Workshop, July 2013



Tessa Morris-Suzuki

Very many thanks to all of you for your participation in the workshop. I really enjoyed the opportunity to get to know all the team better, and to discuss the nature of informal life politics and our various projects with you. Also many thanks to Simon Avenell and Chung Jiehye for their input, and to Hanbyol both for her input and for all her help in organizing everything.

For me, our discussions helped to clarify several aspects of informal life politics. Informal life politics occurs where people respond to a challenge to their existence by taking mitigating action on their own behalf (rather than by demanding action from government).

It is not a purely individual activity, but involves at least several people acting “collectedly” or “collectively” (“collectedly” means that several people act with some sort of awareness of each others’ action, though not necessarily in an organized way.)

Creating and sharing new sorts of knowledge is often an important aspect of informal life politics – as in, citizen science, creation of alternative historical narratives that affirm existence of neglected groups etc. Informal life politics may also often involve forms of action that are not conventionally associated with the “political” – music or drama, for example.

Informal life politics does not exist in isolation from formal politics or more organized social movements. It is part of a dynamic mix, and can therefore also generate formal political action in some circumstances.

Historically, the growing importance of informal life politics can be understood in the context of the shift from the “Total Cold War” era (1950s – 1970s – involving heavy industrialization, mass education and an emphasis on state welfare) to the “Late Cold War” and then “Post Cold War” eras (with the emergence of so-called “postindustrial” economies, the globalization of the market and the winding back of the role of the state.)


Shuge Wei

My first case study “From Formal to Informal: the Anti-Nuclear Movement in Taiwan, 2000–2012”explores the transition of the anti-nuclear power movement in Taiwan from a party-endorsed formal political activity (1986–2000) to a depoliticized informal social movement (2000–the present). It traces why this transition has happened and what strategies the local villagers are employing to insulate anti-nuclear power protest from partisan struggles. This project seeks to reveal the nuance of political pursuits by various social and professional groups in urban political centres and local nuclear waste-affected areas. It aims to examine how anti- and pro-nuclear activists utilize public information to advance their political appeal. By examining the relationship between the anti-nuclear movement in Taiwan and bipartisan politics, I intend to reflect the vulnerability of grass-root local movements in the face of domestic politics and international influence.

My second case study “To Rekindle a Nation’s Memory: Sino-Japanese War and Civil War Veterans’ Struggle for Recognition in mainland China and Taiwan, 1978–2012” explores the efforts of Sino-Japanese War and Civil War veterans to revive war memory in order to secure proper social recognition and social welfare in the post-Mao era in mainland China and Taiwan. It seeks to investigate how veterans who share the same war experience organize themselves for social justification under different political circumstances; how each group justifies their cause through media and autonomously organized social activities; and how accounts on war memories are shared and transmitted across the strait.

The discussions during our workshop encouraged me to further explore the boundary between “informal life politics” and those daily life activities that have political potential yet are not substantial enough to raise broader political concern. Being “collected” is an important format of “informal life politics”. An individual’s decision to become a vegetarian for the purpose of animal protection, for example, may not be considered as “informal life politics” unless it is consciously incorporated as part of a larger collective movement appealing for animal rights. Individual activities need to be organized in a certain way to gain the potential to become “informal life politics.” Communication and network-building (in reality or in a virtual manner) thus are important processes that link individual actions and transform them into a collective pursuit. Informal life politics are also distinct from survival politics in that the latter seeks to achieve a revolutionary outcome. It involves an intention to challenge the existing system, ideology or social convention, instead of seeking accommodation within the existing power structure. Activities such as begging, prostitution or theft in response to poverty or warfare may not be considered informal life politics. This is not only because of the possible lack of a collected format in some cases, but also because they only deviate from the perceived mainstream for the purpose of survival without negating the system or the social conventions that marginalize them or subject them to their current social status. It does not mean that survival politics and informal life politics are mutually exclusive. The former more often than not accumulates anxiety and tension within the system and raises awareness of issues involved. It may transform into informal life politics once a collected action is pursued with a goal to challenge the convention.

