> topics > Sociology

Stranger society with Chinese features in the making

MA YINQIU and LIU PEIFENG | 2022-02-10 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A group of young people hold up signs to solicit hugs from strangers at a park in Jing’an District, Shanghai, in an effort to increase warmth among strangers. Photo: CFP

It was once believed that the society of strangers had arrived. As academia reflects on this claim and interprets China’s unique modernization, it is necessary to reexamine the “stranger society” theory. Since the start of the 21st century, Chinese society has been significantly changed by extensive and deep social governance throughout the country, booming internet technology, and the popularization of mobile devices. How the society of strangers is understood, as a result of these changes, should also be demonstrated academically. 

Acquaintance society fits rural areas
Social interaction is a basic human social behavior. It has a dynamic structure with multiple levels and dimensions. Social transition usually triggers changes to ways of social interaction. Seeing into these changes is part of the social sciences’ fundamental research. 
Reform and opening up is one of the major events in modern Chinese society, providing new opportunities for social transformation. The transformation fueled changes in practices and ideas, and in every aspect of social interaction. 
From this perspective, a number of scholars drew the conclusion that Chinese society was evolving from a society of acquaintances, or intimates, to a stranger society. It appears that this view might conform to social realities and academic tendencies of the era following reform and opening up, but it is more illustrative of their imagined version of an acquaintance society. 
These scholars argue that in Chinese culture, the unit of meaning in society is not the individual, but families and clans built upon solid kinship relations. People bond with each other over blood ties, geographical proximity, and “predestined relationships.” The “differential pattern of association” (chaxu geju) in renowned Chinese anthropologist Fei Xiaotong’s research terms is culturally acknowledged within human relationships, bringing about the traditions of face (mianzi) and authority that influence and sustain unique social values and interactional models. 
Chinese society with these features exhibits the appearance of an acquaintance society. People live in social spaces they are familiar with, and form networked social relations, with acquaintances as the medium. They identify with each other, establish “differential associations” through marriages, and make up interest “patterns.” 
In such a society, people rely on ethical interactions to “maintain their face,” while the rule of rites regulates moral ethics and the code of conduct. The operational mechanism of an acquaintance society is based on interpersonal interactions. People have strong long-term expectations in these interactions, which feature strong attachment, dependency, utilitarianism, and pragmatism. 
The ideal construction of an acquaintance society carries and internalizes academics’ good hope for such societies. The hope might stem from deep nostalgia or yearnings for idyllic life. However, their imagination of an acquaintance society is evidently specific to rural areas. Cities have existed through all periods of Chinese history, but the conception of a city is rather different as populations move frequently. It is certain that the imaginary ideal of an acquaintance society can generally be applied to static rural society. In other words, the acquaintance society theory is largely applicable to rural China. 
Disconnected stranger society theory
Based on the above argument, the acquaintance society theory, which is more suited to the countryside, is unable to connect to a society of strangers. The theory of a Chinese stranger society originates more from classical sociologists’ observations and thinking. Judgments regarding a society of strangers are not only inseparable from the influence of Western theory, but also stem from their surveys of Chinese society in migration. However, whether these judgments are consistent with real conditions in Chinese society requires a return to the origin and intension of the stranger society concept. By looking back on related theories, we can reconstruct a theory on the society of strangers which fits the Chinese experience. 
In his essay “The Stranger,” highly reputed German sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel noted that the intrusion and stay of a stranger signifies the introduction of a new and heterogeneous factor to a group that is fixed in a certain space, or a community of acquaintances, along with new “positive relations.” 
If Simmel’s notion of “stranger” refers mainly to marginalized people within a society of acquaintances, then the stranger society defined by famed American legal historian Lawrence Friedman places strangers within the social division of labor. In A History of American Law, Friedman expounded on the nature of strangers in modern society, pointing out that our health, life, and wealth are all subject to people we have never met and will never meet. 
