Rethinking Son Preference – Gender, Population Dynamics and Social Change in the People’s Republic of China
Abstract: This dissertation explores how son preference is constructed and renegotiated in light of social change in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Based on secondary sources and interviews with women and men in rural Anhui Province as well as key informants, it addresses son preference from conceptual, methodological, empirical and ideological perspectives. The analysis centres around son preference understood as a social institution that is both gendered/sexed and has intergenerational characteristics. The dissertation suggests that in the PRC, son preference is a “double sensitive” issue to study as it has become politically incorrect due to the Care for Girls Campaign, and as it is often perceived by government officials as easily leading to criticising the population policy. It proposes that there are two main approaches to studying son preference, namely the outcome approach, which focuses on how son preference manifests itself, and the causal approach, which zooms in on different factors underpinning the institution of son preference. It argues that accounts about the scope and prevalence of son preference are often informed by an outcome approach, where sex ratio at birth (SRB) imbalance is typically regarded as a proxy indicator of son preference. However, the dissertation challenges the usefulness of using SRB as a proxy indicator and suggests that when put in relation to fertility rates, SRB can be used to model “son compulsion”, which denotes that parents want to give birth to at least one son and take action in order to meet that goal. However, as demonstrated, there is no direct link between son compulsion and the institution of son preference, since son compulsion can be triggered by what is termed the “supply-factor”, i.e. that prenatal sex-selection is becoming more available and morally and socially acceptable. When adopting a causal approach, it becomes clear that the institution of son preference is being renegotiated through a dynamic process of individual and structural factors, which are anchored in a society that is becoming increasingly commercialised and individualised, and which is marked by low fertility levels, an ageing population and large flows of rural-urban migration. Still, due to ideological reasons related to the population policy, the role of the Chinese Communist Party in disciplining social order and ideas about modernity, son preference is often depicted in both official and popular discourses as something essentially “traditional”, “rural”, “backward” and “feudal”. In reality, however, son preference is becoming renegotiated in ways which blur the divide between “rural” and “urban”, and “traditional” and “modern”.
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