Workshop, Mar 2014


Tessa Morris-Suzuki

I was struck by several common themes that emerged from out papers. One was the recurring questions of “consciousness”. What sort of consciousness do various forms of informal life politics generate? The traditional ideological divisions of formal politics were often assumed to be based on class consciousness (though religion and other factors play a role too in some places). But in the activities that we are looking at, a wide range of different potential (and sometimes multiple and intersecting) consciousnesses seem to be coming into play, even within the same group. These include a sense of local consciousness, connection to a particular community, but also I think often a strong sense of individual consciousness – the awareness of one’s own capabilities, or of the need for self-reliance (this seems perhaps most evident in Eun-jeong’s study, but it is also evident in almost all the cases we are looking at). A shared consciousness of uncertainty or unease can also be an important outcome of informal life politics.

A second interesting theme is the way in which the actions we are looking at affect people’s sense of place, or relationship with their physical surroundings. In many cases, the informal life politics actions create a focus on a “special place”, which is the centre of collected action. They may also generate a new sense of the value and meaning of the local environment (as in the case of Shuge’s and Wuqi’s studies), or (as in Wuqi’s study) create a new sense of the connectedness of the local environment to other more distant environments (the Steppe). I think that questions of people’s sense of place, and how it is changed by informal life politics actions, will be important issues to follow-up in our fieldwork. How do people map their world, and how is that conceptual mapping changed by the experience of participation in informal life politics actions?

On a somewhat related note, I really enjoyed our photo session. It made clear to me how much photographic (and other) images can be used, not only to tell a story but also to raise questions or highlight ambiguities. They will of course also be particularly useful as we develop ideas about the sense of place embodied in particular grassroots actions.

As in our earlier discussions, the issue of the relationship between formal and informal politics was also an important theme. The two of course almost always exist side-by-side and interact to some extent, but does informal politics become particularly important when avenues for participation in the formal political sphere are blocked or atrophy? This is an important question to explore, and I really don’t know the answer yet.

Finally, thank you so much to everyone for the wonderful papers and discussion, and for making this a very enjoyable and creative occasion.

Eunjeong Soh

I think the sites we choose to examine are located at the margins, local than national and in the lives of the ordinary and dispossessed than of the powerful. We also look at daily events than extraordinary events; actions, choices, meanings, values and feelings we observe are intricately related to daily life. This may occur with or without a purpose of expanding shared interests. But daily life of the ordinary and dispossessed cannot disregard concerns for private interests. Even in the case of actions concerned with private interests, if the actions consequently result in outcome of challenging the existing power structure, the actions may collectively still qualify as a public action. In this aspect, the phenomena we study are politics. Tessa’s use of the term “collected actions” over collective actions, Tom’s use of the term consciousness, and Scott’s everyday forms of resistance, Bayat’s nonmovement, and Haenfler et al.’s lifestyle movements, all challenge the existing dichotomy between what is public and private and between life and politics.

These grassroots movements take place in response to what is more powerful- whether it is the paternalistic state, existing body of knowledge, certain sets of development policies, or elite-centred political movements. Responses are triggered by physical destruction of livelihoods, incapacity of the existing schemes to address immediate needs in daily life, betrayals by politicians in addressing interests of the locals, the state of anomy, and minimalization of self in the process of revolution.

Resources available to the grassroots actors also blur the boundary between public and private and traditional and modern. The ideological resource can come from reinterpretation of the existing ideological hegemony as well as new ways of thinking about life adopted from a distant thinker. Cooperation may take place through pre-existing networks of family and friends or based on a high level of trust among strangers. Tacit coordination of action may simply be a consequence of actions learned by socialization rather than of cooperation intended.

In my case of private farming in North Korea, I examined how and why non-farmers farm on the mountainsides. Though my conclusion that the farming embodies risk-averseness of the farmers is theory-informed, the observation was derived inductively from the accounts of refugees on their experience of small plot farming in North Korea. Risk-averseness is a tendency to make choices among alternative actions “to minimize their chances of falling below some subsistence minimum which may be culturally or biologically defined” (Joseph Henrich and Richard McElreath, “Are peasants risk-averse decision makers?,” Current Anthropology 43, 2002, 173). Such nature of the farmers is demonstrated in their decision to farm, in their crop choices, and in what they do with the produce.

