China Practicum – AsiaNetwork Freeman Student-Faculty Research Grant Dickinson College

The “Stay-Behinds”: Village Labor and Sustainability in the New Era of Migration in Rural China Dickinson College
Susan Rose, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology, Director Community Studies Center
Ann Maxwell Hill, Department of Anthropology
Alexander Bossakov, Class of 2020
Rachel Gross, Class of 2019
Muhajir Lesure, Class of 2020
Meaghan McBride, Class of 2019
Pema Tashi, Class of 2020
Jingwen Zhang, Class of 2020

Change in China’s urban areas is dramatic, as cityscapes emerge from suburban rice paddies.  But China’s rural areas, as well, reflect the impact of globalization, especially as villagers leave home for work in towns and cities.  Much of the research on rural China today focuses on these t-migrants, whose labor and remittances have injected cash into the rural economy, spurring the growth of new homes and new levels of consumerism in the countryside.  However, stay-behinds continue to work in village fields, go to village schools, and maintain the village’s numerous temples and ancestral tombs. It is seldom asked how their largely unpaid work matters in the headlong rush, under government direction, to wage work and urbanization.  We focus on two important dimensions of village work, agriculture and religion, as indices for gauging the extent to which China’s villages also have a role to play in China’s contemporary society and economy.

Current research on China’s rural villages usually asks what migrants have contributed economically to villages and sociocultural change in rural life.  We take a different tack: in the midst of changes to village economies and community life, especially since the beginning of migration out of the village in the early 1990s, we ask how the work of villagers who do not migrate – usually the elderly, mothers, and children – contributes to the sustainability of the local farming ecology and of village cultural traditions.  We expect that religious traditions, in particular, have been important sources of social cohesion and identity for all villagers, stay-behinds and migrants. By cultural sustainability, we mean that as culture changes, it continues to serve the needs of the community as a source of useful values, meanings and identity across generations (adapted from Daskon and Binns 2009).  A sustainable farm ecology is characterized as one that leaves sufficient local environmental resources for the support of the next generation (adapted from Kates et al 2005).

Our research will extend over three weeks in August 2018.  We will have the help of two Yunnan University professors, Donghong Li and Meili Yang, a PhD graduate student in anthropology and another university graduate from the Fegyu who is trilingual in Chinese, English and Bai languages. Fengyujie, our field site, is the home village of Professors Li and Yang.

Six Dickinson students bring to the project relevant coursework in food studies, the environment, China’s indigenous people, social justice, gender, and sociology and human subjects research.  Students will work in three overlapping teams focused on topics of cultural sustainability, agricultural work, and changing family and gender dynamics that help us understand culture and agriculture.  They will learn qualitative field methods, such as life history and thematically-focused interviews, and participant observation. Useful skills they will develop following the fieldwork include digital qualitative analysis, video production, and presentations.  Overall, we will give students useful experience in producing concise presentations in different media formed out of raw field notes, transcripts, photos, and video footage.

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