Academic journal article The China Journal

Contemporary Chinese Politics: New Sources, Methods, and Field Strategies

Academic journal article The China Journal

Contemporary Chinese Politics: New Sources, Methods, and Field Strategies

Article excerpt

Contemporary Chinese Politics: New Sources, Methods, and Field Strategies, edited by Alan Carlson, Mary E. Gallagher, Kenneth Lieberthal and Melanie Manion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xii + 315 pp. £60.00/US$99.00 (hardcover), £19.99/US29.99 (paperback).

Research on contemporary Chinese politics has become easier and harder at the same time. It has become easier because of better access to an increasing variety of data, and because the technologies for analyzing such data have become more sophisticated. Thirty years ago, nobody would have dreamt of using satellite images to select field sites or of conducting a quantitative content analysis of thousands of newspaper articles. On the other hand, research has also become more difficult. The digital age has led to a deluge of information on China, while at the same time increased technological sophistication has enabled the Chinese government to steer more closely what kind of information should be available to whom. In some fields, finding useful information has become the search for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

This book edited by Alan Carlson, Mary E. Gallagher, Kenneth Lieberthal and Melanie Manion addresses the issue of how to do successful research under these radically changed circumstances, and it does so very well. The organizers and contributors of the book have struck gold, and the timing is nearly perfect. In political science (especially comparative politics), the heated methodological debates that have fundamentally raised the standards of the discipline in the last two decades are arguably winding down. In China Studies more generally, some very useful books have recently reflected on and set standards for data collection and, more specifically, fieldwork in China. The present work can, and does, profit from the ability to incorporate both discourses in its successful attempt to outline the methodological state of the art in the study of Chinese politics.

While arguably the value of methods does not depend on the contexts to which they are applied, the question of the suitability of certain methods to deal with the simultaneous over- and under-supply of information remains a fundamental issue for those who study Chinese politics today. The contributors to the book are all political scientists and recognized authorities in their various research areas. The result is a milestone in the methodology for studying contemporary Chinese politics that deserves to be emulated by those conducting research on other geographical and cultural areas.

The book is divided into three parts, which are headlined "sources", "qualitative methods" and "survey methods". In their chapters, nearly all contributing authors reflect on the political science methods useful for their research aims, use their own research to illustrate how they can be applied to the Chinese context, and weigh them against other methods.

Each of the chapters is of exceptional quality and highly readable. Summarizing the book, Allen Carlson, Maiy E. Gallagher and Melanie Manion illustrate that language skills and local knowledge are necessary, but no longer sufficient, for students of Chinese politics, as the mastery of different research skills has become equally important. This issue is taken up again by Kenneth Lieberthal in the concluding chapter, though from a different angle: he also urges scholars of Chinese politics to make better use of available methods, but at the same time cautions against letting the methods determine their research questions.

In the first section of the book ("sources"), Xi Chen sheds light on what kind of "state-generated" data can be found in which archives, how difficult these archives are to access, and how reliable different kinds of data are likely to be. Thereafter, Neil J. Diamant provides additional information on accessibility and contents of archives at different administrative levels and illustrates the usefulness of archival sources for re-evaluating our understanding of Chinese politics. …

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