Four Questions for Bin Xu

Manning Zhang (Brandeis University) interviews Bin Xu (Emory University) about his academic life.

Bin Xu

Could you tell us a bit about yourself, your research, your future plans, and any other perspectives you want to share with us?

Sure. I am currently an associate professor at Emory, and I graduated from Northwestern University in 2011. I am interested in cultural sociology but most of the time I use culture as both an independent variable and dependent variable. A week ago, I just submitted my third book to the press. (Could you tell us what your three books are about?) Sure. My first book, The Politics of Compassion: the Sichuan Earthquake and Civic Engagement in China (Stanford University Press), was published in 2017, based on my dissertation, in which I talk about how millions of volunteers went to Sichuan and contributed to the rescue and relief efforts, and how they understand the meaning of their actions. I was one of them too. In the book, I also discuss how the volunteers interacted with the authoritarian state and how to confront their ethical and political dilemmas.

My second book,Chairman Mao’s Children: Generation and the Politics of Memory in China (Cambridge University Press), was just published last year. It is a post-dissertation project, but I have been doing it for more than 10 years. It’s about a generation of Chinese who were born in the late 1940s and early 1950s and migrated to the countryside and frontiers through a forcible migration called “sent-down program.” They spent 6 to 10 years there. A significant part of this “sent-down” program overlapped the Cultural Revolution. My book is about how they interpret the meanings of their past suffering which was a result of a large-scale, failed state policy: Has the past suffering been redeemed into today’s success? Or does it still continue? And how this kind of suffering and the understanding of the suffering has been shaped by the political context in China since the Mao years? Theoretically, the book is to theorize generation and memory, a topic that speaks to a central theme in sociology, what C. Wright Mills calls “sociological imagination,” that is, the ability to understand intersections between personal biography and history.

The one I just finished last year is The Culture of Democracy: A Sociological Approach to Civil Society (Polity). The book is scheduled to come out this summer as part of the Polity Press’s cultural sociology series. It is a survey of cultural sociology of civil society. The mainstream approaches to civil society are mostly organizational and institutional, particularly the NGOs and their interactions with the state and the market. In the past two decades, there are many works that took the cultural approach, but we still need a comprehensive introduction to this field which clarifies some key theoretical and conceptual issues. This book serves this function. It is supposed to be used by graduate students for seminars and also a manual for researchers.

Currently I am starting my fourth major project, which draws on my previous work on disasters. I want to compare how China and the United States culturally respond to disasters, especially the COVID-19, through narratives, rituals, or “performance” in the sociological sense, to address suffering and deat

How does culture and cultural sociology influence your thinking?

That’s a good question. I am probably one of those people who really want to know people’s subjective world. I want to go beyond the observable actions, go beyond the numbers, go beyond the structural conditions or the so-called big processes, huge structures. For example, my second book is not about the faction struggles in the Cultural Revolution, a common approach, but how people think, feel, and remember, how they understand their past and present worlds, and how they struggle to negotiate with the worlds. In general, people are always in this constant negotiation process between themselves and the society’s expectations and structural constraints. Such expectations and structures could be social and political. This kind of negotiation and corresponding dilemma have been central to my thinking.

You have answered the third question about how culture influences your research agenda, such as research topics and methods. I want to reform our third question as: what are the motives for you to start your projects? For example, volunteer work in the earthquake disaster?

People started projects for various reasons. Sometimes they can be a combination of personal reasons and academic reasons. Some are just random reasons. For me, it’s the combination of all the three. My dissertation topic used to be something else. I did my proposal and got passed. At the same time, the Sichuan earthquake happened (May, 2008). I stopped pretty much all my work and followed the earthquake. Later, when my emotional state resumed to normal, I felt something was missing from my dissertation topic. The old topic seemed okay but not meaningful enough for myself. Later, I went to Sichuan, only two months after the earthquake and served as a volunteer there. After I returned from Sichuan, I decided to write about the earthquake. Changing a dissertation topic was an extremely risky move, but I was determined because I couldn’t turn back on those who I encountered in Sichuan and those children who died in their collapsed schools. The cost of this impulsive decision became evident: I didn’t know what literature I should speak to; I didn’t even know what aspects of the topic I should focus on. It wasn’t until at a very late stage, when I finished the dissertation and in the process of doing follow-up research and writing a book, I figured out all these things. Another thing I eventually figured out, probably after I finished the book, was quite important: how to write what you want to say and how to reconcile it with the norms and conventions of the academic field. It’s a negotiation between the world and me, like I said before, a central theme in my thinking, which also came from my experience in my career.

How do you envision the future of cultural sociology and what excites you most?

I think cultural sociology is at the crossroads now. Cultural sociology has already accomplished its original goal through uphill battles: the advocacy to emphasize that culture is important, that culture has its independent power, and that culture is a powerful explanation. And now the culture section is one of the biggest sections of ASA. While cultural sociology is widely accepted, the trouble comes up: what is the distinctive field for cultural sociology? It is now limited to a small subfield that focuses on “culture” as the dependent variable. The sociology job market very much is designed according to dependent variables. If you look at every year’s job market, you won’t find many cultural sociology job posts. This does not mean that cultural sociology has been diminishing. On the contrary, it is now part of the mainstream and an essential independent variable. The cost of this success, however, is that junior scholars who want to find a position need to have research focuses on something else as the dependent variable and frame culture as your “approach,” for instance, culture approach to economic transactions.

Another issue is, a lot of people use culture while not specifying what they mean by culture. This is also a cost of success: when it is widely accepted, it becomes an empty signifier which can be linked to too many signifiers; or, worse, people loosely use the term without a careful conceptualization. I think for a cultural sociologist, you need to be very clear about what you mean by culture when you are doing a specific project.

Do you have any advice for graduate students and young scholars? I think it is necessary for graduate students to ask themselves why they want to do sociology or academic work in general. This is an existential question, much more important than professional training. In terms of career development, academic jobs may not be a good investment with higher returns. You really need a more compelling reason for yourself. Again, like what I just said about culture in general, it is a meaning-seeking process.