My research broadly explores relationality, that is, the work of human connections. I study how people approach their daily work activities under the influence of their connections, relationships, and interactions with other people, including but not limited to colleagues, friends, family members, customers, and strangers. I employ qualitative and ethnographic methods in my research. Ethnography suits my type of intellectual curiosity and the type of questions that I tend to ask about people and organizations, which I summarize as: “How do human connections and interactions shape the work being done here?”
MANUSCRIPTS IN PREPARATION FOR JOURNAL SUBMISSION
Reflexivity at the micro level: How institutional actors resolve conflicts by focusing on present impacts
In this paper, I present an inductive qualitative study on Phoenix, a student resource center specializing in supporting undocumented students – undocumented immigrants who attend undergraduate and postgraduate programs – at a university in the United States. Phoenix is committed to helping all undocumented students, regardless of their legal title or status. My open-ended interviews and observations revealed the four types of narrative that workers at Phoenix chose to tell in their daily work: protecting families, engaging in political advocacy, enforcing social justice, and helping others. For example, while it was not an official work responsibility, workers following the path of “protecting families” were committed to supporting the less socially privileged family members of undocumented students. Interestingly, even though the differences among the four narrative paths could lead to conflict, these workers still worked together in the same organization and collaborated on projects, thereby supporting the same people and communities.
Examining the work done at Phoenix with a focus on how workers with disparate narratives can work together, I add to a new perspective to the existing literature on institutional work, which primarily focuses on conflict and competition among institutional actors with disparate narratives and opposing accounts. My study instead focuses on "reflexivity" as shown in the reconciliation of different viewpoints among institutional actors – how actors with disparate narrative paths are able to work together. My findings show that each narrative path followed by workers had a different temporal anchor, focusing on past memories, present actions, or future visions. Some workers were haunted by the pain, trauma, and injustice witnessed or experienced in the past; some were motivated to implement their political advocacy plans for their communities in the future; and some focused on helping people in the present. Even the narrative paths with the same temporal anchor (for example, past memories) had different types of anchoring (for example, memories of separation from one’s parents versus memories of suffering strangers). These differences shaped workers’ ways of thinking and their daily work activities, causing tensions and conflicts among workers with different narratives. However, workers became reflexive by choosing to move on from their various recalled pasts and imagined futures, and instead focus on practically helping marginalized communities as a way to presently enact their different perspectives regarding the past and the future that motivated their work.
“The realm of the ridiculous”: Straddling intimacy and professionalism in college admission consulting
In this paper, I present an ethnographic study on Icarus, a college admission consulting firm. The firm provides consulting services for international students wishing to apply to college programs in English-speaking countries. After a contract is signed, students receive professional advice on how to strategically shape their applications, academic and extracurricular activities, and self-presentation throughout the college application process. The customers include students who use the firm’s services and these students’ parents, who sign the contract with the firm and pay for the services on behalf of their children. In their relationship with their customers – both students and their parents – consultants at Icarus experience a tension: the firm itself strives to maintain efficiency and a professional attitude while chasing after profits and the consultants want to maintain personal boundaries while doing their work, but the customers want to feel deeply cared for. The customers associate this care with personal connections and intimacy: for example, knowing a child’s favorite food and movies serves as evidence that the consultant cares about the child. The students using Icarus’ services – all of whom are teenagers – ask for friendship, personal bonding, and conversations about various mundane aspects of life, which have little to do with the college application process. Meanwhile, the parents call and text consultants at midnight to express feelings of hurt and disappointment when their relationships with their children turn sour or when they need help with a task not listed in the contract. Consultants at Icarus soon learn that their own mental well-being, as well as the firm’s efficiency, is threatened by the customers’ intense demand for personal care and intimacy.
