Application of linguistic anthropology to study of new housing and residential spaces in China

A previous post highlights research by Luigi Tomba regrading new housing and residential spaces in China:

The Government Next Door: Neighborhood Politics in Urban China (2015)

A useful companion piece to Tomba’s study is a project, aimed at professionals in the United States, entitled Community Organizing: Theory and Practice (2015).

In the current post I wish to being attention to Luigi Tomba’s approach (p. 176) to sense-making as it relates to the topic at hand (I have broken the original text into shorter paragraphs for ease of online reading):

Luigi Tomba writes (p. 176; this is an excerpt from a longer paragraph):

“I see the symbiotic relationship between the state, its policies, and its discourses and the middle class as a dialectical process.

“In line with my understanding of consensus, homeowners’ sup­port for social stability does not prevent such groups from having agency in their social and political interactions. In fact, consensus implies that social and political change can happen without the disruption of the fundamental rules of engagement or in an environment that tolerates and at times even encourages limited conflicts.

“While I see the production of the middle class as the result of a political and economic project of social engineering spon­sored by the Chinese leadership, I do not necessarily see the resulting social formations as unequivocally supporting the Party’s monopoly of power or entirely coopted into its ranks.

“Their opinions about the need for stability seem to be more the result of long experience with the regime. As a result, anyone willing to pursue further the study of the role of the middle class in China’s political change might need to ask different questions, for example about the role set out for the wealthy and the educated in the program of social reform in China or about what directions such change might take and how the regime might be affected by the emergence of a social elite that has had a taste of contention and participation.

“In consideration of a dialectic, rather than an oppositional, relationship between the govern­ment and the middle class, these questions might be more productive than those focusing on the advancement or stalling of elsewhere-defined demo­cratic ideals among the Chinese middle class.”

[End of excerpt] 

Linguistic anthropology

The themes addressed in The Government Next Door (2015) appear amenable to analysis within the framework of linguistic anthropology. However, setting up such a form of research – using video-based analysis by way of example, of meetings and contestations – may not be feasible in China (I wouldn’t know). Absent of such an analysis, as part of a fieldwork project, a thought experiment is in order. A person can consider, in her or his mind, how such an analysis would work out with regard to scenarios described in the book. Such an exercise has heuristic value. Such is one of my future projects, if I get around to it: Picturing in my mind, from the perspective of linguistic anthropology, the scenarios that Tomba sketches in his book.

Tomba as reporter

Luigi Tomba as a researcher is doing work that brings to mind the best qualities of pre-digital era, high-end newspaper reporting as described by John Stackhouse in Mass Disruption : Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution (2015).


A text that reminds a reader, in a vivid way, of topics that are otherwise treated in a manner that is academic and abstract, is featured in a Jan. 22, 2015 Guardian article entitled: “I want you to understand the sense of fear that Chinese people feel every day.”

A Feb. 19, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: ” ‘The Most Wanted Man in China’ and ‘The Cowshed.’ ”

Also of interest: One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment (2016).

A Nov. 7, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Hong Kong pro-democracy politicians banned by China as crisis grows: Beijing makes landmark ruling on future of former British colony, barring two pro-democracy parliamentarians from office.”

Two studies that provide backstories related to the topics at hand include:

The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time2nd Beacon Paperback Ed. (2001; originally published 1944)

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (1999)


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