Mayumi Sato (Sociology), Gates Scholar, joins Trinity Hall in Michaelmas Term 2021

What difference does the recognition of the Gates Scholarship make to you and your research?

I think oftentimes ‘progressive’ research gets overlooked by mainstream scholarship and in funding practices. Challenging the status quo through research is always a difficult undertaking, especially in a traditionally exclusive and elite space like the academy, but I think that it is our responsibility as a part of the younger generation to produce new, or raise historically suppressed, narratives around social justice and human rights. It is no secret that oftentimes the humanities and social sciences aren’t funded in the same way as other disciplines, and the so-called ‘impact factor’ in peer-reviewed journals is often evaluated lower vis-a-vis our STEM counterparts. Truly, I do think that the research that we do is also equally important and impactful, and receiving Gates Cambridge was reassuring to me in that others also believe in my research as well.

What motivated you to pursue your research topic?

I suppose a combination of personal interests, academic coursework, and my upbringing. From my personal experiences and understanding of racism, classism, and sexism, I grew up wanting to change the structural institutions that deprived people in my community and beyond. Oftentimes, I have been advised detach the ‘personal’ from my research and that robust research should always remain ‘unbiased.’ I don’t think that you can detach politics from sociological inquiry, and nor should you. I think positioning oneself and being cognizant of why one becomes intrigued in a particular research area is fundamental to approach and address the research itself. I know that change is a slow-moving process, but if I can play a small role in the process of addressing fundamental inequalities that affect racially, socially, and economically marginalized communities, then I feel as though I am working towards a career that I value. Recently, I spoke to a Cambridge PhD alum from Sierra Leone who graduated in the 1990s. We spoke about experiencing racism in higher education and in the workplace, and he reminded me that this is a lifelong struggle. I am not the first nor last person working on these issues through scholarship, but I hope that I can play my role in contributing to a movement that is more just, equitable, and sustainable for those on the margins. 

In your Gates biography you say that you will “study how decarceration can serve as an entry point to reconcile local and global injustices”. I wonder if we could explore that in more detail.

Recently there has been increasing discussion over decarceration and reimagining what policing looks like. A lot of this is highly Ameri-centric and lacks a global focus. I think the discussion around prisons, and especially the mass incarceration of communities of colour, has been a well-documented issue in the US. But in an increasingly globalized world, we have to understand that the ramifications of the prison industry extend beyond national borders. While I agree that institutional racism has been a fundamental backbone to American society, it doesn’t mean that these issues aren’t prevalent in other countries. To me, it just means that they aren’t being discussed. In my opinion, not talking about structural ‘-isms’ like racism, classism, and sexism continues a violent cycle of oppressing those whose voices have been suppressed.

I’m studying the intersection between climate change, racism, the prison industry, and resistance to it. These issues are often examined in isolation, when in fact they are intimately connected, and I’ve seen how environmental injustices exacerbate conditions of marginalized communities. I have met and worked with land defenders, most of whom come from Indigenous and Global South communities, who put their lives on the line to protect the environment, but oftentimes corporate and State powers override them and continue to build on land that is rightfully theirs. Similarly, I think incarcerated communities are among the most neglected people in society. There’s so much negative stigma and focus on what people did to become incarcerated instead of focusing on the conditions that led them there. When we think about climate action and environmental justice, we often think about it in a linear way – one that is often channelled through visible protests. But resistance doesn’t take just one form, and I hope to be able to expose the multitude of ways in which communities around the world express their resistance and fight for a racially, environmentally, and socially just world. 

Connect with Trinity Hall