Reconstructing Chinese Social Networks in Transition: Recent conference by Henrike Rudolf

A brief review of “Layers and Lacunae: Reconstructing Chinese Social Networks in Transition, 1940s-1950s“, a conference by Dr. Henrike Rudolf held at Aix-Marseille Université, March 14, 2019.

Last Thursday March 14, we were pleased to welcome Dr. Henrike Rudolph (Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg) as a guest speaker in our monthly seminar.

Through the case of the Jiusan Study Society (jiusan xuehui 九三学会), she demonstrated how historians can harness digital tools, particularly databases and social networks analysis (SNA), to reconstruct Chinese social networks during the transitional decades of the 1940s-1950s.

The Jiusan study society was founded in Chongqing in 1944. It started as a dinner circle, founded by scholars from all over China to discuss politics, and gradually evolved into a political organization under the control of the CCP. The society did not have many members initially, but all were leading scholars from top-ranking institutions. From its early years, then, the society adopted the principle of elite recruitment to select its members. Once Mao Zedong recognized its “propaganda value”, its membership rapidly increased after 1949, and it is still growing today .

Drawing on lacunary sources, layered data and the skillful use of digital methods, Dr. Rudolph addressed the following research questions: How did the Jiusan Society evolve from a scholarly circle into a political party? Why did the CCP decide to include this minority group? What were the incentives of joining? What did prospective members hope to gain by joining the group? What channels did the society use for propaganda?

In her introduction, Dr. Rudolf insisted on the layered structure of her data, which results from the multiple layers of sources she relied on for her research (from archival sources to secondary literature). Most of her data came from archival sources, particularly those held at the Shanghai Municipal Archives (membership lists, reports of meetings, party programs, working reports and their different versions), and she rightly pointed out the challenges raised by such sources (problems of missing or fragmentary data, data that does not fit with secondary sources).

Relying on a wide array of SNA tools (Gephi, NodeXL, Visone), she proposed a dual approach that combined a macro-analysis of large networks structure (essentially based on archival data) with a micro-study of selected members and their ego-networks (enriched with secondary sources). In this regard, she paid a special attention to female members who, like Wu Dichang, had been erased from the official narrative, but who nonetheless played a crucial role in the organization. More generally, she relied on SNA tools to investigate two kinds of / two-way relationships: Why/how did individuals benefit from the network; and conversely, why/how the party/network made use of individuals connections, skills and actions?

In the last part of her talk, she presented her more recent collaboration with Heidelberg University around the Early Modern Periodicals Online database and their project for developing a biographical database that also includes images and their metadata. Dr. Rudolf carefully detailed the process and the method she chose for building her own database of Jiusan members, based on a system of four related tables (agents, institutions, events, relations). As historians, we greatly appreciated that the database included problems of uncertainty or incompleteness, name variance and other issues specific to historical data.

She ended by raising awareness about the controversial issues of FAIR Data. Like sociologists or anthropologists in contemporary China, she often deals with sensitive data related to persons who are still alive. The current law stipulates that we can not publicize, not even collect data on persons until 70 years after their death. In this legislative framework, how can historians/researchers collect personal data? Can we make it public? These have become pressing questions for scholars who live and work in this era so concerned with open data, and yet face the contradictory challenges of privacy, outdated legislation, state secrecy or arbitrary power.

Overall, this was a very stimulating talk that strongly resonates with our own current reflection on developing a biographical database of Chinese elites in modern China – Modern China Biographical Database (MCBD) – which is a major cornerstone in this ERC project. More to come soon with the expert meeting we will host on this topic at Aix-Marseille in May…


Cécile Armand

Ancienne élève de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) de Lyon (2006), agrégée d'histoire (2009), docteure en histoire (2017), postdoctorante à Stanford University (2017-8) puis Aix-Marseille Université dans le cadre du projet ERC “Elites, Networks and Power in modern China” (2018-). Ma thèse soutenue à l’ENS Lyon en juin 2017 proposait une histoire spatiale de la publicité à Shanghai (1905-1949). Mon nouveau projet porte sur l’invention du consommateur et de l’expertise sur le marché en Chine républicaine. Au-delà, mes centres d'intérêt couvrent l'histoire urbaine, spatiale et sociale, les outils et méthodes numériques en sciences sociales, l'historiographie et l'épistémologie en général.

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