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Bound for Scholarship: A Transnational Tale of How to Measure Culture

June 29, 2022

Bo Yun Park is a postdoctoral scholar in the Social Science Data Lab (D-Lab) at University of California, Berkeley. She received her Ph.D. in sociology at Harvard University in 2021. Park was a graduate student affiliate at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES) and a recipient of a Dissertation Completion Fellowship in 2020.


“Who do you think had the most influence on the world? Stalin or Marx?”


Bo Yun Park, who completed her Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard University in 2021, wasn’t always certain that her future lay in academia. In fact, she can trace the moment she decided to her sophomore year, when her father asked her this question.


“It was a very enlightening experience. I was having a drink with my dad complaining about the ways things are in the real world.” It was in reaction to this lamentation that her father asked her about the relative effect of Stalin and Marx. What started as a simple thought exercise, made Park think about impact.


“I realized that, to me, the answer was Marx because his influence went beyond national borders.” Like a lightbulb going off in her head, Park realized the influence of scholarship and how a “dialogue of ideas” could transcend borders. This spoke to her personal experience growing up between South Korea and France, where her father completed his Ph.D. in history. Even her high school in South Korea was a foreign language high school that prepared students to study abroad. She eventually was able to pursue the Dual BA/MA Program between Columbia University and Sciences Po.


As a result, Park was captivated by the power of ideas that, like herself, had a way of “navigating different cultural environments.”


"I was persuaded that culture was at the heart of the different ways people, from different corners of the world, participated in politics.”


Already studying political science, it was the interdisciplinary approach in France that allowed Park to crystalize her thoughts into an academic path. “I pursued more sociology courses and the French sociological tradition. I was persuaded that culture was at the heart of the different ways people, from different corners of the world, participated in politics.”


The interplay of culture and politics formed the center of her academic interest as she approached her Ph.D., choosing Harvard’s sociology department. “I'm absolutely thrilled to have made that choice,” Park asserted. “I was able to get full-fledged training in cultural sociology, along with continued help from wonderful political sociologists.” Harvard provided an interdisciplinary space populated by foremost scholars in her field. These included preeminent cultural sociologist Michèle Lamont, political sociologists like Jocelyn Viterna and Bart Bonikowski (now at NYU), and political scientist Jennifer Hochschild.


The diversity of thought provided her with, as she put it “well-rounded support in terms of exploring the questions that I had.” These questions centered around the nexus of “political, cultural, and transnational sociology.” In particular, she wondered at the seemingly innocuous question, “what makes someone or something presidential?”


“What makes someone or something presidential? … I wanted to understand what they meant. Is it the style? If it’s not the political ideas, then what is it? What does this candidate possess that the other lacks?”


Park first confronted this question when finishing her master’s at Sciences Po, in the midst of the 2012 French presidential election. Often her French peers would address a seemingly innate concept of what it was to be presidential, a manifestation of Frenchness that, despite spending many formative years in France, was incomprehensible to Park.


As she remembered, “people around me were saying such things as, ‘regardless of whether you politically agree with candidate Sarkozy or not, he’s much more presidential than candidate Hollande.’ I wanted to understand what they meant. Is it the style? If it’s not the political ideas, then what is it? What does this candidate possess that the other lacks?”


Park left France without answers to these questions but deeply captivated by how the role of “leader” was defined by distinct cultural checkpoints. Her approach to culture and its effects was guided by her personal experience as a beneficiary of several cultural traditions from South Korea and France to the United States. It was this which enabled her to appreciate, as both an outsider and an insider, how different cultures influenced people’s political attitudes and behaviors.


This fueled her dissertation, Is S(H)e Presidential? The Changing Scripts of Political Leadership, 1995-2020, which used, as she explained, “mixed methods to understand how culture affects the political behavior of people.” Park evaluated the French and American political traditions, investigating how a candidate’s electability was constructed and interpreted, especially within the context of the digital age.


Receiving her Ph.D. in 2021, Park faced the reality of a pandemic-ladened job market. She decided to defer her job hunt and join D-Lab at University of California, Berkeley, as a postdoctoral scholar. Before packing up for the West Coast however, Park took a chance and applied for a faculty position at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at University of Richmond.


“At that time, I didn’t know whether I would get the postdoc, so I applied; what was the harm? When I got accepted to D-Lab, I put all my focus there and moved on.” Then a few months passed, and Park was offered the position at the University of Richmond. She decided to accept and will begin her assistant professorship this fall.


Park hopes to continue her path of interdisciplinary thought and to build in her students an understanding of how the study of culture forms a necessary, contextualizing force. As she embarks on this new path, one thing is certain, from the day she had a casual conversation with her father, to becoming a faculty member at the University of Richmond, it seems she truly is, as she put it, “bound to scholarship.”

About the Author

Sarah Palmer

Sarah Palmer

Assistant to the Directors and Programs

Sarah Palmer is the assistant to the directors and programs at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES) at Harvard University. She provides high-level executive assistance to the Center’s faculty ...
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