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De-agriculturalization brings multidimensional interactions to villages

By Zhang Xiumei | 2014-08-25 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Lingshui Village of Zhaitang town in Mentougou District in western Beijing, where traditional landscape and indigenous characteristics are still well preserved, is listed in the "National Famous Historical and Cultural Villages".


As the processes of industrialization and urbanization gain momentum in China, de-agriculturalization is progressing in tandem. As a conse­quence, villages—specially ones on the eastern coastline—have experi­enced tremendous changes.


These villages are starting to take on the characteristics of cities and towns, such as urban lifestyles, rational interpersonal relation­ships, disintegrated social ties and weakened public authorities. It is noteworthy that drastic changes are not only occurring in social pat­terns but also in the social order and systems.


As markets and national authori­ties make their presences felt in villages, it is not enough to inter­pret people’s behavior just based on the paradigms of "hierarchical structures" and "order maintained through etiquette and custom" pro­posed by Fei Xiaotong, a renowned Chinese sociologist. According to the investigation of de-agriculturalized villages in Zhejiang Province and reference to documents on village order, the author concluded three categories of order: spontaneous order, manufactured order and con­structive order.


Spontaneous order


Formed through long-term inter­actions among villagers, nature and society, spontaneous order shapes the basic relationship structure of the three elements while sustaining pro­duction and life in villages. The forma­tion of order is a spontaneous process without influence from outside forces, comparable to the notion of spontane­ous order put forward by Friedrich Hayek, which is the result of autono­mous development that is not guided by personal or authoritarian design.


There are two representations: tradition and local knowledge. Tradi­tion includes shared values, rules, customs and beliefs passed down throughout history. Although new perceptions have exerted great im­pact, tradition, to some extent, still defines human activities as well as the norms of language and symbols while shaping various social rela­tions. In fact, tradition itself is only a time dimension and has no value judgment. Excellent traditions in particular are a kind of resource. They are principles and general rules shared by all.


The notion of local knowledge was put forward by Clifford James Geertz, an American anthropologist. The lo­cal features, implying stances, ideas and values formed under historical and cultural circumstances, are a re­sult of regional features and peculiar­ity. Based on a system of local knowl­edge, a community with a common social order takes shape under the guidance of action strategies, such as local rules and regulations, customs, indigenous experience and methods.


Tradition stresses the time dimen­sion, while local knowledge empha­sizes the space dimension, but there are different and overlapping parts between the two types, both being the product of villages.


Regulated order

Regulated order is driven by a certain force or purpose. The most typical regulated order is controlled by market rule, contracts and laws. As de-agriculturalization progresses further, a large quantity of industries and businesses tend to descend upon villages, making market rules a new driving force for village order. With the development of a commod­ity economy, villages see increased social mobility, diversified employ­ment and greater economic spe­cialization. In addition, villagers now have a greater diversity of means to interact as well as more complex relationships in terms of interests. The notion of the economic human as rational and calculating has also influenced villagers to some extent.


Consequently, villagers have de­veloped an awareness of markets and competition, which permits market rules to steer villages to­wards modernization. At the same time, contracts and laws are another significant force in keeping social order. In the exchange of commodi­ties, the relationship of interests is bound by contracts, the validity of which is guaranteed by laws. This means that laws no longer exist in name only.


Constructive order

The constructive order is framed by external factors, such as admin­istrative bodies at the national or other level. The constructive process is a result of the intervention and promotion by external forces.


It is rooted in state power and manifested in village governance. As some scholars have noted, in pre-modern society, national govern­ance was constructed on the basis of village governance, with villages being an important part. However, urbanization has shifted the focus of national governance, alienating vil­lages from state power.


At present, thanks to de-agricul­turalization, villages with limited autonomy are once again included into national governance. From the perspective of national construction, for the systems and mechanisms of social integration to cover village society, villagers should be given access to public goods and services, such as education, public finance and healthcare. It can be inferred that state power is a legal source of the constructive order.


According to the articles of the Organic Law of Village Committees, villagers are entitled to elect cadres who represent their interests. The elected cadres will oversee the vil­lage finances and other collective undertakings in a democratic way. In essence, village governance is a process of self-governance, self-ed­ucation and self-service, with power exercised from the bottom up as defined in the framework of national systems. As a result, village govern­ance is a result of construction in spite of the fact that villages are self-governed.


Multidimensional interactions

De-agriculturalization has not only brought great changes in social pat­terns but also led to a diversification of mechanisms for achieving internal order. A picture of multidimensional interaction is unfolding.


First, the spontaneous order is developed under strictly local condi­tions and thus is built from the bot­tom up, while the constructive order, originating in the state, follows a top-down path. And positive interaction between the two is the key to the development of villages. The former is the basis on which the latter is able to take effect. The implementation of national systems and policies in villages should be based on a robust spontaneous order. At the same time, as production and life in villages become modernized, village society cannot be successfully transformed without national influences.


Second, the spontaneous order comes with the formation of villages and mainly manifests itself in the form of tradition and local knowl­edge, while the regulated order, reflected in market rules, contracts and laws, is born in the process of de-agriculturalization. The former represents tradition, while the latter represents modernity, leading to conflicts between the two. We can­not say that one is superior to the other. What should be noted is the manner in which their relationship is coordinated will determine the development track of villages in the future.


Lastly, the constructive order and the regulated order both must oper­ate on the foundation of the sponta­neous order. The constructive order depends only on external influences and follows a top-down path, while the regulated order can depend on either internal or external forces and can potentially operate from top to bottom or the other way.


It’s clear that the regulated order has flexibility and superiority that the constructive order doesn’t have. If some part of the constructive or­der is transformed into the regulated order, more vitality and feasibility will be injected into the village. For instance, when the nation intends to carry out a policy or adopt a measure in villages, it is necessary to give top-down publicity and what’s more, if the policy or measure meets the demand of villages, it will create impetus for change from the bottom.


The issue of order is at the center of sociology. In particular, village order is a significant problem facing modern China. And it is worth fur­ther discussion and research on the multidimensional interactions tak­ing place within the village order in the context of de-agriculturalization.


Zhang Xiumei is from the School of Sociology and Political Science at Shanghai University and the Institute for Public Policy at Zhejiang Academy of Social Sciences.

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 631, August 8, 2014.

The Chinese link is:


Translated by Ren Jingyun