China Seminar 6 March: David Palmer: The Aporia of Chinese Volunteers

The Aporia of Chinese Volunteers: Moral Breakdown and Ethical Moments

David A. Palmer (The University of Hong Kong) and Rundong Ning (Yale University)

Following the Beijing Olympics and the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008, the past decade has seen the large-scale development and institutionalization of volunteering in China, which has taken various forms ranging from projects sponsored by the Communist Party Youth League to serving in grassroots NGOs. Based on participant observation at a school for children of migrant workers in Beijing and on interviews with educational volunteers in a range of organizations, this paper will explore the dilemmas faced by volunteers when confronting social expectations about their motivations and goals in volunteering. Devoted volunteers distance themselves from the two dominant discourses of utilitarianism and revolutionary collectivism that frame volunteering in China today, preferring to use an idiom of self-expression, of a personal choice that warrants no justification. Drawing on Joel Robbins’ and Jared Zygon’s analysis of moral discourses in times of societal moral breakdown, the paper analyses how, faced with contradictory ethical demands, volunteers struggle to make sense of their own engagement.



Dr. David A. Palmer is an Associate Professor of Anthropology in the department of Sociology and in the Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Hong Kong. His books include the award-winning Qigong Fever: Body, Science and Utopia in China (Columbia University Press, 2007); The Religious Question in Modern China (University of Chicago Press, co-authored with Vincent Goossaert 2011; awarded the Levenson Book Prize of the Association for Asian Studies); and Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality (University of Chicago Press, co-authored with Elijah Siegler, 2017).


Location: Vrieshof 4/012

Time: 6 March 15:15-17:00 p.m.