The latest addition to Simon Fraser University’s School for International Studies is assistant professor Irene Pang.
Pang is a political sociologist whose research interests include issues of labour, citizenship, and rights contestation in contemporary China and India. She earned her BA at Johns Hopkins University, and went on to complete her AM and PhD in sociology at Brown University. Before coming to SFU, Pang completed a postdoctoral fellowship with the Buffett Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern University.
In addition to holding fellowships and grants with major institutions like the National Science Foundation and Harvard University, Pang also earned the Terence K. Hopkins Graduate Student Paper Award from the American Sociological Association for her paper “Banking is for Others: Contradictions of Microfinance in the Ghanaian Market.” Her paper examines how Ghanaian women finance and operate their businesses within the bottom layer of the capitalist world-economy, and why, despite the availability of commercial microfinance, they continue to rely on informal finance.
Why sociology? Pang’s interest in the field stems from a personal interest in social inequality. She focuses her studies on China and India—in particular, low-income rural-urban internal migrants, one of the most underprivileged segments of Chinese and Indian populations. She hovers her magnifying glass over Beijing and Delhi specifically, focusing on the construction projects that go on in those two cities to analyze the effects of social inequality.
Pang describes one of the greatest challenges to her ethnographic research as having to witness social injustice in the field. Citing workers’ squalid living conditions, and occasions where contractors would hire thugs to beat up the workers, Pang describes the study of underprivileged internal migrant workers as “emotionally draining.”
“I think there is a fine balance to be maintained between not getting so emotionally distraught that it becomes debilitating, and allowing yourself to be troubled enough to want continue doing careful good work,” she says of her research.
When asked what made her want to become an academic, Pang recounts the unconventional advice of her father. Growing up in Hong Kong, where education tends to be highly conventional, Pang was encouraged by her non-conformist and academically forward-thinking father to break free from conventional syllabi, to think critically, and to freely explore topics that were of interest to Pang—much to the dismay of her traditional schoolteacher mother. When Pang started university, she finally gained the freedom to pursue her areas of interest with abandon.
“There were no model answers anymore,” she explains of her time at Johns Hopkins University. “You had to figure out your own arguments, and they would have to stand up to the scrutiny of others who were also thinking critically about similar issues.”
As an undergraduate, she completed two research projects, one of which culminated in her paper on microfinance. The environment at Johns Hopkins tended to normalize academic research at the undergraduate level, and only later did she realize how unusual and remarkable it was to publish a research paper as an undergraduate student.
Pang is attracted to the interdisciplinary nature of SFU International Studies. “The work and the research interests of different faculty members engage with, intersect, and complement each other,” she says. “I’m excited to be among scholars whose work and ideas I can draw on.”
Pang will be teaching IS 319: Chinese Development and its Discontents and IS 830: Analytical Approaches to International Studies. When asked about her teaching philosophy, she says, “I’ll take a page out of my father’s book: critical thinking.” She underlines the importance of students coming out of her class with the ability to seek more knowledge on their own merits.
Aside from her teaching assignments this fall, Pang has a number of publications and speaking engagements on the horizon.
She is working on another article which examines the adaptive strategies adopted by workers and civil society activists in Beijing and Delhi, in the context of two very different political opportunity structures, to explain why Beijing workers are able to become more active citizens than their Delhi counterparts.
She will also be presenting at an interdisciplinary social science colloquium series on “China in the World” for fall 2019 to 2020, to be jointly hosted by the School for International Studies and the David Lam Centre, with support from the Global Asia Program.