Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
This paper examines ‘rural social work’ in China. Based on ethnographic fieldwork between 2013 and 2015, I discuss ‘rural community education’ as advocated by a Beijing-based NGO and as practiced by a local state official in Sichuan. In trainings and conferences, the NGO proclaimed the ‘sinification’ of Western urban social work, attuning it to what it regarded as China, its agricultural tradition, its vast countryside and the continuing rural out-migration. One problem the NGO aimed to address was the plight of the so-called ‘rural left-behind child’ that was said to result from the absence of parents who migrated to work in the cities. Inspired by the NGO, a township agronomist reimagined his responsibilities and possibilities to act as a state official. Imagining himself as a rural social worker, he broadened his understanding of legitimate and necessary activities from agro-technical advice and the dissemination of seed varieties to ‘holistic services.’ This included the organisation of summer camps tailored not only to the imagined needs of the left-behind child but also to complementary images of what kind of care state and civil society as well as the urban and the rural could provide. The paper shows how ‘sinified’ social work that highlights the contrasts between traditional and modern, Chinese and Western as well as rural and urban, at the same time reproduces globalizing middle-class ideals of intensive parenting and gendered images of state and civil society, thereby producing legitimacy for attempts to shape ‘proper’ rural families.