Recently I have read the following book. A book summary and my comments are:
Book title: Kondo, K. Dorinne. 1990. Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Dorinne Kondo, a Japanese American anthropologist with a very Japanese appearance, embedded herself in a working class suburb in Tokyo and worked in a confectionary factory owned by Sato (the Sato factory) to do her field research for this book. She picked this small size factory because, in her time, 99.4% of all firms in Japan fell into this category which employed 75.8% of Japan’s workers. This category was known as the middle-small size companies (p.50). She developed her research with the theme of personhood, work, and family by asking a question: How did the people she knew crafted themselves and their lives within the shifting fields of power and meaning, and how did they do so in a particular situation and within a particular historical and cultural context (p.11). As a rhetorical/theoretical strategy, she used the first-person voice to describe her living environment to highlight how language was related to the production of ‘selves’ (pp.25-6). By experimentation with multiple shifting voice, she undertook a project to de-centre the de-essentialize selves, focusing on the ways people constructed themselves (p.43).
Kondo claims that to regard ‘selves’ as a coherent and seamless bounded was an illusions (p.14). While doing research in Japan she had two identities: a researcher from America (the duty was to pursuit knowledge as a female sensei) and a daughter (adopted) of a Japanese family where she was residing (carrying duty and responsibility to the family) (p.14). Kondo admits that while writing this book, the crafting of her own identity, and the crafting of the identities of her Japanese friends, relatives, co-workers and acquaintances that she met during her stay in Japan were the complicated outcome of power-fraught negotiations between ‘self’ and ‘others’ (p.24). She explains that one reason why she picked ‘crafting self’ as the book title was because identity was not a static object, but a creative process. Therefore crafting selves was an ongoing process, and that crafting selves implied a concept of agency: it was human who created, constructed, worked on, and enacted on it (p.48).
Quoting previous works on ‘self’ by other scholars such as Mauss, Saussure and Derridean, she laid out the background on the subject (pp.35-36). Kondo also provides a critic on recent works done by younger scholars such as Richard Shweder, White and Kirkpatrick, and Valentine Daniel (pp.37-39). On the basis these previous researches, Kondo led us to question the ways how the anthropological literature had re-inscribed fixity, unity, boundedness; and insulated the ‘self’ from the play of power relations (p.42). The purpose of the book was to see how selves in the plural were constructed variously in various situations, how these constructions could be complicated and enlivened by multiplicity and ambiguity, and how they shaped, and were reshaped by relations of power (p.43).
Kondo divides the book in to three parts. In part one, through outlining the political, economic and historical context, she describes the location of the Sato factory which was a small, family-owned firm with about 30 employees. Then she focuses on an extraordinary experience at an ethic training retreat where the Sato workers were sent there to take courses to become better human being and better servants of the company. Part two discussed about the living meaning of family for the people known to the author. Then it explained how Sato, the owner of the firm, tried to create a ‘family’ atmosphere in the factory. Kondo shows how workers reproduced the concept of ‘company as family’ to work again Sato. Part three looked into the problematic construction of gendered work identities on an ‘individual’ level. Using the perspective of a male artisan and the female part-time workers, Kondo highlights the notions of identity, and shows that individual identities were contextually constructed (p.47).
Kondo concludes that the complex and often paradoxical effects of gender drew our attention to the multiplicity of possible points at which dominant cultural forms might be contested. They underlined the always unpredictable and incomplete nature of resistance and the impossibility of constructing a transcendent space of resistance beyond discourse, beyond power and beyond the law (p.299).
Throughout the book Kondo argues that selves were crafted in processes of work and within matrices of power, and those dichotomic categories such as personal and political, experiential and theoretical, personal and social, persistent in North American narrative conventions, were unable to fully account for the complexities and ambiguities of everyday life (p.300).
Kondo admits that her relatives, neighbour, friends, and co-workers in Sato factory had showed her that her implicit, unconscious assumptions about a ‘concept of self’ based on the notion of referential meaning, and also the neat separability of person from either ‘political’ or ‘theoretical’ were discursively produced which were the sediments of her own culture and history (p.308).
This is a good book to learn about writing style and research method. It is interesting to note her confession that she had deviated from the conventions in book writing: putting theoretical discussion scattered throughout the book, for example the theoretical discussion on pages 219 to 223. Another deviation from the norm is her writing style in marshaling analytically the ‘ethnographic’ vignette and anecdotes (304). I find it interesting to read her story that, while doing shopping for her family, she had almost failed to recognize her own image as reflected in the shiny metal surface of the butcher’s display case, by mistaking it as the image of another typical young Japanese housewife (pp. 16-17). While the story shows how successful Kondo was in blending into the local community, it also reflects how she at times might become confused with her identities, and her different ‘selves’.