in all aspects of life. The idea of not getting vaccinated because of distrust against the government, to protect one’s freedom is definitely also rooted in this resentment politics. However, in this case, it seems that this is the resentment against the government which has become intrusive, as well as the idea that our (white) way of living is being threatened by a government that increasingly does not look like us. Even if our health, our family’s health, and our community’s health are worsened because of our actions motivated by resentful affects, as long as we can use our bodies to protest government’s action, we have at least won a symbolic battle. This is to me scary, and dangerous. Yet living in America for about 10 years, I no longer feel that this is a place where lives are respected, and that human beings are valued. Maybe this is where this society is going. Maybe the hardening of one’s heart is happening in America.

Epistemology of Ignorance

Epistemology of Ignorance: Whites do tend to have, however their own peculiar inclinations, affects, practices, and modes of perception. Mills has developed the influential idea that whites operate with what he calls an epistemology of ignorance: a set of substantive epistemic practices designed to protect their belief that society is basically a meritocracy, people of color are responsible for their troubles, and racism is a thing of the past. Mills’ persuasive point is that, in our shared world, with its recurrent headlines about police shootings and disparities in poverty and unemployment, it takes no small amount of work to interpret these facts as consistent with raceless meritocracies. “Part of what it means to be constructed as white,” he reasons, is to operate with “a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social identities.” This means that white children are systematically taught to become delusional.

The Future of Whiteness – Alice Alcoff

Whiteness Unmarked!

As “whiteness” has lost its unmarked, default status, we now have more scholarship on white women in the military, or white men’s level of participation in sports, or white family formation.

Linda Alcoff

Journalists and Bloggers Benefit from Urban Poverty

A growing list of bloggers and citizen journalists offer to deliver drillers’ content to vast new audiences. Given the resources required to provide wide exposure, these individuals turn out to be quite distinct from their clients. Demographically, they tend to look a lot like those assisting drillers in making music videos – they’re older, more middle-class, and often college-educated. Despite their social, economic, and sometimes racial differences, these people are increasingly responsible for curating images not only of their clients but of urban poverty more broadly. In fact, much of what the public knows about the city’s urban poor communities is based on the work of bloggers who intentionally deflate and profit from negative stereotypes.

Forrest Stuart

Hyper Education vs. Neoliberal Parenting

Most parents do not readily accept that they reproduce a neoliberal parenting model and, instead, are quick to criticize “tiger parenting” as a distinctive problem. Hyper education does not seem child centered (despite Indian American parents and children’s references that it can be) but appears plainly geared toward human capital development and a future work self. What should be recognized is its overlap with mainstream contemporary parenting that is equally invested in preparing youths for work and adulthood, and critiques of it should be made correspondingly.

Pawan Dhingra

Hyper Education

Three reasons emerged for their choice of academic achievement: a sense that other popular pursuits (e.g., sports) are not viable for them, a need to build up human capital given their lack of social capital and possible race-based hurdles in college admissions, and parents’ own familiarity with extracurricular education based on their upbringing. The result is an investment in education as an after-school activity and having more of, although not a complete, say in children’s pursuits. This is an Asian American style of concerted cultivation, one that resits assimilation into the mobility strategies of their American peers, which they fear will not serve them as they do others.

Pawan Dhingra

January Books

Following are the books that I have planned to read for a long time. Because it’s my winter break here, I’ve got more time at hand to read novels, and sociological books that I want to catch up on reading. January’s reading list is a little bit longer than usual, and hopefully I can go through all of them in time for the new semester to begin.

December Books

Following are the books that I have been reading this month:

They are my fun reading, and have nothing to do with sociology. Yet they give me a lot of ideas about how to write, how to describe, and how to portray a real human with layers of emotions and reasons. Two books have to do with immigrant experiences, my typical go-to genre lately. One deals with abrupt societal changes; and the other two are sci-fi. I’m not a big sci-fi fan, but I’m trying, and will get there eventually.

On Death

Anthropologists have written a lot about deaths, about how controversial the ways people come to terms with the moment when their loved ones die might be (Scheper-Hughes, 1992). Or once their loved ones have passed how they talk about them, how their stories are being told over and over again, and how these stories are related directly to how the nation and the collective come to terms with its divided and violent past (Kwon, 2013). Deaths are in essence revealing, essential, and philosophical. They affect the individual, the collective, and the national.

Death and dying have been on my mind a lot lately. Partly it has to do with COVID-related anxiety. I watch the news on a daily basis, and everyday I am reminded of the number of people around me who have left this earth, or how terrible their final moments were. Partly, one of my close relatives is in and out of hospital in Vietnam with a terminal cancer disease. Chemotherapy has disfigured his body. It has made him age faster than anything I knew in life. I remembered when my mom told me that one of my cousins had given birth to a stillborn, when I was far away in Atlanta in my first semester in college, I cried. I cried for the baby. I cried because I did not know where to go, or with whom can I grieve. The act of grieving alone was terrifying, and terrible.

A few weeks ago I decided to pick up the novel Three Junes. It had been on my reading list for a while. And finally I got to read it. It took me a month to read bits and pieces of it. At the beginning, it saddened me because the novel was about death. Pages after pages talk about how a person deals with death in different situations: disease-related death, old-age natural death, suicide, etc. It made me depressed. It made me anxious about different ways that one can lose their loved ones, and different terrifying ways that one has to face death, process it, and overcome it. These thoughts scared me. The novel however takes a positive turn at the end when it talks about the continuity of life, of birth, and that death and life are intertwined, and that death is a part of life. Death is not negation of life, but simple a part of it. This ending makes my heart lighter. However, the reality, and the encompassing feeling that death is surrounding me could not really go away.

This might be a question for myself: how can I process, understand, overcome death when it’s an abstract concept, and not necessarily related directly to me. In the context of COVID-19, when a society observes on daily basis its members disappear because of a virus, at the end of the journey, how can this society process death collectively? Is religion helpful here? Is it time? Is it public memorial? Is it storytelling? What would help us collectively come to terms with a huge number of deaths in such a short time?

As a kid I never understood Spirit Medium. My mom was into it. My relatives would go to thầy cúng, bà đồng (or people who serve the (Holy) Reflections). Sometimes they would go to these events together to talk to the dead. Sometimes the dead would manifest in one of them, and talk to the living. I have never been to one of those events, but I would often hear stories about these events worked. Now I understand somewhat. That is a way for them collectively, as a family unit to process the loss of loved ones, and feel that the dead are always a part of the living’s life. This is how integral death is as a part of life. This is a part of Vietnamese practices of Veneration of the Dead. It might be also a way for many families who lost their loved ones to find justice for them after a bloody, violent, and unjust war.

My mind might be still being visited by the idea of death for a while. At least, now I am more comfortable with articulating my ambivalent feeling around it. Maybe I should discuss it with someone. Maybe I should go to a commemoration to grieve with others. As of now, I am still trying to process the abstract idea.

A House for Mr. Biswas

“His household established, Mr. Biswas set about establishing his tyrannies.”

The insight that each household is a little kingdom where the man establishes so many rules, and systems to create, and reinforce his own relative power over his wife and children is brilliant. V. S. Naipaul describes a universal household arrangement. This is how patriarchy works.

Gender-blind Sexism

As I am getting older, I have become more aware of sexist comments or even gender-blind sexist comments that I encounter every once in a while. Before I seemed to purposely tune out of these comments in order to “not rock the boat,” or to be a “productive member of the team.” Now my ears after years of sociological training could not not hear them.

So what is gender-blind sexism? Stoll et al (2016) define it as “as an extension of Bonilla-Silva’s racialized social system theory.” This is still not clear enough. Bonilla-Silva’s colorblind racism thesis argues that color blindness is the new form of racism in United States after the triumph of the Civil Rights. This racism is not overt, but subtle. There might be equality in opportunities, but they do not necessarily translate to equal outcomes based on racial backgrounds. In other words, racism in contemporary America are supposed to be covert instead of overt. Trump’s America, and its overt racism against all people of color have called into question this covert racism idea. Recently sociologist Jennifer Mueller (2017) shows that colorblind racism does not exist as a static stratification system, it requires active and even “innovative” participation of ordinary white individuals to reproduce the same system that upholds their privilege. In other words, colorblind racism as a system has a lot of working mechanisms that we still need to unpack. One thing is clear though which is that it upholds the existing racial hierarchy at the disadvantage of people of color, especially African Americans.

