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Pioneering sociologist’s social survey approach revisited

HE JUNLI | 2022-02-25 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: Li Jinghan (2nd Left) presides over the social survey team in Dingxian, present-day Dingzhou in north China’s Hebei Province.

In the pioneering stage of Chinese sociology, sociologists represented by Li Jinghan (Franklin Ching-han Lee, 1895–1986) first proposed researching Chinese society through social surveys. As one of the first overseas returnees to engage in sociology, Li successively carried out social surveys in such places as Beijing and Dingxian (Ting Hsien), present-day Dingzhou in north China’s Hebei Province, and mainly taught social survey methodology in several universities. He once declared that he would “devote his lifetime to social surveys,” which indicates the vital role of the approach in his academic thought. 

Under the influence of Li and other sociologists including Chen Da and Chen Hansheng (Chen Han-seng), a social survey movement was set off in China in the 1920s-30s, which invited heated discussions in academia. This article aims to briefly review the discussions on this research methodology and reexamine the implications and value of Li’s theory on social surveys. 
Controversy over social surveys
Based on Li’s definition, social surveys mean to investigate the actual conditions of society with systematic scientific methods, and sort collected materials to analyze the components of social phenomena by statistical means. 
In the same quest for a scientific research methodology, Wu Wenzao and his students, such as Fei Xiaotong (Fei Hsiao-tung) and Zhao Chengxin (Cheng-hsin Chao), advocated community studies for sociological research. In their terms, community studies examine real lives of people within the target communities, at least including the people, the region they reside in, and the way they live or culture they live in, with social science methods like statistics and observation. 
Although Wu and his followers recognized the advantages of social surveys in describing real conditions of society, they maintained that Li’s social survey approach had the following three deficiencies. 
First, it lacked a holistic view of society. Wu argued that genuine sociological studies should be “living films of communities,” but social surveys paid no attention to the process and tendencies of social facts, also overlooking relations between parts of the facts. Without a comprehensive knowledge of social facts, they represented “snapshots of communities.” Fei also elliptically pointed out that many social surveys were confined to one or several aspects, adding that society should be analyzed as a whole. 
Second, social surveys neglected the interpretation of social facts. From Wu’s perspective, social surveys were static depictions and revealed no reasons for social facts or implications of various parts of society. Fei also said, “Some teachers conducted a few social surveys at that time, but we, the students, were not quite satisfied. What they presented were many dry numbers, without explaining what those digits meant.” In short, social surveys were criticized for disregarding explanation in favor of description. 
The third deficiency is that social surveys failed to realize the goal of social reform. Practical social surveys were expected to serve the need of reforming society. However, some scholars questioned the realization of the goal through social surveys. Logically, conclusions preceded many social surveys. For example, the “Ting Hsien Experiment,” a rural reconstruction project initiated by famed Chinese educator Yan Yangchu (James Yen), had labeled Chinese farmers as poor, ignorant, physically weak, and selfish, long before Li undertook the social survey of Dingxian. Zhao even frankly said that social surveys were for propaganda purposes, rather than to seek reform strategies. On the other hand, Zhao held that social surveys were fragmented because they studied individual problems. “To understand social problems, it is essential to examine the course of changes in the entirety of society,” Zhao said. Hence social surveys could hardly make a substantial contribution to solving social problems. 
Li’s open and inclusive mind
Li didn’t respond to the above criticism, but he never stood aside. He knew of community studies and seemed not to reject research methodologies of this kind. In both the article “The Social Survey Movement in China” and the book Approaches to Field Social Survey, Li mentioned renowned American sociologist Daniel H. Kulp II’s investigation into the Fenghuang (Phoenix) Village in south China’s Guangdong Province, which adopted an anthropological approach, lauding Kulp’s research methodology as “very referable.”  
When reading the Bai of the Frontier People in Mangshi authored by Tian Rukang (Tien Ju-Kang), one of the major members of “Kuige,” an anthropology fieldwork site led by Fei Xiaotong, Li gave high praise: “He (Tian) used a scientific method. He not only clearly narrated and described the facts following immersive fieldwork, but further analyzed, explained, and illustrated the facts.” From his remarks, we can dimly capture the development of Li’s social survey theory: He realized the importance of explanation to research. In “Matters Worthy of Attention in Social Survey and Research of Frontier Areas,” he made a clear distinction between survey and research, saying that the main task of survey is to discover facts, while that of research is to explain the facts. 
