Yi Wu

Yi Wu, assistant professor in Clemson’s sociology, anthropology and criminal justice department, poses in front of a series of traditional Chinese houses on the way to conduct fieldwork.
Image Credit: Yi Wu

A faculty member in Clemson’s sociology, anthropology and criminal justice department has been awarded a three-year grant to study urbanization in China and its effects on rural communities. Yi Wu, assistant professor in the department, will use the $286,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Cultural Anthropology Program to examine how villages and rural individuals have redefined their land rights in the context of urbanization.

Wu says that governments directly shape the outcome of urbanization through laws, policies and regulations, but the roles played by local communities and ordinary citizens are often less visible or overlooked. She seeks to understand how individuals in different social and cultural contexts respond to urbanization, which can often lead to uneven distribution of resources and unequal opportunities among social groups.

“My goal is to examine a social phenomenon thoroughly and objectively, and I hope my research results can contribute to building a more equal and inclusive urban society,” Wu says. “China is a fertile ground for studying these issues because there are rural communities experiencing different stages of urbanization simultaneously.”

Wu will collect data from three villages in China that characterize urbanization at different rates: completely urbanized, undergoing urbanization and one on the verge of urbanization. Wu will use participant observations, interviewing and documentary research to collect data on a variety of factors caused by urbanization. These factors include land loss, right-asserting activities of rural individuals and the land development plan and strategies utilized by village communities.

Yi Wu

This Chinese village located in a mountainous region is one of the subjects of Wu’s research. Half of its farmland was acquired by the government for building a railway, a power plant and highways.
Image Credit: Yi Wu

Although Wu’s research will be primarily qualitative, she will also work with sociologists in China whose quantitative data and methods may also be used to complement her own. Data will allow a comparison of land use patterns associated with different stages of urbanization, as well as a comparison of the varied perceptions of rural populations on issues of rights, equality and social justice.

“Urbanization is happening globally, so I anticipate that the lessons learned through this research will be applicable in many contexts, especially in developing countries,” Wu says, “but it will be up to the policy makers to decide whether they take the results as a useful guide, a warning or both.”

This will hardly be Wu’s first research foray into rural land rights in China. She has written a book, “Negotiating Rural Land Ownership in Southwest China: State, Village, Family,” on the research topic, which was published by the University of Hawaii in 2016. The book is based on data collected during fieldwork conducted over 20 months supported by the Law and Social Science Program of NSF and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

The book examines how China’s rural land ownership changed from the early 1950s to the 2000s in an agricultural setting. Wu says the book constitutes the first part of her research on the transformation of rural land rights in China. With her current NSF project studying the change of rural land rights in the new social context of urbanization, Wu hopes these two book projects can complement each other and provide a more comprehensive understanding of China’s land property rights.

Yi Wu

A major inter-province highway runs through this village. Farmland on both sides of the highway was turned into stores, apartments and small enterprises, gradually changing the life of local residents. A village leader told Wu about ambitious plans to build a large apartment complex for sale to local villagers or any other interested outsiders.
Image Credit: Yi Wu

Katherine Weisensee, chair of Clemson’s sociology, anthropology and criminal justice department, says the grant award speaks to the quality of Wu’s proposal and her previous work on the subject. Weisensee sees Wu’s work bringing the department and the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences more in line with Clemson’s increasingly global vision for research, but she says the lessons learned won’t be limited to one country.

“The transformation process that rural communities go through during urbanization is as important in China as it is in South Carolina,” Weisensee says. “Dr. Wu’s research can help us better understand this phenomenon within contexts both local and global.”

Wu says the current research is only possible because of previous work she has conducted in China and personal connections she has made throughout the regions where she conducts fieldwork. Gaining access and buy-in in these rural areas is no small feat, so she looks forward to revealing the social, historical and economic contexts in which the people in these communities live their lives.

“In the social sciences a ‘thick description’ results from scientific observation of human behavior complete with context,” Wu says. “I look forward to providing this in each village I study in order to facilitate future comparisons from researchers and scholars.”

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. (NSF 1918352). The opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.