Insiders and outsiders in Asian diaspora research

"White people can't read this."

“White people can’t read this.”

I was involved in a short conversation on Twitter yesterday about whether only Asian researchers could do academic work on Asian American/Australian/etc. issues.

There’s a long debate on insider and outsider status in sociological research (see Merton 1972, “Insiders and Outsiders: A Chapter in the Sociology of Knowledge”) and I think most would agree that there are advantages and disadvantages to both. In any case, no one is ever a total insider or total outsider, because the boundaries of “inside” knowledge can be drawn so narrowly as to include just one person.

Unsurprisingly, Kate Bagnall, a white Australian researching Chinese Australian history, does not think that outsider status should make her research invalid.

I responded that the question needed to be reframed. Instead of asking whether only Asians can or should do work on Asian diaspora issues, one ought to ask whether Asians in the humanities and social sciences should be expected to work on these issues.

Jen Tsen Kwok says that one should expect to see at least some Asians doing work on Asian diaspora issues. If not, that would be evidence of structural barriers to inclusion in academia.

In the end, there seems to be broad consensus about the need for reflexivity and acknowledgement of privilege and position.

Those of you who were not part of the original conversation: what would you add to this?


  1. Caitlin

    I have thought about this A LOT. (So apologies for the length of my response – which also demonstrates why I’m not a Twitter native.)

    I am a white Australian who researched generational change among Vietnamese Australians. But it’s not that simple. My research practice is significantly shaped by an ethics of engagement that meant my research was not only conducted ON Vietnamese Australians, but also WITH them – through initial consultations in framing the research, engagement with both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese produced texts, in depth interviews with Vietnamese Australian informants, collaboration with Vietnamese Australian artists to represent data in a community context, and through discussing the research and promoting findings in both English and Vietnamese, publicly (via radio) and to research informants.

    In addition, I have, through my partner, been a member for the past seven years of a Vietnamese Australian family, positioning me part-way along the insider-outsider continuum.

    This is not to suggest that the product of this research is any better than that produced by a Vietnamese (or a non-Vietnamese) researcher, but that it was produced with an AWARENESS of my ambivalent location, and an ETHICS of meaningful engagement with different perspectives. And even then, I was acutely aware – and frankly acknowledge – the limitations of both my outsider-ness (the huge amount of affective, sensuous, and experiential knowledge that I do not have and cannot access) and my insider-ness (the many things I dismissed as unremarkable due to my familiarity with them).

    Further, this ethics and awareness have leaked into my personal life: When I married three years ago I made the decision not to change my surname (to Nguyen) based primarily on my concerns about being mis-read/mis-representing myself as Vietnamese in my publications on Vietnamese Australians.

    What does all this mean in relation to your question? I’m not sure. Except, to quote Stuart Hall, that ‘[p]ractices of representation always implicate the positions from which we speak or write’ (1990 p222). (After all, to speak or write as an Asian is also to speak or write as a classed/gendered/generation-ed/aged person, with all of the perspectival implications that these carry.) All any of us can do is to be honest – with ourselves and others – about the place from which we speak, and do what we can to learn from others what we cannot experience for ourselves.

  2. Hi Caitlin

    I gotta say I had some mixed feelings reading your very good and thought out response above.

    IMO, an ethics of engagement is a must-have regardless of one’s cultural background (whatever the heck “culture” is), self-proclaimed-identity (however relevant that is) or physical appearance (God forbid! We’ll all be going down the quadroon/octoroon path in no time).

    The fact that you felt you had to start your comment with your White Australian background is really nice but also pisses me off. IMO, no one should feel that their background requires any special introduction – or rather everyone must introduce their background regardless of projected congruence.

    However, I think the original post above has kinda moved into a more subtle look at Outside/Insider – around whether Asians should be expected only to work in Asian Studies related areas. Seeing that I have huge difficulties with the definition (or any definition) of Asian, I tend to see that question as: “Should someone I project as having some form of pick-one-or-more-of-the-following: “special innate privileged authentic spiritual add-ur-own” connection to an area of study be expected to be into that area of study”.

    Surely that is a complete no-brainer! Which leads me to the real question which I will present in tweet form:

    “Why is this still even a question in this day and age? Surely we have moved past it all. #FFS”

  1. 1 Insiders and outsiders in Asian diaspora research « Calvin N. Ho

    [...] at The Plaid Bag Connection I posted a conversation I had on Twitter with Tseen Khoo, Kate Bagnall, Jen Tsen Kwok and others [...]






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