Handbook on Class and Social Stratification in China
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Handbook on Class and Social Stratification in China

Edited by Yingjie Guo

This comprehensive, interdisciplinary Handbook illustrates the patterns of class transformation in China since 1949, situating them in their historical context. Presenting detailed case studies of social stratification and class formation in a wide range of settings, the expert contributors provide valuable insights into multiple aspects of China’s economy, polity and society. The Handbook on Class and Social Stratification in China explores largely neglected contemporary topics such as women’s social mobility in relation to marriage and the high school entrance exam as a class sorter, placing it at the forefront of progressive literature.
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Chapter 4: State power as a determinant of life chances

Yingjie Guo


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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