Li Youmei: The Contemporary Construction of the Discourse System of Chinese Transitional Sociology
Created On : 2018-09-13    Views : 7


The sociology of transition is faced with important issues raised by social transformation. The appearance of social transformation means that social systematic characteristics have changed, such as important changes in the pattern of the social division of labor, the normative system of social values and the way of social organization. Early studies of Western social transformation, in summary, provide important results in three dimensions: first are the theories of classical sociologists such as Tonnies’ study of civilization transformation, Durkheim’s research on social division of labor and social solidarity, and Weber’s research on rational tendency; second is the emergence of some theories that emerged from the rapid transition of Western society from industrial society to post-industrial society, such as Bell’s theory of “post-industrial society”, Baker & Giddens’ theory of “reflexive modernization”, practices rooted in developing countries, the “dependency theory” originated from the development of Latin America and formed on the basis of criticizing Western theories of modernization, and the “developmental state theory” which derived from the study of social transformation in East Asia; third is the study on the transformation of communist civilization conducted by the Budapest School when faced with the practice of social transformation brought about by the transformation of the Soviet Union and socialist countries in Eastern Europe. At the same time, with the increasingly in-depth development of informatization and globalization, global transformation theories such as Wallerstein's “world system theory”, Held's theory of “global transformation” and Arrighi’s theory of the global capitalist system have been proposed successively. The core perspective of these three theories is mainly "the relationship between state and society", namely, the change of structural forces, social inequality and social structure transformation, as well as changes in the shape of social civilization in transition. In the last hundred years, these theories have influenced Western social science researchers' understanding of social transformation issues.


It can be said that Western theoretical discourse is the embodiment of Western local knowledge, and the formation of Western local knowledge also defines modernity and universality. In particular, the United States also has its own discourse with worldwide modernity and universality, and has produced important world influence. The connotation of the current social transformation in China has not only the processes such as rapid industrialization, marketization, and urbanization similar to that of the West, but also a unique modernity kernel formed on the basis of its own cultural tradition. It is worth reminding that, by reviewing relevant research in domestic academia, our discussion focusing on the transformation of China’s society has not yet formed a systematic accumulation of knowledge, and the academic context on the understanding of many core issues is not clearly visible. Some scholars use the structural analysis of "state-market-social relationship" put forward in the study of social transformation in the West to observe and decipher the characteristics of social transformation in China, thus triggering people to think about how to build the society. Although we have more or less seen that each country has its own local practical experience in social transformation, if we lack a comparative analysis on the different paths of academic knowledge accumulation and the foundation of its social and cultural soil, we may be less sensitive to the methodologies contained in these paths and the deep structures peculiar to these foundations when continuing the discussion of others. At the same time, what should we think about the modernization and modernity of Chinese society? There is a lot of controversy surrounding this issue, yet little consensus has been reached. How to identify the interaction between China's social transformation, the region and global society under the new conditions of increasingly complicated connectivity between the world and China? China is often “absent” in advancing higher levels of Chinese understanding and world understanding. When we discuss China’s unique process of modernization, first, we must establish a basic problem domain that can effectively advance the accumulation of academic knowledge, and a basic academic framework from experience to local understanding to the construction of a theoretical discourse system focusing on the basic problem domain. Second, we should think about the logical basis for judging the changes of China’s social structure and social operation and the cultural core on which it depends. Third, we should also consider what changes have taken place in the core of Chinese culture since its development to this day, and what comprehensiveness, hierarchy, uncertainty, and other new features that have not been experienced in the practice of existing social transformation are reflected in China’s social transformation due to the complex impact of global localization. In short, we urgently need to form an academic community with a lofty realm and centripetal force. The current task of this academic community is to build a career-oriented academic community with academic theoretical tools to appropriately reflect the practical mechanism of social transformation in contemporary China.

The social transformation that China is undergoing is unprecedented. It is a general phenomenon and is closely related to the global modernity crisis and value diversification. What we need is not only local knowledge that can reflect transformation of Chinese society, when many elements of China and the world are constantly involved in the process of mutual adaptation, mutual influence and mutual change, China’s transitional sociology urgently needs to build a new knowledge system that can face “the changing contemporary”. The timeliness of this work will depend first and foremost on whether our academic community can jump out of the existing traditional thinking frameworks and methodologies, has a systematic imagination for social transformation and can accelerate the enhancement of comprehensive ability for the production of new knowledge.


