Margaret Lam (cont.)

In an earlier post, we discussed the life and career of Margaret Lam who was a University of Hawai‘i graduate student and worked in the Social Research Laboratory. She wrote articles for several sociology journals including Social Process in Hawaii.  She also provided supporting material for Romanzo Adams’ pioneering work, Interracial Marriage in Hawaii.

In the RASRL files, we’ve found many references to Margaret’s cases – the raw material that provided the basis for her work.  Given how she and others discussed them, we assumed that they contained demographic and ethnographic information about her interview subjects.  We also knew that these cases were used by other researchers, but we had not found anything that we could definitely say was Margaret’s cases.

We think we found them.

Archival boxes containing the results of Margaret Lam's research.

Archival boxes containing the results of Margaret Lam’s research, Box 2 Glick

The file was not, of course, called “Margaret Lam’s research.”  That would be too easy.  Archival work requires a) luck, b) persistence, c) repetition, and d) all of the above.  We had actually seen these files before, but it wasn’t until we had read more about Margaret that it became clear that even though the work is not labeled, these must be the cases to which she so often referred in her correspondence.  What makes this a good guess?

1.  The materials were found in the papers of Andrew Lind who enjoyed the longest tenure in the UH Sociology Department.  (He first came to Hawai‘i in 1927 and did not retire until a few years before his death in 1988.)  Although the collection is named for Romanzo Adams, Andrew Lind is probably most responsible for the fact that these materials still exist and were turned over to the University Archives.

2.  We know that Margaret felt protective of her research, but it was considered to be the property of the Social Research Laboratory and therefore available for any and all other researchers.  Her initials are on many but not all of the cases, which suggests that she retained a modicum of authorship.

3.  The cases were generated and collated in 1930-31, which matches dates on some of Margaret’s correspondence found in the Lind papers in which she talks about her struggles to complete her work.

4.  The cases focus on Chinese Hawaiian families.  This was not the subject of Margaret’s MA thesis, but we know from her correspondence that this is what she wanted to write about.  Adams apparently discouraged her from using these cases as the basis of her thesis; she ended up writing about a prominent hapa Haole family.

ML Case eg2What, exactly, are these cases?  Each file contains typewritten pages, stapled or paper-clipped together. Each bound document appears to be the result of an interview with one or more members of a single family.   (The name is handwritten at the top of each page, but has been redacted here.)  The researcher has asked the subject to respond to a series of survey questions beginning with demographic data (names, ethnic background of family, place of birth, languages spoken, years of schooling, etc.).  The survey also contains questions about housing conditions, the way members of the family were dressed, what they read, the condition of the neighborhood – questions which demanded a subjective assessment on the part of the interviewer.   The cases also contain the transcript of interviews with the subjects in which they were asked similar questions about their background, work, and attitudes about their neighbors and friends.

ML Case eg

This material is revealing and personal which makes it as enticing as it is problematic.  The cases might be compared to the types of information gathered by social workers investigating a case of juvenile delinquency.  We can learn a great deal about the social conditions of at least a small group of local people in Hawai‘i, information that is probably not available in other places.  People speaking candidly about their lives is rich ethnographic information. But these people were also being scrutinized; the questions imply value judgement even if it was not intended.  This type of investigation was not unusual for members of the working class who had frequent contact with law enforcement, public schools, or social service agencies.  It is unlikely that these interview subjects were coerced or did not cooperate willingly, but did people like Margaret Lam take advantage of their status as social scientists with university credentials, expecting compliance even as their privacy was invaded?  Were her subjects in a position to say no?

Finding the cases adds some nuance to our understanding of Margaret Lam.  In her correspondence, she complains bitterly about being taken advantage of – the fact that her cases where shared vexed her to no end – but also seemed to continually offer to help others with their work. Given the enormity of the collection of cases, it makes sense that she was ambivalent, wanting to share, but also wanting the credit for having worked so hard to collect the material.   Seeing the cases also confirms some of our assumptions about how local students contributed to the work of the UH sociologists.  Local students acted as interpreters, literally translating from pidgin, Chinese, or Hawaiian, and metaphorically, making local customs comprehensible to White American social scientists.  Margaret and others were able to walk the streets of Kaka‘ako or “Hell’s Half Acre,” asking questions and gaining entree to the homes of subjects without raising suspicion.  If all the cases in the RASRL Collection were the result of Margaret’s work, she certainly deserves more credit than she has received.

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