This case study parallels with other studies in the group that the nature of grassroots concerns is different from how the state as well as outsiders understand of the people’s needs. It demonstrates the nature of the farmers’ concern, and any policies that disregard the concern are likely to be futile. My upcoming researches will look at more explicitly public actions in North Korea. Considering the existing political and social circumstances in North Korea, where freedom of association is limited, I propose to look at local people’s committees, their responses to food crises, natural disasters and other matters related to economic livelihoods.


Comparisons of consciousness and survival across Northeast Asia

Tom Cliff

Some of the most interesting things to come out of the workshop arose from the comparison between different countries at different stages of their recent history. This is a comparison that is built into the design of the project itself, with the Informal Life Politics group made up of historians and social scientists working on different nation-states in Northeast Asia. The comparison was particularly appropriate when comparing similar social movements in the different countries.

Yonjae Paik’s meticulously-crafted paper on South Korean female factory workers’ conditions, ideologies and techniques of mobilisation during the 1970s resonated strongly with my own contemporary (and ongoing) case study on an unofficial organisation for migrant workers on the outskirts of Beijing, China. The organisation in my case study (I shall refer to it here as The Home), takes the socialist-sounding ‘Labour is Glorious’ as its primary slogan. Similarly, in-depth interviews with the South Korean female workers reveal that small-group mobilisation (by missionaries) helped to foster a sense of self-respect and pride in their status as factory workers. A female factory worker told how she used to be “ashamed” to tell what she did for a living, but, by the time of the interview in 1980, “realised that labour is really important indeed” (19). From the ‘post-industrial’ perspective that many scholars of labour take by virtue of their physical and professional location, such a resonance must seem unsurprising. Is this sense of personal worth not a primary objective of labour movements the world over, and through history? This is a question that I have yet to explore fully, and if I push this speculation too far in the way I have stated it above, then I nevertheless feel confident that it has validity well beyond Northeast Asia in the post-Cold War era.

In the introduction to his seminal essay Citizenship and Social Class, TH Marshall quoted Alfred Marshall as saying that “the working classes” (of the late 1940s) are “steadily developing independence and a manly (sic) respect for themselves… They are steadily accepting the private and public duties of a citizen; steadily increasing their grasp of the truth that they are men (sic), and not producing machines” (1992 [1950]: 5). The political leader of The Home (Beijing) repeated almost exactly the same thing to me in vernacular Chinese in October 2013. Aside from the significant differences in these two speakers’ statuses, and the times and places from which they were speaking, the grassroots leader in China spoke of popular awareness among workers that “they are humans, and not machines” as an objective, something yet to be realised. Across present-day China more broadly, numerous organisations that call themselves NGOs are attempting to construct some sort of consciousness among a particular social group.

A comparison of “most different” cases is revealing of the broader theme of survival raised in the above paragraphs:

Survival takes many forms, and is shaped in part by the nature of that which is being survived. From Eun Jeong Soh’s paper on small plot farming in present-day North Korea, I get the feeling that many people would be relieved by the prospect of mindless work for 10 hours a day, just so long as they could be sure of feeding their families. This is survival of the most basic sort that one can find within an industrialised human society. Just across the East Sea/Sea of Japan, Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s exploration of the responses to and uncertainties surrounding nuclear accident demonstrates the very different nature of what is being survived in Northeast Asia’s foremost ‘post-industrial’ economy. The understanding (and misunderstanding) of this threat is shaped by discourses and information from both above and below, both institutional science and “citizen scientists” (32); this driven by a continuing faith, in some quarters, in the ability of technological progress to ameliorate the problems that it creates, and a questioning of that faith in others. The images of still-leaking reactors at Fukushima Daiichi and of the vulnerability of nuclear technology conjured up in Morris-Suzuki’s paper suggest to me that the post-industrial age may only just (or even not yet) have begun, and that it may last for a lot longer than the industrial age. If nuclear power and atomic weaponry represent the apotheosis of industrial modernity, and the post-industrial is “after but not yet beyond”[1] the industrial age, then the post-industrial age may last as long as the half-life of a radioactive particle. The very notion of survival itself survives and transforms because new threats constantly arise. Taken as a whole, Northeast Asia is fertile ground on which to investigate survival movements under diverse environmental, social, political and economic conditions.