If gender-blind sexism is a framework, being inspired by colorblind racism, then it should similarly argue that in contemporary American society, and as extension all Western societies, women are supposedly treated as equal as men, but the outcomes might not necessarily be equal. Sexism is more covert than overt. The only person who knows that they have encountered an undignified sexist comment/action is obviously the woman. If one pushes the argument further by following Jennifer Mueller’s line of inquiry, safeguarding the existing gender hierarchy, or patriarchy requires active and also “innovative” actions from men to reproduce their own power and dominance. This theory sounds very probable to me. But as a person of the female sex, I find this idea terrifying, but so real.

Using this framework, I can then think about situations where my acquaintances, friends and family members would undermine my opinions, sometimes my expertise simply to not have to engage with me. Of course many people around me find me opinionated. Who does not find a sociologist opinionated? Yet, through various experiences when I feel that my dignity as an intellectual, a scholar being undermined, under attacked, and that I am not at all respected, I feel both frustrated, and hurt. What then is the remedy? What can be done about this from a personal perspective? As of now the only person I have been talking deeply about these situations with is my therapist. I spend a set amount of time weekly to analyze these situations, and my feelings around how I have been treated, what I feel about them, and what the solutions can be. Sometimes I speak up. But my faith that male individuals around me would give up their privilege to let me speak, and take into account my opinions is pretty slim. These people have practiced all their lives to not have to take women’s opinions seriously. I cannot remind them every time that my opinions and my feelings matter. After a while, they would simply categorize me as a whiner instead of a problem solver. Over even a longer period of time, they would simply not talk to me altogether because I eventually would appear as “a difficult and uncollaborative person.”

As a logical consequence, gradually I would feel that I would be shut out of conversations, discourses altogether. I would shout in the void if I want to talk to a group of men. I am relegated to only talking to female friends, female colleagues, female co-authors because they understand me, and that we talk in the same language, and we have respect to each other, and we would less likely to dismiss each other’s opinion because no men are in the room. This has been indeed a configuration that I have ended up in most of the time. I went to a women’s college, where no male individual on campus would simply dismiss me. Most of my classmates were female students who care more about the quality of their work than having to compete with another alpha male individual. Then in graduate school, I found myself more likely collaborating with female co-authors. We support each other, and often spend time to both do intellectual work, and emotionally lift each other up. Those are the moments that I cherish.

But when I keep pushing the academic route, I have realized that the further I go, the fewer women I am collaborating with. When I enter into territories where my research collaborators are men, who often claim that they have better technical and mathematical aptitude, I found my opinions bing disregarded, my contributions overlooked. I have to speak up, and emphasize over and over what my contributions are lest someone else completely ignores those. When male individuals around me praise each other for very minor help that they gave each other while ignoring my tremendous critique of their work, and my suggestions to how they could resolve logical issues, I feel unacknowledged, defeated, and most of all “exhausted.”

Sociologist Elijah Anderson (2015) coins the term “the white space” to describe public spaces such as neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, etc, which are considered “off limits” for black people. He also points out that white people often avoid “black spaces,” while black people are required to navigate the white space simply for their existence. This idea is powerful, because as a woman I am required to navigate the male space. Most institutions were designed by men to serve men to start with. That women have successfully entered them does not mean that those institutions would work for the economic, mental and emotional benefits of women. In many ways, navigating those spaces is terribly exhausting. One can read first hand accounts of women navigating the financial industry, or recently the tech industry. For example, Ellen Pao wrote a powerful memoir that documents her attempt to raise the issue of diversity and inclusion in a Venture Capital firm. She faced a huge backlash, and a lot of professional and personal attacks.

At the end of the day, I realize that micro-interactions show a lot of ideological and structural conditions. My frustrating feeling, and exhaustion dealing with sexism at home, at work, an even at play show that simply being a female person living in this world is exhausting. It takes a lot of guts, inner strength, self-care, self appreciation, and a strong supporting network to navigate this world. Therefore, if I could make another woman or another non-male person feel good simply because they exist, I already succeed in a way.

Social Positions & Reflexivity

I just finished reading the book Thick by Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom. The book is a collection of essays that McMillan Cottom has written over a long period as a public intellectual in both legacy media and new media. She has become a giant in sociology after having won the MacArthur genius award. Having read the book, I understood why she was named “a genius.”

The book is not a scholarly research. It is a popular book written with sociological sensibilities. It makes me appreciate my profession even more. It uses social theory to explain popular culture. I wish I can think, live, breath, talk and speak like a sociologist like what McMillan Cottom does. I rarely meet a sociologist who actually lives sociologically. But I think McMillan Cottom does.

The part that struck me the most in the book is her reflections on the differences between her social position, and that of her grandmother. This shows her sociological reflexivity in using social theory to explain differences in outcomes of two women in the same households growing up and growing old in different America’s.

I have always tried to distance myself from using social theory in examining my own family. I run away from such endeavor because I was afraid that I would open a can of worms of pain, trauma, shame, guilt, remorse, and also silences in my own household. However, this realization begs me to consider the question: at what point would I gain enough confidence and honesty to critically look at my own personal history, and history of my people, the Vietnamese who came from đồng bằng Bắc Bộ, or the Red River Delta, or people from small towns in Northern Vietnam.

Do these questions constitute a line of brave, original, and worthy inquiry? Or are they simply questions that help me to come to terms with who I am as a person, a scholar, and a sociologist?

What does it mean for me to observe how the women in my household being humiliated by their husbands in public? How have these instances create an understanding of gender relations now and then? What about being told repeatedly in academia that my research questions are too narrowed? How does it affect my self-esteem, and my confidence in writing, doing research?

There are many questions to ponder upon. Maybe I should follow McMillan Cottom’s genre: personal essays to unearth these questions, the questions that I never dare to answer honestly.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

I finished reading the novel Pachinko last month. After putting the book away, I started to miss the characters in the book. I still want to know more about Solomon’s life as a Pachinko store owner after he inherits his father’s stores. The characters in the novel appear as if I know them. Their personalities are so crystal clear that I cannot mistake them for someone else. Min Jin Lee has a gift. She is able to not only construct fictional worlds that are so real, but also to construct fictional characters that you thought you know them all a long. Furthermore, using her gift as a writer, she shows the reader what discrimination feels like, tastes like, and experienced like.

The worlds in Pachinko remind me of a passage written by sociologist McMillan Cottom:

But Sociology comes as close to the core of where my essays start as anything else I have explored. Drawing on what ethnographers have called thick description, I finally found a label as complex as my way of thinking. I take very seriously the idea of social locations. We are people with free will, circumscribed to different degrees by histories that shape who we are allowed to become.

Min Jin Lee is attentive to each character’s social position. Three generations of a Korean/Korean Japanese family starts their lives in Japan relying on the business of running Pachinko, and even after three generations with money, their social positions remain the same, that is they are still stuck with the pachinko business.

Novelists practically use thick description. I wonder when Anthropologist Clifford Geertz was inspired by how novelists created fictional worlds that are even more real than the real world. Maybe that is why he was able to describe a cock fight in Bali that is so real to any reader.

Lee’s seemingly central thesis of the Pachinko novel, if there is such an argument in a novel, is that social positions determine a lot of the outcomes in life. An individual can try to exercise their agency, their free will. The outcome might not necessarily what they want to admit that despite their trying, they end up doing what the society has already pre-determined that it would be eventually what they do.

This realization saddens me. What is then to be done about discrimination, prejudice, stereotypes, and all the microaggressions that a minority person has to experience. They put up a good fight, stay silent for nothing? What is it at the end of the tunnel for such a person? Or which society would be most tolerant for such a person?

