Common Concerns

Deeply uncertain futures, excessive competition, feelings of powerlessness despite material abundance, and increasing pressure in education, at work and in the formation of families – these are some of the concerns that people share across societies in the twenty-first century. As acutely experienced social problems, such common concerns bring defining contradictions to the surface. And as immediate, unarticulated perceptions, they demand new language and methods of analysis.


Theorising “suspension”

Suspension is the English translation of the Chinese word xuanfu, literally meaning “hanging in the air”. It is a feeling widely shared across China. Although the market has been expanding, economic opportunities are precarious and people – too occupied with earning money to pursue other aims in life, and constantly looking to move on to better opportunities rather than confronting problems in the here and now – feel “suspended”. Hyper-energetic in economic activities, individuals are socially and politically passive. They are hopeful for, and yet fearful of, the future.
Originally used by scholars in the 1990s as an etic term to describe a structural condition faced by rural-urban migrants, in the 2010s xuanfu became an emic term used in social media by a broader Chinese public to express their feelings. Building on earlier research on the theme, the current phase of the project aims to:
(1)    Examine the latest iteration of this phenomenon. Is suspension in China reaching an end, and if so, will this result in revolt, resignation, or something else?
(2)    Extend to cases beyond China. Do similar feelings exist in other places, albeit in different forms?
(3)    Reflect on the etic-emic trajectory of the concept. How did it make the leap from academia into society, and what can we learn from this in developing the common concerns approach?


Under Pressure

Amidst rampant inflation, stagnant wages, shattered middle-class expectations, and the inability of neo-liberal states to intervene, people’s experience of economic pressure manifests itself in multiple symptoms including physical and mental health problems, gender-based violence, and social mistrust. Pressure has become the linguistic and experiential reflection of socio-political constellations of depression, oppression, and suppression.
An affective state resulting from a perceived imbalance between economic demands and aspirations and the ability to fulfil them, pressure is experienced as a state of suspension between passivity and bursting. In contrast to being “stuck”, pressure simultaneously denotes stored energy that could explode and an inability to move because of the weight that pins one down. In contrast to poverty, pressure cuts across economic class lines. In contrast to marginalisation, it affects people who are perceived as having considerable control over their lives. Like “suspension”, pressure is an etic/emic concept that expresses the subjective experience of actors in their own terms and helps us to analyse the objective conditions that produce it.
While pressure could be used to study economic actors in diverse global locations, our focus will initially be on the African continent, building on the existing work of an interdisciplinary group (Mario Schmidt, Prince Guma, Wangui Kimari, Jörg Wiegratz, and Catherine Dolan).


Special Issue of Pacific Affairs, “Suspension: Complexed Developments and Hypermobility in and from China.” 2021, 94 (2), ed. Biao Xiang. The special issue includes:
•    Xiang, Biao. “Suspension: Seeking Agency for Change in the Hypermobile World.” >
•    Willy Sier. Keep on moving: Rural university graduates as sales workers in south and central China.
•    Tzu-Chi Ou. Spaces of Suspension: Construction, Demolition, and Extension in a Migrant Neighborhood in Beijing (shortlisted for the 20th William L. Holland Prize) >
•    Wei Yang. ‘Temporary Couples’ among Chinese Migrant Workers in Singapore.
•    Jiazhi Fengjiang. “To be a little more realistic”: Ethical labour of suspension among nightclub hostesses in southeast China (winner of the 20th William L. Holland Prize for the best article) >
•    Yang Zhan. Suspension 2.0: Segregated Development, Financial Speculation, and the Modality of Waiting among Resettled Peasants in Urban China (shortlisted for the 20th William L. Holland Prize) >
•    Sjoukje van der Meulen. Documenting China’s Garment Industry: Wang Bing’s Portrayal of Migrant Workers’ Suspended Lives inside the Contract Labor System.



Communicative Knowledge and Mobilisational Concepts: Taking “Suspension” as an Example

14-15 February 2022; online

Co-organised with China and Global Development Network, Department of Applied Social Sciences, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

The aim of this roundtable was to evoke a new theoretical, epistemological, and methodological stance in knowledge production through the case of “suspension”. Speakers not only discussed the empirical contours of “suspension” and how it sheds light on deep contradictions in present-day China, but also how it can transcend the Chinese context to acquire theoretical potential.

The roundtable encompassed four sessions:

•    “Suspension” and Agency: Reconceptualising Ambivalent Experiences in and beyond China
•    “Suspension,” Structural Stagnation and the Paradoxes of Mobility
•    The Conceptual Map of “Suspension”: Theories, Boundaries, and Themes within Academia
•    Public Engagements: “Suspension” as Communicative Knowledge

More than 120 participants attended the roundtable. The discussion centred on two main questions: 1) how to develop a new ecology of knowledge production and dissemination as an alternative to the hegemonic order in which common-sense knowledge from the Global South is arbitrarily interpreted by theoretical frameworks from the Global North; and 2) how scholars could turn to the general public as a source of inspiration and a primary audience instead of remaining within the ivory tower. (Summary by Zhan Yang; Hong Kong Polytechnic University)



The Dawn of Everything (2021) and David Graeber’s Anthropology
27 January 2022; MPI Halle

Over recent decades, few anthropologists have so conscientiously sought to articulate a voice as a public intellectual with global reach as David Graeber. Responding ––most proximately–– to the publication of Graeber’s final book (co-written with the archaeologist, David Wengrow), this roundtable explored the significance of Graeber’s last collaborative, interdisciplinary project in terms of his wider intellectual engagements over the last twenty-odd years. What lessons, positive, negative or otherwise, can be learned from Graeber’s inventions and experiments by anthropologists who seek to begin from common concerns of those they work with “in the field”.

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