Accepted paper:

"I have nothing to do and I came here": an ethnography of inactivity in urban China


Lisa Richaud (Université Libre de Bruxelles)
Emmanuel Caron (EHESS (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales))

Paper short abstract:

Through an ethnography of “inactivity” in urban China, this paper advocates the study of “ordinary” situations in anthropological research. By tracing out social processes from the observation of such practices, it shows that the boundaries of the “eventful” and “uneventful” are not so clear-cut.

Paper long abstract:

The ethnographer of forms of daily life in Chinese urban outdoor spaces often witnesses situations of people sitting or standing, waiting during long moments, alone or in small groups, sometimes side by side but without talking to each other. The discourse on inactivity and idleness ("mei shi'r gan", literally "nothing to do") is recurrently used by the citizens involved in these situations to describe their everyday social experience. Based on ethnographic observation from such temporalities and spaces in central Beijng, this paper intends to show that apparently meaningless practices provide insightful material. First, a thorough description of arrivals and departures, interactions or co-presences is conducive to better understanding social organization and interaction orders in a changing urban context. I more particularly consider the "construction and deconstruction of anonimity" and facelessness relationships (Hertz, 2001) through micro-level observations. Second, ethnographies of these "ordinary" situations enable to inquire into the actors' discursive construction - through narratives and conversations - of their evolving environment. From a methodological aspect, I argue that such focus on so-called ordinary visible aspects of social experience is unvaluable for immersion and exploratory work needed in anthropological research. However, I also advocate the fruitfulness per se of the study of alledged inactivity, as it brings into question the delineation of the "uneventful" and "eventful".

panel W095
Waiting for Godot & Co: modes and moods of the uneventful