Past Event

Rethinking State and Society in China – Gordon White Lecture

18 April 2018 17:00–18:30

University of Sussex

Gordon White (IDS Research Fellow from 1977 to 1998) taught us that it is an essentially contested framework to examine social changes in terms of the relation between the state and the society as two separate entities, particularly in analysing China. 

A busy pedestrian mall in Nanjing, China.

On the one hand, the conceptual divide between state and society is based on a number of assumptions that can be empirically questionable, on the other hand, this framework is widely used by scholars and policy makers in China in understanding reality and seeking changes. Mismatches between analysis and reality are not necessarily mistakes, but may reflect deeper contradictions and practical dilemmas. Based on my ethnographic research on migration, this talk traces how the state-society relation in China has changed since the 1990s in unexpected ways.

Some developments that are commonly regarded as indispensable for the growth of civil society, such as the prevalence of the market, the law and proceduralism, have impeded social autonomy. Ordinary people see “society” as a disorganized and potentially unruly domain, and are increasingly eager to develop close relations with the state. These changes require scholars to reposition themselves both intellectually and politically. For this task Gordon’s legacy remains eminently pertinent.

Professor Biao Xiang will deliver this lecture in memory of Gordon White who was a Research Fellow at IDS from 1977 until his death on 1 April 1998, twenty years ago. 

About the speaker 

Biao Xiang is a Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Global “Body Shopping” (Princeton University Press, 2007; winner of 2008 Anthony Leeds Prize; in Chinese by Peking University Press 2012); Transcending Boundaries (in Chinese by Sanlian Press, 2000; in English by Brill Academic Publishers, 2005; and to be reprinted as a “Chinese Sociology Classics” by Sanlian in 2018); and numerous articles, including one with the award of the 2012 William L Holland Prize. He is also the lead editor of Return: Nationalizing Transnational Mobility in Asia (Duke University Press, 2013). Dr Xiang’s article on Hong Kong is the subject of a special issue of Taiwan-based Journal of Archaeology and Anthropology (2015, issue 83), and his 2015 essay on the “educated youth era” in Chinese social sciences also generated wide debates in China.

Read more about the life and legacy of Gordon White.


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