In our paper, ‘Digital heritage politics from the perspective of relational sociology: the case of Nüshu culture in China’ we develop a new conceptual framework that systematises and comprehends the complex dynamics of cultural heritage politics in China. While current discourse theory acknowledges that heritage-making entails complex relationships that structure this making, there is as yet no systematic theoretical account of how these relationships co-exist, mediate and transform heritage-making. To address this gap, we have developed a relational sociological framework based on the work of John Dewey and his idea of consider self-action, inter-action and trans-action, but have also taken inspiration from Chinese scholars who have explored the relevance of Guanxi beyond its immediate business context.
In aligning relational sociology with heritage-making, our aim is to link different forms of relationing to the implicit theoretical notions that underpin heritage research as a first step towards systemising this broad field. While this serves to indicate the robustness of the proposed theoretical framework, it would be misleading to consider self-action, inter-action and trans-action as existing independently. Just as Guanxi emphasises how relations build on each other to generate social complexity, we contend that the proposed framework brings these different approaches into mutual dialogue. For instance, discourse-based approaches tend to reject the notion of ‘found’ heritage. However, one might also question why and how such models of self-action operate in contexts where social reality is treated as a given. In that regard, we will explore how self-action, inter-action and trans-action are produced and reproduced and how they relate and influence each other.
To shape the development to this framework, we have based it on a case study of Nüshu, the dominant language and culture in villages on the southwestern frontier of China’s Hunan Province. Using netnography, the study analyses a range of online accounts and websites that form part of the heritage-making process. Drawing on rich digital material that includes online competitions, virtual conversations or comments and digital certificates, the findings highlight the need for a more dynamic relational perspective that acknowledges the mutuality of heritage producers and the process of heritage-making.
Based on this research, we could systematise existing research, for instance, which invokes substantialist notions of heritage (as ‘found’ or ‘natural’) conceives of heritage as self-action. Employing a discourse model, our framework serves to clarify the nature of relational orderings by conceiving of heritage in terms of Deweyan inter-action, emphasising the roles of contestation, negotiation and cooperation in heritage-making. These results open up new routes to consider heritage-making and the broader issue of how meaning-making as a key sociological construct can be theorised in relational terms. As noted by other authors, any such exploration promises to extend and enrich dialogue between scholars from East and West.
The full paper is available here.