Social Transformation is in the Details: Ethnic Food, Immigrants, and Traveling Citizenship in Neoliberal Times


Charles T. Lee, Assistant Professor of Justice & Social Inquiry, School of Social Transformation

Building on recent work on the agency of matter and things by neo-materialist theorists, this project investigate the ways in which the cultural object of ethnic food can be understood as playing a crucial role in aiding U.S. immigrants’ informal but de facto acquisition and practices of citizenship. Focusing on the experiences of Asian immigrants as a case study, this talk will examine their nonstandard ways of using ethnic food to claim citizenship through the everyday practices of immigrant entrepreneurship, racialized labor, and cultural consumption in the ethnic restaurant industry. He calls this ensemble “traveling citizenship,” suggesting an improvisational citizen-making across sovereign territorial boundaries. The project suggests that what appears to be a mundane practice of producing and consuming ethnic food may actually bring about surprising reconfigurations of citizenship and governance that can be reoriented toward progressive ends in the present neoliberal (market-based) economy.

Charles T. Lee is Assistant Professor of Justice & Social Inquiry in the School of Social Transformation. A cultural and political theorist, he is the author of Ingenious Citizenship: Recrafting Democracy for Social Change (Duke University Press, 2016). This talk is based on his new project supported by an IHR seed grant, and draws upon his fieldwork interviews with over 40 immigrant participants (from restaurateurs, cooks, waitresses, food preparation workers, dishwashers, to customers) in the Asian restaurant industry in Southern California.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

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