[1] This is how Batchen (2001: 109) defines ‘post-photography.’


Writing with heart: what I learnt about writing style during the informal life politics workshop, March 2014

Shuge Wei

 The workshop renewed my understanding of what is a good academic writing. I have attended many workshops on improving academic skills during my PhD and post-PhD study. Most of them focused on how to develop our research topics or to collect the most materials during archival/fieldwork trips, yet none paid attention to improving the most fundamental ability that we need on a daily basis — the ability to write. As a non-native speaker, writing in English is especially difficult. Apart from the constant struggle to rummage through the reservoir of my humble vocabulary only to find a word that remotely approaches the meaning I desire to express, another challenge that haunts me is the frequent self-inquiry about the proper voice of scholarly writing. How much does one place oneself in the text? Does one integrate one’s subjectivity in the writing, or does one examine one’s object based only on established facts? How much interpretation does one provide in order to weave oneself into the story, or should one simply let the facts speak for themselves?

Having been trained as a historian, I habitually keep a distance from the people and their stories I write about, refraining from saying anything further than what the historical sources suggest. Objectivity becomes the ultimate goal during writing, which justifies my use of a bird-view vision and thus the sense of detachment as a result of it. In a spectrum where “objectivity” and “subjectivity” are the opposite ends, my initial understanding of academic writing lies very close to the former; actually, too close to ignore the fact that history itself is a subjective interpretation of the past and those so-called established “facts” are often selected or happen to have the chance to survive throughout difficult times. Meanwhile, although our readers are most likely going to be academic peers who share our appreciation of objective observation and rationality, they nevertheless remain human beings with the desire to be amused and feel engaged. Discussions on what constitutes a good opening and writing style together with the writing exercise about describing a photograph have led me to challenge my previous understanding of what the academic writing standard is, and re-consider where a good academic writing lies in regards to objectivity and subjectivity. When a reader reads a book, s/he is involved in a mental conversation with the author. Not being stingy with details on oneself and one’s personal experiences is somehow a virtue that can show the writer’s willingness to communicate. And the inviting atmosphere created may eventually help to convey the idea further. However, the third and perhaps most important benefit of first-person observations, is that when informants or situations are being discussed in relation to the author (such as by way of direct engagement with them), it allows the reader to better assess either the responses of the informants or the situation related. Indeed, a non-engaging writing style would not prevent a person to become a good scholar, so long as his/her research is dense and solid. Yet the best scholars are usually those who write engagingly without jeopardising the quality of their research. In my case, I guess I should freemyheart (emotion) from the domination of my mind (rationality) a bit more during writing, and do not feel too shy of sharing my own interpretations.



On Consciousness

Yonjae Paik

‘Consciousness’ emerged as a keyword during this workshop, and we had some time to think about the nature of consciousness embedded in the informal life politics of our cases. After coming back from the workshop, Wuqi and I discussed people’s consciousness of environmental problems in South Korea and Japan, and found that the term ‘eco’ is being used (by itself or as a prefix) in a very similar way to conceptualise an environment-friendly mindset. An instant web search confirmed the commonality in usage of the term ‘eco’ in both countries. Therefore, we decided to write about people’s consciousness of environment-friendly lifestyles by examining the use of the term ‘eco’ in South Korea and in Japan.

I found from newspaper archives that it was 1991 when ‘eco’ began to appear in the newspapers in South Korea. Han’gyŏyesinmun (6 June, 1991) reported that a Korean company began a company-wide campaign called the ‘eco-2000 movement’, to protect the environment. Maeilgyŏngje (21 June, 1991) printed a government plan to build an ‘eco-polis’, or environmentally friendly model city, by 1996. Han’gyŏyesinmun (16 August, 1991) published a report that Paedarhwan’gyŏngyŏn’guso, a private research institute established by the professors at Seoul National University, launched an ‘eco-bank’ to fund the institute’s project budget. And Maeilgyŏngje (29 November, 1991) ran an article about the ‘sensational popularity of eco-labelled products in Japan’.

