Banqueting with the Chinese Mafia: The Temptations and Pitfalls of Doing Ethnographic Research with Elites

The following essay is adapted from a chapter entitled ‘The Ups and Downs of “Studying Up”: Researching Elites in China” in the volume edited by Gordon Crawford, Lena J. Kruckenberg, Nicholas Loubere, and Rosemary Morgan, Understanding Global Development Research: Fieldwork Issues, Experiences and Reflections (SAGE, 2017). The Editors

Conducting research on and with elites in China comes with its own set of distinct challenges and dilemmas. In this essay I would like to expand upon some of these based on my own field research experiences with wealthy businessmen, civil servants, and gangsters in a large Chinese city in the early 2000s. During fieldwork I often felt conflicted in my interactions with my informants, many of whom were charming and kind but espoused opinions and engaged in behaviour I found morally problematic at best. In particular, while interviewing the head of a local criminal network in China, whom I refer to as ‘Fatty’ in my writings, [1] I had difficultly reconciling his kindness and generosity towards me with my knowledge of the violent activities in which he both directly and indirectly participated. In the following text I reflect on the particular dilemmas associated with researching elites. These include the risk of ‘ethnographic seduction’, the challenges of balancing empathy and critique as well as navigating shifting hierarchies of power and status, and the importance of examining both the ‘front stages’ and ‘back stages’ of elite worlds.

Ethnographic Seduction in the Field

In my interactions with Fatty and his associates I found myself particularly vulnerable to what Antonius Robben terms ‘ethnographic seduction’ (1996). According to Robben, who interviewed military officers responsible for violence during Argentina’s ‘dirty war’, ‘Seduction prevents interviewers from probing the discourse of the interviewee and, instead, makes them lose their critical stance toward the manifest discourse’ (Robben 1996, 97). Robben points out, however, that a desire for seduction is inherent in anthropological research. He states, ‘anthropologists want to be seduced because it gives them the desired feeling of gaining access to a hidden world’ (Robben 1996, 97). I confess to the triumphant feeling of finally ‘gaining access’ I had sitting next to Fatty at his nightclub as he bragged about his criminal exploits. As this experience shows, when researching elites it can be very easy to be ‘seduced’ by our informants, especially when we are being treated to extravagant banquets. Managing this disconnect between personal rapport with our informants, and intellectual, political or moral repellence towards their attitudes and behaviour requires considerable self-reflexivity.

While the risk of ethnographic seduction is present in all ethnographic research, it takes on an added layer of complexity when interviewing elites. As social scientists our primary goal in ethnographic research is to understand a particular phenomenon from ‘the locals’ point of view’, i.e. how it is conceptualised and situated in the lives of our informants. However, when researching powerful elites we risk legitimising their often ideologically-loaded views of the world. In presenting their perspectives, we may inadvertently support their claims to honour, status, virtue, or objectivity. For scholars with political commitments to critiquing ‘elite construction of the world’ (Grugel 2017, 125), it can be difficult to balance the research imperative to faithfully present our informants’ worldviews with our critical inclinations as scholars. In addition to the risk of legitimising their ideologies, we may also jeopardise our hard-won access by being overly critical in our published work. While this dilemma is present in most field encounters, the political valances are quite different when conducting research among more marginalised groups whose perspectives and ideologies are less likely to be propped up by other powerful institutions, and in many cases might in fact be stifled by them. When dealing with elite material, however, we are usually working with dominant and hegemonic conceptions, such as notions of class, gender, and ethnic superiority that do not easily lend themselves to a relativistic treatment. This problem is especially acute when conducting research closer to home, where one is likely to encounter views that one might actively oppose in non-professional life.

Balancing Empathy and Critique

In my own interviews with Fatty, who I came to know well during my fieldwork, I had a difficult time determining how to frame his narratives. Fatty was simultaneously marginal (as a criminal with a humble background who spoke with a thick rural accent), and powerful (through his considerable wealth and access to the police and government officials). It was, thus, difficult for me to find the correct ethical and epistemological stance to take towards his accounts of himself and his group’s activities. I vacillated between a mode of empathy, in which I felt the need to give voice to Fatty and his group, and a more critical mode of unmasking, in which I felt the need to pierce through his self-proclaimed righteousness and honour to document how Fatty’s organisation perpetuated forms of domination and oppression in contemporary China, often in alliance with, or in the service of, the Chinese state.

Fatty presented himself as someone who used his expansive social network primarily for helping others. He frequently contrasted his own generosity with the narrow profit obsession of other businessmen, and claimed that he rigidly adhered to the Chinese value of yiqi, a sense of honour and obligation in personal relationships associated with China’s knight-errant and sworn brotherhood traditions. Yet Fatty’s group also preyed upon the weak. They collected debts through violence and intimidated residents of land marked for development who protested against their meagre compensation. When writing up my material I found myself wondering: Was he a marginalised ex-peasant struggling against an oppressive, unjust system and thus vaguely situated in the righteous bandit tradition in China? Or was he an integral part of the violent side of state domination and accumulation in China? Or was there truth to both formulations?