November Reading List

In October, I read quite a few novels. Reading novels is like trying to get at emotions that social science writings can never get at. Novelists think very deeply and carefully about crafting sentences, descriptions, and evoking sentiments that words themselves don’t sufficiently capture. For the month of November, I am trying to read a few novels, and a few social science books that help my research. Following is my list:

Omniscient Narrator: Free Food for Millionaires

I can’t say how much I like Min Jin Lee’s novels. I have devoured one novel after another in the past one month. I put aside scholarly reading to immerse in the fictional worlds that Lee created. I started out with Pachinko, a book about three generations of Korean Japanese experience in Japan. Then Free Food for Millionaires naturally rose up a few notches in my reading list. I felt guilty for not reading for scholarly endeavors. Yet I felt extremely happy, and fulfilled because Lee has opened doors to so many worlds, both familiar and foreign to me at the same time.

If I could, I would write books like Min Jin Lee. There are deep insights into human society, and how people behave under constraints in Min’s stories. Stylistically, I like her omnipresent, omniscient narrating. In her own words: “There’s a godlike quality to omniscience, and it is what I am vainly approaching in storytelling.” An all-knowing-narrator sounds powerful. This entity gives voices to everything, everyone, and let the reader know so much more than what the characters themselves can express.

Though omniscient narration is an unpopular way of storytelling for modern writers, it can reveal how everyone in the room is thinking about the issues and each other and themselves, rather than what they are actually doing and saying. Even the people of the finest characters don’t speak truthfully or act honestly all the time. It’s only in fiction that all the dimensions of personality and behavior may be witnessed. I wanted to have a go at taking it all down.

Lee’s description of her technique makes me wonder whether I can write sociological books this way. Can I play God in my scientific work? Can I be that all-knowing narrator to attribute motives, and telling a background story of every character, and analyze their actions sociologically? I want to copy Lee’s prose in my creative writing projects. More than anything else, I wan to emulate Lee’s writing philosophy in my scientific work.

Anxiety while Reading Social Theory

I have to admit I’m a shallow, and lazy reader. I prefer reading texts that are simple, and clear in prose. My most recent read that I cherished, and learned so much from was Ellen Pao’s memoir, Reset. The narrative is relatively linear. Everything is told in a chronological manner. Ellen Pao is a to-the-point storyteller. The messages are straightforward enough that I did not have to read the book twice to get any deeper meaning of life. The main message is that the tech industry has a deep structural problem in lacking diversity, and it has been paying only lip service to improve the situation. The solution is that VCs and tech CEOs should be agents of change, by creating and shaping inclusive organization policies and cultures.

Now I am in the process of writing my dissertation, I have bigger theoretical, and philosophical questions that require close readings of certain philosophical texts. There’s no reason why I should not set time aside to do these readings. I ought to read them at some point, and I have decided that now is the time for me to engage with social theory.

While contemplating about the different epistemological worlds that the left and the right in the United States are living in right now, I was recommended to read Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins, and The Racial Contract by Charles Mills. I was elated at the challenge. Yet I have to admit that my anxiety and fear of philosophy, and social theory did give me some reservations about how much from the texts I would understand, appreciate, and be able to engage with.

Regardless, I am giving these texts a read, and will document my reactions toward them in the next few blog posts.

Production of culture

I am copy-ing this list as a reading list for cultural production.

Code and Culture

[Below is a recent list Peterson wrote outlining the production of culture perspective. You can view it as an update to his ARS with N Anand. Pete wrote it to accompany a talk he gave and circulated it to some friends. I copy-edited/tagged it and am posting it with permission. If you know links for any of the non-tagged citations email me or put them in the comments and I will update the post. –Gabriel]

| Richard A. Peterson |

Examples of works written in the spirit of the Production of Culture Perspective

Created for the working conference
Euro-Pop: The Production and Consumption of a European Culture
Villa Vigoni, Lake Como, Italy 9-10 June, 2009

Richard A. Peterson

A. The production of culture perspective focuses on the ways in which the content of symbolic elements of culture are shaped by the systems within which they are created, distributed, evaluated, taught…

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White Habitus – Racism without Racists

In his seminal book Racism without Racists (2006), Eduardo Bonilla-Silva defines the concept “white habitus” as “a racialized, uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites’ racial taste, perceptions, feelings, and emotions and their views on racial matters.” This concept explains certain idea of white solidarity, and white identity that I am currently trying to understand in the American context.

Bonilla-Silva goes on to explain: “One of the central consequences of the white habitus is that it promotes a sense of group belonging (a white culture of solidarity) and negative views about nonwhites.” Scholars often stay away from discussing the effects of active social isolation from ethnic minorities by white Americans. Bonilla-Silva doesn’t shy away from such a difficult topic. He points out that this kind of habitus develops a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, and a shared experience. Further exploration of white solidarity and identity in contemporary America under Trump is a difficult task. In the past two months of my reading on the subject, the book that deals the best with this topic is Dying of Whiteness by Jonathan Metzl.

September Reading List

I am not going out to restaurants, I also not using the subway to travel anywhere. The COVID-19 Pandemic has helped me save some money. I spent this ear-marked money on books. Because of work from home, and school’s work from home policies, access to physical books has become very limited to me. I don’t do well with e-books. Reading e-books does not help me retain information. Words come in and out immediately whenever I read things on my computer screen. I need to hold a physical book in order to think slowly what the author means.

Following is my reading list for the last 10 days of September: Dying of Whiteness by Jonathan Metzl, Red Pill, Blue Pill by David Neiwert, Talk of Love by Ann Swidler, Summoned by Iddo Tavory, and The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. These books have been suggested to me by colleagues, friends, or advisors. They are fall broadly under three categories: whiteness studies, ethnography/cultural studies, and digital capitalism. I still read scholarly articles for information, and research. Yet when it comes to reading for critical engagement, research and pleasure, I still prefer books. I am not entirely sure my dissertation will turn into a book, but I cannot deny the appeal of having my name on a monograph published by an academic publisher. Let’s wait for a couple of years to see where and in what format I will end up publishing my research.

Book Review: Ghost Work

I have planned to read Ghost Work by Mary Gray and Siddharth Suri for a long time. I bought the book when I visited a talk by Mary Gray at Data and Society about a year ago. Since then the book still sits on my bookshelf. The general theme of the book is about the necessary unseen human labor behind the seamless automated systems. The core concept of the book is the idea “paradox of automation’s last mile.” It refers to the phenomenon whereby when Artificial Intelligence becomes more advanced, it would create “temporary labor markets” to solve “unforeseen and unpredictable tasks.” Furthermore, the grater paradox of automation is that “the desire to eliminate human labor always generate new tasks for humans.” In other words, automation cannot and would not in a foreseeable future, rather automation reconfigures work, and reorganizes human input in the production process.

In the authors’ own words, on-demand service work is necessary because we do not know when machines need human input:

“As machines get more powerful and algorithms take over more and more problems, we know from past advances in natural language processing and image recognition that industries will continue to identify new problems to tackle. Thus, there is an ever moving frontier between what machines can and cannot solve. We call this the paradox of automation’s last mile: as machine progress, the opportunity to automate something else appears on the horizon. This process constantly repeats, resulting in the expansion of automation through the perpetual creation and destruction of labor markets for new types of human labor. In other words, as machines solve more and more problems, we continue to identify needs for augmenting rather than replacing human effort. This paradox explains why on-demand services – commercial ventures that combine humans and APIs to source, schedule, and deliver access to goods and services – are more likely to dominate the future of work than AI and bots alone (p.176).

The authors interview workers in the United States and India, and bring them to us. They go behind the API curtain, and reveal to us who the workers are, what are their aspirations, and why they work for on demand platforms. This book is comparative on many levels. First, it compares workers in different countries: The US. and India. Second it compares experiences of workers who work for multiple platforms: Amazon Mechanical Turk, Microsoft Internal On-Demand platform, Amara translation service, and LeadGenius. The diversity of platforms, and countries allow us to see a picture of an emerging global on-demand labor market, which performs million of tasks, which vary in complexity. This book therefore enables us to see what is often hidden and abstract.

