AAS Member Spotlight: Diana S. Kim

Diana Kim is an assistant professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and core faculty member of the Asian Studies Program. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @DianaSueKim.

What is your discipline and country (or countries) of interest?

I received my Ph.D. in political science, and my research adopts a transnational perspective spanning across Southeast and East Asia, with country-specific focus on Burma and South Korea.

How long have you been a member of AAS?

I’ve been a member since 2012.

Why did you join AAS and why would you recommend AAS to your colleagues?

AAS has been a consistently welcoming community for me as a graduate student, post-doctoral fellow, and now tenure-track junior faculty member. And for someone whose work sits at the disciplinary intersection of political science and history, while also straddling multiple countries, the annual AAS conference is an especially valuable opportunity for learning about new and exciting research from scholars with diverse perspectives and areas of expertise. My favorite conference took place in Seattle, WA in 2016, when I was on a panel entitled “For Love, Money, or Drugs: Policing Illicit Activities in Colonial Southeast Asia,” with historians Claire Edington, Samson Lim, and Kirsty Walker.

How did you first become involved in the field of Asian Studies?

As an undergraduate student at Korea University, thanks to a professor who very persuasively explained why “being Asian” was not the same as having deep knowledge and expertise about one’s own country.

What do you enjoy most or what have been your most rewarding experiences involving your work in Asian Studies?

I enjoy the constant struggle to define how my research interests, professional, and personal identities inform each other, punctuated by occasional moments of clarity. For instance, a lot of my work involves exploring colonial legacies of early 20th century European and Japanese rule across Southeast and East Asia, which at once poses analytical questions about comparisons that fascinate me as a scholar but also entails fraught political and normative stakes to which I respond emotionally as an individual. The most rewarding experiences happen when I encounter thoughtful scholarship, discussions, and people that help me navigate these often conflicting sentiments.

Tell us about your current or past research.

My scholarship is animated by concerns with how modern states develop capacity to define people at the edges of respectable society, constructing what it means to be illicit, marginal, and deviant. My first book, entitled Empires of Vice, was published in 2020 with Princeton University Press. It is a comparative and historical study of opium prohibition across Southeast Asia under British and French rule since the late 19th century, which sheds light on the colonial legacies that have shaped the region’s illicit economies and drug wars today. I am currently developing a second book exploring the “hidden” sides of Asian transnational political economies, especially in Korea, Japan, and India, focusing on stigma regarding labor.

What advice or recommendation do you have for students interested in a career in Asian Studies?

Be passionate, patient, and flexible. Necessary training in Asian Studies includes learning new languages and often unfamiliar practices, as well as unlearning our own biases and changing existing habits. All take sustained commitment and time. And being flexible—about how and where one wants to gain such training—is especially important in our current moment. As the COVID-19 epidemic continues to unfold, conventional ways of traveling to a country, deep and long-term immersion, and normal social interactions have been interrupted. New norms may emerge. But I believe the core aspects of learning and unlearning will not change, so I would encourage current students to be discerning in seeking out online language training and explore digital archives for preliminary research. For instance, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute (SEASSI) will provide language online classes this summer. The Joint Centre for History and Economics (at Harvard and Cambridge University) hosts an Archive of Economic Life in South and Southeast Asia.

Outside of Asian Studies, tell us some interesting facts about yourself (your interests, hobbies, skills, etc).

I love photography. And I co-curate the Invisible Histories project (with Franziska Exeler, Free University Berlin), a digital platform for researchers to share photographs in context and explore the hidden narratives behind them.

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