Cornell University

CCCI: The Shenzhen Condition: An Anthropology of the Intercultural

Monday, March 27, 2017 at 4:30pm to 6:00pm

Goldwin Smith Hall, G64, Kaufmann Auditorium
232 East Ave, Central Campus

Mary Ann O'Donnell, ethnographer based in Shenzhen, China

The place name “Shenzhen” glosses ongoing efforts to intervene in world history. This turn, the dominant agent is the Chinese state, which has used Shenzhen to reform the country’s planned economy, opening it to global capital. Shenzhen’s emergence as an important landmark in the Pearl River Delta follows on Ming Dynasty piracy, British colonial expansion, international socialism, the Cold War, and the rise of the East Asian Tigers. This talk compares and contrasts Chinese and North American accounts of early manufacturing in Shenzhen—roughly 1978 through 2004—to map some of the landmarks of this intercultural condition which is not actually thick, but necessarily thin. A membrane. A rebus strip. A window pane in which we are all on the outside, looking “in” at another outside. Today, O'Donnell thinks about this condition as a daisy chain of boundary objects which “facilitate cooperation across social worlds without requiring agreement [about meaning].”[1] The concept of boundary objects was first developed to explain the collaborative production of scientific facts and systems of classification. For example, the classification of birds resulted from collaboration between scientists and bird watchers who shared rules in the production of knowledge even as both groups went on to use this knowledge (and the activities themselves) to achieve other, unrelated goals. In the case of the Shenzhen condition, the speaker is interested in mapping three boundary objects—“the fishing village,” “the grim frontiers of capitalism,” and the catchphrase “time is money.” These three boundary objects enabled North American and Chinese media to deploy early manufacturing in Shenzhen to achieve very different social goals, placing “Shenzhen” on very different world maps even as on-the-ground interactions depended on their presumed equivalence and facile translation.


[1] McSherry, Corynne. 2001. Who Owns Academic Work? Battling for Control of Intellectual Property. Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, p. 15.