We recently reviewed the book Consumers and Individuals in China: Standing Out, Fitting In by Michael B Griffiths of Ogilvy & Mather. The author took some time from his day job as Director of Ethnography to talk to us in more detail about the book, Chinese consumers, self-determination and all that jazz.

Hi Michael, it’s a pleasure to speak with you.

Thanks. And thank you for reading the book!

My pleasure. How long were you in Anshan, and what were you doing there?

I first went there in 2005 and spent approximately half my time there every year till 2010 when I joined Ogilvy. I was doing field research as a PhD student. Anshan is my wife’s hometown, so I spent my time making connections, listening and observing like any good ethnographer.

What is involved in being director of ethnography with Ogilvy & Mather? What led you to that position?

Essentially my job is about providing consumer insights. I consult on brand strategies and positioning; deliver new business pitches to clients; design and supervise cultural analysis projects; manage clients, project teams and third-party vendors; analyze and interpret research data; identify insights and strategic recommendations; and deliver results to clients in the form of reports, workshops, presentations etc. I also publish on Chinese consumer trends, train junior staff on researching, and create knowledge transfer partnerships with universities and China experts around the world.

You open the book with an introduction examining the methodology of sociological books on China heretofore, and discussing your open approach. Can you explain briefly what you’ve felt lacking in sociological studies of China thus far, and what your contribution aims to be?

OK, this might be a bit long though! Commentators on China’s transition have tended to equate “modern” and “Western” with “individuality”, and “Chinese” with “backward” “non-individuality”. To the extent that it is recognized that China is not a static and amorphous “Confucian” culture, it is usually only allowed that China is modernizing towards an ever increasing similarity with the West. Consumer culture, in particular, is seen as the vehicle of this transformation: younger, wealthier and better educated Chinese supposedly enjoy conspicuous consumption, aspire to self-actualization, and worship Western lifestyles. But seen through this either-or logic, there seemed no methodological way for Chinese individuals to be all of these binary oppositions — individual/collective, modern/traditional — at the same time, albeit in ways considerably different to individuals from Western societies. Other parts of the literature over-emphasized either the individual’s capacity to act “freely”, or the domination or subjugation of individuals by corporations or governments.

My research in Anshan examined the problem of Chinese individuality head-on without privileging any of these perspectives. I borrowed from post-structuralism, where “individuality” is never seen as a thing in itself but rather constantly asserted by using languages, symbols, and the human relationships around these, and where self-assertion is seen as already informed by discourses of social standing and evaluation. So my research sought to demonstrate the interaction of those discourses by applying a critical discourse analysis to the ways people in Anshan drew and managed symbolic boundaries through judgments of of things like purity, taste and worthiness.

My approach is also distinct from sociological studies of individualization, which emphasizes the extent to which Chinese must deal with the increased risks and responsibilities they find in a less collectivist infrastructure. These basically just point out the new possibilities available for people, but doesn’t ultimately explain how or why beyond “because they can”. My approach also differs from cultural sociologies which examine  social distinction in ways similar to my research. I wanted to demonstrate how Chinese take up pervasive cultural norms and use them for personal ends. In this way, I could situate Chinese individualities within debates about the globalization of capital markets and cultures, and speculation about whether China will realize alternative (i.e. non-Western) forms of modernity.

You’re quite down on the hard left sociologists. Can you say a bit about why this is?

Well, it’s not just the hard left I disagree with, but let’s explain why. I find the hard left “critical” sociologists as condescending as I find hard right positivists brutish. In their quest to reveal unequal power relations in society, to demonstrate economic exploitation and so forth, hard left sociologists effectively deny individuals the right to take cultural norms and economic constraints and appropriate them in ways that are meaningful to themselves and others. Individual agency is removed, or at least under-emphasized. Whether ordinary people are “dominated” is not for well-schooled sociologists to decide. Arguments of this form are tautological: they start by assuming that domination must exist, then look to reveal its dynamics. They can summon compelling calls for justice, but from the start, they are biased, arrogant and self-righteous. They do not start out by trying to avoid this kind of bias, as my research does. The whole point is not to privilege either the individual’s capacity to act or the constraining influence of social structures.

