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Doing Intimacy: A Multi-sited Ethnography of Modern Chinese Family Life

Periodic Reporting for period 5 - Intimacy (Doing Intimacy: A Multi-sited Ethnography of Modern Chinese Family Life)

Okres sprawozdawczy: 2022-08-01 do 2023-06-30

Industrialisation, urbanisation, the influence of the West and political interventions carried out by the Communist Party since 1949, have all contributed to profound changes in the Chinese family over the last century. Existing scholarship has shown how the structure and function of Chinese families adapted to changing political and economic circumstances, but little is known about the changes in intimate spheres of Chinese families. This project approaches the subject of modern Chinese family life from an unconventional angle, analysing it as a process of practices and experiences.

By setting a new agenda that moves from structures of family relationships to the quality of relationships, and through examining family practices, this project takes a closer, fresher, critical look at the Chinese family dynamics as they are lived. Informed by the emerging literature on intimacy and modernity, it examines intergenerational relations as well as gender and sexual relations in the family.

Through a successive-generation design and a multi-sited ethnography, this study compares family practices across three generations of men and women in various sites and examines whether or how they are by-products of particular socio-cultural configurations.

The project concluded in June 2023 with two international conferences, one at SOAS University of London and the other at National Sat Yat-Sen’s University in Taiwan, bringing 25 high-profile international scholars together and discussing the theoretical and empirical implications of the project findings.
The project collected 560 in-depth life history interviews with three generations of men and women, in multiple sites and societies, producing a large repository of first hand narratives on family practices and intimacy. This data are extremely valuable given the shortage of studies of this kind.

By the end of the project, academic publications include: 5 peer-reviewed journal articles (published); 2-peer-reviewed book chapters (published), 3 further articles (under review) in peer-reviewed journals; and a monograph by the PI: Three Generations’ Portrait: Family Life and Social Change in China (under contract, Princeton University Press). The research publications have made major empirical and theoretical contributions, challenging existing assumptions underlying the Chinese family scholarship and significantly advancing the existing field of study. One of the published journal articles, ‘Childhood in Urban China: A Three-Generation Portrait’ won the 2022 Sage Best Paper Prize for its originality, innovation, significance and influence in the field.

The project findings have been disseminated among a global academic audience through presentations and talks at various institutions including the American Academy of Social Science, Shanghai Academy of Social Science, National University of Singapore, Beijing Normal University, Zhejiang University, Guizhou University, Syracuse University, Oxford University, University of Hong Kong, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The PI also organized two international conferences (one at SOAS University of London and one at National Sat Yat-Sen’s University in Taiwan), bringing over 25 high-profile international scholars together to discuss the theoretical and empirical implications of the project findings.

In addition, the research findings have been disseminated to a wider public audience including policy-makers, practitioners, media organizations and the general public through over 30 other dissemination activities including interviews, briefings and knowledge transfer writings.
One of the dominant discourses/frameworks in the field of study is the individualization of Chinese families, influenced by Beck and Beck-Gernsheim. Analysis of the data from this project reveals there is not a clear transition from familism to individualism, or vice versa, across generations and over time. Instead, the project reveals a paradoxical process of change and continuities in family practices from Mao to post-Mao eras, shaped by institutional configurations as well as intergenerational transmission. By examining the multiple processes (economics, demographics, values and welfare regime) at work and enabling an intersectional analysis (generation, urban-rural divide and gender) of the impact of modernity, this project opens up new pathways to broaden the subject away from Eurocentrism inherent in Western social theory and lead to new perspectives and stimulate new debate helping to construct a multi-centred global theory of family life and social change.

Empirically, the three-generational analysis and the multi-sited approach has produced a much more detailed and comprehensive picture of change, continuity and diversity in Chinese family life than previously existed. For example, in terms of childrearing practices, analysis revealed that the youngest generation of urban families (the only-child generation) experienced an increasing regimentalization of childhood, exercised by their parents and driven by both neoliberal market and post-socialist state forces, and this contrasted with the existing argument of an individualization of childhood in China. Conversely, in rural families, the childhood experiences of the youngest generation are shaped by distinctive parental migration trajectories whilst being subject to institutionalized urban-rural segregation and inequalities.

In terms of ageing and intergenerational relations, analysis revealed the intertwining of filial obligation, material interest and emotional intimacy in driving old-age support in family settings albeit with urban and rural families following divergent destinies. The commercialization of housing in urban China has resulted in a clear trajectory among urban families whereby parents’ property becomes an increasingly important bargaining chip in intergenerational negotiation over time. By contrast, many rural families have witnessed a reverse trend where the significance of parents’ property transmission is declining in intergenerational negotiations due to rural to urban migration and the low value of rural accommodation.

Comparative analysis in different regions revealed a diversity in family practices, for example, Hong Kong and Taiwan families reported subcontracting filial piety to foreign domestic workers while ageing in China still largely relies upon extended family members. Regardless of the form it takes, a theme of lifelong intergenerational reciprocity and interdependence ran through all three Chinese societies, reflecting Confucian tradition, a familialist state welfare framework, as well as everyday intergenerational transmissions of values.

As more output emerges from this research, we anticipate further broad (both academic and non-academic) interest in the findings.
Hong Kong. CC0 License.
Taiwan. CC0 License.
City in China. CC0 License.