Symposium: Between East Asian cases and Western-originated concepts

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Spring 2020, Vol 32. Issue 1

Book Symposium: The Civil Sphere in East Asia (2019, Cambridge)

Ming-Cheng M. Lo
Professor of Sociology,

The Civil Sphere in East Asia presents a dynamic conversation between East Asian experiences and Jeffrey Alexander’s civil sphere theory. Among other things, this monumental volume transcends beyond two unhelpful mainstream approaches, both of which end up freezing Asia as the perpetual “other.” The first of these approaches features various versions of cultural relativism implying that Asian societies are so unique that they can never be explained by Western social theories. The second approach includes modernization theory and its more sophisticated cousins, which measure the “maturity” of East Asian civil societies against Western theoretical yardsticks. The framework developed in this volume, instead, informs and is informed by rigorous mutual articulations between East Asian cases and Western-originated concepts. Below I discuss three features of this framework. 

Through careful contextualization, this volume builds a framework for observing and explaining what I elsewhere have called the “code hybridizations” accompanying democratizations in the region (Lo 2019). The Introduction places East Asian societies in a cultural context shaped by the Confucian tradition, moral values originated from Western democracies, and the developmental state and related ideological and institutional features developed in East Asia in the post-WWII period. Situated in this context, some chapters argue that democratic codes can originate from multiple sources. Others contend that only the code of liberty is truly democratic. Still others show how civil sphere participants combined the code of liberty and neo-Confucius values as complimentary moral themes. Some suggest that the meanings of these moral codes are shaped by their deployments. (A good example is Yanagihara’s chapter, which documents how the code of autonomy came to connote anticivil meanings in the surrogacy debates in Japan.) These competing views on the interactions of multiple codes constitute a rich illustration of democratic cultural hybridizations as a multifaceted process.

Furthermore, some chapters develop an analytical vocabulary for discussing limits of Asian civil societies without reducing the conversation to how similar to the West these societies are. Of particular significance is Park’s notion of “system repair,” which is informed by Alexander’s discussions of civil repair, code-switching, and societalization of problems (Alexander 2018). System repairs refers to civil sphere debates that mainly activate the binary codes (e.g., efficiency) of a malfunctioning noncivil sphere (e.g., the market) to surmount its functional crisis, rather than mobilizing values from the civil sphere (e.g., equity) to democratize the noncivil sphere in question (e.g., the market). In a related chapter, Lee sees such mobilization of cross-sphere codes as an incomplete reconstruction of boundary relations between the civil and the noncivil spheres, arguing that, because of their relatively short histories of institutionalization, East Asian civil societies are particularly vulnerable to this problem. The value of efficiency, for instance, is believed to be more likely to spill over from the market to the civil sphere in South Korea than in the U.S. or France. (This insight may be particularly questionable in the era of Trumpism and Fox News, however.) Notions of porous boundaries offer an analytical vocabulary for comparative analyses of the limits of East Asian civil spheres, although the volume does not feature comparative studies. 

Thirdly, a few chapters highlight the importance of an international civil sphere for the region. Examples include Junker and Chan’s study of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, Pun and Ng’s study of the Hong Kong-based labor activism, and Wang’s chapter on the tri-national joint history project. This international perspective captures well the intricate historical, political, and identity tensions and connections among several East Asian societies. In many instances, civil repair in East Asia involves redefining the meanings of labor rights, historical controversies, or the very sense of we-ness of the civil sphere against the narratives about the same issues developed in neighboring countries. 

Moving forward, however, I suggest that we need to examine more fully the “China factor.” Chapters that discuss China shed important lights on the limited civil sphere in this authoritarian regime, such as the world of on-line fantasy novels, the labor movement that draws support from other parts of the world, and the cultural grammar that combines the communist, Western, and Confucian moral codes. Consistent with, but further complicating, the idea of an international civil sphere, it would be important to study how China’s efforts to influence the meanings and deployments of moral codes in other societies are affecting, even damaging, the civil spheres in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. 

Zooming out for a bird’s eye view, the editors explain that their focus on cultural codes aims to counteract the field’s overemphasis on the numbers of associations and social networks as the central indicator for the strength of civil society. I posit that, having completed this mission masterfully, the volume has also laid the foundation for future dialogues about how cultural codes, social networks, and other features of civil society potentially interact. In effect, the two chapters on Taiwan point to these research directions. Lin’s study prompts us to examine how the history of social capital formation shapes the local social landscape and cultural repertoire, which in turn shape how local cultural codes become meaningful for its civil sphere participants. Wang’s chapter emphasizes that it is at the interactional level, not through rational debates, that the feeling structures towards “the other” can change. Developed in the last chapter, the notion of an interactive level of civil society is pregnant with insights yet to develop fully. The question of how to cultivate empathy for fellow citizens who feel that they are “strangers in their own land” is a pressing one. The notion of an interactional level in the civil sphere provides a promising tool for unearthing some potential answers to this question, both in East Asia and beyond.


Alexander, J. C. (2018). The Societalization of Social Problems: Church Pedophilia, Phone Hacking, and the Financial Crisis. American Sociological Review, 83(6), 1049–1078.
Lo, M. C. M. (2019). “Cultures of Democracy: A Civil Society Approach.” Pp. 497-505 in the Routledge Handbook of Cultural Sociology, eds., Laura Grindstaff, Ming-Cheng M. Lo, and John R. Hall. London: Routledge.