You look at consumers and individuals in China. Can you explain the sociological significance of consumption, particularly in contrast to the Marxist emphasis on production as the determiner of class?

The sociological significance of consumption is that it makes culture as important an organizing factor as economic relations.

Marx’s emphasis was about how society is structured according to economic relations. People with money had a dominant position in society because they controlled the forces of production (the factories and shipyards etc) and because of the exchange value of their commodities on the market. People without much money only had the value of their labor. The exchange value of commodities robbed workers, as Marx saw it, of the value of their labor. They were exploited and alienated from the product they produced not only in terms of ownership and control but also in terms of meaningfulness and satisfaction.

Modern sociologists, on the other hand, emphasize that the structure of society is no longer primarily about asymmetric economic relations, as though we were back in the nineteenth century Europe that Marx wrote about. It is now also about how individuals use the full range of cultural products, consumer goods, brands, symbols, tastes and lifestyles available to them. From this perspective, consumers are seen as both subjects who act of largely unconscious forces shaped by the productive needs of capitalism and as actors consciously seeking to satisfy creative needs and desires in meaningful ways. Class is a much more diverse and fragmented notion than with Marx. Class in this sense is hard to define: it is both economic and cultural, shaped by “objective” facts about wealth, education, family background etc, and by consumer cultures and individual tastes.

Authenticity is a large theme of your book. Within a country known for shanzai products, and far from the “red authenticity” of the Cultural Revolution, what are some ways that authenticity is now signified?

Authenticity in China today is often signified in a quite clever, postmodern way, which brings into focus the fact that authenticity is only ever an ideal anyway. It really goes right to the heart of what it means to be an individual in society – it’s all about authorship, originality, trust and accountability. And it’s also about one’s fundamental relation to the social world and to others.

The idea of authenticity raises more questions than it answers. We may look for it but the harder we look the further away it can seem. The pursuit of it is signified everywhere in everyday social interaction – through being “sincere” (shizai), unaffected, down to earth, familiar, naive, innocent, trustworthy and so on. We project these kinds of values in the hope of finding these returned by others – it’s about friendship, simply put.

Socialization of this form is a major part of North-easterners’ social and regional identity, and I’ve written more on this in chapter 5 (“Sociability”). North-eastern Chinese see themselves as down-to-earth, honest, sincere and unaffected.

Kind of like how we see ourselves in Scotland, compared to England.

Exactly. Or indeed how the north of England, where I’m from, sees itself compared with the south. But if we combine all these elements, we should observe that Chinese people are aware that authenticity can be affected, i.e. put on for a social purpose. But in certain contexts this intentionality is mutually understood and reflected, as people demonstrate their affection for each other. It’s really just about making friends.

The really interesting question is why there is so little trust in Chinese society for people outside of your immediate social circle. The vast changes China has undergone in the last two decades and the stifling political status quo have resulted in a rootlessness contemporary Chinese society where it’s all up in the air – morals included. The perception of a singular, dominating order from which the majority of individuals feel excluded implicates so many Chinese into tactics of “legitimate inauthenticity”: this is why you get so much cheating, IP infringements and so on. Whether we’re talking about beggars who are famed for their ruses, or cunning entrepreneurs who are said to be “eight sides all wide and slippery”, many Chinese are positively tricky operators. Stealth, deception, and even outright cheating (pian) are recognized as entirely legitimate insofar as they are necessary parts of outwitting others. The airwaves are full of tales of Socialist moral heroism, but what really gets you credit is seizing the moment.

In the “Sociability” chapter, you make some pointed observations regarding the contrast between Chinese respect for individuality and the British fear of standing out. Can you explain the ways that Chinese society is more open to difference than might be expected?

