'The Cultural Capital of Asian American Studies'

December 30, 2009

The Cultural Capital of Asian American Studies (New York University Press) explores the state of the discipline more than 40 years after its founding amid the student protests of the 60s. Mark Chiang, associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes about how the field has grown and also changed since its early days. In an e-mail interview, he discussed the themes of the book.

Q: What are the key ways Asian American studies as a field is different today from the era when it was created?

A: The first Asian American studies program at San Francisco State University was distinguished by its community orientation and founded on two main slogans regarding the relation of the university to the community: community autonomy and relevant education. The institutional structure of Asian American studies marked a radical break from the typical model of the American university in that it gave community members who were not academics a voice in program governance over such matters as hiring and curriculum. In this regard, the program threatened the principle of faculty autonomy and self-governance that were essential to the modern research university. The necessity of institutional survival, however, meant that the program soon was forced to conform more or less to the rest of the university and thus to exclude non-faculty members from any participation in program operations.

Needless to say, Asian American studies now finds itself in a radically altered sociopolitical landscape, as well as in a quite different situation in the university. It has achieved a certain degree of academic legitimacy and Asian American studies programs have now spread to a number of colleges and universities across the country. This also means that it has a very different relation to those features of the university that many of its founders opposed: faculty autonomy and the primacy of research. This is not to say that the field has simply been absorbed into the academic status quo but rather that its original goals have been redefined to varying degrees. In my book, I discuss at greater length the contradictions inherent in the ways in which the ambiguous concepts of community autonomy and relevant education were initially understood, contradictions that resulted in intense conflicts within the field in its first years at SF State and University of California at Berkeley. I propose that reopening the debates on these questions can help the field to forge a more coherent political and intellectual agenda in order to confront the major challenges that lie ahead.

Q: How do you see the development of Asian American studies and its position in the academy similar or different from other ethnic studies fields such as Latino or African American studies?

A: Each of the fields in ethnic studies has been deeply shaped by its relation to the social groups and/or communities by which it defines itself. Thus every aspect of Asian American studies has been impacted by the relative position and circumstances of Asian Americans in American society. Even as Asian American studies as a field overall remains committed to the political project of ethnic studies, its relation to the other fields of minority studies is complicated by such factors as the model minority image and the perceived success of Asian Americans in American society, the “overrepresentation” of Asian American students and faculty at many colleges and universities in comparison to their percentage of the general population, and the rapid rise of some Asian economies in the global system. Despite being much smaller numerically than either Latinos or African Americans, Asian Americans arguably pose greater challenges in terms of the efforts to forge political unity. Although just as ethnically heterogeneous as Latinos, for example, Asians lack any unifying language, or history of colonization, and are more divided along class lines, not only within particular ethnic communities, but also between them. At many universities, for example, students from poorer Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander communities are grouped together with more affluent East Asian and South Asian students and so excluded from affirmative action and financial aid programs.

As an academic enterprise, Asian American studies has had to grapple with the consequences of both real and perceived success. Ironically, this has meant in some ways that the field has less political and academic capital because it has seemed not as crucial to Asian American students, who appear to be doing just fine without it. On the other hand, it also seems apparent that the tremendous growth of the Chinese and Indian economies has resulted in a resurgence of interest in Asian Studies that is pulling the two fields more closely together and potentially away from the U.S. national context that originally defined ethnic studies.

Q: How does the concept of "cultural capital" define the status and role of Asian American studies?

A: One of the main questions I ask in the book is how a political movement becomes institutionalized in the university as an academic field and what the consequences of this transformation might be. The problem, of course, is that faculty autonomy and academic freedom are premised upon the independence of scholarly research from political or economic interests, and so the intrusion of overtly political agendas or concerns into the university threatens to undermine the basis of the academic enterprise. Beyond this, however, I also argue that any form of cultural or intellectual activity can gain entry into the university only if it produces some form of cultural capital, which can be understood on a basic level as any kind of information or knowledge that possesses some value. What endows cultural capital with social significance, though, is its implication in the reproduction of social inequality. That is, the value of cultural capital derives from the transformation of economic or material capital into symbolic or cultural value, as well as from its scarcity.

