Volunteerism and the Legitimation of Inequality in Contemporary China

by Henry Chiu Hail

Institution: University of California – Irvine
Year: 2016
Keywords: Sociology
Posted: 02/05/2017
Record ID: 2133891
Full text PDF: http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/0zr2b8tb


As economic inequality and the rural-urban education gap in China have rapidly increased since the Reform and Opening, so too have the number of Chinese volunteer organizations. How does volunteerism in China reflect and influence Chinese urbanites’ perceptions of inequality? To answer this question, I conducted participant observation with several Chinese volunteer organizations over the course of one year. I also conducted in-depth interviews with former and current volunteers and organizational staff. I found that many Chinese volunteers perceive economic inequality as normal, but are concerned that lack of understanding between the rich and poor could lead to social conflict. These volunteers explicitly profess egalitarianism, yet construct narratives which implicitly attribute inequality to individual and cultural differences. They draw symbolic boundaries between themselves and the rural poor by creating narratives which portray poor rural people as lacking the ability to make autonomous, rational decisions. Moreover, volunteer organizations develop styles of talk which discourage volunteers from recognizing structural sources of inequality. I argue that volunteers’ discourses can legitimate inequality and reinforce prejudice toward disadvantaged groups. Privileged people exercise agency in developing new ways to legitimate inequality in response to changing contradictions associated with capitalism. However, they draw upon widely-accepted master narratives to construct these legitimations.