The newspaper coverage reveals that government and business played a major part in introducing the term ‘eco’. Until 1991, environmental NGOs in South Korea mainly fought for people who had suffered from pollution in industrial areas. According to Do-Wan Ku (2006),[1] earlier environmental activists were influenced by ‘leftist-environmentalism’, and took a political approach, regarding the authoritarian government (specifically, its development drive) as the main cause of environmental problems. Hence, their efforts were concentrated on local anti-pollution struggles against the government.

In March, 1991, the ‘Phenol Spillage Accident’ along the Nakdong River was a turning point in the Korean environmental movement. The safety of tap water began to be questioned among the general public after several contaminants were found in tap water (heavy metal in 1989, and Trihalomethane in 1990), and the Phenol Spillage Accident ignited public anger at the government and business. For the first time, the public started a boycott for environmental reasons. The boycott of goods made by Doosan Group (the business conglomerate that owned the polluter company) led to the resignations of Doosan Group’s CEO, and the minister and vice-minister of the Environmental Protection Agency. In short, it is supposed that the government and business were active in introducing the new term ‘eco’ in 1991, when they were under great pressure from the public to take measures to tackle environmental problems.

As time went on, the term ‘eco’ was most actively embraced by business to improve the public image of companies and attract emerging ‘green consumers’. Green consumers were not those who were engaged in the anti-pollution movement, but ordinary people in the market place who wanted to promote a sense of environmental responsibility with their purchasing power. Responding to this change, the Korean government also introduced an ‘Eco Label’ in 1992 to certify environment-friendly products. Overall, ‘eco’ became a key word that represented the consciousness of those who tried to embrace environment-friendly practices in their daily economic activities.

I would like to finish by raising the question of whether this is a case of informal life politics. While the protests against the polluting company responsible for the Phenol Spillage Accident dissipated with the passage of time, ‘eco’ came to reside in people’s consciousness as related to market activities. From a consumer’s perspective, ‘eco’ was a consciousness that did not prescribe membership. In most cases, a consumer’s decision between environmental and economic incentives was left to the individual’s discretion. As such, I suggest that this is more to do with a lifestyle movement than informal life politics, although making a clear distinction between these two seems beyond my ability at this stage.[2]

[1]Ku, D.-W. (2006). ‘Han’guk Hwan’gyŏngundongŭi Tamnon: Nangmanjuŭiwa Hamnijuŭi’ [Discourse of Environmental Movement in Korea: Romanticism and Rationalism], Kyŏngjewasahoe, 69: 128–153. Ku also described another stream of environmental activism, Saengmyŏngundong (生命運動), that pursued communal living based on respect for every form of life.

[2] Haenfler, R., Johnson, B., and Jones, E. (2012). ‘Lifestyle Movements: Exploring the Intersection of Lifestyle and Social Movements, Social Movement Studies’, Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest, 11(1): 1–20.


Growing environmental consciousness


Consciousness was mentioned most frequently at our workshop, such as the consciousness of dignity, the consciousness of human being, and the consciousness of citizenship in Tom’s case study, and the consciousness of educated youth and herdsmen to protect grassland in my case study. After we returned to Canberra, Yonjae and I discussed issues of the consciousness of ecology and eco-life in Japan, Korea and China.

An important question arises—where does people’s environmental consciousness come from? A study shows that the occurrence of environment pollution is one of the factors that stimulate people’s awareness of the importance of environment〔1.〕 This reminds me of friends living in polluted air in Beijing and of herdsman in Eastern Ujimchin banner of Inner Mongolia whose life affected by industrial pollution.

I often use WeChat to communicate with my friends in Beijing. WeChat is very popular in China. Like Facebook, it provides multimedia communication services—text, photo, and voice message communication. Most of my friends use it. It records their daily life, such as their five-year old son bought an interesting book, or the mother made a delicious cake during the weekend. However, their peaceful daily life has been mixed with a sense of crisis on air pollution in recent years. They frequently uploaded photos of pollutions with brief comments. When air pollution got worse, my friends complained about the weather, or intentionally limited their outdoor activities, or wore masks when they went out.

