(Last updated 16 July 2009)
Chinese Economic Development in West Africa
This is my latest project, started in the spring of 2008. While the diasporic nature of overseas Chinese has been explored in a wide range of localities (from Southeast Asia to Europe, Latin America, and North America), less work has focused on the growing cultural and sociopolitical influence of overseas Chinese communities in West Africa. In 2007, Xinhua (New China News Agency) reported that an estimated 750,000 Chinese are working or living in Africa; overseas Chinese in Africa have been portrayed in the media as the latest wave of outsiders coming to Africa to extract natural and labor resources. They come not only as investors looking for new opportunities for expansion or engineers working the oil fields of the Sudan, but also as petty entrepreneurs starting trading companies, restaurants, pharmacies, and other businesses in what is portrayed as a “new frontier.” They also come as laborers, working for Chinese companies that are building new plants or infrastructural projects in Africa. Their presence sometimes creates resentment among local residents of African communities where Chinese immigrants have created their own communities, at times leading to kidnappings and violence as has happened in Nigeria and Ethiopia. In Ghana, their presence has been peaceful, though resentment of their affluence in their largely managerial or entrepreneurial roles is beginning to be voiced. This project seeks to ethnographically document the presence of overseas Chinese in Tema and other metropolitan areas of Ghana. The goals of this project are to collect demographic information on the overseas Chinese communities in Ghana to determine: more precise numbers of the Chinese population in Ghana; if there are particular Chinese localities or other demographic characteristics that are providing the bulk of overseas Chinese in Ghana; and Chinese attitudes towards their Ghanaians (and, correspondingly, Ghanaian attitudes towards the Chinese). Based on contacts that I developed with Chinese entrepreneurs in Tema and Cape Coast in the summer of 2008, I will select more informants based on snowball-sampling to gain access to overseas Chinese communities, and informal interviews, household surveys (if relevant), and other anthropological fieldwork based methodologies will be used to collect ethnographic data.
Religion and Politics in China
This research started with my Ph.D. dissertation research. Based on extensive fieldwork in rural Guangdong and archival research, I examined how transnational processes shape social life in a local Hakka (a diaspora Chinese ethnic group) Catholic community. With the liberalization of the Chinese economy following the ascension of Deng Xiaoping to power in 1977, Chinese society has dramatically transformed nearly every aspect of everyday life. Many issues, such as the role of transnational religious organizations, continue to be contested both within China and between China and other nations as postsocialist structural adjustments mature. On one level, my research addressed the connection between a local, resurfaced Chinese Catholic Church to the global Church and how Catholicism is practiced under an avowedly atheistic political system that in the past (and to some extent today) has persecuted Catholics. On a more theoretical level, I explored what modernization and globalism mean to Hakka villagers in a remote area of southern China. A multiplicity of transnational processes – diasporic ethnicity, Catholicism, global capitalism, and popular media – converge in the social life of these villagers and are made local through a variety of social mechanisms that I explore throughout my dissertation. This ethnography was published by Stanford University Press in 2001.
Food, Popular Culture, and Globalization
Analysis of food and popular culture reveals much about the cultural ideologies central to very different societies throughout the world and the initimate dynamics of family life. All peoples participate in some fashion and to varying degrees in the production, distribution, and consumption of food. Food culture can also be seen as the most basic of cultural activities — in the transformation of nature (as raw food or natural products) to culture. The cultural variety of what and how people eat — including the religious, political, and economic constraints on food — provide an ideal lens to study other anthropological issues such as cultural concepts of health, beauty, and body image.
To examine the relationship between food and globalization, I did a study of a particular Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Beijing to examine how global capital provides a new medium for local contestations and self-definitions of Chinese childhood in postsocialist China. My focus on KFC’s relations with children in Beijing is mainly warranted by two considerations. First, fast food restaurants like KFC and McDonald’s have had particular success among children in large Chinese urban centers. Children are often the decision makers in determining whether or not an urban family will patronize a KFC restaurant. Moreover, what children eat is a fundamental part of their socialization, and changes in children’s dietary patterns are indicative of changes in their social environment. Second, children’s consumption of both material and cultural goods are becoming a domain of fierce contestation in many parts of the world and among different social groups seeking to implement their particular visions of the future by shaping childhood experiences. As an organizational actor, KFC is a part of the social life of Beijing children, and influences Chinese experiences of childhood through its becoming part of local Beijing life. Before the ethnographic context of KFC in Beijing is set up for analysis, a few remarks should be made on this essay’s theoretical framework.
