"We've Always Worked": Professionalizing Life among White-Collar Women in Contemporary Urban China

Peng, Xinyan, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Handler, Richard, AS-Anthropology, University of Virginia
Shepherd, John, AS-Anthropology, University of Virginia
Scherz, China, AS-Anthropology, University of Virginia
Dobrin, Lise, AS-Anthropology, University of Virginia
Pugh, Allison, AS-Sociology, University of Virginia

Based on 12 months of ethnographic research in Shanghai, “We’ve Always Worked” focuses on the culture of work in today’s urban China, and how it has permeated life beyond the workplace to shape bodily training, family, kinship and social relationships among young white-collar women in their twenties and thirties. It integrates studies of work, body, gender, and kinship, investigating how ideas and practices of work reconstitute women’s subjectivities, families, and social lives. “We’ve Always Worked” takes its readers on a journey through three spatial locations of urban Chinese white-collar
women’s lives as observed by the ethnographer in Shanghai—cubicles, spaces of physical training, and homes—without presupposing dichotomies such as the public/private and production/reproduction. In an age of stagnant economic growth and declining fertility, the state and society have put pressure on young women to increase both their productivity and reproductivity. This ethnography examines how white-collar women respond to these pressures and protect their right to work by working hard in and professionalizing almost all domains of their lives. In other words, the statement “We’ve always worked” not only alludes to the history of Chinese women’s participation in the labor force, but also captures how a culture of work has permeated various aspects of their lives in contemporary urban China.
“We’ve Always Worked” contributes to understanding how the embodiment and extension of a hard-work ethic perpetuates the hegemony of the work culture, and has profound impacts on women’s bodies and families. Thus, a key aim and contribution of “We’ve Always Worked” is integrating studies of labor with those of gender and family, to explore how work permeates and shapes other aspects of life. “We’ve Always Worked” not only draws from materials gathered during my year-long ethnographic fieldwork, but also engages historically grounded studies of body, gender, work, and kinship to compare the past and present. As the state and society exert new pressures on young women’s productive and reproductive lives, in an era of declining fertility, stagnant economic growth, and changing configurations of work and family, “We’ve Always Worked” examines their responses to neoliberal forms of corporate governmentality and values highlighting self-disciplining, self-responsible, and self-enterprising individuals. Building on relevant existing social-scientific literature on East Asia, East Central Europe, Russia, North America, and beyond, “We’ve Always Worked” contributes to understanding how women adapt to changing urban political economy.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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