Empowerment or Disintegration? Migration, Social Institutions, and Collective Action in Rural China

Lu, Yao

This paper integrates literature on social movements and migration to examine how migration shapes both the cognitive and social foundations of collective action in origin communities. Using longitudinal data and in-depth interviews from rural China, we find that outward migration spurs collective resistance in origin communities and shapes the form and scale of collective action. Migration fosters non-institutionalized rather than institutionalized collective action, because it induces relational diffusion that empowers peasants to mobilize and employ more effective resistance strategies. This holds more for small- and medium-size collective action than for large-scale mobilizations, mainly because out-migration can also trigger community disintegration that inhibits larger-scale action. Furthermore, local social institutions condition the role of migration: migration has a stronger positive impact in close-knit villages embedded in strong lineage networks than in less cohesive villages. We contextualize the findings against the distinct institutional arrangements in China, which were originally engineered to disenfranchise rural-origin people but which instead have inadvertently politicized migrants and peasants alike.

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American Journal of Sociology

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July 20, 2021