Shanghai View: The Soldier Sociologist

Posted: April 18, 2011 in Whose World Order?
Tags: , , ,

A short post for Whose World Order, based on an interesting encounter I had the other day. More substantial things on China en route.

Shanghai View: the Soldier Sociologist

Date: 18th April 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: ChinaDivorceSociology

I met a soldier today from the northern Shandong province, who had quit his 13-year army career to go and become a sociologist looking at divorce. He told me it was because the work in the army was hard and he had found it boring and repetitive. When asked what he had done as a soldier, all he could muster was “exercises.” He hadn’t had any opportunities to travel and had managed to rise a bit in the ranks, but not a huge amount – I couldn’t figure out the specifics of his rank, but he gave the impression of it being somewhat mid-range.

But what was fascinating was what he had decided to do instead. Having quit the army, he signed up to Renmin University (People’s University) in Beijing to do a PhD in sociology. His particular research was focused on divorces, and understanding how they work from the inside. His thesis project was focused on a particular couple who had divorced. He identified his subjects by hanging around a family court and watching a number of divorce proceedings. Having identified his ideal couple, he approached them separately. Of course, they initially refused to participate, but he treated them separately to dinner and was able to persuade them to become his subjects.

This was not entirely surprising as he was a charming chap, though I was impressed that he was able to persuade them to agree to undergo repeated interviews and then to also open up their network of family and friends to inquisition. From this, he was able to assemble the anatomy of their divorce and why it took place, and to learn some broader lessons about modern Chinese society. Unfortunately, he was not able to tell me much more about his findings than this, and when I pried he hemmed and hawed, leading me to suspect he had not quite finished.

Curious about divorce in China, I went online and discovered that in 2009 an official survey uncovered that one in five marriages in China ended in divorce. That figure is increasing, so research on the topic is clearly salient. There is ultimately nothing wrong with a former soldier deciding to do that research, even if it seems to be a somewhat dramatic life change. What the vignette captured, however, was how increasingly western China is becoming in many ways – different life options are still open to people at relatively advanced stages in their careers. Rather than a planned economy where everyone does the same, centrally-determined thing for life, there is now fluidity within the system. As their divorce rate catches up with the west, other features of society are also emulating western tendencies. The bigger question that remains unanswered, however, is whether this convergence is also taking place within the domestic and personal spheres.

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