Navigating Shifting Hierarchies of Power

It is important to note that elites may not share the researcher’s understandings of the status and power hierarchies at play in the fieldwork encounter, and relative status and position can shift over time. My status as a white, male, Chinese-speaking American no doubt enabled my initial access to Fatty. In fact, I later learned that Fatty was interested in having me serve as his assistant and translator during the six months of each year he spent in America. Much of Fatty and his group’s initial kindness towards me was an attempt to woo me to work for Fatty. When I explained that my research commitments made this impossible, Fatty then hoped to involve me in his business activities. But once my lack of business experience and graduate student finances became apparent to him, Fatty’s interest in me waned, and my access to him and his group diminished considerably. The intrinsic value of my research project and my educational credentials were insufficient to ensure Fatty’s continued cooperation.

Peering Behind the Curtain

Other researchers have described their struggle with bureaucrats who give stock, scripted answers that more or less reproduce the company (or party) line (Grugel 2017). While social life virtually everywhere is structured along a front stage/back stage dichotomy, scholars researching elites tend to approach their informants via the front stage and sometimes are never able to peer behind the curtain to see what else is going on. While the office interview is often a useful first step, much of what is most significant in elite lives and institutions occurs in backstage contexts. This notion is nicely captured by the American phrase ‘smoke filled room’, which refers to the site in which important decisions are made by powerful groups away from public scrutiny. Backstage contexts are also where rapport and trust can be cultivated – over dinners, drinks, card games, horseback riding, or whatever activity one’s informants engage in. Such rapport can help to overcome the reticence that accompanies most front-stage encounters and open up a whole new domain of data. Social scientists who study elites sometimes forget that their subjects are not simply or wholly government officials, bankers or scientists, but are also parents, spouses, golfers, karaoke aficionados, football fans, etc. Studying elites in these contexts can give us a fuller picture of elite worldviews and how powerful institutions operate in practice.

My research with wealthy businessmen in China was somewhat unusual in that the ‘backstage’ component of my fieldwork was dominant. I spent the bulk of my time accompanying wealthy businessmen as they banqueted and caroused in nightclubs with their clients, business partners, and government officials. I downed shots of potent liquor and occasionally belted out a few karaoke songs. In the process, I witnessed corrupt deals, bribes, and other assorted illicit activity. Through these experiences, I came to think of elite power in China not as neatly contained in particular institutions, such as government bureaus or large companies, but as fundamentally a network, one that straddled state and society as well as licit and illicit worlds. While it can pose practical obstacles and ethical pitfalls, gaining access to the backstages of elite domains can help to contextualise the scripted answers generated by institutions and provide us with a fuller, richer understanding of elite lifeworlds.

Conclusion

Conducting ethnographic research with elites presents unique challenges. Some, such as the risk of ethnographic seduction, are inherent in all ethnographic research but perhaps amplified in elite contexts. Others, such as the danger of unwittingly legitimating elite self-representations and narratives, are a product of the unique power dynamics of conducting research with elites. For most scholars, access poses the greatest challenge in fieldwork with elites, but I contend that looking beyond their official positions and roles to the other domains of their lives offers both overlooked points of entry and potentially valuable insights into elite worlds.

 

Endnotes:

 [1] ‘Fatty’ is a pseudonym I invented in an attempt to capture the playful yet slightly derogatory spirit of the nickname by which this individual was known in Chengdu. Nicknames in China can be rather blunt and insulting by Euro-American standards, and some readers have found this pseudonym somewhat offensive. However, for the sake of maintaining consistency with my previous writing, I have chosen to keep the same pseudonym in this piece. For more on Fatty see Osburg 2013.

References:

Grugel, Jean, and Morgan, Rosemary. 2017. Encounters with the Powerful: Researching Elites. In Gordon Crawford et al. eds. Understanding Global Development Research: Fieldwork Issues, Experiences and Reflections. London and Thousand Oaks: SAGE. 155–176.

Osburg, John. 2013. Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Robben, Antonius. 1996. “Ethnographic Seduction, Transference, and Resistance Dialogues about Terror and Violence in Argentina”. Ethos 24, No. 1. 71–106.

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John Osburg
John Osburg
osburg@chinoiresie.info

John Osburg is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Rochester. He is the author of Anxious Wealth: Money and Morality Among China’s New Rich (2013). His research interests include morality, political corruption, gender and sexuality, and spirituality in contemporary China. His current research examines wealthy Han Chinese who have become followers and patrons of Tibetan Buddhism.