Irene Pang

Pang, IrenePang, IreneIrene Pang

Contact Information:
Brown University 
Department of Sociology 
Box 1916 
Providence, RI 02912  
Fax: (401) 863-3213
Email: irene.pang@brown.edu

Year of Entry: 2010

Curriculum Vitae

Previous Degrees:
B.A. (Hons.) Sociology, Johns Hopkins University, 2009
A.M. Sociology, Brown University, 2012

Area of Interest:
Development, citizenship, internal migrants, dynamics of capitalism, comparative research, China, India 

The rise of China and India is fascinating, not least because many facets of it defy the explanation of current scholarship. For instance, existing theories of citizenship and democratic development would predict marketization leading to the expansion of political rights, which can in turn be evoked in the demand for greater social rights. In China, however, marketization has not ushered in democracy, and in India, formal constitutional democracy was institutionalized prior to marketization. My dissertation takes the cases of China and India and asks: given the context of marketization in both countries, what are the mechanisms through which citizens achieve, or are barred from, greater political participation and improved access to social welfare protections?

Based on 19 months of fieldwork conducted in Beijing and Delhi, my dissertation examines the struggles of construction workers in Beijing and Delhi in accessing their citizenship – civil, political, and social – rights, and is the first comparative ethnography on China and India.  I focus on the construction sector not only because it is a critical site of capitalist development, but also because it is the largest employer of low-income internal migrants in China and India. Though legally citizens, low-income internal migrants in both countries are often treated as aliens when they move from rural areas into cities. The experience of construction workers in the city thus provides a site where the exercise and contestation of citizenship becomes observable.

The findings of my dissertation can be summarized as follows: precarious working and living conditions introduce tremendous difficulties for workers in Beijing and Delhi to engage in public acts of resistance. However, to the extent that workers sometimes engage in such acts of resistance, I find workers in Beijing to be more active citizens than workers in Delhi, in terms of their rights consciousness, their preparedness for rights contestation, and their propensity to engage in public acts of claims-making directed towards the state. Based on these findings, my dissertation analyzes two mechanisms of citizenship contestation – mechanisms through which citizens are silenced, and mechanisms of citizen resistance – at two levels of analysis at two levels of analysis: the micro-individual, and the macro-institutional.

Mechanisms of Silencing: I find the pervasive market practice of subcontracting to be instrumental to citizen silencing. At the micro-individual level, subcontracting introduces multiple sources of surveillance and control on construction workers, ranging from the intimate gaze of petty labor bosses who often live with workers in dormitories, to the multiplicity of actors along the subcontracting hierarchy who each have a stake in maximizing the output of workers. At the macro-institutional level, subcontracting undermines labor security, but not, as existing literature suggests, due to the lack of state regulation. Rather, I argue that, in China and India, conditions of precarity are formalized and institutionalized by the state through the law, albeit in different ways.

Mechanisms of Resistance: Given the authoritarian state and the limited space for civil society in China, and the presence of formal constitutional democracy and a vibrant civil society in India, it may seem puzzling that workers in Beijing are more active citizens than workers in Delhi. Here, at the micro-individual level, I find that the higher literacy of workers in Beijing, as well as Chinese workers’ lived experience of the culture of public engagement with the state, contribute to greater basic capabilities to fight for their rights. At the macro-institutional level, I argue that the highly professionalized civil society organizations found in Delhi often re-route mediations between workers and the state through various civil society middlemen, giving rise to what I call “subcontracted citizenship”. In contrast, in the face of the relative scarcity of civil society resources, construction workers in Beijing are forced to do the “dirty work” of fighting for their citizenship rights themselves, and as such, learn by doing.