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'When 'Foreign' Is Transformed into 'International', Everything Is More Exciting and Fun'

Seongsoo Choi, PhD in sociology and Junior Fellow at the Center for Research on Inequalities and the Life Course (CIQLE), Yale University, will begin teaching in his new role as Assistant Professor of Sociology at the HSE St. Petersburg campus in September. He spoke to the HSE English News service about his research in social inequality, about the work he will be doing at HSE St Petersburg and about being a part of the international academic community.

— Tell us about your area of research interest?

— I am a sociologist studying social stratification and social mobility, broadly speaking, focusing on two specific areas. First, I study the various roles of education as a central institution in modern societies, mediating social inequality and mobility. I have explored how expanding education systems affect inequalities in education and also the consequences of education in various adult outcomes. My published work, for example, examines the effect of a sharp expansion in college education in the 1990s in South Korea on labor market outcomes such as earnings and occupational status.

Second, I study how economic inequality is shaped by, or intertwines with, social and economic mobility in various contexts. One of my research projects, published in Social Forces, for example, examines how changes in job mobility shaped inequality in occupational status among wage workers during an economic hard time, using the case of the economic crisis in South Korea. Currently, I am working on a project that considers how occupational or class mobility affects wage inequality over the life course.

— What will be the focus of your work in HSE?

— I will continue to pursue my current research interests, especially focusing on two topics.

First, I'd like to study more deeply the impacts of the expansion in postsecondary education on labor market consequences, among societies that experienced sharp expansion of postsecondary education in a short period of time, including South Korea, Russia, Taiwan, UK, etc. My goal is to assess whether and how the impact of college expansion is dominated by a general force, such as supply and demand, or more contextual factors.

Second, I plan to devote my research in developing a substantive and methodological framework for understanding how mobility is associated with inequality. Inequality and mobility show a complicated relationship, with many interesting underlying social mechanisms that can be articulated theoretically and tested empirically. However, largely due to methodological difficulties, such explorations have not been pursued very much.

When 'foreign' is transformed into 'international', everything is more exciting and fun. You learn many things you would not even imagine if you stayed in your home country. This is a huge advantage especially for sociologists

— How did it happen that you decided to move to St.Petersburg?

— When I considered my first workplace as a PhD, I just preferred any place where I can do my research with excellent institutional support, teach students with great passion and potential, and live an enjoyable life with my family. Fortunately, the Higher School of Economics offered such wonderful conditions and I've decided to take the opportunity.

I hardly expected to find a job in St. Petersburg (I thought my first workplace at HSE would be Moscow), but I am really pleased now. The city is beautiful, lively, and culturally abundant, with a really interesting history. Interestingly, the city became famous in South Korea recently because of a TV commercial, in which three young men travel to many Russian cities and places starting from St. Petersburg. When I talk to Korean friends about my move to St. Petersburg, they mention the commercial and say, with envy, how it will be fun to live in such a beautiful city!

— What is difficult and what is exciting about working in an international environment? Have you worked out your own personal rules?

— Challenges and merits are not separable. It is always a challenge to live in a society foreign to you especially with a language barrier. Sometimes you miss your family and miss opportunities to be cheered and celebrated by your native friends in your own cultural ways. Working in an international environment almost always involves such challenges and they are the price we pay for admission to the international community.

But, when 'foreign' is transformed into 'international', everything is more exciting and fun. You learn many things you would not even imagine if you stayed in your home country. This is a huge advantage especially for sociologists, I believe. Also, experiences of successful communications with deep and serious understanding and discussions with researchers from very different social and cultural backgrounds are the rewards of working in an international environment. They are special experiences that enable us to find some general properties in human modern society.

I haven't thought there are my own rules, but I know I have a couple of tips that have been useful for me. One is, you should be clear and straightforward about your thoughts or your opinion, when you are communicating with English or a foreign language. There is almost always a trade-off. You probably want to deliver a more delicate and nuanced message, which you think you can do in your mother tongue, but that might complicate communication and often mislead a situation. However, this kind of situation is in many cases more beneficial because you can refine your ideas with a non-native, international communication.

A priority is to find a common ground as researchers and colleagues, not to learn other cultures. Once we find a common ground, then we can extend the common part

Another tip is, you don't need to learn other culture and also don't need to teach your culture. This may sound weird, but I think this helped me a lot when I work in the international environment. A priority is to find a common ground as researchers and colleagues, not to learn other cultures. Once we find a common ground, then we can

extend the common part. I don't think this tip is a general and normative principle at all. Rather this is a more practical and strategic tip, which has been useful to me and probably more apt for sociologists who are interested more in finding general rules than in discovering particular details.

— Have you been to Russia before? Are you interested in Russian history, culture or literature?

No, I hadn't been to Russia until I first visited Moscow and St. Petersburg last April for the job interview at HSE. I have read several Russian classics by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, but I was not particularly familiar with Russian literature and culture. Rather, I was really interested in the modern history in Russia, especially the early period of the Soviet Union, about how such a huge social transformation could be possible in such as a short period of time.

Recently, I've learned the interesting history of St. Petersburg - a European Russian city that was built from nothing and a battle front with the most fierce and prolonged siege during World War II. I am very excited to live in such an interesting city. This really attracts me as a sociologist who wants to have his own experience of societies with interesting differences.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service


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