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LI YOUMEI : Chinese sociology has made headways in the past 40 years

| 2018-07-12
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The transformation of the market brought about by the reform and opening up has also delivered important opportunities for social life in China, as well as caused structural changes in Chinese society and reorganized the relationships between the country’s economy, politics and society. These have all become focal points of Chinese sociology. Reestablished in the early 1980s, the discipline has seen continuous publication of important research results. For example, Chinese scholar Fei Xiaotong’s survey reports and his conclusions about “small towns, big problems” and “small commodities, big markets”, Lu Xueyi’s Research Report on Contemporary Chinese Social Stratum, and Zheng Hangsheng’s  Theory of Social Function and Its Manifestation in China.

Research on the transformation of social structure is one of Chinese sociology’s major branches. Having yielded plentiful research results over the past 40 years, discussions within this branch covered most of the traditional sociology of development and modernization theory.For example, through comparative analysis of the transformation process of the Soviet Union and other socialist countries of East Europe, some scholars concluded that modernization is part of the transformation of these countries, but transformation is not merely modernization; the process of transformation includes development, which, however, is not the whole of it. The transformations of these societies could reveal valuable lessons, especially when compared with either developed Western countries or other developing countries in the world, because these countries all bore their own obvious unique aspects in terms of both the starting point of development and reality of structural restriction.

Some scholars, based on the experience drawn from Chinese conditions, proposed that social development is a type of social transformation that takes place in a certain direction. Chinese social development since the reform and opening up has been realized through the transformation of social structure and the transition of the economic system. Ways of thinking, behavioral modes and values intrinsic to the country’s social transformation are characterized by a strong indigenous culture that is exclusive to the East. In addition, the contemporary Chinese social transformation is mainly the transformation of the market system, but not the social transformation in its complete sense. The main body of social transformation is social structure, which refers to an overall and comprehensive transition of structural state rather than the realization of a single development indicator.

Viewed from a certain dimension, the functioning logics of traditional agricultural society, industrial society and post-industrial society coexist in Chinese society. Since the end of the 20th century, China’s model of social organization, social division of labor, social function mechanism and social management system have undergone important changes. In the past four decades, Chinese society has encountered problems that developed nations once confronted in their process of industrialization which lasted for several hundred years. However, it does not have centuries to resolve these problems as developed nations did.

The future has already come. Human society will soon be faced with the important challenge of artificial intelligence. The combination of quantum computing and artificial intelligence may mean a more severe challenge to the human society’s division of labor. The result is that the imagination, acuity and perception of humanity have been embarrassedly overshadowed by such changes, and rendered impotent.

The social transformation of China is thus a phenomenon of generality, closely correlated with the global crisis of modernity and pluralistic values. The following three points of view are thus proposed only for discussion.

First, it is urgent that sharable academic issues should be put forward in Chinese sociology to stimulate more analysis theories that are original. Many scholars may feel that when trying to analyze and comprehend the practice of social transformation in today’s China, there is a lack of a set of conceptual tools that are suitable to and effective for the country’s reality, because the framework of interpretation that many of them have learnt is basically the Western one.

It is also necessary that the division of majors and specialties in the field of sociology should be further optimized. Generally speaking, different branches of the discipline are insufficiently correlated and the academic issues are detached from each other.

Last, Chinese sociology needs to strengthen multi-disciplinary cooperation. As the academic debates that appeared in the field of natural sciences and social sciences in post-1945 Europe and America questioned the validity of the division of the “Two Cultures,” cultural studies also fundamentally broke down the borders between social sciences and humanity, the two major spheres. Sociologists also realized that the study of history, economy, and the application of the method of sociology is not a patent or privilege of a particular discipline but the common obligations of all social scientists.


Li Youmei is the director of Chinese Sociological Association.

(edited by BAI LE)