China Dissertations in France (6). Sociology

The present blog post has benefited from the insights and inputs of Prof. Isabelle Thireau, senior research fellow, CNRS. The author bears sole responsibility for the views expressed in the text that follows.

The field of sociological studies of China appears quite surprisingly active and rich in French universities. Surprising because the pool of China-trained sociologists in France is extremely limited. One could even say shockingly so in view of the need for research on a fast-changing Chinese society. It amounts to a handful of individuals, but only one — Isabelle Thireau, senior research fellow at CNRS — has been actively involved in training doctoral students. The near absence of China specialists in the 40 departments of sociology in French speaks again volumes about the parochialism and gallo-centrism of French sociology. Fortunately, however, a substantial number of doctoral candidates, especially from China, were able to pursue their doctoral degree in sociology under the supervision of sociologists well versed in various specialties.

The total number of dissertations on China in sociology amounts to 64. This is both a global significant number, but for a period of 34 years it also means a low average level of production. The progression was indeed nearly flat until the mid-2000s when a moderate upsurge took place. It peaked in 2016 and returned to a descending curve thereafter. There were only two dissertations in 2019 (and only one in 2015). The fact that sociology as a discipline recovered only in 1979 and that sociological investigation was impossible until the mid-1980s partly explains the lack of sociological training, both in China and outside of China as far China studies are concerned, thus the rather late progression of sociology dissertations until the mid-2000s.

Fig. 1. Total number of dissertations per year


The distribution by origin shows that Chinese students produced the largest number of dissertations (62 percent), while there was only one dissertation by a Taiwanese student. Non-Chinese represent just 37 percent of all works. The lack of China-trained sociologists in France contributes to explain why Chinese students produced the largest number of dissertations – China oriented students in France have few opportunities for such specialized training and eventually turned to advisors in other disciplines. It also explains why such Chinese students widely turned to renowned sociologists, although non-China scholars (Desjeux, Touraine, Baudelot.

Fig. 2: Authorship by origin


A total of 51 advisors were involved in supervising dissertations in sociology. This is a very high number in view of the number of dissertations. In fact, 46 advisors surpervised only one dissertation. Only five scholars supervised more than one dissertation: I. Thireau (6), D. Desjeux (5), C. Didry (3), F. Gipouloux (2), and S. Trinh (2). Two of them are China scholars, Thireau, the only China-trained sociologist and Gipouloux — a retired senior fellow at CNRS — who sat between sociology and political science. Four China scholars from other disciplines (Capdeville in anthropology, Zheng in history, Pairault in economy, and Henriot in history) have also supervised or co-supervised dissertations in sociology. Gilles Guiheux should also be mentioned here, but all the dissertations he supervised — some on sociological topics — were listed under history in Altogether, fourteen dissertations were done under joint supervision, with the inclusion of nine Chinese or Taiwanese scholars. Finally, China scholars supervised 12 dissertations (20 percent), while non-China scholars actually trained most Ph.D.s in sociology about China, including two France-centered sociologists (Angeloff, Roulleau-Berger) who have gradually shifted the focus of their research on social issues in China).

Fig. 3. China scholars and dissertation supervision

The word cloud extracted from the title of the dissertations provides some clues on the most frequent topics that the doctoral candidates explored. As could somehow be expected, many of the themes examined in these dissertations are connected to the major transformations of Chinese society: labor and enterprises; urban housing; social security and care; family and gender. Urban issues dominate over the concern for the transformation of rural settings. A growing area of studies is linked to migration, whether internal migration in China or transnational migration.

Fig. 4 Word cloud of title words


The vast majority of dissertations were completed in institutions located in Paris (70 percent). Lyon comes next, but at a much lower level (8 percent). The EHESS ranks first and well ahead of all other institutions with 14 dissertations (22 percent), followed by Paris 5 (10 percent), the Institute of Political Studies (Paris) and Paris 8 University each at 7 percent.

While there is a significant number of dissertations in sociology on China in France, the sociology of China as a field or sub-field simply does not exist. The very low number of China specialists, the high degree of fragmentation of supervisors (with no connection to China or Chinese studies), and the late increase in the number of dissertations after 2009 all point to a process that lays no foundation for the long-term development of sociological studies of China in France. The available expertise on contemporary Chinese society is not commensurate with the pressing needs for a better understanding of a country and a society that now weighs considerably on our own everyday life. The lack of expertise was patent at all levels — government, media, society at large —  in the recent covid-19 epidemic. Except for very select and incisive analysis in think-tanks, the bulk of information about China during this crisis carried a good amount of biases, prejudices, clichés, approximations, and even misinformation. This is the direct result of the “absence of China” in French universities and research agencies like CNRS.

Cite this blog post
Christian Henriot (2020, June 27). China Dissertations in France (6). Sociology. Elites, Networks and Power in modern China. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from

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