Power, Entitlement and Social Practice

By Fitzpatrick, Mari | The China Journal, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Power, Entitlement and Social Practice


Fitzpatrick, Mari, The China Journal


Power, Entitlement and Social Practice, by Xiyi Huang. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2007. xxviii + 276 pp. US$45.00 (hardcover).

The central theme of Huang's monograph, based on research conducted in North China in the late 90s, is the changing nature of resource distribution, allocation and reallocation enacted at the village level during the period of transition from a centrally planned to a market economy. Resources are the "income, opportunities and assets" (p. 1) that circulate in village society. The dynamic processes of informal micro-level resource movement and the impact of market transition on peasant behaviors and social relationships are areas of enquiry that are currently under-researched.

Two village sites in North China, Nanying and Shizhuang, were chosen for comparative effect, on the assumption that their different economic destinies would engender distinct social formations and practices. During the commune era, Nanying, located in a "model" county, was defined by agricultural production, a legacy that continues to shape the local economy. Local government in Shizhuang promoted non-agricultural production even during the commune era, favoring the development of rural industry and commodity production in the reform period. Shizhuang has subsequently become a successful cashmere-processing center, and thus a much wealthier village.

In the absence of a single analytical framework sufficient to represent her data, Huang proposes a combination of two theoretical approaches-Douglass North's New Institutional Theory, and Pierre Bourdieu's system ïé field and habitus-to analyze the interplay between structure and agency within this period of historical transformation in late 20th century China. North's work attempts to bring history and social context to neoclassic economic theory by emphasizing the mutually structuring effects of human interaction and institutions which manifest as either informal constraints (sanctions, taboos, customs, traditions and codes of conduct) characteristic of pre-modern economies or as formal rules (laws, constitutions and property rights) which feature in modern economies. Huang argues that China's transitional economy is "permeated with marketing elements and restored cultural traditions" (p. 20) which act as "cultural mediators" and provide continuity in the phase of rapid change. Bourdieu's notions of field and habitus provide a basis on which to theorize how social actors engage in "distributive practice" during transition to maintain and ensure continued access to resources.

To date, research on resource allocation in the post-collective period has largely focused on formal practices and institutions such as taxation and state extraction. However, Huang maintains that the market as a mode of formal practice has not yet been realized in the post-collective village, as informal nonmarket elements such as guanxi networks and strategic alliances provide hidden support and a risk minimization facility for local entrepreneurs. She argues that "resource distribution in the post-collective era has been effected through the interaction between market forces, state settings and cultural mediators" (p. 16). Leading on from this, the early chapters examine resource distribution, the differential impacts on social relationships and the stabilizing role of informal institutions. …

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