Call for Paper: Suspension: Mobilities, Aspirations, and Socio-Political Stagnation in China

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Call for Papers

17-18 September 2018
St Hugh’s College, Oxford

This conference aims to rethink the socio-political meaning of migration in, from, and to China through the idiom of suspension. Suspension firstly indicates a working life strategy. Migrants intentionally suspend, or put on hold, some aspects of their lives in order to maximise others. For instance, they may work long hours away from home, foregoing the joys and duties associated with being family members, friends, and neighbours. They may suspend needs related to social reproduction in order to speed up wealth accumulation.

Although such suspension can be self-inflicted, it is not entirely voluntary. Government regulations—be it the hukou policy, the management of foreign populations, or the overseas labor deployment system—often prevent settlement and exclude migrants from the local community. Even the everyday working experiences can sustain these arrangements: migrants are debarred from public engagement as their lives are encapsulated within dormitories in factories, camps on construction sites, or gated condominiums.

Suspension renders migrants economically productive and yet politically passive. Although migrants are indispensable for economic growth, in the Chinese case they appear to have induced minimal impacts or systemic changes on public life and its organisation. This is despite their size (nearly 280 million internal migrants in China alone), their young age relative to the general population, and above all their drive and energy. Indeed, while suspension can lead to hypermobility, where people move frequently and repeatedly without the prospect of settling down, this intensification of movement seems to dissipate rather than ignite grassroots energy that could propel self-organisation and social change from below. Moreover, growing international migration to China, as the on-going project Immigration and the Transformation of Chinese Society reveals, has not led to more open, tolerant, and reflexive outlooks among the Chinese population.

This conference invites submissions that apply, develop, and critically engage with the idea of suspension in the context of Chinese mobilities. Papers may focus on, but not limited to, any of a number of dimensions, such as:

  • The lived experiences of suspension. What aspirations, desires, or practices sustain a suspended life? How do migrants make sense of it through notions including hope, sacrifice, urgency, and life cycle? How do the experiences of suspension change individuals’ perceptions of their own or others’ past, present, or future? How do the experiences of suspension vary by gender and migrant group such as migrant workers, traders, students, or expatriates?
  • The historicity of suspension. How is the current condition of suspension different from, or related to, the socialist Great Leap Forward, the modernisation ‘catch up’, and the mentality of deferred gratification that is common among migrants? When did suspension emerge as a common phenomenon in China—and is it likely to end soon?
  • Social relations in suspension. Suspension impedes the development of solidarity, but dormitories and camps also create compact shared spaces. Suspension generates anxieties and uncertainties, but also opens up space for improvising and adventure. What new modes of sociality are emerging? What are the impacts of suspension on family relations?
  • The economy of suspension. Suspension encourages savings and increases investments in assets as a means of ending the condition of suspension. How do individuals strategise suspension economically? How is wealth accumulation in suspension related to speculations, inequalities, and the uneven distribution of risks and debts?
  • The politics and power of suspension. Is suspension inherently depoliticising, or can it generate new kinds of politics? Being suspended is not necessarily being marginalised. The suspended can be protected, for instance, by expanding social welfare provisions. Moreover, suspended migrants may hold greater (and different types of) power than others who are in similar situations yet immobile. Is suspension related to the curious combination of individualism, consumerism and authoritarianism witnessed in China now? How can the suspended be empowered?

Submissions from all disciplines in the social sciences and humanities are welcome. Since the conference aims to produce at least one collective publication, the article must be original and unpublished elsewhere. Click here to submit to the call for papers.

Please submit an abstract (300-500 words) that summarises the argument, its relation to suspension, and its empirical basis. The deadline for submissions is 26 February 2018. Decisions will be made by 12 March 2018. Full papers (6,000-8,000 words, including references and notes) will be due by 13 August 2018.

This conference is part of the ESRC-funded project Immigration and the Transformation of Chinese Society. Meals and accommodation in St Hugh’s College will be provided to all accepted participants over the two-day period. Limited funds in the form of partial travel subsidies are available. Those who wish to apply for these funds should complete the relevant section on the application website. Requesting consideration for a travel subsidy will not impact the decision to accept or decline a submission. Priority will be given to accepted applicants who can demonstrate that they have no access to resources from their home institution or funding organisation.

Convened by: Xiang Biao, Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Oxford Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology (ISCA); Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) Fellow of St Hugh’s College

If you have any questions, please email:

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