Reflections from our 2016 Condon Award Winner: Amir Hampel
In Chinese cities, young college graduates are eagerly discussing new possibilities for self-definition. However, in a society long tied together by kinship, young urbanites have limited institutional, cultural, and psychosocial resources with which to construct an identity: in a sea of strangers, many people feel adrift. In an article titled “Equal Temperament: Autonomy and Identity in Chinese Public Speaking Clubs”, I present Beijing personal growth groups as sites for articulating tentatively liberal social imaginaries, and as therapeutic institutions that help people to connect with strangers. The article draws on a year and half of fieldwork on popular psychology in China, dissertation research that focused on how young adults use concepts from self-help to articulate both social critiques and personal projects. Scholars have shown that psychological interventions often serve to create self-managing subjects, people who work hard on themselves in the name of selfactualization. However, this article argues that members of public speaking clubs are not only learning new modes of self-management, but also adapting to the possibilities, dangers, and psychosocial demands of life among strangers. Many young professionals in Chinese cities are eagerly studying what are called communication skills; they say that they are worried about the “job interview”, but also about the “date”. Entering Toastmasters public speaking clubs in Beijing, we see psychosocial techniques and institutional forms that aim to anchor people otherwise floating in an undefined urban space. While a highly individual subject appears on stage before an audience of equal peers, new forms of social connection come into view offstage. By coming together to learn to talk to strangers, club members reconfigure historical consciousness, social affiliation, and daily interaction. It is vital for us to think about how young adults are striving to find themselves by connecting to others in rapidly changing and often alienating urban environments. During this critical period of identity formation, the possibility of integrating into social life depends on unevenly distributed cultural, institutional, and psychosocial resources. Young Chinese urbanites are getting on stage because, like their peers elsewhere, they are learning the power and the necessity of self-definition in a world of strangers.
Amir Hampel is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago.