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Sociology and the sociology of work in China: a brief illustration

Laurence Roulleau-Berger
Traduction(s) :
La sociologie et la sociologie du travail en Chine : un bref éclairage [fr]

Texte intégral

1Chinese sociology developed widely before 1949 but was then banned for ca. 30 years before ultimately renewing its rapid development trajectory. This blank page of history has led to knowledge becoming invisible at two different points in time: during this recent period; but also before 1949. In 1979, when sociologists started to resuscitate the discipline, they moved quickly to familiarise themselves with the sociologies of Western Europe, Central and Eastern Europe, India and North America. This sparked kind of epistemological unpredictability that would lead initially to a modicum of scientific pluralism (Li Peilin, 2008).

2During the 1980s, sociology became China’s flagship social science and intellectual discipline. The wealth of scientific output at the time attests to a strong intellectual dynamic that would generate true originality and a real specificity, embodied in a focus on the history of Chinese thought and the complexity of societal context (Roulleau-Berger, Guo Yuhua, Li Peilin, Liu Shiding, 2008). Although Western sociologies first played an important role influencing the reinvention of Chinese sociology, the main catalyst was work done by Chinese and international intellectuals developing theories, positions and methods that were simultaneously adjacent, coincidental and opposed to Western thought (Roulleau-Berger, 2008).

3The economic reforms adopted at the time were followed by radical changes in the structure of Chinese society, characterised henceforth by increasingly tangible social stratification hence a new level of social inequality, particularly the country’s major cities. Two joint and contradictory phenomena would unfold: social polarisation; and upward mobility, at least for a few years. Sociological surveys were then organised around varying views of social class transformation. A real sociological debate took place pitting theorists focused on social reproduction processes within a transition context against others working on the different forms of social mobility apt to spark multiple inequalities between social groups (and therefore reflecting social classes’ widening income inequality). As the middle class began to stratify and a new economic elite emerged, the peasant and working class condition would weaken – to the extent that sociologists would gradually move towards the definition of a new underclass mainly comprised of low-skilled migrants, the unemployed and young people suffering from situational precarity.

4Since the year 2000 (and in a context of economic uncertainty and rising intra and intergenerational social inequality), the sociology of work has experienced considerable development involving major social transition-related transformations. Early studies during this period have focused on the danwei (a work unit within a state-owned enterprise or collective enterprise); the dismantling thereof; reductions in the size of state-owned enterprises; the growing weight of the private sector; the slowdown in rural labour markets; and rising internal migration. Labour markets would be increasingly conceptualised in pluralisation and reconfigurations terms, rooted in the call for greater productivity within a new framework defined by state capitalism (Bergère, 2013), by the norms associated with excess global competition and by the legacy of a planned economy system. Numerous surveys would also be conducted relating to changes in property regime;, migrants’ access to labour markets; inequalities in the labour market; worker rights protections, unemployment; and social movements (Roulleau-Berger, Liu Shiding, 2014). Studies of the relationship between the state, the market and society would also become central to Chinese sociology at that time. Subsequent economic insecurity then created a context in which new questions were asked about unemployment, poverty and social well-being, encapsulated in studies revolving around questions such as governance, the redefinition of public space and citizenship and the determination of boundaries circumscribing a sociology of public action.

5Over time, Chinese sociology would mutate into a mosaic that was situated and structured around a diversity of contextualised and revised constructivisms representing China’s many different historical and civilisational contexts. Sociologists began to agree on a variety of points:

6- the need to create paradigms free from any form of scientific hegemony or from the domination of some overarching Western perspective;
- recognition of the uniqueness of the Chinese experience over the past 40 years;
- the influence of past and present Chinese civilisations;
- a growing recognition of “societal production”;
- the construction of individuals with their subjectivities and emotions;
- the diverse nature of globalisation processes.

7For the past fifteen years, Chinese sociologists have tended to assert their own approaches, stances and reasoning, leading to the resurgence of questions pertaining to the indigenisation of sociological knowledge - an epistemic autonomy from Western sociology that had first been evoked in the 1930s by Sun Benwen before being taken up again in 1979. The publication of two articles written by Xie Yu (2018) and Zhou Xiaohong (2020) would spark controversy over this indigenisation of knowledge and provoke passionate debate in Chinese sociology, one that would mobilise so-called post-Western sociology (Roulleau-Berger, 2016; Xie Lizhong, Roulleau-Berger, 2017; Li Peilin, Roulleau-Berger, 2018). Xie Yu, for instance, would consider the indigenisation of sociology to be a false problem. Zhou Xiaohong (2020) defined the indigenisation of sociology as an important factor in the production of non-hegemonic social sciences, advocating universal universalism a la Immanuel Wallerstein (2006). Most scholars today agree with the idea that Western sociologies should not be viewed as they were at odds with Chinese sociology. Liu Neng and Wu Su (2019) have argued, for instance, that social and cultural practices in China are to a certain extent universal, rejecting any tendency towards the exaggeration of Chinese exceptionalism.

