Theses Doctoral

What are friends for?: The arts of making do and working out in Beijing, China

Zhang, Michelle

Through a second look at the now twenty-five-year-old literature on guanxi, a form of reciprocal relationship making and using in China, I examine how the kinds of opportunities and challenges possible for young people intersect with who they know and how this has changed (with its own set of reflections on and consequences for a still-rapidly changing China) since China’s rural to urban transition. My dissertation project examines how young people in contemporary urban China form and produce guanxi ties (resource-full relationships) through the theoretical lens of practice and possibility, inspired by de Certeau’s conceptualization of practice, productive consumption, and strategies versus tactics (1984). Drawing on qualitative data gathered through participant observation and unstructured interviews, I sought to both describe and analyze when, where, and how social networks became consequential. Central to my methodology is an emphasis on people and their practices rather than the common sense categories used to describe them. The people in my field research were predominantly aged 18-30 and came from a range of ethnic, professional, and education backgrounds. In so doing, I was able to examine the moments and contexts within which some people have opportunities and others do not, as well as when some are vulnerable while others are less so. I found that social networks can be formed in a variety of spaces, and sometimes most saliently in moments of serendipity. Chance encounters in spaces of play, without the artifice of traditional and structured gift-giving practices of building guanxi, provided people with opportunities and potential alternatives outside of more stringent work hierarchies. Ultimately, who people knew – their social networks – shaped the ways in which they experienced circumstances of precarity, instability, and possibility.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Applied Anthropology
Thesis Advisors
Varenne, Herve H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 28, 2020