A peek into Cambodia today

According to “On the Edges of Indigenous: A Personal Narrative of a Cambodian Sociologist Researching Cambodian Refugees in Massachusetts”, Asian Americans represent the fastest growing racial group in Massachusetts and have grown in population by nearly 68 percent since 1990. Most Cambodians in Massachusetts and New England today arrived under the
auspices of the 1980 Refugee Act and its subsequent resettlement program.

Leakhena Nou, a professor of sociology at California State University, had a hypothesis that the adjustment difficulties experienced by the vast majority of Cambodian refugees may stem from a relationship between exposure to stressors, use of ineffective coping strategies, and lack of access to quality social support. Due to colonialism, “research” now has a negative connotation and thus, many are reluctant to participate in studies and analyses. Nou’s personal mission was to “seek out the truth behind the significant rates of psychological stress and lack of well-being among Cambodian refugees in the United States, while contributing to the currently limited body of academic research on this topic”. She also remarked that “the challenges we faced while conducting this research might also be instructional to other researchers working in Cambodian communities”.

It is very difficult to get participants, even when the study is being conducted by someone in the community, due to the distrust and legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime. The participants in Nou’s study didn’t respond to media advertisements and preferred personal connections and relationships. She mentioned that “the following suggestions will help anyone attempting similar research in the
Cambodian community or in other settings bearing a resemblance to the ones we studied”:
■ Identify reputable community liaisons to work full-time on outreach efforts while keeping in consideration cultural baggage and controversy.
■ Always seek reputable social mediators or institutional gatekeepers within the communities to act on behalf of the private investigator to solicit support for the study.
■ Allow enough time to build rapport with social and institutional actors within the communities, including potential respondents.
■ Participate actively in discussions with community leaders and practitioners about using the research as a product beneficial to the community itself.
● To avoid feelings of exploitation in participating communities, share your research results in a series of educational forums and workshops.
■ Connect with the social system that traditionally provides the individual with a sense of belonging, since in Cambodian culture, family’s central role is a source of social support.
● Obtain participation of heads of families, which leads to greater participation by other members of the family and throughout the
■ Maintain social and professional relations with institutional affiliations or individuals involved in the project, even after completing the study.

Nou remarks, “This distrust is the most significant and fundamental challenge I faced as an indigenous researcher; it would have been virtually insurmountable to an outsider.”