Above is the photo of the masks a friend of mine has uploaded on February 25th, 2014 with his comments say “on the right side is a new mask and on the left is the same mask used only for an hour walking outside”. From the photos, we can clearly see that the used mask has turned grey. Imagine if they do not wear masks, the pollutants will be absorbed into their bodies. During the Spring Festival last year, many friends did not buy fireworks although firing fireworks is one of the long-cherished traditions in China. Friends all said that air pollution in Beijing is already very serious and they couldn’t bear to make it worse by fireworks. Clearly,air pollution has a verydirect impact on my friends’ environmental awarenessand environmentalbehavior.

In the case of Eastern Ujimchin banner in Inner Mongolia, the local paper mill contaminated herders’ pasture and the underground water, causing death of their livestock and illness of herdsmen who drank the water, as well as other serious consequences.In order to fight the pollution caused by the paper mill, the herdsmen victims learned the environmental laws, brought a lawsuit against the mill, and organized an environmental protection association.Moreover, in the course of fighting against the paper mill, herders increased the awareness of land ownership, thus leading to the movement of the requirements of local herders’ collective land ownership.

Echoing steppe, Damrinzab standing beside a waste pool of paper mill and showing recent conditions of the waste water, 21 August 2007〔2.〕

Obviously, the degree of environmental consciousness increases with the seriousness of pollution. Furthermore, Dayong Hong notes that people’s environmental awareness and legal awarenesshas the potential to make up for the deficiency of existing environmental protection mechanism. He suggested that the residence environmental activists will become relatively independent social forces and will play an important role in the reduction and removal of the environment pollution in China〔3.〕Therefore, how people, who live in the contaminated situation, actively improve their living environment is an important research question that I will take tomyfieldwork in Inner Mongolia.


〔1〕Research on national public environmental literacy indicator system, 2010, retrieved from

〔2〕Cited on Dumrinzab protecting the grassland in accordance with the law (in Chinese), Web. 1 April 2014.

〔3〕Dayong Hong 2008 On the improvement of China’s environmental governance in a new direction (in Chinese), Hunan Social Sciences 2008. Vo.3. 79-82.


Laureate Project Everyday Life Politics Writing Workshop –Impressions

Emma Campbell

 I feel very lucky to have been included in this writing workshop and would like to thank Tessa and all members of the laureate project for warmly welcoming me into the group. My lasting impressions of the workshop can be summarised as follows:

The submitted papers

  1. I was very impressed by the quality of the research upon which the papers submitted for the workshop were based notwithstanding the fact that most of the participants had not yet carried out fieldwork. The excellent documentary research is a result of the strong language skills of each member of the laureate team. For many ESL speakers, who are focused upon their English language writing skills, there is a tendency to underestimate the power and importance of being able to carry out research in their native language, as well as being able to present and analyse those foreign language sources in English.
  2. The similarity in the themes that emerged from the papers presented at the workshop was striking. Although each paper looked at different countries and movements there were obvious commonalities. These included, for example, the idea of inspiring political and social ‘consciousness ‘, the importance of identity within these movements and also the role of popular culture. This bodes well for the coherency of the project and opportunities for collaborative outputs such as an edited volume or papers making importance comparative empirical and theoretical contributions to the academic debate surrounding social movements and everyday politics.


  1. I was also struck by the value of the empirical work for broader understandings of the contemporary political and social conditions of the respective countries of interest. Here I refer not only to the specific groups and issues that each of the team members is working on, but also what their work tells us about broader political structures and processes inside these countries. The paper on China provided a fascinating insight into the relative power of local, regional and central government and the paper on North Korea provided evidence that regional government in the DPRK often works independently of central policy and power, and that individuals often work independently of both regional and central government authority.

Writing skills

The main take-away messages on writing skills were:

  • The technique (and power) of hooking the reader with a personal story at the beginning of an article
  • The importance of clearly defining the question and arguments that the paper will address.


As a result of this writing workshop, I published the opinion piece written during the ‘writing exercise’on the ANU College of Asia and Pacific website. I also made changes to my paper based on the comments I received during the workshop. I subsequently sent it to the Asia-Pacific Journal where it has been reviewed and I have received a ‘revise and resubmit’instruction.

Practical considerations

I very much enjoyed the beautiful location of the event which enhanced the experience and provided much inspiration. In particular I enjoyed cooking and sharing a meal together.


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