Congratulations to Professor Jennifer Chun, recipient of UTSC Research Faculty Award

Jennifer ChunCongratulations to Professor Jennifer Chun, recently named a University of Toronto, Scarborough Research Excellence Faculty Scholar. This award recognizes Professor Chun as an “outstanding and innovative world class researcher whose accomplishments have made a major impact in (her) field.” It is UTSC’s highest faculty research honour and she will hold the title for three years.

Professor Chun received this award based on her ground-breaking contributions to the field of global labour studies. Under her pioneering work, the field of labour studies has moved from a sub-discipline focused primarily on industrial trade unions and their conflicts with management structures to one that explores local and global issues surrounding a wide range of work and employment systems. She has brought powerful new insights to the ways in which protest functions – into the role of symbolic power and the significance of affect and emotions in worker struggles. Her research has also advanced knowledge on the importance of grassroots community organizations and intersectional organizing around race, class, gender and migration.

In the ten years since Professor Chun received her Ph.D., she has distinguished herself by the quality and impact of her publications. Her book, Organizing at the Margins: The Symbolic Politics of Labor in South Korea and the United States (Cornell, 2009) has received a number of accolades, including two book awards from the American Sociological Association. In addition to her book, Professor Chun has had 17 peer-reviewed publications, many in the top journals in the field, and a number of publications written for non-academic audiences.

Professor Chun’s leadership activities demonstrate her aptitude for visioning and leading people through change. At the University of Toronto, she is Director of the Centre for the Study of Korea and has provided leadership on many departmental and university committees since she arrived here in 2012. She is the former president of the Research Committee on Labour Movements (RC44) in the International Sociology Association and serves on numerous editorial boards, including Social Problems, Contemporary Sociology, Global Labour Journal, and Asian Labour Review.

Professor Chun’s current research program includes two funded research projects addressing different aspects of labour protest: one study focuses on protest cultures in South Korea (funded by SSHRC) and the other is a collaborative project on new forms of organizing by workers in informal and precarious jobs around the world (funded by the Ford Foundation). Combining the fine-grained insights that can be gained from ethnographic research with the broad sweeping analysis of international comparison, this project brings together disparate lines of research and provides powerful new insights into the ways in which labour is changing around the world, and the ways in which we can best respond to these changes.

Protesting Publics in South Korea

Jennifer_Chun-8In January 2011, Kim Jin-Suk a former welder and union activist, climbed atop Crane 85 located 35 meters above ground at a Hanjin shipyard near the Korean port city of Busan. There, he lived without running water and endured subzero temperatures and monsoon rains for ten consecutive months (309 days) to protest the layoff of 400 shipyard workers.

This year, Professor Jennifer Chun received a SSHRC Insight Grant to study people like Kim Jin-Suk. The project asks: Why do people engage in the kinds of public protest that involve exceptional sacrifice and a high level of social suffering?

Though his case is extreme, Jin-Suk is actually part of a broader trend that is particularly pronounced in South Korea where crackdowns against more traditional forms of labour activism have resulted in the emergence in new, highly dramatic forms of protest. In addition to people like Jin-Suk who protest alone, high above the ground, other protesters have engaged in solitary hunger strikes where one person is committed to the entire duration of the hunger strike, whilst other participants join the protest for part of the time. Yet others use Buddhist prostration rituals as a form of protest. One-person protests help evade legal prohibitions against political assembly by asserting the power of one where the one person is a single node in a long sequence of many.

By examining the cultivation of new protest practices during a period of intensifying inequality and market-driven change, Professor Chun is advancing understanding of the kinds of expectations and aspirations that motivate people to seek justice and the ways in which they connect individual experience with group suffering and public engagement.