The authors then provide institutional background on why the on-demand labor market has become necessary in the digital revolution. They also show us how on-demand labor market is not a new system. Before the industrial revolution, many women and households took on the job of sewing the last buttons to clothes before the textile industry figured out how to automate the process, and confined the work within the walls of garment companies. This inclusion of non-institutional labor is important in the process of automation.

As they walk us through lived experiences of their interview subjects, the reader recognizes heterogeneity of human labors in this on-demand market. What becomes apparent is that since the market does not have a clear requirement of educational background, training level, etc, it allows for a diverse labor force with different levels of training, different levels of education, and coming from diverse racial, ethic, and religious backgrounds. However, this heterogeneity of labor supply, and diverse forms of tasks also create inefficiency, and friction because workers have different levels of skills, and that requesters/ employers have to define the tasks themselves. The authors show that this system involves a lot of transaction costs for both workers and employers. The two sides have to put in the time to find the right match, and to explain to each side how to do the task as intended. Workers avoid the problem of looking for tasks by creating social networks outside of the platform. They rely on social media, online forums to find the right tasks. As the author outlines this problem of transaction costs, I wonder whether building a well thought-out communication platforms for on-demand workers and employers would be a potential solution for the various transaction cost problem in this market. This is a technical solution for the current inefficiencies in this market.

One theme that I observe in this book with other Gig economy books that I have read in the past year is that workers in this economy are subject to algorithmic arbitrariness. Workers are suspended, and kicked out of the platforms sometimes randomly, and sometimes according to rules that are not taking their real life situations into account, while workers have no recourse, no where to complain. This shows the power of platforms over workers, and that workers though important to platforms’ profitability are not treated as assets but expandable number that could be eliminated at will.

Gray and Suri explain:

“The worst expression of algorithmic cruelty is disenfranchisement. Under the guise of safety, systems designers make it easy to block or remove an account in case a bad actor tries to cheat the system. This adversarial stance means that good workers are sometimes misinterpreted as shady players. Inevitably, mistakes are made. A worker changes an address, loses her internet connection, or shares an IP address with another worker. Each one of these things is potential red flag. The algorithmic system sees the flag as a possible security threat and, with no one at the helm to distinguish friend from foe, the worker is penalized. The penalty may look like being blocked or suspended, or having an account deactivated. Again, in an ecosystem in which workers are seen as interchangeable, the system automatically eliminates what it deems bad apples. The sad irony is that even the best – intentioned and most seasoned workers can get caught in the dragnet.” 86

Workers are dehumanized through the process of de-identification. Mturkers become lists of numbers. This reminds me of how Jewish prisoners given a number during the Holocaust. Giving a working human being a code to interact with is so dehumanizing for both sides: the requesters, and the Mturkers. The authors though qualify this statement by saying that in case of workers who come from discriminated classes (gender, religion, etc), not being identified by names and gender sometimes giving them advantage.

At the end, I feel that the book presents a good narrative of what is going on in the tech economy. However, as a sociologist of work, one question remains unanswered is the question of “work process” among on-demand gig workers: Why do they work so hard for very little paid, and why don’t they quit? What is the average tenure of an on-demand gig worker working for an on-demand platform? The authors point out the 80/20 Pareto rule to create a typology of three group of workers. However, I want to know among those who make on-demand work their full time career, why do they work so hard for little pay? Another question is why they not call them gig workers? What is then the difference between gig work and on-demand work? Aren’t they the same?

To answer the question what keeps they in the game, the authors provide a partial answer: many of them are in the game for the cognitive benefit of it. They learn new things, keep up their skills (most of these answers come from Indian subjects). However, my sense is that because the book is not an ethnographic research, they can never quite get at the process that workers rationalize the decision to remain in an exploitative labor scheme.

Besides, How about their American counterparts? Why are they working so hard for little pay? The answers are either implicit or not satisfactory. Implicit in the sense that they work for various reasons. One, the workers population are so heterogeneous, they should have different reasons why they work in this sector. Thus, they should also have different reasons why they stay. Is there anything about the on-demand aspect of this that keeps them stay? Is there anything about the brandname (, or Microsoft) that make them stay? These questions remain open.

Finally, as a methodology enthusiast, I feel the book to be not transparent in its methodology. Who were involved in the interviewing process, who was contacted, who was doing the interview, etc. These pieces of information is absent. As mentioned earlier, because the book is not explicit in whether ethnography was involved at all, readers cannot really picture the embodiment aspect of online/on-demand work.

Because I care so much about reproducibility of research, the book does not have a methodological appendix that makes me cringe. I know that it is produced for popular audience, but as a scholar, a researcher, a scientist, I want to know how many people they have interviewed, how did they interview them, how many in person, how many remote. How did they avoid positionality biases being MSR employers, privileged, and at times employers of those ghost workers.

Overall, I agree with the authors that there’s a global ghost work sector that is increasing in size because of the increase in demand for human in the loop tasks from various tech companies. They are working outside of the formal employment structure, and they are subject to the whim of the platforms, and being exploited by requesters because of the platform design. However, I think the book has not answered many questions, and one of which is methodological, and another is theoretical.

Despite many questions that I have, the book is a starting point of a long over-due conversation: who are the human workers who power machines. How can we as society protect them, and enable their creativity for our better future. The book is both practical, and hopeful that we actually will continue to need humans in the loop. The book also provides one practical solution for job training program at the city level that I really like: supporting public education, and letting residents to take college classes that they would want to take in order to benefit their work. This similar program enabled me to audit courses at Humboldt University, Free University and Goettingen University during my stay in Germany. It plugged me into the intellectual environments of those excellent public universities, and through those courses I had also made long lasting friendships. I’m all for investing in public universities and making their courses available to those who pay their taxes to support such excellent public education.

Book review: After the Gig

This semester, I am teaching the class The Sociology of the Gig Economy at Hunter College. This is a master’s level class where graduate students in social science research, and honors undergraduate students will explore various issues of the gig economy. I am pretty excited about the content of the class. After our first meeting last week, I have become even more excited about the participants. Throughout the semester, students and I will engage in a few public pedagogy projects whereby we produce content and knowledge for public consumption. This is my first time experimenting with such an idea. I think there will be challenges, but hopefully we’ll be able to create solid content for public consumption.

In the process of preparing for the class, I have ordered like 20 different new books in the summer. Most recently I finished reading the book After the Gig by Juliet Schor. As the name suggests, it is a book about the gig economy.

I categorize this book as an empirical examination of the gig economy from the sharing economy point of view. This book is on my bookshelf physically placed next to Uberland by Alex Rosenblat, and Hustle and Gig by Alexandrea Ravenelle. I have reviewed Uberland for Sociological Forum, and really appreciated the book’s approachable language. Alex Rosenblat does not use heavy theoretical language to make her point across. That is Uber drivers come from a diverse backgrounds, who have different reasons why they become taxi drivers. Yet she’s able to show that over time, Uber has engaged in shady practices to increase surveillance and control over its workers, its customers, and critics like herself. When it comes to Hustle and Gig, I appreciate Ravenelle’s clear argument: that is, in the gig economy, companies shift risks onto workers. And her solution to this risk shifting problem is to advocate for changes in the independent contractor category. The government needs to make gig companies recognize these workers as their workers. So instead of getting a 1099 form, these workers should get a W2 form like other “organization men” in William Whyte’s words.

How is After the Gig different from the other two gig economy books that were also published by University of California Press? I think the answer has to do with its approach, scope, and the consumption aspect.

First, Juliet Schor approached the gig economy phenomenon from the sharing economy point of view. That is, she used the consumption, anti-capitalist discourse of the gig/platform economy as the spring board. For example, throughout the book the idealist discourse is being problematized. This discourse makes the argument that the sharing economy promotes collaborative consumption, environmental conservation, and financial independence. While the other books I mentioned above focus exclusively on the workers and how platforms use data and algorithms to discipline workers, this book looks at other aspects of the platform economy: collaborative consumption, environmental conservation and then economic gains for workers.

