Dissertation Abstracts

Vietnamese Manicurists: The Making of an Ethnic Niche

Author: Nguyen, Thanh-Nghi B., btnghi@gmail.com
Department: Sociology
University: Boston University , USA
Supervisor: Susan Eckstein
Year of completion: 2010
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Vietnamese manicurists , ethnic niche , transnationalism , Asian women
Areas of Research: Migration , Women in Society , Stratification


The study provides a sociological analysis of the overrepresentation of Vietnamese immigrants in the manicuring business, and of the mechanisms through which the ethnic nail niche is sustained. The geographical focus is Boston, and elsewhere in New England. It is the most comprehensive study to date of the manicure sector and the role of Vietnamese in it.

Vietnamese immigrants are shown to have been in a favored position to work in the niche, at a time when technological changes in the nail industry made manicuring more affordable and allowed for an expansion of service offerings. Vietnamese fitted the racial profile for low-skill manual service work in America, and were seen as deft in performing nail care. Also, they settled mainly in urban areas, where demand for nail services was greatest. Furthermore, they had extensive ethnic resources on which to draw. Through ethnic networks they acquired the necessary skills to perform the work, they secured employment, they pooled capital to go into business for themselves, and they found reliable workers in turn. Meanwhile, as poor immigrants, they were impressed with the earnings they could make as manicurists.

The study makes use of historical and statistical sources, participant observation and key informants, and secondary sources. The data show Vietnamese domination of employment and ownership in an expanding manicure industry, and conflict and competition as well as cooperation among Vietnamese employed in the sector. Yet, Vietnamese prove to get disillusioned with work in the sector over the years, as a recession reduces demand for their services, as the growing supply of Vietnamese manicurists drives down earnings that can be made for their services, and as they are increasingly exposed to unhealthy chemicals in the course of their work.

The findings have policy implications. With improved understanding of conditions in the sector government agencies can upgrade labor and health conditions in salons.