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Individual narratives foster reconstruction of Chinese sociology

ZHOU XIAOHONG | 2022-09-19 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Over the past 40-odd years, the reconstruction of Chinese sociology developed rapidly with China’s economic reform, and has become an important section in reform and opening up. The synchronization of Chinese sociology’s reconstruction with reform and opening up provides a perfect perspective to review the contemporary progress of Chinese society through sociologists’ personal life experiences. 

Based on oral historical materials of 40 sociologists completed in 2019, this study traces their problem awareness and academic practices from their personal life experiences and the 40-odd-year process of reform and opening up. If each generation has its own history, then each generation’s history is created by the interactions between the generation and the society in which it lives. 

Turning point and trajectory

Two important analytical concepts have consistently been highlighted in the study of life experiences. One is the concept of a turning point, as reform and opening up was a new turning point both in the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and in the life experiences of the Chinese people, including Chinese sociologists. 

The other concept is trajectory. A series of major events before and after reform and opening up have exerted a continuous impact on individuals’ careers. In this research, Xiaxiang (Down to the Countryside Movement), Gaokao (National College Entrance Examination), studying abroad, and other accompanying events had continuous impacts on, or even redirected, the life trajectories of the new generation of Chinese sociologists.

Except for a few overseas scholars who helped China rebuild sociology, most of the sociologists interviewed had the experience of going to the countryside, working in factories, or serving in the army before they were admitted to university after 1977. 

As a result, before engaging in sociological research, they had been exposed to field research in a non-disciplinary way. Such a “primary-level experience” made this generation of Chinese sociologists very similar to the generation of scholars during the boom of American sociology in the 1950s and 1960s. Having experienced the Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II in the 1940s, that generation of American scholars acquired the ability of “othering” across racial, regional, and class identities. 

Understanding ordinary people in urban and rural China, and resultant empathy, helped the generation of Chinese sociologists enter the world of their research subjects smoothly. 

Additionally, professional training in sociology also enabled them to isolate themselves from others in the generation, develop introspection, and the ability to self-reflect. Based on these abilities, the sociologists formed a sociological imagination that connected their personal experiences and difficulties with the times and society, and turned their individual feelings into public topics.

Epochal, local, and global features

With the sociological imagination obtained, sociologists devoted themselves to the great undertaking of reform and opening up with their unique professional identities. While all the problems and challenges in China’s modernization over the past more than four decades, including creations and responses, advanced Chinese sociology, sociologists’ academic imagination, research practices, and theoretical discoveries must also become part of the narrative discourse of reform and opening up. Such an interdependent constructive logic endows Chinese sociology with distinct epochal, local, and global features following its reconstruction. 

First, the mainstream narrative of post-reconstruction Chinese sociology presents the great practice of reform and opening up in the past 40-odd years from unique perspectives. 

In addition, a variety of issues were discussed, including the household contract responsibility system, township enterprises, migrant workers, population mobility, social stratification, social governance, and so forth. All were collective issues encountered by the Chinese people in China’s modernization drive. 

Moreover, in the context of reform and opening up, all the aforementioned discussions on China are inseparable from the context of globalization. These topics and discussions attract global attention, and therefore become an indispensable part of the global experience.

Dual process

Due to the epochal, local, and global characteristics of Chinese sociology since it was reconstructed, it must draw on a large number of global academic resources, including Western sociology, to build “modern” sociology in the course of its own development. Meanwhile, it continued the “Sinicization” or localization tradition of sociology which started in the 1930s, building a discipline that has Chinese characteristics and faces the reality of Chinese society. 

Today, we are still faced with a dual process. On the one hand, the particularity of Chinese society necessitates the localization of social sciences, requiring researchers to affirm their Chinese identity. On the other hand, the development of social sciences must be connected with global circumstances, which is determined by the nature of the diversity and inter-construction of human civilization. 

This dual process is reflected in two-way communication between China and the outside world, and in the intergenerational succession of Chinese sociology. The first generation of post-reconstruction sociologists, who grew up along with reform and opening up, can deliver their unique understandings of Chinese society to younger generations of sociologists in ways such as collective narrative. Younger generations of sociologists can also describe the changing world to their predecessors through exchanges within and outside the discipline. In this continuous transmission, a new tradition of Chinese sociology will be written based on the modernity narrative of China’s reform and opening up.

Zhou Xiaohong is a senior professor of liberal arts at Nanjing University. This article was edited from his paper submitted to the forum.