How to Get Sociological Perspectives Into Mainstream Media Coverage? Responding to NYT Coverage of Nail Salon Labor Violations

By Miliann Kang

This is a scenario with which many academics are familiar —we spend months, years, researching a topic, we publish an article or book about it, then the topic breaks in the mainstream media, and our analysis is nowhere to be seen. Others have their work cited, but in soundbites that do not capture the nuance of their perspectives. A few scholars have a much different experience—they and their work are able to shape the narrative significantly when current events bring media attention to their areas of research.

What factors account for greater or lesser cross-over impact? How can scholars meaningfully inform current debates, rather than simply lending credibility to pre-determined arguments packaged to make headline news? Oftentimes statistical work gets cited, but how can deeper analysis based on qualitative and quantitative research be made more visible?

I have been watching, or reading, the recent uproar  provoked by the NYT series “Unvarnished, which reported rampant labor rights violations, toxic exposures and wage theft in New York City nail salons, with interest, and mixed feelings. Along with many advocates who have been working on these issues for years, I am encouraged that the working conditions in nail salons are finally getting the attention they deserve, that the Times posted a full-throated op-ed, that Governor Cuomo has responded strongly and that public support is widespread. But certain subtexts in the framing of these issues, their causes and what to do about them make me nervous.

Specifically, I think the focus on Korean salon owners as operating an “ethnic caste system” is misguided. It overstates the power of these salon owners, both in creating and correcting the deeply-embedded problems in the nail industry. These owners must be held accountable for shop-level labor violations, but they can’t be singled out for the bigger problems of toxic chemicals in nail products, suppressed wages due to intense competition, customer expectations for the cheapest, quickest manicures, and a broken immigration system.

I was interviewed by Sarah Maslin Nir, the NYT reporter, and expressed concerns about this framing of the story, but was not cited. Sadly, I feel that a meaningful exchange did not occur between us, it really felt like we were speaking different languages. Once I made clear that I did not endorse her storyline, I was left out of it, rather than being able to inform or shift it. I wonder how much of this disconnect was our own inability to converse across the boundaries of journalism and social science, and how much these boundaries are simply becoming more and more difficult to bridge.

In the weeks following this coverage, I submitted multiple letters to the editor and op-eds, two of them co-authored with other sociologists and advocates to a range of mainstream and alternative media. Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo and I wrote a piece drawing connections across nail salons, domestic work, gardening and other low-wage service industries dominated by immigrants, and Miriam Yeung of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum and I tried to place a piece focusing on organizing efforts and recommendations for change. None were accepted.

I am very grateful to Contexts, the Women’s Review of Books, University of California Press, and this Gender and Society blog for posting my responses, and for providing important platforms for public engagement with scholarly work. These sites have built broad audiences both within and outside the academy, but it can still feel like we often end up preaching to the choir rather than shifting the music.

What strategies have others used to reach a larger audience for their work, not just journalists but also social media, policymakers, community organizations and people who are directly impacted by your findings? How have people been able to control the message that they wish to get across? Much work has been done by feminist sociologists to build and expand on the platform of Gender& Society and Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS)–how can we build on this work to have even greater impact, both within and outside the academy?

Please consider signing this petition by the New York Healthy Nail Salons Coalition proposing legislation to support nail salon workers. To learn more, see here.

Miliann Kang is author of The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work, which won book awards from the American Sociological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association. She is associate professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies and affiliated faculty in Sociology and Asian/Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Professor Kang also wrote The Managed Hand:The Commercialization of Bodies and Emotions in Korean Immigrant–Owned Nail Salons” is published in the December 2003 issue of Gender & Society.

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