Reflections after CIRC11


My collegues Marina Svensson and Barbara Schulte have earlier posted their reflections of the China and the New Internet World Conferences that were held in Oxford between the 14-15th of June this year. I found the conferences informative and interesting. In this blogpost I would like to add some of my thoughts that sprung out after these conferences.

The first point that I would like to raise is that China Internet Studies appears to be very closely associated with media and communication studies. This was confirmed by the presentations of David Kurt Leopold and Jack Qiu. Both of them had done extensive literature surveys of the field and showed that Chinese Internet studies is dominated largely by media and communication scholars. The topic itself is of course inter-disciplinary and I think more projects such as Digital China would be needed to grasp the connectivity of judicial, social, economic, and political forces in the shaping of the Internet in China. When talking about the lack of interfaces to other disciplines, it was particularly obvious that more studies of the business and/or economics of the Internet in China made by scholars within business studies would be needed. Several presenters informed us about the power of firms such as Weibo, Tencent, Alibaba, Huawei etc. The general idea seemed to be that firms act as principal agents in shaping the Internet in China, but at the same time firms were outside of the analytical scope. If firms are assigned such an important role shaping the Internet in China I would expect there to be stronger attempts to include them in an analytical frame, however there were almost no discussion of how such actors could be systematically studied as a part of a larger system or phenomenon during the conferences. A similar argument was made by Marina Svensson in an earlier blogpost: ”with Chinese ICT companies being some of the world’s most dynamic and successful, and given the fact that they play a crucial role in censorship and control, more research into the business model and workings of Sina, Tencent, Huawei, Baidu and others seems called for”. In this context an observation, made by Yang Guobing in one of his presentations, where especially interesting. Yang noted that ICT firms have become an extension of the state in terms of control and censorship. As a business scholar I find this very interesting in particular with regards to how institutional contexts affect strategies of firms. The political embeddedness of firms in China in the ICT sector could definately contribute to new understandings of business strategy and behaviour. With this understanding I also see opportunities for cross fertalization between various theoretical fields within the interdisciplinary scope of China Internet Studies.

The second point that I would like to bring up is that China Internet Studies is foremost an empirical research area, and Jack Qiu particularly noted that there is a need to ask: what more general conclusions and theoretical contributions could we arrive at? A discussion of what these studies should and could contribute to, is of course not new. Area studies has long struggled with such issues and the field of China Internet Studies do seemingly not have a clear answer to that. My anecdotal collection of opinions from participants of the conferences, on this matter seemed to range from the view that providing information about Internet use per se was enough, others provided the view that empirical findings should always contribute to a larger theoretical phenomenon. As a scholar working in the intersection of area studies, and an academic discipline with a clear theoretical agenda (business administration), I am well familar with the conflict. In my experience the solution however relate to a large extent to where researchers choose to publish and the norms of the academic institution where one is based. As a concluding remark I would like to say that my hope was to create interesting intersections theoretically and empirically when joining the Digital China project. The China and the New Internet World Conferences re-confirmed that these aims are highly relevant and needed.


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