What the contemporary construction of the discourse system of China's sociology of transition faces is not a specific phenomenon in a certain field but a general phenomenon, which is different from the general society in the planned economy era. Instead, it is within the basic background framework of social transformation that China is undergoing. However, our understanding of such basic background framework and social transformation is not only lack of systemicity and integrity, but also a problem of “de-correlation”, lacking historical consciousness or times consciousness. When our thinking is difficult to return to the theoretical academic context of effective knowledge accumulation, it will easily lead to the defocus of research or the failure of thinking disconnected from society.

At present, the main contradictions in Chinese society have been transformed. The 19th CPC National Congress pointed out that this transformation is a historic transformation that has a bearing on the overall situation. This shows that social governance has more general significance, and more importantly, social governance has been written into the Constitution of the Party and has become an important work of the whole Party. This means that the Party should drive social governance and carry out overall and systematic innovation practice by guiding grass-roots party building, to promote the overall and systematic innovation practice of social governance system, and improve the social system reform and innovation, while improving the modernization of the social system. Both the social governance system and social system can provide a broad base of social support and consensus for resolving new major social contradictions.

The historic transformation of the main contradictions in Chinese society does not change the basic situation of our country, that is, it will be in the primary stage of socialism for a long time. Therefore, the relationship between “the resolution of major social contradictions in China in the new era” and “the primary stage of socialism” will become a major new topic in the study of transitional society.

The current problems facing China are “complex”. On the one hand, we should continue to solve the most basic and oldest problems in human society, such as poverty and employment; on the other hand, we should also solve the most "modern" propositions, such as quality of life, governance participation, sustainable development, and so on. China's social transformation and development have produced a series of new characteristics, and the direction of our social transformation is also facing more and more uncertainties. Facing these new trends and challenges, we urgently need a new set of knowledge, which is not only beyond the previous knowledge system dominated by disciplines, but also involves the profound question of how it should be constructed. To respond effectively to such rapid and dramatic changes in Chinese society, we should take times consciousness or historical consciousness contained in the historical context as an important starting point, to better position the new social and cultural phenomena in contemporary China. In the context of history and academics, we should find the problem domain of understanding the goals, horizons, methods, and ideas of our own social and cultural changes, as well as modern transformation.


The social transformation that China is undergoing is closely related to the global modernity crisis and value diversification, which poses an unprecedented important subject for the study of transitional sociology in contemporary China. Not only do we need to answer the question of how to reach social consensus enabling diverse members of society to live together in the same social system, to play their proper role, to complement each other and to achieve co-existence and common prosperity, it is also necessary for us to clearly identify the law of operation of this social system. We should also be able to explain to the world how the rationality of socialist modernization with Chinese characteristics persists and develops in the complex ties between China and the world. Therefore, creating our research theories and methods that reflect such complexity has become particularly important today. However, our previous judgments on the logic of change of China’s social structure and social operation have encountered important challenges to varying degrees. Our research and ideas on the kernel of our own civilization and the rules and mechanisms of social operation are often restricted by the concept of modernity under the existing Western capitalist civilization.

In the process of globalization of modernity, the issue of modernity is also discussed under the dual premise of “regionalization of knowledge” and “contextualization of specific history”. China's transitional sociology is seen as a field with relatively independent knowledge accumulation, and its realistic foundation is the course of building a modern socialist country in the context of its own civilization. At present, the logic of change in globalization is becoming more and more ambiguous, and human activities are more global than ever before. We are not only deeply embedded in the process of deep globalization, but also involved in the anxiety of global "thinking failures". In both international and domestic academic circles, most researchers are full of anxiety and uneasiness, because the efforts of the international community in recent decades have not made much more significant progress in understanding and responding to global issues. In this context, Chinese modernity is regarded as a kind of "alternative modernity", which has attracted the attention of the international academic circle. In fact, Chinese modernity has dispelled the myth of the so-called “single modernity” in the sense of Western centralism and become part of “multiple modernity” on a global scale. (Wang Ning, 2011)

