Public Sociology

Pun Ngai


Pun Ngai received a PhD from the School of Oriental and African studies at the University of London in 1998. She is currently an associate professor in the social science department at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology with interests in Labor and gender; globalization; Mainland China and Hong Kong.

Dr. Pun Ngai was honored as the winner of the C. Wright Mills Award at an awards banquet on 11 August 2006 in Montreal Canada. Dr. Pun Ngai’s award-winning book for 2005 is titled “Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace.” Her honor was all the more precious as she became the first Asian winner of this prestigious award since its establishment in 1964.

SACOM video on Foxconn:


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Discussion Summaries and Comments

Barcelona (June 2, 2012):

The lecture of this seminar surprised us once again. This time, we could appreciate how public sociology works in the economic field, an inequality which the Pun’s research center pretends to overcome. Following the debate about the professional and the public sociology, this lecture shows us that it’s possible to be an activist doing public sociology and, at the same time, being professional. The way of changing the situation of the excluded communities is bringing the scientific knowledge to the people in order to improve their situation. Public sociology needs to count on the support of research.

The implication of the speaker and her students by their direct participation in the project is a clear example of public sociology which sustains the transformation from below and the bottom up resistance. They try to show light on these inequalities in order to overcome them. Watching this video, we have became aware of the working conditions of the people who made our most usual gadgets. Thus one of the aspects debated here in our group was about why the country does not mobilize against these unfair aspects. Therefore we highlighted the crucial importance of Pun Ngai’s work with the Student’s Association and also with the women’s association she created to defend the employees’ rights and also to empower the students and the trade unions which are involved in politics. Through that Pun and her group achieve more education, better and safer conditions. However, all these achievements could not have become reality without a sociology made by the public and for the public.

Berkeley (April 27, 2012):

The research regarding the lives and labor conditions of workers at Foxconn brought forth by Pun Ngai struck a major chord in our classroom proving it to be one of our most fruitful discussion yet. In her work, Ngai talks about the types of pressures placed on the people who work at Foxconn, a major manufacturing company for electronic products, and the varying implications of these pressures. The working and living conditions at Foxconn drain the life out of their workers to the point where workers have both attempted and committed suicide. But what about this particular issue had us so enveloped in the conversation? Perhaps it was the fact that the many of us in the classroom had an Apple laptop in front of us. Ngai accredits Apple as a major pressure source for Foxconn, who consequently influences the working demands placed on the workers. Ngai believes that if global consumers, such as ourselves, place a strong sense of accountability on Apple for the working conditions of the people who make their products, the lives of Foxconn workers can radically be changed and improved.
In our discussion, we focused on how and why Foxconn has been able to function by exploiting their workers. On the one hand we discussed the role of Foxconn in the historical context of China, highlighting China’s history of communism. Historically, the state has played a major role in regulating the life of people, capitalism, and this form of exploitation. State regulation has allowed the migrant labor system to thrive, failed to impose labor laws, and prevents labor unions from forming. If strikes
break out onto streets and highways, the military is ready to stop them from generating any momentum.

Secondly we discussed the responsibility of Foxconn for their workers. Foxconn has been able to thrive from migrant labor, which denies protection and benefits from the state to migrant workers. The migrant labor system separates the worker from his family, without providing them sufficient wages for the entire family to subsist. In addition, Foxconn has used student labor where they too are denied protection and benefits from labor laws, adding a younger cohort of exploited workers. At Foxconn, workers are placed in dorms with little privacy, are inhibited from forming social relations, and are treated in a highly militarized manner, adding to the poor conditions workers must endure.

On the other hand, we talked about the role of consumers, who should demand to know how products are manufactured. However, the digital age we live in has created an absent mindedness of consumers. The consumer wants a product that companies like Apple consumerizes, without being conscious about what goes into making the product. Apple places pressure on Foxconn to meet deadlines so they can bring out the latest upgraded gadget to the consumers. Finally, we danced with the possibility on the type of change consumer activism can bring about as well as the difference Apple can make if they simply minimized their 58% profit.