The two scholars’ understandings of stranger society reveal that the scope of strangers has gradually expanded from marginalized people to outsiders. The shift in the cognition of strangers in fact represents the extension of societal boundaries, which has something to do with the expansion of economic activities and flows, and with the complication of labor division systems in modern society. All in all, the process of urbanization has continuously pushed the boundaries of a stranger society, and made more people strangers to one another. 
By analyzing urban society amid industrialization, these scholars shrewdly identified the stranger society development trend. However, they were not discussing the transition of cities from a society of acquaintances to a stranger society. Instead, they paid attention only to the stranger society theory. In other words, they seldom shed light on the connection between acquaintance and stranger societies. 
As such, it is impossible to perceive the mechanism of cities’ transformation from an acquaintance society to a stranger one, nor to observe how the transformation takes place on a macro level. This means the study of Chinese stranger society cannot obtain powerful inspiration from these scholars’ theories. 
Then, did the Chinese stranger society ever exist? Which stage is Chinese society in, and to what degree did it really experience a society of strangers? Where does our imagination of a stranger society come from? Apparently, an imagined acquaintance society is the precursor to current discussion about the society of strangers, which originated from Western stranger society theory and was influenced by acquaintance society in rural China. Therefore, a stranger society—in our terms—is still not completely built upon Chinese realities. To understand the Chinese society of strangers, it is essential to reflect on the Chinese society of acquaintances, while breaking away from the distractions of Western stranger society theory. 
Social development matters
After clarifying the logic of a stranger society, we can attempt to discuss a Chinese theory on the issue. The theory must be grounded in empirical facts and observations of China. 
First, the flow of strangers has become a cultural phenomenon or universal characteristic.
Nonetheless, the flow in Chinese society is orderly. A society shaped by an orderly flow is an ordered society of strangers. For example, due to big data and information management technologies, data concerning the scale and direction of population flow is controllable; rural vitalization is driving many people in cities back to the countryside. Meanwhile, urban community governance is intensifying, as interaction within communities enhances interaction between residents.  
More importantly, through vigorous network-based social governance, the popularization of the internet and mobile devices not only increases social connections, but also expands associations between strangers, improving the strength of their relationships. As a result, the principles of rationality and efficiency are emphasized. Orderly information transmission and population flows are accepted by the majority of society, presenting an ordered social landscape of strangers. For example, relationships established on the basis of geographical and blood ties are not likely to come undone by temporal and spatial separation, while motives for economic and political behaviors will become stronger, but will not completely supersede fetters of existing relations.
Second, a stranger society results from an increasingly detailed division of labor, yet a densely populated society, divided by labor, brings into being a well-regulated society of strangers. Due to demographic dividends, the Chinese labor market is quite full-fledged, providing robust guarantees for laborers’ full employment. The social division of labor unavoidably incorporates individuals into the labor division system, in which their positions are specific and connect them closely. 
In The Division of Labor in Society, French sociologist Emile Durkheim regards society, shaped by labor division, as a society of “organic solidarity.” He distinguishes this from a mechanically solidary society which lacks a consciousness of solidarity. How does society achieve such organic solidarity? Contract, compliance, and law constitute the critical foundation for the formation of the social labor division system. For example, the division of labor and cooperation between regions promotes adherence to the same norms, and market rules are consistent in many places. Even when a stranger enters a totally strange city or village, he/she usually abides by the same norms, thus avoiding conflict arising from different codes, as well as social predicaments facing individuals. 
A series of intertwined significant events in Chinese society have partially altered the structure of acquaintance society which is deeply rooted in rural areas. Original social relations, reliant on acquaintances, have weakened. This accelerates the arrival of stranger society and makes interpersonal relationships more distant. However, the unique modernization of Chinese society is gradually shaping a new society of strangers characterized by independence, a clear division of rights and responsibilities, equity and transparency, compliance to norms, and attention to rules. 
Ma Yinqiu is a professor from the Business School at Nanjing Normal University. Liu Peifeng is from the Department of Law at Jiangsu Police Institute.