As early as in the 1920s, Mr. Fei Xiaotong mentioned about his elder sister Fei Dasheng’s social experiment in Peasant Life in China, from which we have seen the “non-Westernized road of modernization” practiced by the Chinese. However, there is no ready-made model to choose from as for how Chinese modernity maintains its own cultural subjectivity without losing its cosmopolitanism. The road to change first of all cannot be separated from the deepest social and cultural soil of Chinese society. For a century, Chinese thinkers have never stopped resisting the modernity of Western centralism. This kind of resistance is embedded in the different and even opposite lines of modern Chinese thought, and constitutes one of the characteristics of Chinese modernity. (Wang Hui, 1997) A century has passed by. Now, when we stand on the historical starting point of the transformation and adaptation of China and global relations, to think about the experience summary of China's social transformation and its theoretical construction, how should we describe the course of modernity that China has experienced and judge its gains and losses? How to maintain the uniqueness of our own civilization in the crisis of modernity sweeping the whole world, while at the same time contributing to the Chinese wisdom on which the path of China relies for the development of modernity in today's world? This requires a clear understanding of the origin of our modernity and its historical development path. And what’s more urgent is to speed up the renewal of our way of thinking. We must also recognize that China’s rapid development poses a more fundamental challenge to the theoretical study of modernity. When we talk about social transformation and modernity of contemporary China, we should examine and understand it in what kind of "space and time"? Understanding this is a fundamental proposition that must be dissected.



When many elements of China and the world are constantly involved in the process of mutual adaptation, mutual influence and mutual change, China's transitional sociology urgently needs to build a new knowledge system that can face the “changing contemporary”. This new set of knowledge systems should not only enable the world to see what Chinese understanding is in “China in the world”, but also make an effective Chinese understanding of the integrity issue contained in the “changing contemporary". However, not only do we lack the overall consideration and profound insight into the transformation process of Chinese society, but we are often limited by existing concepts and understandings, or unconsciously or consciously fall into the trap of “alternative modernity”, thus hindering the innovation of thinking and the production of new knowledge in dealing effectively with the new subject of “changing contemporary”.

The so-called “alternative modernity”, as viewed from the initial meaning of the concept, "alternative" is just from the perspective of Western centralism, which is essentially a set of "classification" standards intended to emphasize the deviation from certain standardization. If we still stay on the existing understanding of the concept of modernity classification, we just can’t understand the universal global crossover phenomenon in the contemporary era. Since the late 1970s, the social problems and social governance crisis brought about by the global development of neo-liberalism, have become more and more serious. Global problems are not just the negative consequences of the globalization process, the prominence of global problems has shown us that globalization has already profoundly changed economies, societies, the natural environment and their relations with each other, and made the whole world more interconnected than ever before. However, the benefits of globalization have not reached every country, and this has had a major impact on the sustainable development of societies and communities around the world. At present, the characteristics of globalization include both the “re-globalization” of “reverse globalization”, and the globalization stepping out of the “traditional alliance” pattern with “all countries for themselves”. In such a context of globalization with the superposition and complex restructuring of old and new mechanisms, all regions and countries of the world are facing different challenges of social transformation to varying degrees, while the generation mechanism of these new challenges has some common causes and similar manifestations, just as globalization has never been confined to the economic sphere in terms of way of thinking, strategy, and tactics. Addressing these new challenges will not only require a deeper insight into the globalization trends that will shape the future, but also depend first and foremost on whether our academic community can jump out of the traditional thinking framework and methodology, and whether it can have a systematic vision of social transformation, and the ability to speed up the enhancement of the comprehensive ability for the production of new knowledge.

We are entering a new era of global affairs, where changes in production and labour markets, rapid technological advances, and further strengthening of trade, investment and global production networks will not just change and affect our future. If people cannot perceive and grasp their own contemporary opportunities and historical destinies, it will be difficult to avoid the profound crises hidden in modernity, globalization, global problems and their internal relations. We urgently need to construct the Chinese transitional sociology discourse system so that we can transcend the existing thinking inertia and the "dualistic" thinking logic of the West and the East. In the communication and dialogue with foreign cutting-edge scholars, we have realized that they are eager to see how China will interpret its new role to the world, and how China will explain to the world the overall outlook and world outlook it advocates; They very much hope that this interpretation will help people understand more clearly how China practices the balanced development of its "five-in-one" and how it establishes the connections with international, regional and world levels in this practice. In particular, on the value level of the concept of modernity, perhaps it is even more necessary for us, on the basis of the understanding of “pluralistic worldview”, to go beyond “all countries for themselves” and seek to share and build a community of human destiny together. This challenge requires Chinese social scientists to provide a Chinese understanding of “I am in the world” in response to the emerging world of “multi-center” and “multi-modernity” with more innovative imagination and comprehensive ability.

In our view, globalization, both in the past and today, is a process of mutual reinforcement, mutual influence and interdependence of social transformations that take place almost simultaneously. One of the most important tasks in the contemporary construction of the of China’s transitional sociological discourse system is to discover the interaction and dependence mechanism among various social transformations in this process. In reality, these mechanisms are often difficult to "sense", and we deeply feel that the construction of the discourse system of this discipline has a long way to go.

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