I use the lens of organizational paradox to conceptualize the above tension. Paradox in organizational contexts is defined as a tension created when opposing elements or tendencies are brought into recognizable proximity through reflection or interaction. This tension tends to persist; it often cannot be resolved, but it can be recognized, understood, and accommodated. While most studies on organizational paradox have elaborated on the challenges faced by the organization as a whole, few studies have examined the role of emotions and affective experiences in workers’ responses to organizational paradox. Missing from the paradox literature are “humanized and lived experiences” – how workers as human beings experience organizational paradox, as reflected in their daily lives, relationships, and emotions. Also missing from the paradox literature is an elaboration on how external factors such as customer demands shape the paradoxical tensions experienced by workers and organizations, especially when these demands are emotional and cannot be comprehended with rational mechanisms. In short, the conceptualization of paradox as seen in the existing literature has not considered external demands, it has not assessed workers’ daily experiences, and most importantly, it has not examined the humanity and irrationality of the people involved.
Examining the paradox faced by admission consultants at Icarus, I ask: How do consultants at Icarus navigate their relationship with customers, considering the tension between what consultants want and what their customers want in the relationship? My data analysis reveals that consultants at Icarus constantly navigate the tension between intimacy and professionalism by eroding and rebuilding boundaries in daily interactions with customers. Specifically, consultants performed activities that fostered personal bonding with the parents and their teenager children, such as listening to the parents’ “rants” on the phone for hours or taking the teenagers out for lunch and chatting with them about romantic relationships. These “bonding activities” fostered intimacy, but eroded boundaries in the relationship between consultants and their customers: customers expressed increasing, sometimes “ridiculous” (one consultant’s exact word) expectations towards consultants in light of “a caring attitude,” work responsibilities, and work hours. Trying to balance this negative effect, consultants took actions to rebuild boundaries in their relationship with customers, such as refusing to do unexpected tasks or explaining why certain requests and expectations were irrational. These actions helped build relationship boundaries and sustain professionalism but risked customer satisfaction and sometimes led to customer requests for contract termination. In the efforts to both foster intimacy and maintain professionalism with every customer, consultants faced tremendous pressure. First, building personal connections with hundreds of customers made each consultant feel “overwhelmed” and “stressed” by the emotional labor involved and the number of unexpected tasks they had to perform outside of the contract. Second, efforts to explain why some requests and expectations were irrational often angered customers, causing “exhaustion” and even “mental breakdown” among the consultants when they were forced to face their customers’ anger. Eventually, consultants came to surrender, acknowledging that it was never possible to permanently resolve the tension between intimacy and professionalism in this case.
RESEARCH IN PROGRESS
“Maybe don’t mention Harvard”: Translating Western standards of excellence in college admission consulting
Using ethnographic data on Icarus, the second chapter of my dissertation explores the translation and promotion of Western values and ideologies in Asian societies, as demonstrated by the work of college admission consultants at Icarus. I show how these consultants generated and reinforced impossible standards of excellence resolving around a Western image of the “ideal college applicant.” In showcasing the profiles of successful applicants who had been admitted by Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, and the like, consultants created benchmarks which their customers – both students and their parents – yearned to reach. In every meeting with customers, consultants at Icarus spent half their time showcasing the “Harvard standards,” and the other half explaining why most students, including those who had paid for consulting services, would never reach those standards.
“First, let’s eat cake”: Resisting abnormal levels of work-related pressure and disruption by enacting normal life
Using qualitative data on a second admission consulting firm named Sparta, the third chapter of my dissertation shows how salespeople at this firm coped with the high pressure and disruption caused by extremely low sales figures and abrupt downsizing during the COVID-19 pandemic. My data shows that salespeople at Sparta actively initiated mundane conversations and jokes during their work hours, many of which were on topics unrelated to work. For example, while consuming various types of snacks together during their work hours, salespeople at Sparta chatted about music, superstitious beliefs, romantic relationships, cosmetic products, and other people’s lives. My analysis shows that these mundane conversations and jokes, as well as the constant consumption of snacks, were efforts to resist abnormal levels of work-related pressure and disruption by enacting a sense of normality inspired by other aspects of life.