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Consumption and identity in the People's Republic of China

Griffiths, Michael Brian (2009) Consumption and identity in the People's Republic of China. PhD thesis, University of Leeds.

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Abstract

This research develops a grammar for understanding `consumption' as a metaphor for the agency by which `individuality' is structurated in the contemporary People's Republic of China. The chosen approach holds that: individuality is less a thing-initself than constantly asserted by recourse to social systems of signification, such as language, symbols, and the human relationships formed around these; and that acts of individuation are not only expressions of individual agency, but also immanent in each other as expressions of discourses of social distinction. Where individuation is seen as informed by ontologically prior structures legitimating local cultural practice, this research seeks to demonstrate the interaction of those rules in their articulation, proving the courage of its methodological convictions as a theory of how the social is brought into the political and the political into the social. This is highly topical, because large parts of the literature on China remain heavily inflected by essentialist approaches to culturalism that systematically deny Chinese individuals agency, and more critically-minded literatures have thus far `merely' documented how Chinese individuals struggle to individuate themselves against other agencies, neglecting to demonstrate how individual agency in contemporary China is itself structured. Data is gathered through ethnography and interviews in Anshan City, Liaoning Province, a burgeoning third-tier city, between 2005 and 2009. Empirical informants included: the rural migrant staff of an inner-city restaurant kitchen; the urban workforce of an industrial machine-repair workshop; white-collar private-sector professionals; stateowned-enterprise managers; private entrepreneurs; retired Communist Party cadres; young urban adults; and so on. The data is analyzed for the ways in which symbolic boundaries are drawn and managed through judgements of `taste', `purity', and `worthiness' most broadly conceptualized. This discourse is treated as a synchronic system and disaggregated into eight conceptually-rich categories, each of which is reconstructed in their `internal' and situationally-inflected logics. The research then pursues the `grammar' structuring how individuals make these categories their own - that is, consume them - by dynamically juxtaposing a range of social `fields' as examples of the infinitely various situations where consumption results in diverse but structurally unified outcomes. Thus, where the first analysis demonstrates how practices of individuation are structured, the second demonstrates how structure is individuated in practice. The results not only broach an entirely new way of thinking about the structuration of Chinese individuality and society, but also represent an especially useful conceptual `launch-pad' for engaging Chinese individuals in their consumption.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Academic Units: The University of Leeds > Leeds University Business School
Identification Number/EthosID: uk.bl.ethos.515340
Depositing User: Ethos Import
Date Deposited: 13 Jun 2014 09:48
Last Modified: 13 Jun 2014 09:48
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/5375

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