8Xie Lizhong (2020) has developed a theory of discursive pluralism that is distinct from geographical pluralism. While the latter construct promotes the indigenisation of sociological thought by producing discourse in a specific time and space, discursive pluralism seems linked to a form of universalism containing a wide range of discourses that can be applied to any one time and/or space. Xie Lizhong (2021) would subsequently define graduated forms of knowledge indiginetisation in Chinese sociology. Roulleau-Berger (2021a) then introduced the question of plural epistemic autonomy into the construction of post-Western sociology.

9It is in this intellectual context that the boundaries of the sociology of work have been defined and redefined. As early as the 1990s, Shen Yuan (2013) and researchers from Beijing’s Tsinghua University spearheaded a current that would attribute dominant status to the sociology of work. Shen Yuan produced the concept of a migrant labour-based production regime, one of the most important constructs found in the sociology of Chinese labour given the way the country turned into a “museum of industrial regimes” following its era of “reform and opening-up”. The idea here was to understand society through a factory prism and apprehend both the destiny of the working class during a period of economic transition plus its ability to bring about historical transformation. The end result is that until the early 2000s, factory work, the formation of a new Chinese working class and migrant workers’ labour market mobility would become the focal point in many publications.

10Shen Yuan (2014) demonstrated the advent of a new period of rights, one where Chinese citizens define their relationship with the state and the market by developing an ability to act and mobilise within the public space. Like Michael Burawoy, Shen Yuan advanced concepts like the active society and the civil society to analyse the production of Chinese society. Inspired by Antonio Gramsci, his assertion was that different associative forms, movements and mass organisations emerge in the space between the state and the market, with individuals’ reflexive capacity being engaged in situations of interaction and in everyday forms of resistance (Shi Yunqing, 2015).

11Since the early 2000s, qualified young people have internalised the idea of becoming “heroes” of Chinese society. This involves being forced into a cult of excellence; and into claiming moral autonomy and social creativity (Roulleau-Berger, Yan Jun, 2017; Roulleau-Berger 2021b). Regularly encountering situations that involve de-qualification, young people feel that they receive little consideration or recognition, sensing that they are increasingly being forced to accept precarious work. Relegated to a subaltern status, the least qualified young Chinese - especially young migrant workers – have started mobilising, formulating collective action sparking a demand for decent working conditions. Workplace conflicts have proliferated in China in a context characterised by structural de-qualification. More and more protests are being organised by young migrant workers; and new social movements have been launched. Pun Ngai (2016) has noted that migrants’ collective actions are undergoing a radicalisation process culminating in strikes, street action and demonstrations. Young migrant workers are caught in a double bind between collective affiliation and a desire to access self-government.

12For the past decade or so, studies of various professional groups have played a central role in building the sociology of Chinese work. These includes studies of the working conditions affecting all the truck drivers, home deliverers and couriers, etc. whose numbers have risen in line with the rise of a platform economy (Zheng Guanghuai et al, 2020). Young researchers like Chen Long (2021) have shown how young people in the distribution, takeaway, home delivery and taxi sectors are operating under a regime characterised by a false sense that they are autonomous, living free and acting independently even as they find themselves “under digital control” in a labour regime that not only ranges from the authoritarian to the hegemonic but also from the physical to the virtual (Wu Qingjun, 2018). The emotional labour theory developed by Arlie Hochschild (1983) has been widely mobilised in various studies over the past decade. A number of researchers (Li Xiaofen et al, 2021) would also become interested in the psychological health of young workers suffering great pressure at work and who therefore find themselves forced to develop stress adaptation strategies, often culminating in situations where they can no longer govern their own lives.

13Some research objects are described as being more sensitive than others. In China, it is relatively easy to associate certain topics - such as the violence that migrant workers suffer in labour markets, ecological and health risks, property rights and social movements – with what might be termed a “mined” terrain. Field investigations relating to research programmes of this kind tend to be highly controlled and monitored, even proscribed on occasion.

14Chinese sociology has become largely internationalised as part of the move towards a post-Western production of sociology. The end result is that epistemological and methodological theoretical spaces have been created connecting Chinese and European sociologies based on the identification of inherited, shared concepts rooted in different and contextualised scientific trajectories and traditions (2021a).

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Laurence Roulleau-Berger, « Sociology and the sociology of work in China: a brief illustration »La nouvelle revue du travail [En ligne], 19 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2021, consulté le 30 novembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Laurence Roulleau-Berger

CNRS, Triangle, ENS Lyon

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