Instead of objecting to community studies, Li drew upon the method, by attaching importance to interpreting facts. He was willing to accept any method conducive to understanding social facts. He once stated “I believe in social surveys.” Perhaps due to this lifelong passion, he held an open and inclusive attitude towards different research methodologies. 
Reexamining social surveys
Today, we can perhaps view the controversy over social surveys more objectively. To say the least, some comments were biased, and the significance and value of Li’s thoughts regarding social surveys were also stifled. 
With respect to academic significance, social surveys championed by Li and his proponents can be considered as a basis for explanatory research. Social surveys were accused of failing to interpret social facts, but the premise for interpretation is to grasp the facts. Without sufficiently rich factual materials, interpretation is out of the question. Social surveys are precisely adept at collecting facts in detail. 
Moreover, Li and other scholars actually analyzed the materials gathered through social surveys. Take the Dingxian social survey which Li chaired as an example. In the preface to the General Social Survey of Ting Hsien, he admitted that the book made no comment nor drew any conclusions except for reporting stark realities. Nonetheless, he offered analyses of the survey materials concerning Dingxian in subsequent papers. 
In the 1934 paper “Structure and Problems of the Rural Population in North China,” he noted that the reasons for social problems in rural areas were “unfair land distribution, improper productive relations, and unsound social organizations.” The “Survey of Land in Dingxian” pinpointed the lack of arable land, uneven land distribution, scattered land, commercialization of agricultural production, and the disordered land tax system as prominent land problems. From contemporary perspectives, these analyses, more or less, correctly targeted social problems in rural areas back then. This suggests that analyses and explanations based on detailed materials will be even more reasonable, which is where the academic value of social surveys lies. 
When it comes to application, social surveys made substantive contributions to reforming society. Li aspired to carry out applied social surveys that could improve society. Zhao Chengxin questioned the effect of social surveys which were preceded by conclusions. To this doubt, Li already had an explanation. 
According to the preface to the General Social Survey of Ting Hsien, the National Association of Mass Education Movement in the Ting Hsien Experiment had indeed already identified four weaknesses in Chinese rural society as poverty, ignorance, disease and civic disintegration prior to the survey, but no solution to these problems was specified at that time. 
In Li’s opinion, concrete solutions must be based on facts, and the basis of the facts must be grounded in findings of field social surveys. Thus, discovering social problems was not the main purpose of his Dingxian survey. Instead, it was carried out to uncover the manifestations of the four phenomena in reality, thereby putting forward more targeted solutions. Although the Ting Hsien Experiment didn’t fundamentally resolve social problems in the Chinese countryside, Li’s social survey provided abundant firsthand information for the experiment to go on. We should acknowledge this outstanding contribution of social surveys to reforming society. 
Regarding the construction of disciplines, social surveys set the tone of facing social practices in Chinese sociology. Here it is necessary to refer to American sociology’s disciplinary construction course. According to Sociology in America: A History by Craig Calhoun, currently a professor of social sciences at Arizona State University, early American sociologists were keen on conducting social surveys with the tool of statistics to understand social conditions, address social problems, and cope with social changes. Chen Xinxiang, a professor of sociology at the Minzu University of China, observed that after sociology was introduced to America, the tradition of valuing quantitative research and pragmatism was gradually established. 
In China, sociology is also an imported discipline. Social surveys that emphasize quantitative statistical research were the earliest methodology brought to the country, as scholars, typically Li Jinghan, hoped to leverage this research methodology to make sense of and reform society. In this vein, sociology’s adaptation to China is similar to the process in America in many ways. 
Distinctly, Chinese sociology seems not to overemphasize quantitative techniques. Wu Wenzao’s discussion of social surveys and promotion of community studies, to some extent, were reminding Chinese sociologists that qualitative research methods and understanding social facts are equally important. Nonetheless, even advocates of community studies were committed to making sense of social facts, which is consistent with Li’s original intention in social surveys. 
Therefore, social surveys are significant and valuable largely in that this approach reflects endeavors made by pioneering Chinese sociologists, represented by Li, to conduct academic research by facing social practices, study those practices, and reflect upon related concepts, theories, and methods. It is the earliest embodiment of the “consciousness of practice” in Chinese sociology. 
He Junli is from the School of Ethnology and Sociology at the Minzu University of China.