Second, this book relies on data collected by a team of researchers that look at many for profit and non-profit platforms. This is a marked research design difference from the other two research projects. Trained as an economist, Juliet Schor is able to show the reader what the economics of the platforms is. I really appreciate her non-jargon explanation of how economics works in this economy. In order to keep workers poor and dependent on platforms, Schor argues that we need to understand two important concepts: algorithmic control and policies of precarity.

What is algorithmic control?

To some extent, algorithms are self-learning entities that change without human intervention. But on labor platforms they are also paired with policy decisions made by real people.

In other words, platforms use both automation (algorithms), and policy decision making to discipline workers. While it takes almost nothing to start on any platform (Uber, Taskrabbit), platforms can fire workers anytime (through deactivation mechanism). This high cost of job loss is really high for gig workers.

Schor and her team argue that “platforms have ushered in fundamental changes in the organization of work.” They are parasites, who do not pay tax, and just use public resources (roads, etc). They subsidize consumers through venture capital money, and then compete with public services (public transportations).

Similar to what Alex Rosenblat’s argued in her book, Schor also argues that the platform economy has ushered in a new labor regime. Specifically, we observe a retreat from control, or direct-human control. Employers allow for a wide range of work hours, a wide range of workers with different educational backgrounds, etc. Similar to historian Louis Hyman, and communications scholar Mary Gray, Schor also highlights the similarity between this system and the pre-factory era home-based “putting out” system. Platforms as accepting more heterogeneity among its workers allow for a more diverse workforce. Yet, this also means that we’re facing with more inequality within this economy.

Finally, Schor examines a few case studies of non-profit sharing platforms, and shows the readers why they fail, and how they fail. She argues that sometime the setup lacks “a value proposition” and operates based on “ideological commitment.” In other words, their economic activities appear to be not durable, and would soon fail when economic situations change, and other social dynamics (such as status positioning) kick in.

In conclusion, Schor documents the rise of commercial platforms, and attributes their growth to the fact that they have offered something of significant value to users: consumers get lower prices, and providers get extra income with flexibility. However, looking at consumers and providers alone is not enough. The platforms have plenty to gain from these activities such as power, and consumers’ data. Thus Schor calls for more regulations in this market in order to protect consumers, providers, and society as a whole.

Baking and Culture of Measurement

I have been obsessed with baking Asian cakes such as mooncakes, anpan, Hokkaido bread lately. My tiny New York City apartment kitchen has been filled with baking ingredients and tools including five different types of flour, different molds for different cakes and bread. The basic equipment and ingredients are readily available in my home.

However when I started making mooncakes for example, I ran into the problem of recipes. In order to get a hang of baking techniques, I often go to Youtube, and observe how other people from different countries make mooncakes, and Hokkaido bread. Once I read a few blog posts, and watch a few videos, I seem to get a conceptual hang of the workflow, and feel that I can comfortably make a new type of bread without much difficulty. However, people often say that baking is a science. That means, what determines whether a cake is a success or not lies in the precise measurement. This I found to be a troubling issue especially when making Vietnamese cakes.

I found recipes in Vietnamese on the Internet to be very underwhelming. Most of the time, the measurements are not precise, which throw me off. Whenever I found a ciabatta recipe for example, the instruction is full with details that I feel happy about actually not reading the extra story that the writer tags along to personalize the food making experience. I would go straight to the end of the blog post, look at the recipe, get a general idea of the workflow, then I would go to Youtube and find videos to see how the recipe actually is executed, and certain steps that could never be verbalized in writing.

This general workflow helps me with many cuisines: Chinese, German, American, Mexican and Mediterranean. But when it comes to Vietnamese food particularly Vietnamese recipes that I remember as kid growing up in Vietnam, I find lots of frustration. I often find the writing to be dry, not detailed enough, and it leaves me with an unsatisfactory feeling that the author does not try to make sure that I’d be able to re-create the same experience. This realization made me think about a culture of writing cookbooks, recipes, and blogs. Each recipe takes a lot of care to master, and then to write a blog post to explain what one does. This is a lot of labor and care. What sets the Vietnamese recipes and Western cuisines recipes apart for me now is this level of care, level of appreciation.

I believe that there are many Vietnamese recipes out there that people need to try. Yet, in order to figure out what they are, one needs a class of cultural producers who would be able to introduce these different recipes online, and then popularize it in the world. This is such a cool idea for a Youtube channel, and food blog. I hope that a class of young talented Vietnamese people out there are doing precisely this: to make sure that Vietnamese recipes are accessible to the culinary world, and treat Vietnamese foods with care, and patience.

Topic Modeling makes Bayesian Cool

I have been obsessed with topic modeling for more than a year now. It is an NLP technique that actually has important applications in social science research. This is a big feast for computational methods, and for a social scientist like me.

When I first learned about topic modeling, I spent a lot of time trying to learn how to make it work. Besides, I also wanted to know how I can use this cool technique in my research concerning race/ethnicity, immigration, etc. I was not concerned at all about the mathematical underpinning of the method.

This all went well until I learned Bayesian statistics this summer. Now I see Bayesian everywhere. I finally understand that under the hood, Bayesian inference makes topic modeling such as LDA, or STM possible. This eureka moment really elated me.

It turns out that I have been using language of tuning hyper parameters without really understanding what goes underneath the entire process. Now with some basic Bayesian statistics, things start to make more sense to me, and I feel more confident in explaining how topic modeling works.

Baking is a science

People say baking is a science, and cooking is an art. I enjoy baking much more than cooking because oftentimes there are precise description, and precise measurement of how much ingredients and materials one should prepare before making a cake. Until I tried to make moon cakes, a type of cakes that many East Asian countries eat during the Moon Festival. It’s my childhood favorite, and I miss eating the kind that one can only find in Vietnam (bánh thập cẩm, or mixed flavor).

I followed a few recipes found on the Internet and Youtube. Results have turned out to be dried, and not so pretty.

Then I tried my hands in making mochi ice cream. It’s even more difficult.

Mochi Ice Cream - Kirbie's Cravings
Picture: Kirbie’s cravings

What I figured out during the two failed experiments is that making Asian cakes is so much more complicated that I had thought. I expected that unlike making a croissant or tarte tatin, I at least have an idea how they should taste like at the end. As a born and raised Vietnamese, at least I have the moral authority to say that the cake I make taste like what Vietnamese people in general would consider good. What I recognized at the end though making these cakes has less to do with measurements, ingredients. It has a lot more to do with techniques, equipments, and whether one has a clear expectation how the final products should taste like. So in many ways, baking is also an art. Making these cakes is more like cooking a bowl of Pho than making a tres leches cake.

These Asian goodies are supposed to be moist, soft, and delicate. They are not supposed to be chewy or fluffy. They cannot be made using a ready made cake mix. They take a lot of time to make, and the process is pretty involved. One cannot cut corner and expect the output to be pretty or tasty.

This baking process reminds me of the scientific endeavor that I am engaging in at this moment. When one embarks in a research project, one thinks that they have a clear idea what to do, until they figure out that there are many steps in between. Then they become confused, and frustrated. The science of baking, and making pastry is not opaque especially in the Internet era where many recipes are available for consultation. The opaque part lies in the details how one should mix what kind of flour, and which one goes into the oven first, and how much egg coating should one put on top of the delicate almost ready mooncake.

These baking experiments made me realize that in doing any project, patience is key, and that figuring out the perfect procedure takes many trials and errors. Translating it to doing science, maybe writing papers over and over again helps one write better papers. Maybe having one solid idea and then translating it to written words would eventually become easy once I figure out how to not cut corner?

Applications of Bayesian Thinking

I struggled with understanding how to use Bayesian statistics in my professional work. More specifically, I am struggling understanding the building blocks of Bayesian statistics. What I do see is that Bayesian statistics involves probabilistic thinking, and very clever sampling of data distribution. On the higher level conceptualization, the ideas of prior belief, and updating your belief to get a posterior estimation are intuitively appealing. However, when it comes to mechanics of applying Bayesian logics, I am struggling a lot.