Johannesburg (May 18, 2012):

We really enjoyed learning about the type of public sociology they’re undertaking in China.  We especially liked the idea that good public sociology is based on solid sociological research.  In this way, it was noted that they’re combining public sociology with the other quadrants of Burawoy’s schema.  But unlike policy sociology, which commodifies sociology, the public sociology they’re practicing is purely for a public good and not commissioned.

One of the issues that really struck us is that Pun Ngai is one of the only people to speak about social reproduction and to place the labour struggles and the use of public sociology within the framework of social reproduction.   We drew many similarities to South Africa’s repressive labour history as migrant labour that fed the mines in the first half of the 20th century faced similar conditions of a “dormitory labour regime” that Pun Ngai describes at Foxcom.

We also saw similarities in the way in which they’re doing public sociology in China to our Indian comrade who took the struggle to the courts.  The idea of taking their struggles beyond the local people affected, broadens their publics and also complexifies the issues.

One of the areas we found quite interesting is that they are calling for consumer action to challenge exploitation and oppression at the point of production.  This is particular interesting as it brings together production and consumption into a unified struggle.  It seems that these sorts of solidarities (which are fundamentally different the solidarity of trade unions which are based similar interests) are potentially extraordinarily efficacious.  The original idea of Fair Trade (as conceived in its more radical guise of the 1950s) was to change production relations through consumption habits and pressure on the state.  (Of course, this original goal has not been realized as Fair Trade as become a consumer led movement delinked from any sort of state support.)  What we were not clear about is why the target is so focused on the US consumer and not Chinese consumers.  Surely the Chinese middle class has at least some power in consumption.

The way in which they’re focusing on sound research as the basis of their struggle also seems to seriously challenge the fetisishization of the commodities.  It is forcing us to recognize that real labour, and super-exploited labour, has been the backbone of the glossy Ipads.

Finally, it wasn’t clear to us why this particular video would be contentious or could raise a counter-response.  But clearly that is because we don’t really understand local dynamics in China.

Tehran (June 2, 2012):

Contribution session 10: Pun Ngai : Discussion Summary: Student Sociological Association of Tehran University and Iranian Sociological Association

Why does Punnai see the people involved in this issue as her public? Lack of response from state and companies has driven her to this path, the issue is that capitalist multinational companies do not accept these kinds of changes and even though they have made efforts to increase labor income, this does not solve the problem here. The nature of capitalism is to continue inequality and it is neither possible, nor desired to increase the income. (Besides, based on Marx’s explanation about a century ago, even if in reality it is possible to increase the income, it would not eradicate inequality in a capitalist system.)It seems that The State of China is endorsing the process of creating proletariat in order to promote inequality, increase the interest (profit) and develop capitalism, and by producing this new class of labors has generated more inequality.
The significance of her work is that by focusing on the concept of class – when global capital enters china, it produces a new class of labors. she explains the social situation in china, and emphasizes on the distinction of industrialization from urbanization through concentrating on labors living in dorms And for explaining it she rely on dormitory labour regime china.
There is also another important question here, what are the public dimensions of this research? In other words, what makes it a public sociology? Except for the field work she has done, there are two other dimensions: on one hand, she has published a book that seems to be a simple narration of people’s experiments rather than an academic professional text. She tries to reach these people’s voices out to society, rather than keeping it inside the walls of university. On the other hand, this research uses picture to create a joint problem, even though these films are usually traditional public sociology but they can be used in organic ways as well. But what is even more important than her work being public sociology, is that it is Burawoy who labels her as a public sociologist. In fact Burawoy by doing so, has made public sociology an ID LABLE: Burawoy,through bringing sociologists such as Punnai(who does not even recognize themselves as public sociologists) under the shadow of public sociology not only reinforces the discipline but also gives a new identity to people working in the field of sociology.
Finally, in her article, Punnai points out some of the cases in which they have been successful in strikes and bringing change to their company. There are 3 million Afghani immigrants in Iran who have the same situation, but this process has not happened to them. Our answer to this comparison is that Afghan immigrants in Iran are temporary building construction labors and do not have a permanent job, thus they do not have the opportunity to gather around a same joint job problem, but in Punnai’s case there has been a concentration of labors, both in terms of their occupation and accommodation