Handbooks of Research on Contemporary China series
Edited by Yingjie Guo
Chapter 4: State power as a determinant of life chances
One of the most essential questions about social stratification and class formation in the PRC, as elsewhere, is whether inequalities and class are economic, political or cultural phenomena and how these phenomena come about. This is a conceptual and empirical question that concerns definitions and explanations. Conceptualization and explanation, as noted in the Introduction, are further compounded by the fact that inequality and class, like all social realities, can hardly be seen independently of the analysts’ volition and representation. Thus, their meaning is better understood in the context of historically specific chains of signification or discourses that confer meaning on the concepts. In the extant literature, while ideas of inequality are diverse, empirical research, especially in the PRC, tends to gravitate towards differences in economic capital, the distribution of social and economic resources, or living standards (Guo 2013). In contrast, traditional class theories invariably embrace the ‘proposition of economism’ (Pakulski and Waters 1996: 10), taking class to be an economic phenomenon, and conceive of class in terms of property ownership, market capacity or economic capital, which sorts individuals and social aggregates into class positions or determines their life chances. Another way of putting this is that traditional theorists see class situations and life chances as economically determined, as social stratification and class formation take place in the economic domain and various economic phenomena are the most fundamental structuring or organizing principles in the processes.
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