Anthropology Seminar | “Self-improvement” and bifurcated experiences of social change in contemporary urban China
This paper discusses the relationship between practices of self-improvement and social change in China, particularly how pedagogies of self-making configure and reproduce certain experiences of “modernity”. It draws on fieldwork in workshops that foster interpersonal “soft” skills, showing how self-improvement, on the one hand, reinforces demands for self-reliance and market productivity, and, one the other hand, extends among young adults a developmentalist ethos that aims to undo local norms of sociality. In practice, the incoherent applications of soft skills combined with practitioners’ impetus to overcome their quotidian realities bring about pedagogic technologies that accentuate the gap between spaces of self-improvement—interactive settings governed by so-called virtues of individual autonomy, sincerity and emotionality—and the seemingly cynical and self-inhibiting present-local world. The paper discusses this dialectic in relation to perceptions and theories of modernity in China and the Global South, while pondering upon the timely role of affect in this process.
About the Speaker
Gil Hizi has completed his PhD in Anthropology at the University of Sydney in 2018. He now holds a postdoctoral fellowship from the Australian Anthropological Society for developing his dissertation to a book publication while extending his stay at the Department of Anthropology in USYD. Gil’s work focuses on the expansion of person-centred pedagogies in urban China, mostly in regard to changing conceptions of personhood and the affective aspects of contemporary self-cultivation. He has published his research findings in Asian Studies Review, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, Asian Anthropology, Continuum and China: An International Journal.