Li Youmei: The Growth and Development of Chinese Sociology in Four Decades
Created On : 2018-07-10    Views : 79

Contemporary Chinese sociology is the product of the times of reform and opening up. After 40 years of construction and development, Chinese sociology has made great progress in the aspects of talent training, discipline construction and academic reflection, but its task in constructing the discipline system, academic system, and discourse system is still very arduous. In his important “May 17th” speech, General Secretary Xi Jinping put forward the expectation and requirement that “Chinese philosophy and social sciences should lead the tide of the times, understand the changes of the past and the present, and become thought leaders”, which inspires Chinese sociologists to keep pace with the times, have lofty aspirations, and take on new historical missions bravely.

Reconstruction of Sociology and its contemporary mission

The market transformation brought about by the reform and opening up has brought an important opportunity for the change of social life in China, and the consequent structural changes of Chinese society and the unique relationship thus formed among economy, politics, and society in China have long been the focus of attention of Chinese sociologists. The reconstruction of Chinese sociology began in the early 1980s, since then, important research findings have been published, one after another. For example, Fei Xiaotong's research report and conclusion on “small towns, big problems" and "small commodities, big markets” and Lu Xueyi's Research Report on Social Classes in Contemporary China and Zheng Hangsheng’s Social Operation Theory and Its Manifestations in China, among others. The common characteristics of these research results are the linking of theory with practice, paying attention to humanistic care while helping to govern the country, and enlightening the people. All of which reflect the distinct value of contemporary Chinese sociology, the responsibility of Chinese sociologists in the contemporary era, and their “subject character”.

The study on the transformation of social structure is one of the most fruitful fields in Chinese sociology over the past 40 years. Its discussion covers the main categories of traditional sociology of development and modernization theory, and is full of exchange and dialogue. For example, through a comparative analysis of the transition process of such socialist countries as the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, some scholars suggested that the transformation of these countries has the content of modernization, however, the transformation is not only about modernization, but also involves development in the process of transformation, yet not just development. The reason that the transformation process of transition countries can raise new issues for development is because these countries, in comparison with developed and developing countries in the West, have obvious uniqueness, whether at the starting point, or in the realistic structural constraints, and the resulting logic of development. Some scholars based on specific empirical study in China have put forward that social development is a directional social change, China's social development after the reform and opening up has been realized through the transformation of social structure and the transition of the economic system; the way of thinking, behavior and values of social change have strong features of oriental local culture; the social transformation of contemporary China is mainly the transformation of the market system, not social transformation in a complete sense; the main body of social transformation is social structure, which refers to the transition of an overall and comprehensive structural state, not just the realization of certain individual development indicators; under the background of globalization, the reform of China's economic system has gradually expanded to various fields of political and social life, and has gradually led to the change of the systematic characteristics of China's society. It can be seen from this that the Chinese sociologists not only have an international perspective, but also are not confined to the established theories and methods of the West; not only attach importance to the practical problems in China, but also insist on grasping the motive mechanism and basic logic of China's social transformation and social modernization in the international comparative analysis.

Chinese sociology in its 40 years of development has not only opened up many insightful research topics, but also expanded the open orientation of the development of local theory through academic dialogue between domestic and foreign counterparts; not only deepened its own insight and understanding of the complexity of China’s social transformation, but also promoted the learning realm of learning from each other through multi-specialty exchanges and cooperation; not only attached importance to seeking academic development from reflection and innovation, but also further understood the tradition and context of sociological theory through different ways of “making up lessons”, discovered the real problems from practical social life in China, put forward the new paradigm of "cultural consciousness" out of the in-depth analysis of “China in contact with the world”, and then continuously extended the "chain of explanation" of its own discourse.

Researchers' awareness of self-reflection is constantly increasing

The process of social transformation in China is neither a replica of Western modernization on the soil of Chinese society nor a complete negation and reversal of traditional Chinese society. There is no best social transformation model in the world, nor is there a ready-made social transformation template. From one side, Chinese society in reality coexists with the operation logic of traditional agricultural society, industrial society, and post-industrial society at the same time, and has the coexistence of space-time dislocation in different regions. Since the end of the 20th century, the mode of social organization, the mode of social division of labor, the mechanism of social operation and the system of social management have undergone important changes in China, but its open economy and continuous polity always coexist harmoniously. In the past 40 years, Chinese society has encountered similar problems faced by those developed countries in their hundreds of years of industrialization, but we have not had the hundreds of years to solve these problems as developed countries have had.

What kind of systematic changes have taken place in Chinese society? Researchers have responded positively from different dimensions: The basic characteristic of China’s social transformation is to establish and perfect the socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics, under the condition that the basic political system remains unchanged; the change of China's social structure is the “other invisible hand” affecting resource allocation and economic development, and potentially driving the transition of the old and new systems. From the characteristics of the unity of integrity and the long-term nature of social transformation, China's social transformation is a staged change process involving many fields, in which the relevant elements of social transformation are not synchronized but interrelated; The criterion to judge China’s social transformation must be that social life has changed qualitatively on the whole, and social transformation in China will eventually bring about the systematic change of the life world.

