My SFU Faculty of Arts & Social Science Graduate Student Profile

Graduate Student Profile: Michelle La, Sociology & Anthropology - Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences - Simon Fraser University 2019-04-05 13-46-35.png

My graduate student profile

SFU’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences highlighted my graduate experience and research in their graduate student profiles

my full interview answers //

I posted my full interview answers on my blog. For the SFU profile, my answers were edited for brevity:

I understand that you are finishing up your Master’s in Sociology and Anthropology, can you tell me about your thesis project?

My thesis project is an ethnographic study of limited-edition sneaker traders in Metro Vancouver. I look at the ways resellers and consumers use digital and physical platforms, such as Facebook buy/sell groups and sneaker conventions, for purchasing limited edition sneakers (such as Yeezy’s). My thesis focuses on the economic and communal practices of sneaker traders, the role of celebrities and corporations, and how other international informal sneakers markets influences the Metro Vancouver marketplace.

While the timeline of my research is from 2016 – 2019, the focus of my thesis is from data I collected in 2017-2018. The two major methods I used for this project were participant-observation and interviews. For instance, I did participant-observation of online buy/selling Facebook groups, websites, waited in line and online to purchase highly sought sneakers, and I even resold a few pairs. I spoke with individuals who work for major retailers, sneaker convention organizers, Facebook sneaker buy/sell group administrators, amateur to professional resellers, and casual to hardcore sneaker collectors. A highlight of my research was last year when I went on a private tour of the Adidas Global headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany.

What attracted or inspired you to study sneaker culture?

Since a child, fashion and art were my major passions. Like many children of first-generation Canadian immigrants, I was dissuaded to pursue those passions in post-secondary because my family members believed it was not an economically viable decision for my future. I always found myself drawn back to the material culture of fashion. Therefore, for my master’s, I wanted to focus on a topic that I would find interesting.

In my first semester of graduate school, I was dating someone who self-identified as a sneakerhead (sneaker enthusiast). He introduced me to Facebook buy/sell groups for sneakers in Metro Vancouver. I was astonished to find some groups had over 20,000 members! I knew there was something here that needed to be studied -- I wondered to myself how do sneakerheads rationalize camping out for 20 hours outside a store for a sneaker while it is limited-edition it is yet still mass produced. There have only been a handful of scholars that have studied sneaker reselling, yet this is an industry that is estimated to be worth over a billion dollars. Therefore, the lack of academic literature on this culture was also a factor in my decision to study it.

By studying sneaker culture, I also wanted to understand my consumptive behaviours. I would call myself a fashionista. I wanted to understand how was it that I can be seduced by and justify spending on certain brands despite knowing the psychological, environmental, and sociological effects of conspicuous consumption. Interestingly while working on this research, my consumptive behaviours have decreased as I have been deconstructing consumptive practices.

When and how did you figure out that you wanted to be a researcher/academic? Is there a story behind it?

In the first two-years of my undergrad at SFU, I switched faculties three times (arts to science back to arts) because I was so concerned with what people thought about pursuing a ‘useful’ degree. Long story short, I after considering dropping out of university because I was miserable and thought perhaps university wasn’t for me, I decided to have one last go and take courses that I was actually interested in. That semester I took sociology and anthropology courses and I decided to turn those into my majors because the disciplines clicked with my inquisitive personality. I considered everything I was learning was important and interesting.

In my third year, I was able to get a research assistantship position (RA) with a professor in Urban Studies, which lasted for three years. Working on that project was transformative in my trajectory as a researcher. Even if sometimes tasks were menial, doing research made me feel fulfilled because I felt like I was contributing to a public good through the production of knowledge. In the last years of my undergrad, I had the opportunity to attend an annual American Anthropology Association conference (the largest conference for anthropologists), which opened up my eyes to the diversity of anthropology and the possibilities of research.

After the last semester of my undergrad, I landed a full-time research assistant position through a researcher at the University of British Columbia. Since this was a global project, I worked with and met researchers from all around the world. As an RA my roles were administrative, and communications based. When I thought about my next career steps, as I was inspired by my colleagues, I wanted to be the one doing research or be a research manager. Therefore, I decided to go to do an MA in anthropology. Since I started grad school, I have worked on several research projects headed by SFU professors and have conducted my own research, these experiences have reinforced that I want to continue doing research.

What is your favourite thing about being a grad student?

This is hard -- there are so many things that I enjoy about being a grad student! If I had to pick one it would be the diversity of opportunities and experiences that come with being a graduate student, such as professional development workshops, being a teaching assistant/tutor marker, meeting other graduate students who are also passionate about their research, and being able to work on a project that interests you. If it were not for teaching assistantships, I would have not known that I am also passionate about and get fulfillment from teaching.

Do you think your research topic has allowed you to speak louder/reach a wide audience through your work?

Sneaker reselling has increasingly become more known in the media because of people more people aware that it can be highly profitable and sneaker collectors can have hundreds to thousands of sneakers. So, when I tell people about my research, they may already have some awareness about this culture. Lately, I have been asked, “Did you see that Marie Kondo episode with that sneaker collector?” In addition, my project crosses the boundaries of other disciplines such as economic geography and marketing, so it speaks to a larger academic audience. The people who have helped me with my research in the Metro Vancouver sneaker scene have been enthusiastic and a keen audience because I am doing research on a social practice that is important to them.

After grad school?

I have not planned what I am going to do when I finish my master’s because I have been concerned about finishing my thesis. I am keeping an open mind regarding finding a full-time job. I love designing and conducting research projects/instruments. It doesn't matter what field it is; I enjoy the challenge of figuring out the best strategies to gain insights or to approach a problem. Even if I was ready to do a Ph.D. after my MA, I am not sure what type of program or project I would want to do! It’s a blessing and a curse that I have a diversity of interests.

You are very busy! How do you manage stress? Do you have a work-life balance?

I do not have work-life balance, but I enjoy all of the projects I work on and the courses I teach in. I have ADHD so I can get bored and lose interest easily; therefore, always having different things to work well for me. I find that being busy and working on multiple projects makes me more productive overall. I like to be constantly busy and have things to look forward to. I have a very organized calendar and I protect my time accordingly when I know I have large deadlines or projects. Therefore, time-management and planning my time based on being realistic with myself are major ways I deal with stress.

Any advice for current/future students?

Take advantage of the opportunities that are available to you as a graduate student – take risks and go out of your comfort zone. It is okay if doing extracurriculars slows down your degree progress. It is important to advocate for yourself. For instance, I had to convince my supervisor who was skeptical at first that my thesis topic was worth studying. Within the institution, look beyond your department for opportunities and networking.