Feminist Scholarship at the Seoul Doctoral Symposium

Submission to The Social Lens: A Social Work Action Blog by Kayla Kenney, PhD Student.

As social work scholars continue to call for a revitalized engagement with feminism in our discipline (Anderson-Nathe, Gringeri, & Wahab, 2013; Charter, 2015; Valentich, 2011; Younes, Goldblatt Hyatt, Witt, & Franklin, 2021), it was invigorating to witness feminist social science research was alive and well at the Doctoral Symposium into Global Perspectives on Social Problems, Policy, and Practice. Throughout five days of international exchange at Seoul National University in South Korea, doctoral student-academics leveraged feminist scholarship to explore the activism of young feminists in China (Son, 2022), to critique co-constructions of teaching and domestic roles (Anonymous, 2022), and drew on Chicana feminist frameworks to historicize social work’s relationship with Latinx communities in the United States (Sanchez, 2022). While presenters employed a range of approaches to researching today’s social problems, feminist inquiry was a prominent and powerful thread running through many of the symposium’s presentations.

Lea Caragata was among conference’s faculty presenters and set the stage for feminist inquiry’s prominent role with a talk centering participatory action research (PAR) with single mothers on social assistance in Canada. Highlighting the potential of PAR to influence policy change, Caragata discussed working alongside single mothers as research assistants and collaborators in social action, whose advocacy work included speaking with media, social welfare agencies and politicians about the study’s findings and their lived experiences accessing social assistance. Her research explicating the economic inequities faced by women in Canada was an empowering contrast to the discourse of anti-feminist movements actively expanding in South Korea (Jinsook, 2021; Rashid, 2022). In the country with the largest gender pay gap among OECD members (31% in 2021), feminist activists in South Korea persist against severe backlash and steep barriers in their struggle for equity.

Sugyeong Son was one of multiple presenters to explicitly explore feminisms in China, delivering a compelling presentation on young feminist activism. Son surveyed strategies leveraged by young feminists to advance women’s rights in China, particularly use of social media. She discussed the #MeToo movement in China, coalitions built with LGBT communities, and the stark challenges of censorship. Son highlighted key achievements, including China’s first-ever Anti-Domestic Violence Law passed in 2016, and ongoing efforts to move women’s equality forward. In the Q&A that followed, scholars including Rose Xueqing Zhang contributed to a moving discussion of the heightened struggles of Chinese feminist movements in response to the Xi administration’s regressive approach to women’s and LGBTQ rights. The following day, a Marxist feminist analysis was presented that illuminated the connections between teaching and care labour of wives in China. In the subsequent Q&A, robust dialogue into feminism in China resumed.

Further scholarship from Elizabeth Sanchez historicized the social work profession’s incongruous relationship with Latinx communities in the United States by exploring our field’s complicit role in individualizing and psychologizing structural issues faced by migrants. Sanchez drew on Chicana feminist theories including oppositional consciousness to discuss how social workers serving Latinx communities should proceed in recognition of this history. Presenters also employed intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989; Hill-Collins, 1990) to explore social capital in low-income communities of Hong Kong (He, 2022) and peer support between trans and gender diverse youth in Canada (Kenney, 2022). Among the sixteen doctoral student-academics presenting at the Symposium, many scholars attended to gender in their analysis of today’s social problems, including Zhang whose research found distinct gendered pathways in intergenerational transmission of social resources and health among Chinese adults. Between breaks, scholars connected on the challenges, and importance, of positioning oneself as a feminist within Chinese, South Korean and North American contexts.

International scholarly exchange holds benefits toward advancing social work’s commitment to justice in these times where neoliberal globalization continues to compound inequities (Caragata & Sanchez, 2002) and can add critical capacity to activism in jurisdictions where movements face strict state censorship domestically (Han, 2022). The compelling talks delivered throughout this symposium highlight the potential of feminist scholarship to contribute to these aims. Thank you to the presenters for your vitally important scholarship, and to the conference organizers from Seoul National University, Hong Kong Baptist University, University of Chicago, and University of British Columbia for creating this opportunity for connections to be forged between social science student-scholars from across the world.

Three of China’s Feminist Five, protesting in blood-soaked wedding dresses against domestic violence. In 2015, they were arrested and detained for planning protests against sexual violence in public transportation, and released after major political pressure across the globe (Image Credit: South China Morning Post / Getty Images, 2012)


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