AAS Member Spotlight: Martin King Whyte

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Martin King Whyte, John Zwaanstra Professor of International Studies and Sociology, Emeritus, Harvard University 

Contemporary China

How long have you been a member of AAS?

I joined when I was a graduate student in Social Relations at Harvard in the 1960s.

Why did you join AAS and why would you recommend AAS to your colleagues?

I started graduate work at Harvard in Russian Studies before switching to the study of China, and I saw joining AAS as a way to learn more about Chinese society as well as to get to know other academics specializing on China. Even though my interests (mainly on contemporary China) have always been narrower than all of Asia in all time periods, I gravitate to the interdisciplinary focus of the AAS, given my area studies orientation. I have always felt more comfortable in AAS meetings than when I attend American Sociological Association conventions, since the focus in the latter remains heavily on the United States.

How did you first become involved in Asian Studies?

I was originally interested in the Soviet Union and the study of communism, but I knew little about China. But just as I was starting my graduate studies, Khrushchev was ousted as leader of the USSR and replaced by Brezhnev. Suddenly the Soviet Union became less interesting. Then in 1966 China erupted in the Cultural Revolution, and that society began acting very differently than I had been taught that a communist system did. Intrigued, I began taking courses at Harvard on contemporary China and started studying Chinese, and I have been hooked on China ever since. (Besides, I got to do my doctoral thesis research in Hong Kong rather than in Moscow, and I found the food was much tastier.)

What do you enjoy most or what have been your most rewarding experiences involving your work in Asian Studies?

I have always enjoyed the multiple and changing challenges of trying to understand social patterns and social change in post-1949 China. That society has definitely been a moving target! When I first started in the 1960s, China proclaimed that it was constructing an even more radical version of socialism than the “revisionist” Soviet Union. But as an American, I could not even visit China until 1973, and I could not conduct serious research within China until the 1980s. So my first three research projects were conducted from Hong Kong, mainly via in-depth interviewing of refugees from the PRC, since getting an accurate view of social life in the closed and secretive society that China was under Mao was almost impossible by any other method. With the death of Mao in 1976 and the launching of market reforms and the open-door policy after 1978, China underwent another social revolution, going from an extreme version of socialism to what seemed like early and extremely dynamic capitalism. To study these changes I left the comfort of in-depth interviewing of refugees in Hong Kong for a series of sample survey projects conducted in China with the help of PRC collaborators. When I started studying China I never could have imagined benefiting from having students from China and working with professional colleagues there, including fellow sociologists (as that discipline was abolished by the PRC in 1952 and only “rehabilitated” starting in 1977).

Tell us about your current or past research.

During my career I have conducted research on a wide variety of topics in both the Mao and reform eras, including village life, urban social patterns, changes in Chinese families, inequality, population trends and controls, and the sources of China’s hectic post-1978 economic growth. For more than a decade my primary research has focused on conducting surveys to learn how ordinary Chinese citizens are reacting to the sharper gaps between rich and poor that have been spawned by market reforms. I have been involved in four surveys: in Beijing in 2000, and then national surveys in 2004 (the basis of my 2010 book, Myth of the Social Volcano), 2009, and 2014. I expect to continue to mine these survey data for years to come.

What advice or recommendation do you have for students interested in a career in Asian Studies?

I would encourage them to do a better job in developing their foreign language skills than I did. I would also advise them to take seriously the strengths of an area studies, interdisciplinary approach as well as to develop multiple competencies that will enable them to conduct a variety of kinds of research. Finally, I would encourage them to remain flexible and ready to research new topics and issues as the dynamic parts of Asia they are studying change.

Outside of Asian Studies, tell us some interesting facts about yourself.

Besides studying China, I have also taught and done research in other areas of sociology, particularly the sociology of the family (as in my book, Dating, Mating, and Marriage) and the sociology of economic development. In my spare time I was an avid tennis player until an arthritic hip slowed me down, and I still enjoy biking, hiking, and rowing. Since retiring from teaching at Harvard in June 2015, my wife and I have begun to plan how to spend a few years traveling and living for extended periods in nice places, in Asia and elsewhere, sometimes for teaching and research, but also just for pleasure, while we still have enough energy to do so.

Whyte, Martin

"Even though my interests (mainly on contemporary China) have always been narrower than all of Asia in all time periods, I gravitate to the interdisciplinary focus of the AAS."

— Martin King Whyte