Rural studies in China

I spent a rewarding afternoon at the Institute for Rural Studies at Central China Normal University in Wuhan this week (link). The Institute is the leading center for research on China’s rural population, and it has conducted research projects for decades on villages throughout China. It is an important resource for government officials as they design policies for rural transformation in China’s rapidly changing countryside. And it has the capacity to provide reasonably detailed answers to questions about how peasants are doing in the new China. (Here is a publication that provides a description of some of the functions of the Institute.)

From a human welfare point of view, the status of rural society represents the largest set of problems that China is facing today and for the coming several decades. China’s rural population is still vast, in spite of the rapid urbanization of the past two decades. As of 2011 just under half of China’s population lived in rural locations — over 650 million people (link).  And it is a population whose welfare has improved the least through China’s rapid economic growth since 1980.

What are the kinds of questions we would like to have answers to when it comes to a large rural population dispersed over a wide range of ecological settings?

Demography. We would like to have some fine-grained data about the demography and demographic behavior of peasants in various regions. What is the size of the rural population in Shaanxi? How many villages and towns are there? What are the fertility and morbidity statistics for this people? What are the patterns of emigration and return that are observed in these regions?

Welfare. We certainly want to know some basic things about the standard of living of various rural populations. What are the longevity statistics? What diseases are prevalent? How much access do families have to health clinics, doctors, and hospitals? What is the status of HIV in the population? What is the educational level of the child, youth, and adult populations? What is the literacy rate?

Gender. What are the characteristic of gender and family relations? Do girls attend school at the same rates and as long as boys? What role do women play in household decision-making? Are there differentials across gender in health outcomes? What is the situation of gay people in rural society?

Economy. How do peasants earn their incomes? What is the distribution of income in various rural regions? What is the average income of peasant households in various regions? How much inequality is there? How has income improved in the past two decades?

Infrastructure and environment. How well served is the rural population by roads, trains, electricity, and clean water and sanitation? What are the environmental threats that are found in rural society? How far do families need to travel for marketing?

Culture. What are the religious and cultural values of the rural people of the region? Are there significant ethnic minorities in the region? Are there enclaves of peasant groups who have different cultural attachments from the Han majority? Is Buddhism making a comeback among rural people? What about Maoism?

Politics. A constant theme in peasant studies in the past forty years has been the question of collective action and resistance. What kinds of protests are occurring in various rural areas? How widespread and effective are they? What are the chief causes for protest — rents, taxes, corruption, environmental problems, land seizures?

Governmental. How does the local population interact with the authorities — government officials, army, police? How frequent is police presence in the village? How are the relations between locals and government officials?

Change processes. What are the major sources of change at the village level? Are new property arrangements emerging that have effects on peasant wellbeing? Is emigration a major source of change? What about technological change — more mechanized tools, more chemical fertilizers and pesticides?How much influence does the availability of mass media make on the attitudes and behavior of rural people?

These are some important categories of questions we would like to answer. What methods of research might we want to employ to find some answers?

Certainly many of these questions require quantitative research. Surveys of public health, education, income, and opinions and values are all amenable to quantitative research designs. Opinion surveys need to be conducted; household surveys of consumption and income, health and literacy can be conducted. National surveys like the census and other government statistics can often be broken out by rural status and these findings need to be assimilated.

Other questions seem to be most amenable to the methods of qualitative research. Focus groups and interviews can shed light on attitudes and behavior. The qualitative researcher can get a picture of the mentality of the group and the variations that exist. Are youth increasingly disaffected in the countryside? Are villagers becoming disillusioned with the government? These questions can be investigated in several ways, but interviews and focus groups are an important avenue.

Then there is the problem of theory and conceptualization. How should we think about the processes of change we observe? What kinds of explanations seem plausible? For that matter, how should we think about the peasant him or herself?

There is also the question of comparison. How do the results found in China compare to the situation in India or Egypt? How do scholars of peasant societies and politics characterize their focus in other settings around the world? For example, agrarian studies in India seem to have a rather different focus (link).

Finally, what might some of the research products look like? How can we best convey the information we discover about the heterogeneous world of the peasant population?

Interactive statistical maps are one important tool. We can organize large data sets by seeing how they play out against geography. This means that data elements need to be geocoded so they can be aggregated and displayed spatially.

Extensive analytical reports summarizing and analyzing the findings on rural society are worthwhile, along the lines of the Human Development Report 2011: Sustainability and Equity: Towards a Better Future for All.

Narratives are an important way of telling the story of a large data set. The narrative of a region might introduce the main factors forcing change that were present in 1950 or 1980 and then draw out summaries of the impact these forces had.

Archives of interviews and other qualitative data are important to permit later researchers to gain some new insights into the concrete social processes that were observed through the extended research efforts of the field. Collections of databases summarizing past research projects — the raw data of prior research — are essential to provide reproducibility and research materials for other scholars (along the lines of the Institute of Politics at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research).

Collections of artifacts are also worthwhile, and it is significant that the Institute at Huazhong Normal University will soon be opening a museum of rural society in its building in Wuhan.

There is a point to this catalogue of questions and possible topics.  It suggests that it is very important to think carefully through the kinds of questions that need answering, as we undertake large research topics like the state of rural China.  The analytical thinking that goes into reports like the Human Development Report 2011: Sustainability and Equity: Towards a Better Future for AllWorld Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security, and Development or the annual UNEP 2011 Annual Report: 1972-2012, Serving People and the Planet is very important to the quality and usefulness of the results.


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