Accepted Paper:

'Familiar strangers': rethinking kinship through Chinese social media  


Tom McDonald (The University of Hong Kong)

Paper Short Abstract:

This paper examines why rural Chinese social media users want to connect with and talk to strangers online. Their behaviour poses an important challenge for traditional scholarly accounts of Chinese kinship that place strangers as the complete antithesis of kinship and familiarity based relations.

Paper long abstract:

This paper describes the popular practice amongst rural Chinese social media users of using social media platforms to connect with and talk to strangers, and the implications of this for our understanding of Chinese kinship.

Numerous anthropological accounts have stressed the importance of familiarity and kinship as the basis of social relations in China, effectively placing strangers completely outside the realm of prescribed social relations. For example, China's foundational anthropologist Fei Xiaotong asserted that "the basic methods of human interaction in rural society rest on familiarity … these methods cannot be used with a stranger".

This emphasis on kinship and familiarity as the basis of social relations become problematic when applied to data from a 15-month ethnography of social media use in a rural Chinese town, which showed participants did not always place strangers that they meet on social media outside of their network of social relations. Instead, they often treat social media as a ready source of potential friends with whom they are eager and willing to interact. Sometimes it is these strangers who individuals in fact feel they can confide the most in, and be able to share the most intimate feelings - or experiences - with.

As such, the evidence presented in this paper poses a fundamental challenge to the foundational principles of Chinese kinship, in addition to pointing towards the need for a broader understanding of kinship that incorporates the possibilities of play and experimentation.

Panel P059
Kinship: taking stock in the light of social media