As a form of "distinction," cultural capital serves to legitimate social inequality by endowing the upper classes with an aura of superior taste or sophistication and making those appear to be the source of their domination, rather than their simple possession of capital. At the same time, however, holders of cultural capital also tend to oppose those who possess economic capital, which accounts for the more left-leaning political orientations of artists, academics and other producers of knowledge and culture. Insofar as the university is one of the primary institutions engaged in the reproduction and determination of the value of cultural capital, Asian American studies necessarily had to convert itself into a form of cultural capital in order to be institutionalized in the university. The question I pose is whether it is possible, first, to contest the role of cultural capital in the perpetuation of social inequality, and second, to do so from within the university. These are especially pointed questions for a field like Asian American studies that seeks to transform the university into an instrument of social justice.

Q: Asian American studies as a field was born at San Francisco State University. Where do you see the leadership coming from in the discipline today?

A: One of the most interesting facets of Asian American Studies as an interdisciplinary field is that it encompasses a broad range of disciplines and fields of study. Although this means that it is difficult to ascribe any coherent sense of identity to the field as a whole, it also means that there are many intellectual projects being carried out in a variety of institutional and regional locations. In fact, it is quite heartening to see the tremendous work that is being done at every level of the educational system and in so many new places. The expansion of the field "east of California," for example, has resulted in the establishment of programs not only on the east coast, but also in the South and Midwest. The latter has in fact become one of the major regions of growth in the field, with my own program at the University of Illinois at Chicago joining others at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio State, Indiana and Northwestern, among others.

Having just carried out a search for a faculty position at UIC, I was also interested to see that a new generation of scholars are coming into the field from a greater number of schools outside of the West coast, including those from the more recently established graduate programs at many of the schools in the Midwest, as well as such places as NYU, Brown, Yale and UT Austin. Academically, the field has also expanded in the last decade or so into new disciplines and fields of study in which there has been pioneering work but not large numbers of faculty, such as political science, psychology, communication, and education, but one of the last frontiers in the field remains the health sciences and natural sciences. Since UIC encompasses a large school of medicine, we are very interested in work that connects the natural sciences with the social sciences and humanities.

Q: What do you consider the major challenges facing Asian American studies today?

A: It seems to me that the main challenge confronting Asian American studies at the moment is the dire situation of American public higher education, a crisis that will disproportionately impact Asian American studies and other forms of minority studies. While the current economic crisis is provoking severe budget cuts across the nation, as exemplified most dramatically perhaps in California, it is unclear whether any economic recovery will actually bring with it any return to prior levels of state funding for higher education. In this climate of declining resources, it seems likely that Asian American studies programs, as some of the smallest and most vulnerable at many schools, will be among the first to face severe measures, along the lines of "last hired, first fired." Many of the largest Asian American studies programs are also found in the large public universities, which are of course directly affected by the decline in state funding.

In addition, budget cuts will also impact student services, and since part of the mission of Asian American studies is to serve Asian American students in particular, as well as the student body as a whole, those aspects of the program will suffer, along with related parts of the university such as student or cultural centers, which are often quite integral to the success of the academic program. As universities are forced to retreat to their core operations, the question becomes what will be seen as expendable. Public service missions, commitments to local communities as well as to such things as the diversity of the student body, democratic access to education — these may all fall victim to economic austerity, and given the commitment of Asian American studies to all of those things, the reduction of those aspects of public higher education would not bode well for the field. Although this is a worst-case scenario, I fear that even if these events do not materialize in the immediate future, they are harbingers of a long-term trend in American public higher education. Ethnic studies was in many ways the product of an extraordinary period of growth in the American educational system. We must ensure that it does not succumb to the retraction of the system.

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