This struggle does not deter me from enjoying reading about Bayesian logics being applied in real life situations. Recently I listened to a Data Skeptic podcast episode about data representations, data visualization, and how we citizens or audience are unconsciously being educated about statistics through reading and interacting with very well-thought out work of data journalists and data scientists at news organizations. The specific example that professor Jessica Hullman mentioned is an example from the New York Times’ interactive graphic representations of inequality in America. The interactive exercise asks the reader to provide their prior belief about inequality in America, and then presenting them with data, thus nudging them toward updating their belief. This is such a brilliant statistics exercise from a very well-respected news organization in the US. I wish that more news organizations in the world exercise what the New York Times does: using data journalism to educate the public about social issues in a scientific way.

For those who would want to listen to the podcast episode, it could be found here. Let me know what you think about Bayesian statistics, and how one can implement Bayesian statistics in social sciences.

What Journal to Publish in?

My mentor often says that before submitting a paper for publication to a journal, one has to do thorough “market research,” or to have a general understanding of what the journal is about. My understanding is that each journal is a cultural institution, and the job of a researcher is to make explicit those cultural norms. Relying on this explicit knowledge, they could make a more informed decision about the venue.

A friend came to me today with a set of related questions:

Where does one look to find out simply what the background of a journal is — which discipline(s) it covers, how long it’s been around, what its mission is?

I thought about these questions for a while, and came up with a 6-step procedure to figure out how one should categorize a journal:

  1. Read the journal’s self-description
  2. Read the Wikipedia’s page of the journal
  3. Examine the chief editor’s profile. The chief editor’s background is indicative of who the potential authors and the audience should be.
  4. Examine a few articles, and see who are the authors
  5. Use the advanced search function on Google scholar, and find articles published in the journal, read the articles titles published by the journal.
  6. When the journal is interdisciplinary, look at a few issues to see which disciplines the authors come from.

This might be different from how other academics do their “market research.” I’d be interested in learning more about how other people decide where they submit their work, and why they make such decision.

Bayesian Struggle

Bayesian Fun
Picture credit: GA Tech

I am currently attending a statistics summer school at ICPSR (University of Michigan), one of the most renown methods training grounds for social scientists. I had applied to the summer program before, but never participated because I could not afford it, and that I did not really want to go to Ann Arbor in the summer. But this year, amidst the Covid19 Pandemic, ICPSR became a possibility at least financially, and also due to its online format I never have to go anywhere outside of my apartment to attend it.

My experience has been great so far. I’ve got to meet with really smart and self-driven PhD students, researchers, and professors from all over the world. This is really exciting. We have been doing trivia on Zoom, swapping tips, tricks and talking about each other research interests on Slack.

My enthusiasm to learn more stats got curbed immediately when the Bayesian statistics class started. The reason that I signed up for the class was simply that I’m interested, and I want to know more about probability, which I never formally learned as an undergraduate student, and is currently not offered in my graduate program. I soon recognized though that the class has a lot of formal mathematical proofs, and probabilistic theories, and math axioms, something that I missed doing, yet my math knowledge not quite sufficient to do abstract derivatives. I forgot most of my linear algebra, and differential equations after almost a decade doing ethnographic work, and reading social theory.

The class started from the simply and elegant Bayesian theorem:

Use Bayes' Theorem to Investigate Food Allergies — Count Bayesie
Photo credit:

It then became a full length discussion on how to use different priors, different sampling techniques, and how clever mathematical manipulation can get you very far. My head is been spinning, and I feel seriously doubtful of my intellectual ability.

One good thing that comes out of this experience is that I have been reading a lot more because Bayesian logics does not appear intuitive to me. I’ve been watching a lot of Youtube videos about Bayesian applications. I am curious at what point this world view would make sense to me.

To get a sense of what this Bayesian world feels like, and thinks like, I watched this funny, and engaging YouTube video:

The presenter makes it feel so easy. She naturally incorporates concepts such as conditional probability of A given B, and the probability of A, or of B in her speech. It feels as though she lives her life in a Bayesian way, and thinks like a Bayesian. Then she provides example of how a person would be able to use the Bayesian theorem to calculate the probability that their blind date would share their interest in Star Wars given what they already knew about the world. This sounds very nerdy, but it works for some people. I wonder how many people actually think like this. Certainly I am not one, and I am also not surrounded by Bayesian thinkers on a daily basis.

Ok this video makes Bayesian interesting, and applicable in real life. How about moving a little bit further? I have not been able to understand all the assumptions, and sampling techniques in doing Bayesian statistics, but probably I can ask relevant questions that highly technical people could answer. The whirlwind of deep learning seems to be sweeping every corner of the scientific world, how do Bayesian statisticians, and applied Bayesian people survive and adapt? I found that Bayesian people are making themselves relevant, and pitching their work to the deep learning and machine learning communities. For example, most recently at NeurIPS 2019, one of the most important machine learning conferences, there was a workshop called Bayesian Deep Learning, where presenters and speakers pitched various ideas about how Bayesian statistics is relevant to machine learning, and vice versa. This is very exciting. So Bayesian statistics is not a dying field that I’m stumbling into now. It’s evolving as the field of statistics is getting more and more exciting.

I still have a lot to learn during this summer program. It feels very bizarre to go back to do derivatives, and doing matrix algebra. Yet, I am excited about learning new things. Math always makes my brain hurt. But like one of my math professors often said: “Doing math is joyful thinking.” I should enjoy this process of writing and following proofs. Sometimes I even wondered had I remained doing math since college, what would I have become?

Deep Listening: Engaging with Respect

When I first started college in the United States, I struggled. I struggled with English because as a non-native speaker, the first year was very difficult. Every student had to take English 101, first year seminar, major, and minor required classes. Even before school started, the incoming freshmen were asked to read a non-fiction book, and created original and innovative responses to it. I was overwhelmed. Nobody had ever taught me how to react to a non-fiction book. What was expected of me? How would the deliverable look like? I performed well if there’s a clear guideline of what deliverable I should provide. But when the deliverable is anything possible, I became paralyzed.

I arrived in college with the feeling that I was insufficient because I could not produce a creative response to a non-fiction book. Then in the first orientation week, I saw my peer products displayed at the fine arts department, I felt both awed by what they were able to create, and felt inadequate because I was not creative, and that I failed to bring with me any artifact. I was trying to figure out the American college system, and American higher education culture.

Then English 101, a required class, started. I was both excited, but nervous, and sometimes dreaded that I had to go to English classes. As a high school student, I never excelled in English, or Vietnamese. I never got good grades in these subjects, or felt the urge to write any poem, or wrote a good literary analysis. My high school writing was mediocre but logical. I often got away with writing a very dry essay that hit all the points instead of writing a flowery essay that makes the reader feel good. I kept the same attitude toward English, or maybe the fear of humanities subjects when college started. My English professor also looked very strict, and the readings were very foreign to me! We read Othello, old English poems, and Tony Morrison’s Beloved. I had virtually no cultural background to be able to comprehend the texts. My only tool was to pretend that literature speaks to all humanity regardless of the reader’s race, ethnicity, cultural background and lived experiences. Later on, I learned that this assumption was very wrong.

English 101 was the class that took most of my time, yet I felt really inadequate in it most of the time. Until one day, I had to make a presentation about a reading in class. I don’t remember what the presentation about any more. The only thing I remember now is that it was a 10-minute presentation about an author, and their work. My job was to summarize the author’s life, and their literary works. The only and the most important thing I remember though is the feeling that I had during and after the presentation. My peers were listening to me very attentively, and asked questions after I presented. I was of course nervous, but they were all paying attention to me, my powerpoint, and did not care much about my broken English. I felt empowered. I felt respected. I felt engaged. It was definitely the first time that I recognized the power of being listened to. My expectation was that nobody would listen to my presentation because I did not really know what I was doing. I also never took English seriously. Yet the fact that my peers and my professor took me, the topic and the subject matter seriously, I felt elated.

That moment of feeling respected, recognized, and centered was decidedly a turning point in my approach toward higher learning. It was also the moment when I recognized how empowering it could be for a speaker to be able to summon his/her audience’s attention.

