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Communities of Complicity: everyday ethics in rural China

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Hans Steinmüller
Berghahn Books (February 2013)

Everyday life in contemporary rural China is characterized by an increased sense of moral challenge and uncertainty. Ordinary people often find themselves caught between the moral frameworks of capitalism, Maoism, and the Chinese tradition.

This ethnographic study of the village of Zhongba (in Hubei Province, central China) is an attempt to grasp the ethical reflexivity of everyday life in rural China. Drawing on descriptions of village life, interspersed with targeted theoretical analyses, the author examines how ordinary people construct their own senses of their lives and their futures in everyday activities: building houses, working, celebrating marriages and funerals, gambling, and dealing with local government.

The villagers confront moral uncertainty; they creatively harmonize public discourse and local practice; and sometimes they resolve incoherence and unease through the use of irony. In so doing, they perform everyday ethics and re-create transient moral communities at a time of massive social dislocation.

  • Dr Hans Steinmüller is lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and convenor of the MSc China in Comparative Perspective at LSE.

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'This book is both strong on ethnographic detail as well as theoretical ambition. Its unique contribution is to see the relationship between postsocialist state and rural communities, and therefore the development of everyday ethics in contemporary China, in a new light - namely through the lenses of irony and cultural intimacy.'
Susanne Brandtstädter, University of Oslo

'The author does an excellent job of providing a theoretical context or frame in which some material that might seem ‘mundane’ becomes seen as having very important stakes about the contested moralities of everyday life in contemporary China. The examination of the everyday ironies that people use in talking about social expectations is particularly exciting…He engages some very relevant arguments both within anthropology and beyond it in philosophy and literature.'
Alan Smart, University of Calgary


Communities of Complicity