Blog by Jiyoung Lee-An
I realized much later that coming to Canada to pursue my PhD was not a simple decision that resulted in a geographical shift, but a shift of my positionalities from a member of a mainstream ‘Korean’ nation to a non-‘white’ female international student, and now a new racialized female immigrant. I reflect on the shift of my positionalities and how this has impacted on my decision to conduct a comparative study as an endeavor to resist mainstream knowledge production from a western perspective as well as to contribute to postcolonial knowledge production. Currently, I am in the final stage of completing my PhD dissertation, titled ‘Marriage Migration and Nation Boundary-Making: A Comparative Study of Marriage Migration in Korea and Canada.’
My research has been influenced by feminist scholars who provide insights into the significance of reflexivity in relation to positionalities and power relations between researchers and research participants. Feminist research challenges the dominant approaches of social science which treat knowledge as objective, impartial and neutral, and opposes the strict dichotomy between the object and subject as a prerequisite for objectivity (England, 1994/2008). Reflexivity plays a crucial role in interpreting and producing knowledge by focusing on how knowledge is situated and constructed in the research process. The recognition of the position of researcher and participants, and sensitivity to power relationships with respect to knowledge production contribute to challenging existing hierarchies of social orders (Lazar, 2005, p. 15). A critical reflection of the researcher’s positionalities, however, does not equate to confessional tales (England, 1994/2008). England suggests overcoming these narcissistic or egoistic attitudes by researching the “betweenness” of “a world that is already interpreted by people who are living their lives in it” and the researcher’s world (251). Researchers do not represent the lives of research participants, but they contribute to the re-interpretation of these two worlds and the gap between the them by focusing on their “betweenness.” In line with England’s insight, I also do not take feminist reflection on positionality as a confessional tale to share. Rather, I direct attention to positionalities as a step to disentangle multi-layered power relations based on different social relations such as gender, race/ethnicity, class, language, etc.
Throughout my PhD studies in Canada, I have continuously been reminded of the shift in my positionalities. More specifically, the shift in my positionality from a member of the mainstream Korean nation to the member of a racialized minority immigrant community has consciously and unconsciously shaped the focus of my doctoral research topic, my interactions with interviewees, the interpretation and analysis of my interview data, and the weights of different data sources. I align myself with in line with postcolonial, anti-racism, feminist scholars who have illuminated the voices of marginalized racialized groups, and analyzed and re-interpreted their challenges, difficulties, and struggles. Yet, I also realized that, in my fieldwork in Korea, my focus was geared more toward pinpointing and analyzing the regulating process of the Korean government and non-state Korean actors than illuminating the practices and voices of marriage migrants. It was not until the final stage of the doctoral research process that I more fully realized that I have ‘unconsciously’ distanced myself from being a researcher who may resemble someone ‘representing’ the voices of marriage migrants in Korea. As a feminist activist and researcher in Korea, my focus has been more on critically analyzing regulating practices at the macro level, the discriminatory structure of Korean society, and unearthing the unjust practices of the Korean government and migration industry mainly operated by Koreans. This macro-level focus is in contrast to my work in Canada.
In Canada, my positionality as a racialized female immigrant has unconsciously shaped my relationship with spousal immigrants in Canada. In my everyday life, when people find out that I have a common-law partner who is a Canadian of Korean-descent, one of the frequent questions I receive from people around me has been about whether I received permanent residency through my partner or if I am interested in acquiring Canadian permanent residency. Interestingly enough, when I say that I acquired my permanent residency through a skilled worker program, I usually receive ‘positive’ reactions which indicate that they do not suspect me of being a potential ‘marriage fraudster.’ This experience in my everyday life shapes my empathy with racialized spousal immigrants who face diverse forms of suspicion. During my research, even though I am not technically a spousal immigrant, my physical appearance, accent, etc. have helped me create more rapport with racialized spousal immigrants. During my interviews, my interviewees frequently told me, “you know, Canada, [laugh].” That sentence, “you know, Canada” was sort of a sign, which reminded me of our positionalities as racialized minorities in Canada, and what it means to be ‘the Other,’ who is in contrast with mainstream Canadians. An unspoken meaning of “you know” and the following laugh were one of the shared feelings I had with most of my interviewees who identify themselves as non-mainstream Canadians. Throughout my interviews with spousal immigrants in Canada, I was already emotionally tuned to empathize with their anxieties, feelings, challenges, negotiations, and compliance without much effort. My experiences as a racialized immigrant have shaped my sensitivity and have led my Canadian data to be geared towards analyzing and re-interpreting the voices of spousal immigrants.
As such, my decision to do my PhD in Canada was not a simple geographical shift from Korea to Canada, but a continuous reminder of the hegemonic production and circulation of knowledge in academia. I am hugely indebted to postcolonial feminist scholars who have been vocal against the western hegemonic knowledge production of the ‘third world women.’ Mohanty (1988)’s work influences me to be critical of “the implicit assumption of ‘the west’ (in all its complexities and contradictions) as the primary referent in theory and praxis” (62). She critically engages with western feminist writing on women in the third world in the context of the global hegemony of western scholarship in “its production, publication, distribution, and consumption of information and ideas” (64). As Mohanty warned, the positionalities of scholars do not guarantee the resistance of western knowledge production per se. Then, how can I avoid being part of the hegemonic western knowledge production on a non-western society while I am conducting my PhD in a western university? My strategy to overcome this hegemonic knowledge production was to conduct a comparative study by provincializing both the Canadian and Korean cases and situating these two cases under the broader frame of the global migration regime. Rather than using a Canadian reference point to compare Korea against, I decided to examine both countries as equivalent cases to analyze the flows of marriage migration.
Researching Canada as a case study for my doctor research was challenging as this was a new country for me to examine in the context of marriage migration. While I presumed researching Korea would be easier to study due to my previous familiarity with the country, I nevertheless came across unexpected challenges in my analysis of the Korean case as well.
I continuously observed myself referencing western theories to understand case of Korea, and most of the literature written in Korea that I reviewed seemed to use western scholars as a reference point and not vice versa. I am not saying that I intend to dismiss all western knowledge; in fact, I am indebted to many western scholars who provide insights to my understanding of marriage migration. What I am saying is that unless I am ‘consciously’ trying not to do it, I am ‘unconsciously’ using western scholarship as my reference point to analyze the Korean case. I do not think this single study can change the whole picture of long-standing western-oriented knowledge production. However, I hope to situate my comparative study as part of postcolonial knowledge production, which provincializes a western case study, and hope to participate equally in Canadian scholarship.
England, K. V. (2008). Getting personal: Reflexivity, positionality, and feminist research. Critical geographies: A collection of readings, 241-256.
Lazar, Michelle M. (2005). “Policizing Gender in Discourse: Feminist Critical Discourse Analysis as Political Perspective and Praxis.” Feminist Critical Discourse Analysis: Gender, Power and Ideology in Discourse. Palgrave Macmillan.
Mohanty, C. (1988). Under western eyes: Feminist scholarship and colonial discourses. Feminist Review, 30.