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(Suffering) for the family: the mediated structure of feeling among the rural elderly in post-reform China

Wu, Hao (2022) (Suffering) for the family: the mediated structure of feeling among the rural elderly in post-reform China. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Identification Number: 10.21953/lse.00004429


This thesis examines the mediated emotional experiences of rural elderly grandparents born before the 1960s. Against the backdrop of state-led neoliberal modernisation since the 1980s, it asks how the rural elderly experience their family life emotionally, whether and how the media culture has structured such experiences, and what is the significance of such emotions for the elderly, their families and, more widely, for China’s uneven modernity. To answer these questions, I conducted a 10-month ethnography in two rural villages in Enshi, China between 2019 and 2020, including live-in studies with selected families. This study found that the rural elderly’s willing sacrifice and sense of inferiority in the family are connected to the feeling of (eating) bitterness. Such a bitter structure of feeling has historical significance for this generation and has been reinterpreted through the media content they engage with, allowing them to live life meaningfully in deprived conditions. Moreover, under persistent patriarchal and increasingly neoliberal structures that systemically disadvantage rural households, the media that perpetuates new norms, scripts, and expectations has been actively appropriated by different genders and generations within the family. Such mediated processes play a crucial role in structuring the family dynamics within the three-generational household. These processes tend to engender highly classed and gendered intimacy, distance, and tension between the elderly and the younger generations, often leaving the elderly with grievances, guilt, isolation, disappointment, and a faint sense of hope. By examining the politics and formation of the elderly’s structure of feelings in relation to media, I argue that China’s modernization is largely enabled by and at the expense of rural elderly’s ‘cruel optimism’. In this regard, this study contests and contributes to the largely depoliticalised realm of Chinese family sociology by reintroducing power. It also contributes to media scholarship from the vantage point of the less (but increasingly) media-saturated region of the Global South. By the same token, it advances current theorisations of modernity, particularly individualisation. Through attention to a marginalised and understudied group – the rural elderly in China – this study advances the idea of an ‘imagination of modernity from below’.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2022 Hao Wu
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
H Social Sciences > HQ The family. Marriage. Woman
Sets: Departments > Media and Communications
Supervisor: Livingstone, Sonia and Georgiou, Myria

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