Maintaining Family Identity Through Meals in Post-Mao Urban China

Ann Veeck, Western Michigan University
Hongyan Yu, Jilin University
Alvin C. Burns, Louisiana State University
EXTENDED ABSTRACT - The wide-sweeping economic and social changes in urban China have transformed almost every aspect of Chinese lives, including education, work, leisure health, and the home. In the West, modernity and globalization has often been associated with an increasing trend toward individualization (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002; Giddens 1991). Beck (1992) views individualization as an outcome of the process of modernity that leads to a loss of traditional social institutions that help form norms and values and create personal identities. The social phenomenon of individualization has been closely linked to a number of factors accompanying modernity, including improvements in living standards, changes in the labor market, and changing gender rolesCall changes that have been associated with the reforms in China.
[ to cite ]:
Ann Veeck, Hongyan Yu, and Alvin C. Burns (2005) ,"Maintaining Family Identity Through Meals in Post-Mao Urban China", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 32, eds. Geeta Menon and Akshay R. Rao, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 481-481.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 32, 2005     Page 481

MAINTAINING FAMILY IDENTITY THROUGH MEALS IN POST-MAO URBAN CHINA

Ann Veeck, Western Michigan University

Hongyan Yu, Jilin University

Alvin C. Burns, Louisiana State University

EXTENDED ABSTRACT -

The wide-sweeping economic and social changes in urban China have transformed almost every aspect of Chinese lives, including education, work, leisure health, and the home. In the West, modernity and globalization has often been associated with an increasing trend toward individualization (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002; Giddens 1991). Beck (1992) views individualization as an outcome of the process of modernity that leads to a loss of traditional social institutions that help form norms and values and create personal identities. The social phenomenon of individualization has been closely linked to a number of factors accompanying modernity, including improvements in living standards, changes in the labor market, and changing gender rolesCall changes that have been associated with the reforms in China.

To date, individualization has been predominantly identified as a western phenomenon. Given the increasing number of non-western nations that have opened their boarders to forces of globalization and modernity, an important question that is emerging is whether or not individualization is also an important trend in developing, non-western societies. In addition, as nations, like China, introduce systems that lead to greater societal inequalities, the question of how social groups, including families, operate to protect and reproduce social capital in a dynamic society becomes an important area of study. Research is needed to investigate how food-related activities in the home have ben contributing to family stability and unity and fostering the reproduction of social capital during China’s reform era.

To explore these questions, we convened three focus groups, each representing a different age group of women, in Changchun, China in the summer of 2003. The focus group participants were guided through a series of question related to changes in family life, involvement in family activities, and the meanings of family meals Interpretation of the data was achieved by systematically analyzing the focus group transcripts to uncover common themes across the experiences of the participants in relation to life changes and family activities and meals.

The economic and social changes that have occurred as a result of reforms to China’s economy have directly affected virtually all of the urban focus group participants in important ways. When asked about the changes in their families’ lives that have occurred during the last five years, several of the participants spoke of significant economic improvements to their lives that have resulted from higher income and material acquisitions, including improved housing and new appliances. However, other participants spoke of financial pressures that they have been experiencing as a direct result of China’s economic changes. The transition from state-sponsored jobs, with stable salaries and secure benefits, has introduced more uncertainty and risk in their lives. In particular, many of the social services, including housing, health care services, and educational costs that were once subsidized heavily by the Chinese government have become privatized in recent years. As a result, many of the participants worry about their abilities to handle their living expenses.

When asked about meal patterns in their homes, most participants claimed that, while breakfasts and lunches are often eaten away from home, their families almost always eat dinner together. For many participants, the family dinner is an enjoyable, relaxed time that provides a respite from their busy lives. Participants also feel that the family meal is important for connecting with other family members and providing time to learn what is happening in one another’s lives. Also, many participants stated that mealtime is a crucial time for family members to discuss problems they are facing both inside and outside of the home

For families with school-age children, family meals also seem to serve an important purpose of socializing and imparting important skills to the children. Meals are used to teach proper values, emphasize filial relationships, and reinforce manners. Families with growing children or grandchildren use meals to reinforce family ties and transmit important social material to the children.

Within the context of urban China, our research reinforces the role that meals can serve in the construction and reproduction of family, as also found in research focusing on western families (Devault 1991, Lupton 1991, Warde 1997). Like many western families, Chinese families may well be experiencing a trend toward individualization, as seen by reports of breakfasts and lunches eaten individually or away from home. However, the family dinner has a vital role in maintaining the family and fostering communication. As Devault (1991) found in her study of American family dinners, Chinese family meals serve the important purpose of "producing" families.

Furthermore, and perhaps most significant in this child-centered, education-driven society, our study suggests that Chinese families find the family meal to be an important site for transmitting important norms, values, and other social material to children. This finding reinforces the importance that western researchers (Bourdieu 1984, Coleman 1988, Putnam 2000) have assigned to families related to the fundamental role that family life plays in the accumulation and transmission of social capital.

REFERENCES

Beck, Ulrich (1992), The Risk Society: Toward a New Modernity, London: Sage.

Beck, Ulrich and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim (2002), Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences, London: Sage Publications.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1984), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Coleman, James S. (1988), Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital," American Journal of Sociology 94, pp. S95-S120.

DeVault, M.L. (1991), Feeding the Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Giddens, Anthony (1991), Modernity and Self-Identity, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Lupton, Deborah (1996), Food, the Body, and the Self, London: Sage Publications.

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