Personal Background Statement

 Martin King Whyte

Thank you for visiting my webpage! For a detailed look at my personal history and list of publications, please consult my Curriculum Vitae. Let me try to summarize here the kinds of things that interest me and the influences that have shaped my career. As an undergraduate at Cornell University in the 1960s, I initially majored in physics. However, since this was in the aftermath of the launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957, I also became very interested in the forces shaping our primary scientific rival at that time, the USSR. Pursuing this interest, at Cornell I also took Russian language courses and courses on Russia and the Soviet Union. In the wake of the Kennedy assassination in 1963 I decided I didn’t want to spend my career in a scientific laboratory. Instead I wanted to devote my time to something with more immediate social and political relevance—how to understand the dynamics of Soviet society. From Cornell I proceeded to Harvard for graduate study, now in an MA program in Russian Area Studies.

The purge of Nikita Khrushchev in the USSR in 1964 and then the launching of the Cultural Revolution in China two years later convinced me that China was a more dynamic and much more puzzling communist society to study. At that point I started Chinese language classes and also entered Harvard’s doctoral program in Social Relations, with a major in sociology. My choice of sociology as a discipline was based initially on a conviction that this was a field especially suited to someone like myself with "area studies" interests. Sociology is the broadest and least constrained social science discipline—a field suitable for studying almost anything about how a society is organized and how societies differ.

I completed my PhD at Harvard in 1971 with a thesis dealing with China, rather than the USSR. In 1970 I began my teaching career at the University of Michigan, where I taught for more then twenty years.

Within sociology my primary interest has been in historical and comparative questions—why particular societies are organized the way they are and how differences across societies affect the nature of people’s lives. My primary research throughout my career has involved applying these interests to try to understand social change and social patterns in contemporary China. Over the years I have done research on and written about many aspects of that fascinating society 

  • political controls at the grass roots
  • village life
  • urban social patterns
  • Chinese family life
  • education and schooling
  • inequality
  • bureaucracy
  • patterns of economic development
  • the role of women
  • life in Chinese forced labor camps
  • human rights trends
  • family planning and reproductive rights
  • Chinese workers
  • the revival of sociology within China

Over the years I have also both taught and done research in several sociological specialties, and particularly in the sociology of the family. In studying family life my interests are again primarily comparative and historical—in what in sociological jargon are termed macro-sociological questions rather than micro-sociological ones. For example, I have been interested in such questions as: 

  • the historical origins of and social forces shaping contemporary family patterns in the United States
  • specifically, in the origins and evolution of the American "dating culture"
  • whether the way in which married couples get to know one another and get married has any influence on the quality and durability of their marriages
  • how and why the status of women has varied among preindustrial cultures
  • whether Chinese family patterns are "converging" so as to become less distinctive and more like the patterns of family life found in Western societies

I am also particularly interested in the relationship between family patterns and economic development. This involves two reciprocal questions: 1)To what extent do prevailing family patterns help to promote versus retard economic development in particular populations and countries? and 2) How and why does economic development alter family patterns when it does occur?

My primary research in the 1990s focused on the analysis of survey data collected within China focusing on continuity and change in urban families in that society. While initially my main focus was on analyzing the transformation from arranged to free choice marriages in China, later primary interest was on inter-generational relations. In particular, with a team of colleagues from other institutions, I analyzed data from a 1994 survey conducted in the city of Baoding, Hebei, in which we interviewed a sample of parents over age 50 and one randomly selected adult child of each sampled parent. In this project we tried to examine such questions as:

  • whether the traditional Chinese stress on filial obligations of grown children toward their aging parents is still being followed
  • what are the circumstances that are likely to produce more versus less dutiful support to elders from their children
  • whether daughters are now sharing the support burden more equally with sons.
  • whether forces such as revolutionary change and rapid economic development have weakened or strengthened the bonds and exchanges between generations in urban Chinese families.

I edited a collection of papers from this project, which was published in 2003 in China’s Revolutions and Intergenerational Relations.

I also published a volume of papers with a quite different origin. In 1994 I joined the faculty at George Washington University, and in 1996 I began working with my GW colleague, Amitai Etzioni, and with the organization that he founded, The Communitarian Network. Toward the end of that year I organized a conference sponsored by The Communitarian Network to which we invited a variety of academic authorities, practitioners, and policy specialists to debate a variety of proposals designed to strengthen the institutional supports for marriage within American society. That effort resulted in the publication of a volume I edited, Marriage in America: A Communitarian Perspective (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

A more recent research project involves an attempt to conduct systematic surveys in China on popular perceptions of inequality trends as well as preferences in regard to issues of distributive justice. This project is motivated by an awareness that China’s reforms over the last three plus decades have fundamentally altered the nature of the stratification order in that society. However, we know very little about how different groups in that society are reacting to growing inequalities and changing rules about who can get ahead and how. There were international comparative surveys dealing with distributive justice issues carried out in Eastern and Western Europe (as well as other societies such as the U.S. and Japan) in the early 1990s, but China was left out of these comparisons. I launched an effort with colleagues at several other institutions in this society and Chinese colleagues to carry out a pilot survey on popular views on these issues in Beijing in December 2000. Based upon the success of the 2000 pilot survey in 2004 we carried out a China national survery focused on these same issues.

Oversimplifying things, we discovered that the average Chinese citizen is not very angry about current inequality patterns or distributive injustice, and that in general Chinese are more enthusiastic about opportunities to get ahead and obtain what they deserve than are their counterparts in other societies.  The results of the 2004 survey have been reported in a number of articles (see the Publications link) and in my book, Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).  Subsequently my colleagues and I conducted a follow-up China national survey on these issue in 2009, and more recently a third national survey in 2014.  Data from all of these surveys will continue to be examined to see how Chinese views on inequality and distributive injustice issues have changed over time, and which social groups are more and less angry about the growing gap between rich and poor in China in the post-Mao era.

I have also been engaged in research and writing on other aspects of inequality in China, and one product is a conference volume I edited, One Country, Two Societies: Rural-Urban Inequality in Contemporary China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).  That volume focuses on what most observers feel is the most important social cleavage in China today, between its urban and rural citizens, a cleavage that has its roots more in socialist institutions of the Mao era than in the post-socialist transition China has been undergoing since 1978.