Robert Weller

robweller2I came to CURA (then called ISEC) and the Department of Anthropology at Boston University in 1990. My work here has concentrated on China in comparative perspective, although my specific interests have been nearly as eclectic as the Institute’s—from a critical examination of the role of culture in East Asian business to the latest changes in Chinese religion. My recent research has focused on several areas. The first is the possibility of an “alternate civility” in China, which might help promote political change without sharing all the features usually associated with civil society in Western scholarship. The second topic is the transformation in the way nature and the environment are viewed in the modern world, looking at both global cultural influences and at the development of indigenous concepts in new economic and social systems.  Third, I am currently involved in several projects concerning religious change in the Chinese world, with particular attention to its political contexts.  Finally, together with Adam Seligman at CURA, I have been working on more theoretical topics that focus on pluralism, boundaries, and ambiguity.

The Alternate Civilities Project

Some Asian political leaders and Western academics have claimed that China is unlikely to produce an open political system. This claim rests on the idea that “Confucian culture” provides an alternative to Western civil values, and that China lacked the democratic traditions and even the horizontal institutions of trust that could build a civil society. An opposed school of thought is far more optimistic about democracy, because it sees market economies of the kind China has begun to foster as pushing inexorably against authoritarian political control and reproducing Western patterns of change.

My recent book, Alternate Civilities: Chinese Culture and the Prospects for Democracy (Westview, 1999), argues for a different set of political possibilities. By comparing China with Taiwan’s new and vibrant democracy, it shows how democracy can grow out of Chinese cultural roots and authoritarian institutions. The business organizations, religious groups, environmental movements, and women’s networks it examines do not simply reproduce Western values and institutions. These cases point to the possibility of an alternate civility, neither the stubborn remnant of an ancient authoritarian culture, nor a reflex of market economics. They are instead the active creation of new solutions to the problems of modern life. If this conclusion is correct, it also implies that other non-Western societies may also have routes to democracy beyond what most political theory usually recognizes. This is not an entirely optimistic outcome for Chinese democracy, however. The book also shows how long the kind of corporatist model China appears to be adopting can thrive, and how the kinds of civil institutions that are developing may be necessary for democratization, but are not sufficient.

A collaborative research project has focused on a deeper comparison of civil organizations in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China. This work is based primarily on surveys of organizations and their leaders, allowing a more systematic and controlled comparison than my earlier more ethnographic approach. This project is funded by the Himalaya Foundation. The results appeared as Civil Life, Globalization, and Political Change in Asia:  Organizing Between Family and State (Routledge, 2005).

Nature and Environment

The second project concerns conceptions of the environment and environmental policy. This began with a simple empirical observation: people began to interact with the environment very differently in the short period between my dissertation field research in the late 1970s and my return to Taiwan a decade later. A national park system had been created, bookstores were filled with glossy nature magazines, and people were taking weekend trips out to the mountains instead of into the city. Something roughly similar had happened in nineteenth-century North America and Western Europe, and I wanted to sort out the roles of earlier Chinese notions of the environment, the effects of a market economy, and direct cultural influence from the West.

I began by examining two of the clearest results of this process in Taiwan-the rapid rise of nature tourism and the creation of a strong environmental movement. In both cases I have seen national leadership that seems more influenced by existing Western (or sometimes Japanese) models than anything else. The national parks, for example, are explicitly modeled on North American ideals, and leaders of the national environmental organizations sound very much like their Western counterparts. At the local level, however, things are more complex. Actual use of national parks responds much more to Taiwanese culture and society (collecting “strange rocks,” to cite just one small example). Village-level environmental protest also looks much more distinctly Taiwanese, for example when it uses popular religion as an organizing principle. Some of these results have appeared as articles, and I made the broader argument comparing Taiwan and China in Discovering Nature: Globalization and Environmental Culture in China and Taiwan (Cambridge 2006).

Chinese Religion and Governance

My ongoing interest in the relationship between state and society also informs one my current projects on the new role of religions in delivering a wide range of secular services to people in Chinese societies—building hospitals, offering scholarships, providing emergency aid, taking care of the elderly, and so on.  Together with Wu Keping, Julia Huang, and Fan Lizhu, I am finishing a book manuscript comparing these issues in China, Taiwan, and Chinese communities in Malaysia.  In partially related work, I have a Chinese-language edited manuscript in press on religious variation in the Lower Yangzi region.  This involves about a dozen scholars, almost all of whom are based in China.  Among other issues, we are trying to clarify lines of variation in China’s rapid religious changes, and to specify their broader social significance.  With the increasing diversity in the region, for example, how do various religions relate to each other and to the state?  Do larger-scale movements have a different impact on life than small ones?  Does being a Protestant or Muslim or Buddhist make a significant difference?  What are the implications of these variations for civil life and for China’s future?  Finally, based on fieldwork in Nanjing in 2013-14, I am currently studying the effects of rapid urbanization and migration on religious life.

Boundaries, Pluralism, and Ritual

Another aspect of my recent work has been more theoretical.  A 2008 book (the product of a long collaboration with Adam Seligman at CURA and two colleagues at Harvard), Ritual and Its Consequences, argues that all societies have a tension between a ritual aspect (what you do over and over makes you who you are) and a sincere aspect (what you do only reflects who you are).  Much of modernity, we argue, has embraced the sincere side in a way that is historically unusual and that creates inherent social problems.  While that book is not specifically concerned with China, it has clear implications for the study of China, for instance in clarifying the strong anti-ritualism of Chinese religious policy from the early twentieth century to the present and in explaining the revival of ritual forms today.

A second more theoretical book (Rethinking Pluralism, also with Adam Seligman) was published in 2012.  In the new work we examine the problem of pluralism—how is it possible to recognize fundamental differences between one group and another, yet still interact peacefully across the boundary?  The book looks especially at the ways in which the ambiguities inherent to all boundaries can be thought about and tries to move away from the assumption that drawing ever clearer lines of categorization is the only or the best answer.