China's social transformation is showing a new feature of complex interlacing between stages, between domains and between cultures, and we tend to ignore the actual impact of this new feature in understanding the uniqueness of China’s social transformation. However, the future has come, human society will soon face the important challenges brought about by artificial intelligence, the combination of quantum computing and artificial intelligence may pose a more serious challenge to the logic of division of labor in human society, and our existing knowledge system has become difficult to cover the current world of life. Such trend of change is causing our imagination, sharpness, and insight to be confronted with a sense of embarrassment and powerlessness that we have never had before, that’s why our sense of self-reflection is stronger and more sincere than ever before, and that’s also why we begin to consciously reflect on whether we have a real understanding of the society in which we live.

The task of constructing Chinese academic discourse is still arduous

China's social transformation is an overall phenomenon. At the same time, it is closely related to the crisis of global modernity and the diversification of values. Such reality requires Chinese sociology to build a set of new knowledge systems capable of confronting the "changing contemporary" directly, and this work depends first of all on whether we can carry out a profound "cultural awareness" of today's China, whether we can jump out of the traditional thinking framework and methodology, and whether we can make an effective comprehensive judgment on the complexity of the governance of social transformation in China. In his important “May 17th” speech, General Secretary Xi Jinping profoundly pointed out: “only by taking the reality of our country as the starting point of study, putting forward theoretical viewpoints with subjectivity and originality and constructing a discipline system, academic system, and discourse system with their own characteristics, can our philosophy and social sciences form their own characteristics and advantages”; “to adhere to and develop socialism with Chinese characteristics, we need to make continuous exploration in practice and theory and use the developing theory to guide the developing practice”. As a result, we are increasingly aware of the urgency of the call of the times, and the imminent sense of urgency that time waits for no man. Here are three preliminary considerations for colleagues in the academic community to criticize and exchange in order to promote consensus.

First, Chinese sociology needs to form shared academic issues in order to give birth to original analytical theory. At present, when we try to deeply analyze and understand the practice of social transformation in China today, we can't help but feel that we lack a set of suitable and effective conceptual tools, because the framework of interpretation applied by many scholars is basically borrowed from the West, while the reasoning logic of the West, even in its native country, is today encountering the problem of questionable validity. Since the analytical framework derived from local practice has not yet been developed, it is still difficult for Chinese sociologists to give timely and effective responses to the prejudices or mistakes of Western scholars, which also affects the healthy development of sociology discipline in China. Therefore, we need to form and practice discourse ability to tell Chinese stories in Chinese logic that can be understood by the whole world.

Second, the discipline direction of Chinese sociology needs to be further improved in order to promote its overall academic ability. On the whole, the discipline design of Chinese sociology lacks relative independence, there is also a lack of solid correlation among different research orientations, and the phenomenon of isolation between academic problems is quite serious. The relative shortage of high quality academic resources and academic journals cannot support the academic focus and investment of young scholars, while the existing evaluation system of academic achievements is not enough to effectively promote scholars’ reflection on problems and precipitation of knowledge. Therefore, when sociological research responds to the needs of the times and analyzes practical problems, it is often difficult to form a holistic academic ability. The reform and innovation of systems and mechanisms are of great importance and urgency to the new development and new action of Chinese sociology both at the macro and micro levels.

Third, Chinese sociology needs to enhance the awareness of participating in multidisciplinary cooperation, so as to enhance the comprehensive ability to open up new fields. In the face of a complex and uncertain world, the first problem before us is how to open up social sciences so that they can respond adequately and appropriately to legitimate objections to their own intolerance. In the European and American countries after 1945, academic debates in the fields of both natural science and social science questioned the distinction between the "two cultures", natural science discovered uncertainty and irreversibility in unbalanced systems and recognized the limitations of Newtonian classical physics; “cultural studies” also fundamentally broke the organizational boundary between the two super fields of social science and humanities. Sociologists realize that the study of historical and economic issues and the application of sociological methods are not the patent or privilege of a subject, but a common obligation of all social scientists. In this light, the University of Humboldt in Germany set up historical anthropology, and the United States founded graduate schools and offered a system of interdisciplinary elective courses. Social science studies in the 19th century were mainly concentrated in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the United States, and most of the classics that we are still reading today were written in those countries at that time. We can draw inspiration from these academic innovation practices aimed at promoting multidisciplinary cooperation to promote the consideration of important issues in the development of Chinese sociology.


(The author Li Youmei is the First Vice President of Shanghai Academy and President of the Chinese Sociological Association)