Member Spotlight: Kristen E. Looney

Kristen E. Looney is Assistant Professor of Asian Studies and Government at Georgetown University and has been a member of the AAS since 2013.

Your discipline and country (or countries) of interest:

Political Science, China and Northeast Asia

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

A few years before becoming a member, I attended the AAS dissertation workshop and benefited enormously. After starting my job as an assistant professor, I joined the AAS in order to connect with other area studies scholars in my own field and in other disciplines. Of all the major conferences I have attended, I enjoy the AAS annual conference the most because of the high-quality panels and active participant engagement.

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

I started learning Chinese as an undergraduate at Wellesley College, where I encountered a number of excellent professors in the China Studies and Asian Studies fields. I first went to China in 1999 on a study abroad program, and that experience was actually my first trip outside of the United States. Through a Wellesley-supported travel fellowship for recent alumnae, I also spent a year traveling to fifteen countries in Asia before starting my PhD program. I think that travel experience pushed me to eventually pursue a comparative research agenda, looking at the development experiences of different countries in the region.

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

Fieldwork is by far the most challenging and rewarding aspect of my work in Asian Studies. I have been lucky to spend more than five years on and off in the region, with much of that time spent in the countryside. I most appreciate those moments when people helped me in unexpected ways, sharing stories, information, contacts, resources, and, by extension, their trust and understanding.

Tell us about your current or past research.

I published my first book earlier this year. Mobilizing for Development: The Modernization of Rural East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2020) examines the question of how countries achieve rural development. Through a comparison of Taiwan (1950s-1970s), South Korea (1950s-1970s), and mainland China (1980s-2000s), I show how different development outcomes—changes in agricultural production, rural living standards, and the village environment—can be attributed to the interplay between campaigns and institutions. I define campaigns as policies that rely on intensive bureaucratic and popular mobilization to overhaul traditional ways of rural life, and I show that in all of these cases (as well as Japan) campaigns were central to rural transformation. This argument departs from common portrayals of the East Asian “developmental state” as technocratic and market-conforming, and it shows that rural development was not just a byproduct of industrialization and urbanization. Relevant to comparative politics, economic history, and rural sociology, the book aims to enrich our understanding of state-led development and agrarian change.

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

The two things I always tell my Asian Studies students are to really invest in the study of Asian languages and to spend significant time in the region. There are no shortcuts to a career in Asian Studies, and it is unrealistic to expect that a summer or semester abroad will be sufficient. Learning about any region is a lifelong commitment, so investing time in that pursuit early on is the best thing you can do for your career.

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

I love 90s hip-hop music, biking, and going on adventures with my toddler. But maybe the strangest fact about me is that I’ve seen several embalmed former communist leaders: Vladimir Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and Kim Il-sung.

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