Accepted Paper:

Strangers on sidewalks: infrastructure, agency, and the political economy of personhood in Jinan, China  


Brian Harmon (Shandong University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines segmented sociality in urban China's public spaces, particularly the 'popular' mode defined against the 'state' mode. Strangers in Jinan, China avoid explicit social recognition of others, as well as responsibility for ordering space.

Paper long abstract:

Drawing on ethnographic study of sidewalks, streets, and squares in the city of Jinan, my paper proposes that urban China's public sociality is radically segmented between state and popular modes. The latter is based on the household. Urban residents symbolically cede 'outside' space to the state, avoiding both social recognition of others' citizenship and moral responsibility over other's behavior. Paradoxically, having so ceded responsibility for spatial order to (usually absent) authorities, urban residents appropriate space with great flexibility. Only groups structured on household lines make forceful, clearly bounded spatial claims. For most ordinary residents, public infrastructure is a gift provisionally at their disposal but subject to the will of the giving state. With neither property in one's own body nor in the space one occupies, individuals in Jinan encounter one another with great evasiveness, even in dense physical-sensory overlap, which produces highly sensitive reactivity and cooperation that is nonetheless socially unmarked. With social and symbolic recognition reduced to a minimum, however, spatial uses defined only as self-interested leave few etiquette resources for the explicit negotiations required when friction occurs.

Panel P091
Knowledge revealed and concealed: anthropologies of things unseen by the illiberal state