This part you mention is really about the strength of social norms and rules in a culture like the UK compared to China, particularly regarding objective facts about individuals’ personality or character. In the UK, one of the biggest crises young people face is that they’ll be branded with a marker of abnormality. At school, it is utterly unacceptable to stand out as different. If you’re branded “freak”, “geek”, “nerd” or “pervert”, you do not say (for example) “I’m a nerd and proud of it”, but rather do everything you can to conform. Even in the best of schools, any marker of difference is subject to being highlighted, ridiculed and corrected as part of the imposition of a median or norm for identity. Even in adult life, markers of character extremes such as “introvert” or “extrovert” are implicitly seen as deviant. Eccentricity is labelled weird, and work environments disguise brutal character assassination as banter. There’s a sense in which very worst thing an individual can do is to try to opt out of this discourse, which would be understood as a weakness.

In China, on the other hand, there is a high level of tolerance towards those objective factors you can’t change. Young people are not pursued by this same kind of angst, nor are adults plagued by the same kind of insecurity. Though China’s official education system is widely accused of striving to annul individuality through rote learning, students generally feel it far less necessary to grind the individuality out of others, and differences in terms of innate character are far easier to negotiate. Social pressure certainly characterizes life in China, not just for school-children but for hard-driven and existentially insecure adults also, but these are insecurities of a quite different nature. If you’re short, fat, wear glasses, have a stutter, are somewhat introverted etc, there is far more acceptance. Social currency accrues not by conforming to norms regarding look, shape or personality, but by what you do to make the best of what you have. If you work hard at school, perform well at work, achieve success in business, or adapt fashion norms to what suits you, you will  be viewed positively.

Traditional Chinese Medicine provides an interesting perspective on this. Individuals are always more or less “sensitive to” (pa) hot (re) or cold (leng). Both principles are understood as legitimate directions rather than extremes. These ideas penetrate deeply into everyday life and proliferate in judgments about individuals’ physically embodied constitutions and “tempers” (piqi), such as whether your “stomach” (wei), “spleen” (pi), “kidney” (shen), or “lung” (fei) is suited (shihe) to particular tastes: “sour” (suan), “sweet” (tian), “bitter” (ku), “hot” (la) etc. Accordingly, it is perfectly legitimate to accept or decline colors, dress-styles, activities, environments, jobs and even relationships, just because these do or do not suit (shihe) your character.

Everyday discourse in Anshan, as I saw, finds almost no illegitimate extremes in terms of the particular mix of character attributes that makes individuals “them”. Where a wife identifies her husband as “introverted” (neixiang), “liberal” (kaifang), or “conservative” (baoshou), this is seen as an entirely good thing, not as deviance from a norm, but as a statement of difference taken precisely to as an indicator of the person’s normality. Similarly, children who might elsewhere be pilloried at school just for being “different” are recognized as uniquely valuable social contributors.

The section on public nudity (in the “Civility” chapter) would have most waiguoren chuckling. Can you explain how Chinese negotiate what to us are fraught moments without loss of face?

Face (and we’re talking about mianzi rather than lian here) is a layered notion. People put up these layers and bring them down as they go about social interaction. Face is a logic of social esteem which runs somewhat counter to the logic of intimacy that you share with your spouse or immediate family – it is about positioning a positive public-facing image of yourself to non-intimate others, or affording – i.e. “giving” — non-intimate others that sense of face. Being naked in public could potentially bring these tensions into focus. But the way Chinese negotiate this completely depends on the context.

Say for example you’re in the changing room of a higher-end health club in a lower-tier city. You’ll be surrounded by attendants from rural backgrounds, unaware that customers might prefer space to shower and towel away from their immediate gaze. They probably think they are giving you face by being there to wait on you, and particularly so since you are foreign. Indeed the attendants are usually briefed to treat customers in exactly this way by their bosses, and many local customers expect this kind of treatment in accordance with their own perceived status. On the other hand, the middle-aged wealthy male customers in the changing rooms will remain totally indifferent towards you, in accordance with their perception of the appropriate norms. They probably think their indifference is to give you face, and may even acknowledge that this is the case by commenting on the attendants’ treatment of you – “They just don’t know how to behave”, or some such – and thereby, as they see it, marking their belonging to a “modern” sphere.

