Research Statement

Overview

My research interests lie at the intersection of race, gender, affect/emotion, reproductive politics, and theories of advocacy and deliberation. I have extensive experience conducting rhetorical research in the East Asian context of Hong Kong, and more recently, performing qualitative research in the birthworker and reproductive justice communities. Methodologically, I deploy rhetorical analysis of print and digital artifacts, alongside ethnographic approaches like semi-structured interviews and participant-observations.

Transnational Citizenship, Emotion, and Storytelling

My monograph, Inconvenient Strangers: Transnational Subjects and the Politics of Citizenship (Ohio State University Press), interrogates how familial tropes inform the construction and understanding of citizenship in Hong Kong. I examine how marginalized groups in Hong Kong—specifically the mainland Chinese maternal tourists, Southeast Asian migrant domestic workers, and South Asian permanent residents—make use of the telling of familial narratives to engage with the existing citizenry and gain recognition in a way that decenters the oppressive logics behind dominant citizenship discourses. Specifically, I posit that familial narratives, told without the intention to gain access to formal recognition, carry the affective power to jolt the dominant citizenry out of their usual xenophobic political response and instead prompt them to critically consider the human conditions they share with the marginalized.

This rhetorical engagement promotes what I term deliberative empathy among the audience as both a political and ethical response. Drawing from research on emotions from political theory and cognitive psychology, I define deliberative empathy as a form of critical, cognitive empathy that prompts the audience to consider the structural sources of another’s suffering while deliberating one’s own complicity in it. As a heuristic, deliberative empathy differs from the more conventional model of affective empathy or even Burkean notions of identification in which one feels someone else’s suffering as if it is one’s own: rather, deliberative empathy purposefully increases the distance between the rhetor and the audience so that the latter, without the assumption that they have utter understanding of another’s lived experience, could critically examine the sources of their experiences and feelings. Extending existing work on rhetorical listening and invitational rhetoric, deliberative empathy points to ways in which marginalized groups deploy familial tropes and storytelling to accomplish important goals: to bear internal witness to their own subjectivity and lived experience; to prompt an ethical relationship with the dominant audience outside of the dominant politics of recognition and identification; and to cultivate affective solidarity and a praxis of friendship across difference. In this book, I examine a wide range of artifacts, such as personal narratives and poetry written by migrant women and the Human Library that promotes dialogues between mainstream Hongkongers and South Asian women in the community. I posit that deliberative empathy provides a theoretical framework that productively connects visceral, reflex-like affective reactions towards high-stake political issues with deliberative moral reasoning. As such, deliberative empathy transcends the seeming binary between pathos and logos, and prevent dominant interlocutors perpetuating a politics of misrecognition.

I argue that while the family often allows nation-states to control citizenship based on exclusionary ideologies in the private sphere, the familial could also be deployed as a rhetorical commonplace and site of invention for marginalized groups. Instead of arguing directly for formal citizenship and recognition by the nation-state, marginalized rhetors find recourse in the telling of their familial narratives. By sharing intimate stories about their families with the dominant citizenry, marginalized rhetors are able to promote deliberative empathy as an ethical and critical response among dominant audiences. The act of storytelling also allows these rhetors to regain some sense of agency by reaffirming that their lived experiences are worth telling, despite the dismissal of their personhood in dominant citizenship discourse.

Birth and Reproductive Justice

My current research project on advocacy, doulas, and reproductive justice is informed by two central questions I have begun to address in Inconvenient Strangers: What tactics can marginalized subjects deploy for survivance? How can we enact and embrace more inclusive models of family and kin tie formations that challenge the norm of a heteronormative nuclear family? Given the steep racial disparities in maternal health outcome and the transphobic and heteronormative tendencies in mainstream pregnancy and birth practices, my current research project investigates the different ways in which doulas, who occupy a liminal space in the medical setting, navigate this high-stake unequal terrain with their clients. Specifically, I use the framework of reproductive justice to study how doulas, doula training programs, and community organizations working with marginalized clients conceptualize and enact advocacy and activism in and out of the birth room. While advocacy and activism are key terms in rhetorical scholarship, most existing work focuses on overt acts of protests and dissent. For many marginalized doulas and birthing people, they do not have the privilege of protest and direct advocacy once they enter a dominant medical space. My project, thus, investigates the oblique and creative ways in which doulas and their clients navigate hostile spaces in healthcare institutions to receive proper care without compromising their bodily autonomy, agency, and dignity.

For this project, I deploy both rhetorical and ethnographic methods to investigate how doulas and organizations from different positionalities mobilize concepts such as birth justice, reproductive justice, intersectionality, advocacy, and activism. I have so far conducted 30 semi-structured interviews with doulas from different positionalities to examine how they understand their roles as advocates and activists. The majority of my interviewees identify as women of color, and many of them work with grassroots organizations to provide low-cost or free doula service to underserved communities. I have also conducted participant-observations in two doula trainings: one run by DONA, the most established mainstream professional organization for doulas in the US, and one facilitated by a grassroot reproductive justice organization that provides birth, abortion, and miscarriage doula service. To triangulate these two training models, I have gathered teaching materials and social media content produced by social justice-oriented for-profit doula training programs to investigate whether and how these programs repurpose reproductive justice and advocacy to promote their brand ethos.

© 2017 by Sharon Yam

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