The Weatherhead East Asian Institute welcomes Yao Lu, assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University, to the WEAI faculty. Professor Lu, who earned her PhD from UCLA, focuses on social stratification and inequality by primarily examining the social and political development in contemporary China, and how migration intersects with micro- and macro-level social and political processes to shape inequalities in destination and origin societies. In the following Q & A, Professor Lu discusses her scholarship and teaching interests.
What led you to choose the specific field of sociology to study China?
I was a statistics major in college, and that subject made me interested in using data to make sense of the world. This led me to spend a year at China’s census bureau, where I worked on several social surveys that produced useful information. Sociology appealed to me because I felt that the discipline allowed me to explore a broad, unrestrained range of topics, whether on individuals, society, or the intersection between the two. It also allowed me to choose from a variety of quantitative and qualitative methods as appropriate for the research undertaken.
What questions about contemporary China are you currently pursuing in your research?
Part of my current research focuses on understanding the consequences of social and demographic transformations in contemporary China. I am especially interested in the ways in which China’s massive internal migration influences migrant-sending areas (i.e., rural China) socially and politically. For example, my current projects examine how migration affects the political consciousness and collective action of people who remain in rural China; how the feminization of migration reconfigures gender attitudes and practices in rural areas; and how the migration of parents shapes family dynamics and the well-being of left-behind children. Although my work has focused primarily on China, I also study several other societies. I believe that a comparative perspective is useful for understanding how China’s distinct institutional context gives rise to the emerging social phenomena we observe today.
Have patterns in Chinese migration been changing in recent years?
Internal migration in China is marked by both change and continuity. For example, the new, second generation of migrants have come of age, who differ systematically from their parents; an increasing number of women are migrating; a greater proportion of migrants are now moving to urban areas closer to their hometowns; and another group of migrants are beginning to return home in large numbers because of retirement and the economic slowdown. In cities, we see an increasing collision between migrants and urban workers in the labor markets, and surging political activism among migrant workers asserting their rights. These changes have taken place alongside institutional barriers confronting migrants, which have been resistant to fundamental change. The confluence of these patterns in shaping the lives of migrants and the patterns of inequality, as well as in spurring sociopolitical change in places of origin and destination, is a growing area of research.
What are the particularly noteworthy political and social developments that you have seen occurring recently in China?
One development is the rise of social protests that have swept both urban and rural China. These protests have become increasingly organized and proactive, often leading to non-institutionalized street action. Labor protests staged by migrants have become the primary source of unrest in urban China. In the countryside, collective action has also grown steadily as the peasantspoor organize to defy official malfeasance on issues such as abusive land grabs and unauthorized taxation. Protests in China have been perceived to lack an organizational basis and lack an urban-rural linkage. Separate studies on protests in rural and urban China propose that they lack an organizational basis. My recent work takes a new look into these issues and finds that social organizations play important but distinct roles in collective action, and that rural and urban activism is increasingly linked with migrants acting as agents of diffusion.
What courses are you planning to teach in the coming semesters?
I will be teaching courses on contemporary Chinese society at both the undergraduate and graduate level. These courses will cover the major social, demographic, and political issues facing China. I will also teach an introductory statistics course with an emphasis on real-world applications.
What events and conferences are you planning for the spring?
I am organizing a seminar series on the social, demographic, and political development of contemporary China, and a half-day conference on China’s population trends and challenges to be held in early April. I hope to be able to continue bringing in more social scientists to share their work and perspectives at WEAI.