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Marolt, "Blogging in China: Individual agency, the production of cyburban 'Spaces of Dissent' in Beijing, and societal transformation in China," 2008

USC Dissertation in Geography.
August 3, 2009

Peter Wolfgang Marolt, Ph.D.

Abstract (Summary)

Adopting Lefebvre's concept of 'lived space' and Castells's notion of the Network Society, this dissertation establishes individual agency and space/place as interpretive categories for understanding and conceptualizing the Chinese-language 'blogosphere' as a new type of social space in which free thought has the capacity to form conduits for dynamic dissent. These analytical vantage points redirect attention from structural emphases on a state/civil society dichotomy to the agency of individual, everyday life, as well as to the concrete expressions and processes that operate through, and in turn configure the Chinese-language blogosphere. The research is multi-theoretical and multi-methodological. It follows a grounded theory approach, bringing together elements of human geography, Internet and communication studies, and Chinese politics. It draws data primarily from interviews with Beijing-based bloggers (media executives, lawyers, journalists), as well as an extensive content analysis of their blogs. I found that emancipatory Spaces of Dissent come into being - and can thus be perceived - in advance of any deliberative action that emanates from them. Mapping the specifics of these cyburban spaces yielded insight into Chinese 'minjian' agency, as well as to a range of identity-relevant changes that the blogging culture produces in human thinking and activity. I subsequently mapped the underlying process of social learning leading from free thinking and expression to shared meanings, and ultimately to new forms of institutions and political action that underlie societal transformation. This facilitated the detection and classification of various empirical signs of new cyber/urban (or cyburban) institutions. In contemporary China, political agency and institutions are in the process of formation. There are a number of active intellectual bloggers who are known to a wider public, and who could become mediators between virtual and physical space and, hence, facilitators of social change (by turning Spaces of Dissent into Spaces of Resistance). However, for the moment, incipient resistance that could prefigure broader citizen movements seems to lack structure and concrete goals.

Advisor: Dear, Michael J.
Committee members: Rosen, Stanley,  McKenzie, Rod