Kimberly Kay Hoang

Moneymovers: A Sociologist’s Urban Research Focus Shifts from the Sex Trade to the Global Economy

What do sex work and foreign investment have in common? For sociologist Kimberly Hoang, the two topics share a natural flow.

For 10 years, Hoang worked in Ho Chi Minh City and other urban areas studying Vietnamese hostess bars, which serve as informal markets for the sex trade, for her 2015 book Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work. In the bars, Hoang worked as a hostess and bartender, sitting with clients, and singing karaoke, all the while taking notes on how the clubs’ sex workers facilitated business deals between Vietnam’s elite. Hoang’s research for Dealing in Desire (which recently received won multiple awards from the American Sociological Association) coincided with the financial crisis. “I noticed how much foreign-directed investment coming into Vietnam came from other parts of Asia,” she says. While Hoang studied gender and globalization, she couldn’t help but also observe the way investments flow and the way trust is established in foreign economies. For her second project, she began to focus on their clients, the investors.

“My work pivoted into economic sociology because as I studied informal economies and markets, there were striking links within the broader political economy,” Hoang says. “Most economic sociology has been very quantitative, but we have little qualitative depth in understanding how people move and shape markets.”

Now, Hoang is back in Vietnam, this time interning at an asset management firm while she interviews foreign investors and local elites. “In the past month I’ve been to Singapore, Hong Kong, Saigon, Hanoi, and Bangkok, looking at the ways actors move capital. We have numbers that show us flows of foreign directed investment, but we don’t know much about the people moving the capital and how they decide what investments to go in on.”

In Vietnam high degrees of corruption and informal methods of doing business can make data-gathering difficult because it’s not contained to one site, especially when so many business people in Southeast Asia maneuver across industries. For instance, Hoang says, “A local Burmese person I interviewed is in mineral sourcing, commodity trading, manufacturing, and also has his hands in the tech world.” The fieldwork is not nine to five, either. While Hoang visits job sites by day, at night she observes informal deal breaking. “When I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, I feel like I’m out all the time. Much of the rich data I get in bars, having conversations with multiple people.” Then she goes home, transcribes her field notes, and is back at work the next day.

Hoang credits the fieldwork she did for Dealing With Desire with preparing her for this new work. “It took me 10 years to lay the groundwork in order to do this new project.” It’s difficult, she says, to gain trust from Vietnamese business elites, but her previous work opened many doors for her. “The other night I interviewed someone in the tech industry who’s launching a five million dollar project,” Hoang says. “When I met him I said, ‘I know you: we met six years go when I started field work on my last project.’ He was like ‘I read your work, it’s great to see how it’s evolved. Do you want to meet the entire board?’”

In addition to a common difficulty of fieldwork, Hoang sees both the sex trade and economic sociology as sharing subject of urban research, a tradition that grew out of University of Chicago scholars studying immigrants and dense urban communities. “For many years, urban sociology has been deeply ethnographic and U.S. centered. What you’re starting to see is a trend within urban sociology of people doing much more global work. My work here is bringing urban sociology to frontier markets.”

The urban application of her work is visible when Hoang walks around Ho Chi Minh City and observes the new high rises shifting the cityscape. “When you have rapid economic development, you have a small group of elites that are making out and a large group experiencing greater poverty, widening gaps in inequality,” says Hoang. “How do the people at the margins of society experience this rapid development?”

While abroad on research sabbatical, Hoang is receiving support from the Social Science Research (SSRC) Council and the Fulbright Global Program for her current project. However, it’s more than just the money, she says. “It’s intellectual support. The SSRC fellowship particularly provided me with a network of scholars who are doing similar work and understand what I’m doing.” She confesses feeling a sense of “burnout” after Dealing in Desire and going right out and conducting more fieldwork, but “those networks motivate me to keep going.”

Hoang, who came to the University of Chicago in 2015 from Boston College, is also grateful to her coworkers for their support. Coming to the University of Chicago,, Hoang says, lets her grow intellectually as a scholar and dream big. “I feel like I have a lot of support among urban scholars. Chicago is a very intense place; it’s easy to work all the time, but working all the time is easy to do when you love what you’re doing and when you are around people who love what they do too.”

By Claire Zulkey

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