So the ways that Chinese deal with this kind of situation completely depends on the context and who we’re talking about. It’s all about the interface of intimacy and social distance as appropriate in different contexts and situations. While Westerners and increasingly many Chinese now expect the intimate sphere to be closed and out of sight, for Chinese individuals who bath their bodies, breastfeed babies, and even sleep directly before the public eye, the sphere of intimacy remains distinctly within public space. Age, generation and gender are major factors in this divide, but it also has a lot to do with formal education, exposure to international norms, the difference between higher cities and semi-rural lower tier towns, and the experience of working in state-owned enterprises and agricultural communes.

The chapter on “Workers” is fascinating in illuminating the social strata of Anshan. How did you get people to really open up their feelings and opinions to you?

Thanks – it’s really nice to hear that. Well, I suppose this is about spending a lot of time in the field, returning to Anshan year after year and coming alongside these people, and earning their trust. It’s also about ethnographic skills – listening, observation etc.

Anshan is of course my wife’s hometown, which helped with initial introductions. I saw that the access to the field this personal affinity provided was an opportunity rather than a problem. Being the “marginal native” meant that I had a reason for being there that informants could understand, and that also made them feel it was worthwhile investing time in getting to know me. They were a little suspicious at first: it was only natural to be wary of confusing a relationship with a research project and vice versa. But as time went by, informants just accepted that I was going to be around, and as I expanded my research, they facilitated my reaching places where informants had nothing to lose.

Naturally, the language barrier was an issue, and I spent a lot of time cultivating my Chinese, especially in the first two years. But my identity as a foreigner was precisely what made informants willing to inform me. I was unavoidably “outside”, which meant that I was not at all a threat. Yet in another sense I was “inside” by virtue of my intimate relationship, which meant that I could be trusted with information. From many of my informants’ perspectives, I needed informed, and with time I was able to balance my real ignorance with an affected ignorance, and my intense interest with a cultivated disinterest, making my ambiguous position suit the demands of data collection quite well.

Away from my hosts, I found that being a young(ish), Western, white, relatively tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed and initially-unmarried male was a significant opener in its own right, and one which provoked a particular set of meanings and power relationships in the China context. For example, some young female migrant kitchen workers refused to be interviewed one-on-one, stating that “Chinese cultural tradition” prevented them from conversing alone with a man to whom they were not married. But challenges such as these were seen as an opportunities rather than hindrances, and reference points against which to evaluate all other contextual variables. In this particular case, young male migrants excused these women’s choices as a function of their “backward rural background”, thus trying to identify with the urban and the modern with me.

My role was simply to develop quality information by earning trust through dialogue; to listen and be informed, to react impartially but sensitively, taking every conversation as a valuable example of self-assertion.

In the conclusion, you say that “purity is an ideal to be exploited only in the act of its assertion”. Can you expand on that, particularly on the forms of purity which are exploited?

The point is that Chinese recognize that there is no form of purity. Despite circulating narratives about Socialist moral heroism (an echo of Mao’s time which still finds expression through tropes like ‘serving the nation’, etc), and highly politicized notions of racial, ethnic or national purity, there is a high awareness in everyday Chinese culture that assertions of purity are fundamentally flawed — that they have a particular social utility – and that the ideal of purity is always evoked with a certain socio-political ends in mind. Purity does not exist. Like authenticity, it is an ideal. And the extraordinary flux in Chinese society in the post reform era brings this in focus.

Many thanks for your time, Michael. It’s been a great pleasure talking with you.

No problem. Thanks for the chance.


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