Yu Tao
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Doctoral Project 博士项目

‘Enemies of the State’ or ‘Friends of the Harmonious Society’?Religious Groups and Collective Protests in Contemporary Rural China

My doctoral project is a study of the relationship between religious groups and collective contention in contemporary rural China. It is framed by two broad lines of inquiry. The first is empirical: which religious groups are more willing and capable of mediating conflicts, and therefore better at preventing contained contention from escalating into transgressive protests? The second is theoretical and aims to provide a more thorough understanding of the three puzzles at the centre of the ongoing debates in political sociology: the roles of religious groups in collective contention, the relationship between contained and transgressive contention, and the impact that social capital has on contentious politics.

Drawing upon rich original empirical data, my thesis employs a mixed-methods approach. The statistical analysis based on national survey data first demonstrates that, contrary to the predictions of most existing theories, no obvious direct correlation exists between religious groups and collective contention in contemporary rural China. This contrast of findings, as then revealed by the comparative case studies based on my intensive fieldwork, is due to the fact that religious groups with different varieties of social capital tend to play different roles in contentious politics.

In order to survive through hostile circumstances, religious groups in secular authoritarian countries such as contemporary China normally have strong bonding social capital – social ties between members of a network who are similar in a socio-demographic sense. Bonding social capital allows religious groups to mobilise their members to act together to achieve common goals, but such features can also encourage secular authoritarian rulers regard religious groups as threats to their regimes and limit the roles of these groups in society. Religious groups that can still play active roles in social cohesion and reconciliation under harsh circumstances often have two or more varieties of social capital.

First, ‘bridging social capital’ between religious groups and secular social organisations allows the former to push its agenda through the latter. In so doing religious groups become less politically sensitive and more influential, and are thus more likely to proactively engage in local public affairs, including conflicts that could develop into collective contention.

Second, ‘linking social capital’ connects religious groups with local state agencies. When combined with bridging social capital, it enables religious groups to serve as credible negotiation channels between the state and discontented citizens, allowing grievances and claims to be expressed through contained means, preventing trivial conflicts from escalating into collective contention. This ‘varieties of social capital’ framework is also confirmed by statistical tests against the national survey data.

According to the findings of my doctoral project, although contained and transgressive contention may seem quite different, they are in fact not two separated categories of collective action but rather can transfer into one another. Moreover, there is no absolute answer to whether religious groups increase or decrease collective contention, because religious groups that have different varieties of social capital tend to play different roles in collective contention. Furthermore, social capital simply facilitates communication and coordination, and its actual impact on collective contention depends on who uses it and how they choose to do so.

Supervisor: Professor Patricia M. Thornton

Research Interests 研究兴趣
  • state-religion relations and state-society relations
  • religious groups and other intermediary social groups
  • social movements, protests, contentious politics, and conflict resolution
  • innovative marketing strategies of states, international reigns, and NGOs
  • the relationship between disciplinary studies and area studies (especially, the relationship between political science and China studies)
Research Funding 研究经费
  • Warden's Written-up Bursary (for finishing my doctoral project), St Antony's College, 2014. [£1,000]
  • Dissertation Fellowship (for finishing my doctoral project), The Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange, 2013-14. [€12,000]
  • Dahrendorf Scholarship (for conducting an independant research on the knowledge infrastructure of free speech), Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom, 2013-14. [£1,000]
  • T. D. Allman Scholarship (for conducint my doctoral project), St Antony's College, Oxford. 2011-13. [£10,000]
  • Contemporary China Studies Programme Scholarship (for conducint my doctoral project), Contemporary China Studies Programme, University of Oxford, 2012-13. [£2,500]
  • Departmental Scholarship (for conducint my doctoral project), Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. 2011-12. [£3,000]
  • PSA Conference Supporting Fund (for prestenting a paper at the 6th APSIA Congrass, HK), Political Studies Association, 2012. [£500]
  • China Oxford Scholarship (for conducint my doctoral project), China Oxford Scholarship Fund. 2010-11. [£5,000]
  • Travel Grant (for conducting pilot fieldwork), China Centre, Oxford. 2011. [£500]
  • PSA Postgraduate Access Fund (for prestenting a paper at the 61st Political Studies Association Annual Conference), Political Studies Association. 2011. [£500]




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This page was last updated on 27 September 2014 | © Yu Tao 2012-14