China: Regimented Confucian Society? Or Society Of Individuals?

Regimented Confucian Society?

Tracey Hamilton reviews Michael B. Griffiths’ book, ‘Consumers and Individuals in China: Standing out, Fitting in’.

A seminal publication – ‘Consumers and Individuals in China: Standing out, Fitting in’ deftly breaks new ground. Dr Griffiths’ book establishes a major shift in sociological thinking about Chinese consumers’ sense and place of self.

In a major departure from past proclamations regarding a China centered on cultural collectivism, Griffiths’ comprehensive and ethnographically grounded analysis of individuals in third-tier city, Anshan, makes clear that such stereotypes descriptions of a singular Chinese audience need immediate re-evaluation.

Unlike other managerial publications, which attempt to provide a “paint-by-numbers” pre-packaged approach to predominantly urban China, Griffiths sets new benchmarks for explorative research in China.

Through his stories of six years of ethnographic fieldwork and observation, Griffiths invites readers to join him on a simple yet sophisticated deconstruction of Chinese identities – exploring the lives of individuals as diverse as rural migrants, entrepreneurs, workers, youths and professionals.

The book provides rich descriptions of informants and scenarios, and helpfully contextualizes the Chinese cultural subtext for non-familiar readers.

Griffiths argues that self-assertion is alive and well in China and can be documented and explained by reference to how cultural norms, beliefs and behaviors function in the areas of authenticity, knowledge, civility, sociability, morality, and self-cultivation. Griffiths explores these areas chapter by chapter, critically establishing the basis for each norm, showing how Chinese embrace norms, and demonstrating the potential for a spectrum of individual behaviors within. This in itself helps to build the argument for individuality!

The chapter on the authenticity and the authentic self represents a wonderful tension between knowingness and fixed behaviors. While the way Griffiths’ migrants and urban workers indulge in eating coarse grains in the pursuit of authentic purity finds parallels in many global locations through phenomena such as the “locavore” or “wellness” movements, readers may be surprised to hear Griffiths’ informants understand the consumption of counterfeit goods to be a deliberate demonstration of authenticity as long as Chinese consumers are being “true to themselves” (distinguishing themselves) through such consumption, they can be considered legitimately authentic. Readers will find the most powerful illustrations of how the Chinese sense of authentic self functions through examples such as these.

The chapter on Knowledge as second core norm leads us on and bridges from authenticity: one needs to have an appreciation of the rules in order to find oneself within them. This chapter gives us a critical perspective on the differences between formal rules, laws, academic discipline, and informal rules such as social etiquette and practical or street “smarts”. It is here that Griffiths’ work has the greatest potential to impact students of past managerial publications, such as , for example, Clifford Geertz’s anthropological studies of culture. Griffiths chooses examples which demonstrate an understanding of how rules are nuanced and interpreted in ways which might not seem obvious to an outsider. Knowledge explicitly provides “players” the way to play.

Griffiths’ analysis of civility and boundary setting provides a potentially contentious examination of norms. What is considered intimate and personal vis-à-vis “the public” differs hugely across cultures. Simply put, the idiosyncrasies of societal norms are just that, and practitioners require a deep local understanding to make the leap necessary to successful negotiate foreign spaces. Griffiths’ China is seemingly very individualistic or self-centric when one considers spouse, family, relatives, friends, colleagues, and then strangers, employers, government, and the global community to be on a diminishing spectrum of importance to the individual when it comes to civility. This may go some way to explaining historical writing about “distance theory”. Rather than being about collectivism, a lack of intimacy or formality is shown to those who are further from the centre of the individual’s concern (proximity law), not those “outside the group”.

Griffiths’ introduces the idea of sociability, or the act of competing for likability, showing us images of Chinese consumers possessed of an innate sense of personal character, which explicitly functions to build interpersonal friendships. Directly tied to knowledgability, an understanding of a sense of self and its relation to personality and social projection is deeply embedded in social interaction, and Chinese consumers’ show an earnest respect for differences of self.

Morality and moral altruism – including familial morality, are topics of interest for many students of Asian cultures. Filial piety is of utmost importance in Griffiths’ analysis (due what he calls the ‘proximity law’): what is considered good is intimately factored with its impact on those closest. Morality in Griffiths’ analysis is based on social proximity, rather than empathy with others outside the direct circle; though Griffiths also shows how charitable donations to strangers are rapidly emergent practices. By demonstrating that morality is driven by personal and in-group pay off, rather than the collective “greater good”, Griffiths’ again reinforces the idea of an individualized Chinese consumer.


Self-cultivation or the actualization of self closes Griffiths’ chapters on social norms. Illuminating the various dimensions of deliberate personality development and self-cultivation through study, work, endeavor, and exposure to cultural experiences, Griffiths’ informants clearly articulate their sense of individuality as historic, current, and future postures. It is in this chapter that readers will most appreciate the logical flow the preceding chapters, as Griffiths skillfully uses interview materials and ethnographic analyses to make these separate parts add up to something far greater than their simple sum.

The real magic of Griffiths’ book, however, is that he takes what is already a highly sophisticated reading of contemporary Chinese society and culture and points this at a still further stage of analysis. Griffiths’ book goes far beyond a series of categories to explain consumer behavior. In what represents a groundbreaking departure from qualitative analyses of social norms, Griffiths launches a second stage of analysis which seeks to show how different types of consumers are disposed to make use of the model of norms he has built for us differently. That may sound simple, but this is where Griffiths’ book really stands out head and shoulders over rival analyses as an original intellectual contribution.

For it is in Griffiths’ focused analyses of rural migrants, urban workers, and professionals’ households – three very different types of consumer that together make up the vast majority of the numbers in Chinese society, that the full scope of his  analysis becomes clear. By giving us first the norms which inform behavior, then showing how different types of consumers make use of them in ways which are unique to them as individuals but nevertheless more or less shared with people around them in their specific local situations, Griffiths destroys the simplistic thinking which opposes individuals to collectives.

As an academic treatise, Griffiths’ book is truly groundbreaking, opening new avenues for further study. As a practitioner text, it is a fulfilling and critical must-read.

As a strategist who pursues the secrets to China’s marketplace on behalf of clients, I found myself excited at the potential impact on my own professional services. The book represents a real departure from the pop culture approach to “rising China” we have become accustomed to, and I found myself reflecting at its potential application at every page, with each chapter offering its own crucial implications for richly textured and compelling communications campaigns.

Marketers will find it useful in (re)thinking their development of products and services; consultants and strategists will find it a terrific and inspiring aid in the creation of relevant propositions for an ever more important audience.

Tracey HamiltonTracey is a strategist-at-large with an interest in culture. She has developed pan-regional and global integrated campaigns across industries, segments, and channels for some of the world’s largest firms whilst working with some of the best at TBWA\, DDB, Publicis Mojo, and Vizeum.

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