Anthropologists have documented a range of responses to the precarious life conditions produced by growing economic inequality and reduced opportunities for social and economic advancement. This panel advances these discussions through examining changing definitions of the “good life” emerging in response to widespread obstacles to achieving or celebrating the markers of middle-class success in East Asia. Faced with the inability to realize desired urban lifestyles, professional achievement, or meaningful family and community relationships, members of different generations are choosing to “opt out” of normative middle-class life paths. They pursue alternative ideals of the good life defined by new spiritual values, mobility and dwelling in place, and presentist lifestyles attuned to care for the self and the environment. This panel interrogates the modes of self, sociality, and well-being created by these transformative life projects and asks whether they offer viable alternatives to the deepening inequalities characteristic of contemporary East Asian societies. Widespread desire for middle class achievement grew across East Asia in the late twentieth century with rapid economic development, urbanization, and new modes of production and consumption. As rapidly as middle classes have gained prominence in East Asia, however, neoliberal policies put into place since the 1990s have unraveled the stability of middle-class achievement and social reproduction. Recent decades have witnessed a turn to flexible labor, a declining social safety net, and increasing pressure to engage in entrepreneurialism and self-development. Meanwhile, pollution and food safety concerns have degraded urban environments, compounded by spiraling real estate prices, deepening educational pressures, and ballooning standards for conspicuous consumption. Within this context, new formations of the “good life” that run counter to the normative middle-class pathway have begun to emerge. By interrogating these alternative life pursuits, this panel asks: How do new definitions of the “good life” challenge the presumed dominance of middle-classness in East Asia and how do they deepen anthropological understanding of the fraught, incomplete, and often anxious project of achieving middle class status? What do these pursuits teach us about challenges to urban privilege, ethnic majority dominance, professional/educational success, and family reproduction? Do these new lifestyles potentially mitigate inequality in East Asian societies or challenge dominant forms of political rule? Together, the six papers presented here address these questions through research in Japan, South Korea, China, and Hong Kong. We investigate various paths of flight from the city, subsequent reconfigurations of home and community, and new modes of subjectivity, sociality, political engagement, work, and spiritual well-being emerging through these transformative life projects. We ask comparatively why some generations are more likely to reject middle class aspirations and how those generational affiliations differ across national contexts. We also interrogate changing attitudes toward ethnic and urban-rural hierarchies and reconfigured relationships to the state that emerge as parts of quests for alternative lifestyles. Finally, we query the potential political effects of movements to opt out, tracing where they lead to politicized reconfiguration of community from the bottom up, challenges to state development narratives and consumer lifestyles, or depoliticization and even political apathy.
Next from AAA Annual Meeting 2021
Anxious Mobility between Degrowth and Self-production, Belonging and Disconnect
AAA Annual Meeting 2021
18 November 2021