In this blog post, I am arguing that when one engages in deep listening, or paying attention to the interlocutor with empathy and appreciation, one gives agency to one’s interlocutor by giving them respect.

As human beings, we all want to be treated with respect. It’s an instinctive desire. I had such a low expectation of how my peers would treat me in an English class, thus when I was treated with respect, I felt elated, happy, and empowered. What if we use the same practice for doing research? What if deep listening as a way to show respect to a research subject is a principle in doing qualitative research?

During the Covid-19 Pandemic, everything has been moved online. Now everyone knows what Zoom is, and conducting research interviews has become so much easier than before because teleconferencing has become normalized as a social practice. My argument is that in the 21st century, where more activities are conducted online, sociologists should also conduct their research online. I think that conducting interviews online should become a part of interviewing methods. It should be in one’s research repertoire, in one’s tool box. This research environment is not ideal for a lot of projects. However, as researchers we should make do with what we have.

In the current situation, when researchers interview participants online, we need to practice deep listening, and pay attention to it more than ever. What does it mean? It means letting subjects sufficient time and care to elaborate on their points, and giving them virtual space to feel comfortable. I think psychologists have done this very well when we all transitioned online. Now all psychotherapists are offering online therapy. They use virtual spaces very well. They use virtual platforms to elicit deep emotions, deep connections, and deep openness with their subjects. Sociologists should learn this deep virtual listening practice from them.

What constitutes deep listening then? There are three basic components of virtual deep listening: (1) establishing virtual rapport, (2) maintaining eye contact and attention, (3) asking follow-up questions.

Establishing virtual rapport: Establishing quick rapport to any person is an art. A great field worker often incorporates humor, and the ability to relate to the interlocutor in the first five minutes of interaction with a new interview subject. Establishing a virtual rapport presents a challenge because the interviewer is no longer being physically in the same place as their interviewee. This physical distance creates a challenge because relating to somebody virtually is a very different skill than relating to someone in the same physical space. It seems that podcasters have figured out how to establish quick rapport with their interlocutors very quickly. I would love to know how they do this. What are some tips, and what should one pay attention to?

Maintaining eye contact and attention: this is true when a researcher interview some one physically. It is even more true when an interview is done virtually. Maintaining eye contact via Zoom is very difficult. Sometime we do not know whether we are looking directly at the other person in the eye. This act of staring at a screen for too long might lead to Zoom fatique, the feeling of tiredness, anxiousness or worry with yet another video call. Yet in order to get the best interaction, and that to help the interviewee to come forth with their life stories, paying attention to what being said, and how they say it is utmost important. Paying attention to details is always the best working guideline.

Asking follow-up questions: As I interviewed podcasters for a research on the podcasting industry, I learned that not everyone is a good podcaster because they do not know how to ask follow-up questions. This point relates to the previous point about paying attention to details. I have the habit of taking detailed notes when people talk. It’s a very good practice to get things visually in front of you when you want to know what is being said. Many a times, I used my notes to come back to points that the interviewee said, and I needed more elaboration. A superb fieldworker does not take detailed notes. They only need to take mental notes, and write down very short notes. Then when they go home, they will fill in the blank what is missing from their notes. This is a great mental exercise. I strongly believe that a good fieldworker has very good memory. I am often afraid of losing track of the conversation, thus I take notes of everything. Remember asking follow-up questions for further elaboration is always helpful when the interviewee talks about a social concept using their own words, and to construct their social life through their own lens.

In conclusion, deep listening is an important practice for everyone in this busy world where technology makes us more isolated than ever. For a researcher, deep listening helps us connect with research subjects because it is a way for us to give our interviewees respect. In the context of virtualizing research, deep listening is even more needed because it can help us to bring down the physical distance of a Zoom call. All in all, I would encourage everyone to think about different ways in which deep listening could be practiced, and how it is being applied in different contexts.

Audm vs. Diversity in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter

While America is experiencing a social revolution lead by Black Live Matters activists, every individual, every institution is forced to pay attention to the question of diversity, inequality. At the same time, as I am reading news coming from different sources about Covid19, and social justice, I feel that I appreciate the good work that journalists do. I read about the troubles that journalists of color are going through. Newsrooms across the nation are grappling with the racial inequality conversation that the nation is having. I want to support their work, especially supporting good works by journalists of color.

Then I found Audm, an app that reads high quality news articles aloud. The company has recently acquired by the New York Times. Some observers have said that this acquisition marked a turning point in the New York Times’s approach to audio content, and audio production. The New York Times has beefed up its audio content production. Its the Daily podcast is one of the most popular podcasts in the world. The news organization is now behaving more like a tech company than a newspaper company. Its Data Science department is staffed with some of the most well-known data scientists in the world. Its constant acquisition of startups makes it looks like Amazon, a website of everything. I wonder at what point all of my news source would come from some organization that is associated with the New York Times.

At first, I rejoiced at the idea that now I can listen to the highest news content by a very cool app. It felt authentic, and intimate like listening to a podcast. At the same time you’ll get to know the most important information out there written by the best journalists in the industry. Then after having listened to a few articles, I found one pattern: all of my news is read by white men even when the news was written by a brilliant writer of color, or a female writer of color. This does not sound right to me. Instead of giving power to the writer, curating some of the most important content to readers, the app and its voice over staffs reproduce a type of “audible inequality” in the voice over industry. If there’s diversity of writers among New York Times staffs, I’d want to also have diversity in voice over actors.

Even when second generation Asian Americans born and raised on American soil, they have a distinct voice that is different from a middle age white man’s voice. For example, a Vietnamese young writer would have a voice that has been nourished by their migrant parents who came to the US, overwhelmingly in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. This person has been raised within a community that is still grappling with the idea that they are now a minority group in an increasingly diverse society. The young writer has been nourished with fish sauce, and Pho, and a history of the Vietnam War, and growing up being told a model minority student. The voice that this young individual produces is representative of all of those lived experiences. It is unique and distinct. I want to listen to an article written by a Vietnamese talented journalist, being read by a talented Vietnamese voice over actor. In that process, an intellectual work (the article) benefits two knowledge workers (the writer, and the voiceover actor) of color.

What is happening now is that the writer of color does the difficult work of producing a piece of intellectual work (the article), and it is read by a white middle age actor, who benefits from the first person’s work, and reproducing the stereotype that only white voice actors are talented because their voices are featured. This reality incurs symbolic violence on the talented writer, and reinforcing existing income and racial inequality that upholds the current economic structure. When the audience does not critically think about what they listen, they gradually acquire an association that there’s no talented voice actor of color out there. This is especially damaging for young people of color who would dare not go into a field like voice over because they never saw any people like them in the field.

To conclude, I suggest that Audm, and by extension the New York Times, should diversify its cast of voice actors. If an article is written by a writer of color, it should be read by a voice actor of color. On a broader scale, the audio industry itself should diversify. There are plenty of opportunities for voice actors of color to contribute, they should be given roles and opportunities where appropriate. As of now, I will not subscribe to Audm. I don’t think my money would be well spent here. I would rather read the article written by the talented writers of color, and imagined how they would sound in my head rather than listening to the app, whose voices do not represent the real writers. And then donate money directly to an artist of color on Patreon, where I know for sure that I directly contribute to their creative work.

Attention Economy 101

I am trying to figure out the concept attention economy, its genealogy, and how I can apply it in the contemporary media landscape. My first step was to check Google n-gram to see when the concept most in vogue. Here is what I found:

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This graph basically suggests that the concept was used a lot in Google books between around 1995 to 2013. It was most used around probably 2004. Then the frequency reduced.

The same diagram is rendered a bit differently when I chose to smooth out over the period of one book.

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This figure shows two peaks: possibly 2003, and 2007, after which point the mentioning of the phrase “attention economy” gradually dies down.

Now let turn to Google Trends to see how and whether this phrase shows up

This Google search term mirrors the Google Book results. I think the only difference is that Google trends are search terms floating on the internet, while Google ngram reviewer reflects the term being mentioned in books.

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This figure shows that the term “attention economy” was used a lot between 2004 (the year Google Trends started documenting terms I guess) and 2008. Then the interest in the term died down. The number seems to pick up a bit since 2018 until now, but it does not look significant.

