Meaning, Order, and the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake

Hsu, Da-Wei, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Olick, Jeffrey, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia

My dissertation studies the cultural responses of Chinese society to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Based on Geertz’s idea of “webs of significance” and Giddens’ idea of “ontological security,” I construe “culture” as a system of meaning and order by which the individual and society could maintain sense of security, control, and continuity. A catastrophic event might challenge or threaten this system, and create an “unsettled time” (Swidler) that poses problems to solve, difficulties to confront, as well as opportunities of reshaping moral order and power relation. My is to uncover the variation of meaning-making among different social agents; as well as the relationship between meaning-making on the one hand, and social action, agency, and practice on the other hand.
The data gathered from multiple sources suggests that the Chinese society responded to the earthquake by mobilizing huge institutional, cultural, and material resources, which altogether created a “culture boom.” I focus on the existential issues triggered by the disaster, including decisions about life and death, the meaning-making about the disaster, and the meaning-making about life and death. On these topics, I dialogue with literature of culture and action, literature of suffering and theodicy, and the sociology of death. I provide a systematic picture about the diverse responses of Chinese society to those issues. I also look at the linkage between existential issues and social actions in daily life. Several structural, institutional factors and cultural resources are found involved in these topics. However, there is also a huge room of ambivalence and uncertainty.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
disaster, suffering, meaning-making, theodicy, Sichuan earthquake
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