Choosing research projects with real social impact

The concept of cross-disciplinary research gives a great deal of academic freedom, encouraging fresh inquiry and allowing interest in diverse fields and themes to lead where it may.

Ably proving that point, Professor Pun Ngai, Chair Professor and Head of Lingnan University’s Department of Cultural Studies, has published extensively over the years on subjects ranging from anthropology and capitalism to China’s emergence as the “world’s workshop” and the nation’s migrant workforce.

Certain things, though, provide a clear common thread.

“Reflexive theories, lived experiences, real social issues, and social change are my area of concern and study,” says Pun, who took her PhD at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

“As an undergraduate, I was initially interested in literature and history, but I then moved into the field of social theory, seeking answers to make sense of the sudden social change at the end of the 1980s. Later, when I felt that macro social theories sometimes lacked the ‘human touch’ or the perspective of individual lived experience, I ended up focusing on anthropology and sociology for my PhD.”

That desire to find answers and confront pressing issues still remains as strong as ever.

For instance, when examining the lives of migrant workers, Pun’s goal was not simply to complete a “study”, but to help those people in their struggles by also calling for policy change and a better support network.

In similar vein, some of her team’s current research projects are taking a closer look at the realities of youth unemployment and poverty in Hong Kong. Many young people are facing multiple challenges in finding good jobs and enough living space, so the intention is twofold: to fully understand the scale of the problems and to come up with a measure of practical support.

“In cases like this, the first thing we need to do is gain their trust,” says Pun, who is also director of Lingnan’s Centre for Cultural Research and Development (CCRD). “We need to have tremendous patience and be good listeners to understand the voices of the younger generation, who at the moment don’t want to express themselves and lack trust in adults. Sometimes, I feel the gap is huge and doubt whether I can really understand their inner selves.”

However, she is confident that, over the next three years, her team can get people talking and then identify the right policies or measures to make constructive changes. That kind of caring and meticulous approach to addressing real-world problems helped Pun become the first Asian scholar to win the prestigious C. Wright Mills Award in 2006 for her book Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace.

This volume has since become required reading for courses at many major universities in Asia, North America and Europe.

A similarly well-received follow-up, Dying for Apple: Foxconn and Chinese Workers, which was published in 2016 and co-authored by Jenny Chan and Mark Selden, provided essential insights into labour practices in the tech sector and has already been translated into several languages including French, German and Spanish.

A steady output of thought-provoking research papers and articles saw Pun named by Stanford University as among the world’s top 2 per cent of most-cited social scientists in 2021.

And maintaining an inter-disciplinary outlook, she has more recently been delving into topics as varied as unemployment insurance in Hong Kong, the making of China’s new working class, and the rise of “infrastructural capitalism” using examples from the development of China’s high-speed rail network.

“Most of my PhD students are now looking at digital or platform labour issues, which are becoming much more important,” she says. “We are also looking for new conceptual frameworks to make sense of the precarity and potential solidarity in the age of digitalisation.”

As a department head, Pun must inevitably find a way to balance teaching, supervision and administrative duties with her research and writing.

That is not always easy, but the position does also allow her to shape an environment in which there is a stress on rebuilding social values and promoting a sense of unity and purpose.

“If I could have my ideal role, I would like to work even more closely with my colleagues and students to create an intellectual community where we could learn and conduct research together – and discuss potential ways to support the informants we encounter.”