In 2015, United Nation Habitat estimated that 1.5 million people globally were moving from the countryside to the city every week. They are often regarded as living in a seemingly “transient” or “liminal” status. Their ambiguous status of identity and place has long been taken for granted as temporary, exceptional, unstable, undesirable, vulnerable, or dangerous in both state-dominant political discourse and critical urbanists’ scholarly examinations. However, my research finds that a community of Chinese rural-to-urban migrants challenge this assertion and pursue a right to permanently inhabit this seemingly undesirable status between rural and urban. They identify themselves as rural-urban “inbetweeners,” build “in-between” informal settlements on the rural-urban periphery and mobilize themselves to sustain an inbetweener identity as a permanent and positive identity. Inbetweeners’ pursuit of the right to permanently inhabit a seemingly transient, ambiguous, and marginal status poses a puzzling question: Why do migrants pursue an in-between social status which has been widely viewed as dangerous and disadvantageous? To solve this puzzle, my dissertation explores two research questions: 1) Why do migrants decide to become inbetweeners? 2) What do migrants do with this inbetweener identity in their everyday life practices and collective resistance? Drawing on data from my in-depth interviews with two inbetweener communities and my observations of their anti-formalization and anti-eviction movements in two Chinese cities — Chengdu and Beijing — from 2016 to 2018, this dissertation reveals a nested set of logics behind migrants’ decision to construct, preserve, and deploy an inbetweener identity. I found that migrants’ decision to identify themselves as inbetweeners was born from their resistance to be identified by the dominant discourse as an inferior group — the floating population (in Chinese, liudong renkou). To replace this floating people identity, migrants created this inbetweener identity. By identifying themselves as inbetweeners, migrants don’t say a simple “no” to their social and spatial status between rural and urban; instead, they find potential in this seemingly disadvantageous rural-urban in-between status. Inbetweeners deploy their identity to achieve material benefits, escape the gaze of state power, and create an alternative social belonging beyond a rural-urban category. This inbetweener identity signals both danger and opportunities for migrants in their everyday life. These findings enrich scholarship on critical urban theory, modernist and postmodern planning theory, and interpretative methods in urban studies. First, these findings challenge critical urbanists’ etic assertion about migrants’ general desire to move from a “liminal” status between rural and urban to a more stable and permanent urban status. Instead, I found that a rural-urban in-between status signals both danger and power from migrants’ emic perspective. It can be simultaneously exclusive and empowering. By constructing and deploying this inbetweener identity, migrants are able to strategically and flexibly respond to and resist the multifaceted repercussions produced by a rapid urbanization process. Second, this dissertation criticizes a modernist planning mode that overly relies on a series of spatial and non-spatial oppositions, including rural/urban, inclusion/exclusion, and past/future, to index and explain social differences. Drawing from the danger and power experienced by rural-to-urban migrants who live and straddle between rural and urban societies, I argue that planners should treat a rapidly urbanizing society as a contradictory whirlpool in which marginalization, exclusion, and exploitation paradoxically coexist with material opportunities, liberating potentials, and new modes of social belonging. Third, this study demonstrates another way in which interpretative method is a promising approach for investigating previously neglected dimensions of urbanization in people’s everyday life practices and their meaning-making processes.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. July 2019. Major: Public Affairs. Advisor: Kathryn Quick. 1 computer file (PDF); xi, 122 pages.
The Danger and Power of Being In-Between: Rural-Urban Inbetweener Identity in Contemporary China.
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