Research & Action Report Fall/Winter 2003

Jo Kim, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Wellesley Centers for Women since December 2001, studies gender, race and ethnicity, the workplace, immigration, and globalization. Kim did her master's and doctoral degrees in sociology at Columbia University, where she examined workplace relationships between Korean managers and their Korean-American white-collar employees in U.S.-based Korean transnational corporations. In addition to her research interests, Kim is enthusiastic about teaching and working with students and has taught a number of courses in sociology and women's studies at Columbia and Rutgers Universities. In the spring semester of 2004 she will be teaching a course on Asian-American women in the Women's Studies Department at Wellesley College, where she is currently a visiting assistant professor.

How does a sociologist decide to study multinational corporations?

I am very interested in cultural tools as the basis for understanding people's work experience. My research examined how racial and ethnic stereotypes, self-perceptions, and assumptions affect people's work lives, and how context shapes our understanding of others' behaviors as well as our own. I decided that multinational corporations would be a rich environment in which the complex issues around ethnicity, gender, and identity could be observed.  By studying the features that are unique to these corporations, I hoped to understand the ways in which inequality is reproduced in the context of a workplace and the role that cultural interpretations play in constructing" differences."

Can you tell us a bit about the background and structure of your study?

Using a snowball-sampling technique, I conducted 57 in-depth interviews with managers and workers in the U.S. headquarters of
Korean multinational companies, located mainly in New York, New Jersey, and California. These corporations were predominantly electronic and heavy-equipment manufacturing firms. They typically had an average of 85 staff members, 10-15 percent of whom were Korean-national male senior managers who were in three- to five-year posts in the U.S., and 30 percent of whom were Korean-American, white-collar, middle managers. The remaining 55-60 percent was made up of male and female U.S. workers of various ethnic backgrounds.

What were your major findings?

My findings revealed the complex ways in which people use cultural narratives that are particular to the workplace to draw boundaries around ethnicity and gender. A mix of Korean nationals, first- and second-generation Korean-Americans, and the racial and ethnic diversity of the rest of the staff create ample opportunity for cultural assumptions to affect how the workers interpret differences.  While Korean managers valued their Korean- American subordinates highlighting their " Korean" work ethic and claiming moral superiority
over "Americans" (code for "whites") in resistance to racism, at other times they took on racist positions to devalue the Korean-American workers because of their immigrant status.

The Korean-Americans also drew on these repertoires to assess the moral worth of the Korean managers. They used "Korean" as code for being traditional, autocratic, and sexist when criticizing the managers' biased practices but claimed moral superiority over the managers by highlighting their own "American-ness"—code for being progressive, professional, and egalitarian.

The Korean-American women used ethnicity in paradoxical ways to express and interpret their coping strategies. For example, they described as "Korean" rather than sexist a homosocial corporate culture in which women are excluded from critical client entertaining and socializing (typically involving late nights and heavy drinking). Interestingly, they used ethnicity to explain things for which they could find no obvious reason. On the one hand, the women justified their own behaviors of resistance by accentuating their "Americanness," while on the other hand, they explained their accommodating behaviors by exaggerating their "Korean-ness."

An important finding of the study is that in a workplace where managers and workers are divided by ethnicity, worker discipline and
resistance can take on ethnic forms, and ethnicity becomes a vehicle for negotiating differences.

What was it like doing this research?

Being bilingual was definitely helpful because I was able to relate to both the Koreannational managers and the Korean-American staff members. I also had a number of extremely helpful informants who made crucial connections that facilitated my entry into these firms. Some managers were initially reluctant; it is only natural for people to feel threatened by outsiders who want to "study" them. But with time, I learned to put them at ease by presenting myself as a student who was eager to learn about them and their work, and eventually most managers agreed to participate.

Being a female researcher was helpful, and I guess that being a doctoral student from a well-known institution also helped, especially
with the managers who came from elite backgrounds. My Korean-American identity allowed me to establish my ties with the Korean-American staff, who often said things like, "You know how it is with us," including me as one of them.

I gained many things from doing this study. I really value the experience of learning about people's work lives, how their work life shapes their world views, and what it means to them. Listening to sometimes very emotional stories and experiences, I was struck by how much of who they were and how they feel is influenced by their work experiences. Of course, that is not to say that people did not have many other meaningful aspects to their lives. In fact, many of the managers and staff talked about their family obligations and how they coped with juggling family and work.

But what was interesting to me were the complex ways in which the self is constructed by the positions one occupies in various overlapping social contexts, including the home and the workplace. This was particularly evident among the older Korean immigrant women who were in the least favorable positions in the firm but had the longest tenure, mostly because of their age, family obligations, and the limited opportunities they had outside Korean firms.

One of the challenges that I have found in doing field work as a researcher is that, as you allow yourself to be immersed in the"field" and try to see the world as those you are studying see it, you also have to learn to withdraw and resist the temptation to interact or respond "too much" to what is going on or being said. That can be difficult at times, especially when people have let me into their offices, their homes, and their lives.

What are your next projects?

During my time here at WCW, I have been elaborating on some of the theoretical ideas posited in the study. I've also been framing the data to examine the different cultural tools that people mobilize in constructing their views and how those may vary by ethnicity, gender, and class.

Continuing my interest in boundary-making and identity constructions, I am currently involved in developing a CRW-based research project on mixed-race adolescents. I am interested in ways in which they consider themselves similar to or different from other racial groups, the cultural repertoires they mobilize to construct their views of others and themselves, and their perceptions of racism. I want to explore the theories and language that these adolescents use to categorize differences and to understand the world from their standpoints.
More information on this topic is available in "The Construction of Gender and Ethnicity in the Globalizing Workplace" by Jo Kim. This paper may be ordered from the WCW Publications Office at 781-283-2510 or via the online store.