If you compare the term “attention economy” with “attention” only, the result is pretty revealing:

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The red line represents the search result for “attention,” and the barely recognizable blue line represents result for “attention economy.” The overall trend for “attention” seems to go up a bit, while the trend for “attention economy” is almost zero. This is weird. I wonder why people no longer use the term “attention economy.” Does it mean it is out of vogue? Sometimes a term is defined, and then being criticized for not being able to capture a certain phenomenon, then it completely disappears from our linguistic circulation.

According to Wikipedia:

Attention economics is an approach to the management of information that treats human attention as a scarce commodity, and applies economic theory to solve various information management problems. Put simply by Matthew Crawford, “Attention is a resource—a person has only so much of it.”

This concept should be understood within the context of the digital economy and the information economy because only when there is a flood of information that attention becomes a rare commodity. And since information is so cheap to come by, companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and other platform companies are designing software, and platforms intentionally with the idea that attention is rare, and that they should design interfaces that capture the most attention (measured by how many minutes or seconds a persons spend scrolling on their platforms).

This concept clearly came from economics, and being applied to different economics-related fields such as marketing, management, user research. As a sociologist, I need to ask, so how are social relations formed, sustained, and reproduced in this economy? What are some characteristics or attributes of this economy should I pay attention to? Is an attention economy on Youtube different from an attention economy on Tiktok, on Twitch, and other platforms. How does it work differently on Instagram than on Twitter? What are some advantages and disadvantages of this economy to content creators, and their audience? How does this concept illuminate the podcasting phenomenon that I am examining?

There are lots to be said, and examined here. I am excited about the concept, and I am looking forward to learning more about it, and how to use it in my future work.

Life After a Manuscript Submission: Freeing Mental Space

Last week I submitted in a blog post manuscript for a center that I’ll be affiliated with in the next two years. Once the blog post was submitted, I felt very good about myself. I felt that I could start investing my time on something else such as writing posts for my own blog. During the writing process, I imagined what my life after the submission of the manuscript could look like. I dreamed that I could spend more time watching Netflix. I imagined that I would be more productive writing my personal reflections. I imagined that I would spend more time reading, and writing for other “important” research. I imagined publishing research articles.

Now the manuscript was submitted, I felt a sense of relief, but I still have not picked up anything that I thought I would do yet. I have another blog post to write for a well known public-facing blog in my discipline. I am slowly but cheerfully moving on to the next publication projects. My mentor once made a remark that writing momentum is what I am looking for. Once I get in the flow, I would be able to produce writing regularly. Every publication is in and of itself a project that takes a lot of brainstorming, writing, editing, and revising work. However, I feel like I have figured out the process, and that I am onto the next big thing in my life after each piece is turned in, getting comments, and suggestions from editors. I think I am gradually getting into this publication flow.

Once a manuscript is submitted, I feel confident about my ability to write, and that I have things to say. My mind is looking for the next challenge that I should engage in. Today, I emailed another editor about a new manuscript that will be due by the end of the month. They responded immediately. They were responsive probably because I have submitted a manuscript to them before. Now I am stacking projects on my plate. “One project in, another project out” is my current modus operandi.

I figure out that my work flow for each writing project includes (1) coming up with an idea (2) figuring out a theoretical framework (3) collecting thoughts, evidence, documents, arguments, (4) talking to friends, colleagues about my ideas, and the direction of the essay (5) coming up with counter-arguments to see how I can improve my writing even further.

For example, for the blog post that I am hoping to send out by the end of this week, I am still collecting data. I have written at least half of the post to figure out what I am thinking. I really practice the idea “I am writing myself into knowing.” Having the first draft done is always the most challenging. Once it is done, I can strengthen it by adding or dropping certain arguments, and/or evidence. My essay is half done now, and I feel good about the progress at least. My goal for today is to dust off the first draft, take a look at it, develop it a bit more, and send it out to get immediate feedback from my writing partners.

In the process of writing the above-mentioned piece, I recognize that I am not yet a fast writer. I am not yet at the level where I can produce an op-ed for a newspaper in less than a week. My writing often takes somewhere between two weeks to a month. Once I submit these hypothetical manuscripts, they are no longer topical. The world has moved on to new issues, new social phenomena. The writing process also takes a lot of emotional and mental energies. It is exhausting to write about current events as well because we’re still living them. Our minds are still trying to figure out what is the meaning of what has just happened. Sometimes, I feel being distanced from an event might help with comprehending it. Yet, if I give myself time to think about an event, and write about it, maybe I’ll understand it a bit more, and I will also help other people understand it through my writing.

As writers, scholars have words to express their thoughts and arguments to the world. However, being too slow of a writer might hurt their chance of having their ideas heard because if they are too slow, the world has moved on from the issue that they write about. Timeliness is key in writing as well as in other areas of life. It’s a misconception that academics and intellectuals have all time in their lives to think about the world, and carefully craft each sentence. Writing has a lot of hidden pressure, and anxiety. In the digital age, producing timely work is more important than ever.

Following are a few guidelines about writing for contemporary society:

  1. Timeliness: Producing good work, solid work, but the speed at which one produces should be quick. The news cycle in our contemporary society has become so fast. If a scholar does not address an important issue, they might be working at the margin of society, and that their ideas would never become relevant.
  2. Being relevant: Addressing issues that are relevant to different communities of audience is an important skill. Scholars often communicate with different audiences. Figuring out what issues are relevant to which community is an important first step.
  3. Framing the issue in a theoretical way: Attaching contemporary issues to bigger sociological debates is a trick that sociologists do in order to make sure that contemporary issues speak to timeless theoretical debates. This is a skill that graduate students like myself take a long time to learn. We’re still figuring out what the theoretical debates are. In order to relate a contemporary event to a theoretical debate, and write about it in an intelligent way, one needs to practice, and think a lot.
  4. Solid research: Before writing anything, one needs to gather evidence, and do solid research. Opinions without facts are useless.
  5. Jargon-free communications: Graduate students tend to synthesize other people’s ideas a lot to show that they are well-read, and that they understand dense social theory books. Yet in order to make a theoretical idea digestible to the mass public, one ought to know how to convey that idea without using sociological jargons. This is also a very difficult skill to learn. It takes patience and lots of practice to master.
  6. Feedback: As in any creative project, getting immediate feedback from trusted friends and colleagues is very important. Feedback is gold in the publication game.
  7. Develop a working relationship with journal editors: if one has a working relationship with editors, they would be more welcoming one’s next ideas, and next projects. Thus developing a solid working relationship with journal editors is very important. At the end of the day, academia is a reputation-centered economy. One has to develop one’s own reputation, and that one’s reputation is also judged by others. Reputation is currency in a knowledge economy.
  8. Submit and move on to the next piece: Having the next piece in the pipeline is very important. Once a piece of writing is submitted, the author should start another project immediately. This is to keep the momentum going. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a publication cycle, and that the more one writes, the more one would be inspired to write more.

“Ideas beget ideas.” This idea never gets old. Whenever I get a publication out of the door, I feel happy about myself, and I feel inspired to write the next piece. Maybe one day, one of my pieces would become influential. Maybe one piece would become viral. Maybe my writings would change someone’s mind, and have some policy implications. As of now, those are far-fetched. My only writing goal now is to produce consistent work regularly. I prefer the productivity model at this point. At some point in the future, this productivity model might turn into a high-impact model. As I am still learning the ropes of publishing, the productivity model is most relevant.

New Year Reading Progress

In the last post, I wrote that I would read 8 different books, which are a mixture of fictions, short stories, and sociology monographs. So far, after the first week of the year 2021, I have finished one novel. The novel is Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee. The novel deals with a very heavy subject matter. It is about serious mental health, and immigration family relationship. To a large extent, it is also about love, family relationships, strong female figures, and racialization of Asian individuals in Western society. This was definitely a page turner for me. I devoured the novel in one day. Now my next goal is to make headway with my sociological reading. To start off, I’ll take a read of Front of the House/Back of The House.