Science, Religion, and Society
Analysis of the social impact of computer technology has a particular edge due to the impact of hegemony-reinforcing political discourses on China. Despite the monumental works of China scholars like Needham, the absence of science, like the absence of capitalism, has justified Orientalist actions and attitudes towards China. Both internal (as seen in Maoist rhetoric) and external analysts have argued that Chinese culture itself is inimical to the development of science. For example, Richard Baum writes: “the institutionalization of the ethos of modern scientific rationalism in China is significantly impeded by the contemporary persistence of a number of atavistic cultural traits that have survived the passing of China’s traditional Confucian order” (1982: 1167). Science and technology studies (STS), a discipline that critically examines the social and cultural aspects of science and technology, is uniquely positioned to evaluate such issues in an emerging, postsocialist Chinese modernity.
In the case of China, science and technology, in particular, have been dominant parts of political thought in the history of twentieth century China. As Western imperialists further challenged Chinese sovereignty on the littoral (the areas most affected by contact with foreign people, ideas, and technology), “Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy” became a rallying symbol for reformers and revolutionaries of the early 20th century. The development of Western scientific institutions reflected wider shifts in Chinese society towards a new regime that was ultimately characterized by “scientific socialism.” Science and technology, as a discursive system, is of course a “cultural invention, in the sense that it brings forth a world; it emerges out of particular cultural conditions and in turn helps to create new ones” (Escobar 1994: 211). It is, however, a particularly powerful cultural invention because science and technology naturalizes its epistemological origins. The laboratory (or by extension the factory, the market, and other territorial spaces where scientific and technological knowledge is produced) is portrayed as an “objective space.” These spaces artificially reconfigure natural objects by transforming or making partial versions (reducing), taking it out of context, and controlling the timing of particular occurrences. Knowledge thus produced through the social institutions of science and technology asserts a universalistic applicability that masks the particular cultural conditions of scientists and technologists. People involved with computers and other information technologies can draw upon a universalizing authority seemingly empty of social and cultural particularities. The social and cultural outcomes of the localization of computer technology – such as the increasing stratification of economic and educational opportunities – are then justified as a necessary aspect of modernity.
As a result, I have conducted fieldwork research on technology and popular culture. To study technology, I examined a Hakka cyberspace community, the Hakka Global Network (a listserv), and other Hakka Internet resources illustrated how Hakka all over the world use the internet to shape ideas of what it means to be Hakka in the 1990s. I have continued this line of research through an examination of the computer industry (The Legend Group, aka Lenovo) and “Chinese cyberspace” in Shanghai.
Sports and Civil Society
The comparative study of sports in China and the United States is uniquely positioned to shed light on the development and maintenance of civil society and the impact of globalization on local communities. In the case of China, using sports as a lens to see the emergence of civil society is especially timely and revealing. First, sports have become a major aspect of popular culture in postsocialist Chinese society beginning in the 1990s; sports-related industries, one of the fastest growing sectors of the rapidly growing Chinese economy, are projected for continued growth in light of the upcoming 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Second, sports comprise one area of popular culture where the state has allowed grass-roots organizations and media coverage to grow unimpeded; although the Chinese state has actively tried to censor politically-sensitive internet sites, sports-related communication has remained unconstrained, and both virtual and physical sports organizations have expanded. Third, despite its relatively liberal attitude towards sports, the Chinese state continues to be the primary organizer of sporting events and sports governing bodies, and sports continue to be closely linked to Chinese nationalism. As a result, sports organizations provide focused case studies for exploring the interpenetrated relationships between society and the postsocialist state, the growth of civic associations, and the development of a public sphere in China.
Sports in the United States are also especially relevant in exploring the health of American civil society. Robert Putnam cites the shift (where people are increasingly “bowling alone”) from participation to spectatorship in American sporting culture as weakening contemporary American civil society. In the early twentieth century, sports were considered by many American civic leaders to be a source of virtue, community-building, and a model citizenry; but at the dawn of the twenty-first century, with its bureaucratization and commodification, sports are increasingly considered a source of vice, materialism, and other social ills.
This research project seeks to determine the impact of sports and globalization on civil society by first mapping out the structural environment and cultural values of sports in Chinese and American local communities. Using social network analysis, the project will then compare Chinese and American ethnographic details to examine how sports differentially shape civil society in China and the United States. Contra Putnam, this project hypothesizes that the commodification, bureaucratization, and globalization of sports and popular culture do not atomize individuals in local communities, but rather through the transnational interconnectedness of sports organizations, these processes re-create deterritorialized interest-based communities that promote civic engagement in China and the United States.
Sports as popular culture shape the interactions between individuals and communities and between societies and nation-states through a particularly complex and layered set of processes, as will be detailed below in the theoretical discussion. Anthropological methodology that provides comparative, detailed, and empirically-based ethnographic accounts of the particularities of the social context and cultural practices are necessary for a deeper understanding of how sports shape contemporary social structure and local cultures.