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Field research increasingly important in politics

Author  :  Zhou Ping     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-09-03

“Going into the field is essential for the development of current Chinese politics. This means researchers leaving their studies, stepping out into China’s rich and colorful political life, perceiving and discovering problems in the real world, and creating knowledge in the process of responding to real problems. It means breaking out of the text-based knowledge production mode. On the basis of obtaining first-hand materials through specific experience, fieldwork promotes the generation of new knowledge through induction, generalization and extraction.

There are various opinions, doctrines, and ideas in the field of politics, many of them conflicting. But what has survived and lasted over the course of time is knowledge of politics. Such a system of knowledge is in essence an interpretative system of real-world politics or political life.

A stable and mature society is always accompanied by a corresponding political knowledge production process that maintains and improves an interpretative system.

In the historical process of creating a thriving civilization, China has also formed its own political knowledge production process and established an interpretative system of politics. After the Qin Dynasty unified China and established a highly centralized authoritarian rule, its knowledge production process was incorporated into the ruling political system and practiced by the ruling group. The knowledge produced by it was mainly recorded and preserved through historical classics, directly serving the running of the ruling system. As a result, a distinctive set of political knowledge production, preservation, presentation and transmission was formed. Such political knowledge production processes and systems were adapted to political rule throughout Chinese history.

However, after the Opium War, China chose a path of self-rescue by transforming traditional civilization into modern civilization through the building of a modern country. Especially after the Revolution of 1911 marked the first step on the road of modern country building, the tension between the political knowledge production mode and knowledge system in Chinese history and the requirements of modern country building became increasingly apparent. At the same time, a set of political knowledge system was introduced into China from the West.

Throughout the evolution of Western civilization originating from ancient Greece, the Western system of knowledge production has always maintained its independence from the political system. The intellectuals, as producers of knowledge, created and preserved knowledge through book writing. In this way, political knowledge was accumulated and passed down through generations. Since the modern times, influenced by systematic natural science knowledge, the political knowledge of the West has also been classified and categorized within the frameworks of nation-states. A complete system of political knowledge was thus formed.

This kind of knowledge system has had a profound influence on the building and development of politics in China since modern times. It is worth noting that such an externally introduced knowledge often exists and spreads in the form of text. In line with this, political research in China features mainly text-based knowledge deduction.

When China found its own path of development, especially when it realized rapid progress through socialism with Chinese characteristics after the reform and opening up, the disharmony between the Western-experience-based political knowledge system and the Chinese reality became increasingly obvious. The lack of effective knowledge supply in politics has become a noteworthy problem.

China has achieved rapid development and profound changes in a completely different way in a short period of time. To explain the complex phenomena and specific problems that have arisen in this process, and to design problem-solving solutions, knowledge about politics is being posed with new requirements. To step into the field, face reality, and sum up, generalize and refine new knowledge is now essential to guaranteeing the effective supply of knowledge about politics.

At present, the political field research in China, based on field investigations and long-term research on rural issues, has made several academic achievements. In the context of China’s gradual transformation from traditional agricultural civilization to modern industrial civilization and the fundamental change of the development patterns of agriculture and rural areas, political field research has grasped the opportunities of the academic transformation of Chinese politics. Reflecting on past rural research and field investigation proposes the subject and direction that guides politics where it needs to go.

China, with its long-term agricultural civilization, has always been a super-large agricultural society. In any sense, political field research has a rich connotation, for it embodies the basic appearance and distinctive development features of China. The disparity between different regions, and the diversity of social structures and development modes that come with it, offers a valuable source for China’s political knowledge production. To step deep into the field is to step into grassroots society, into rural areas and into the frontier, as well as to observe the real world and discover problems through direct experience. Based on investigation and experience, valid academic concepts can be summarized and extracted, thus allowing for proper academic judgment concerning a uniquely Chinese system of politics.


Zhou Ping is a distinguished professor of the Changjiang Scholar Program under the Ministry of Education and a distinguished professor from Yunnan University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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