It is also important to draw a line between formal and informal politics. In my first case study, I propose to demarcate formal and informal politics according to how the activists handle their relations with partisan struggles at a state level—whether they incorporate their activism into party politics or deliberately remove partisan elements from their particular pursuits. What I failed to realize but was made aware of during the workshop was the “informal” ways in which a case could be presented and advocated. The anti-nuclear movement, a highly political issue, for example, could be presented in the form of a concert consisting of songs whose lyrics are irrelevant to anti-nuclear themes. The soft approach is a deliberate choice of the activists to downplay the political flavour of the event so as to attract the largest audience possible who may not have the intention to join a political debate or openly express their position. Indeed, I am looking for further discussions on the distinction and relationship between formal and informal politics in our future reading group and workshops.


The Informal Life Politics as I see it[i]     
Yonjae Paik 

Yonjae file

The general assumption is that people’s everyday activities are random (with maximum entropy), and aligning them requires energy or force. This model may not be appropriate in dealing with the collision among different social forces, but more suitable for the ‘state vs. individuals’ approach.

<A> is the state (= a situation) where the state’s policy (= policing) functions effectively and brings the intended outcome. The outcome can be the intended social change or the maintenance of the status quo.

<B> is the status where the state’s policy is dysfunctional due to the individuals’ practice of the Informal Life Politics.

<C> is the status where the state’s policy is dysfunctional due to the individuals’ practice of the Contentious Politics.

Each state should be understood as at a dynamic equilibrium (in which the state’s policy is happening at the same speed of the individual’s deviation from the policy) rather than a stationary state.

Also, each state is interchangeable with one another as a result of the core challenges. J

[1] A metal coil becomes a magnet when electric current flows through it. Likewise, individuals’ activities can be aligned when the state’s policy is in place.


Eunjeong Soh

Informal life politics may come down to three constituting components. (1) There is a shared challenge (or a set of challenges).  (2) The state cannot deal with the challenge. (3) There is a collected response of people in efforts to manage the challenge. The forms of collected response vary from forming an organization to sharing informal networks. At least, participants share a common goal.

Perhaps, the origin of informal life politics lies in a seeming paradox between emancipation and policy. In the context of North Korea, people having to survive life-threatening hardship may have emancipated themselves from the baggage of their intimate ties with the state, at least in matters related to survival. Sotoji (small plot) farming practices demonstrate this. Instead of relying on the state’s provision of food, people have decided to be charge of their own supply of food. Because the latter guarantees a greater level of security and predictability than the former, people resist working in collective farms or in state enterprises and instead resort to sotoji farming. The decision defies the state’s campaigns of “building a socialist utopia by overcoming individual selfish actions.” They have emancipated themselves from the state.

However, a spread of sotoji farming brought the problem of deforestation, and this threatens their livelihood. Sotoji farmers have collective interest of having to tackle this problem. Yet, the state’s policy of reforestation, by plucking crops, confiscating lands and putting people back to state spaces of work, violates sotoij farmers’ private spaces, threatens their livelihood, and offsets their emancipation. Therefore, sotoji farmers face a dilemma between emancipation and policy. On the one hand, they want and need their own space for farming. On the other hand, they also need the policy of reforestation. The latter threatens the former. From the dilemma, informal life politics may arise. People may take the matters in their own hands and find an alternative way of managing the challenge.


Tom Cliff

The essential thing about our recent workshop, from my perspective, was getting to know the people in our team, (sections of) their proposed projects, and how they intend to approach them.

Where is the informality?

A number of the projects being proposed by members of our team involve movements which are, superficially at least, quite “formal” – they involve governmental politics and, in at least a couple of cases, involve open protest against state actions that produce threats to communities’ livelihoods. Such protest movements receive much scholarly attention. The colourful, conflictual and cacophonous nature of these protests draw our gaze and, when we seek to understand these movements – how and why they arise, succeed or fail (or both), persist or evaporate – we analyse what we see (and also, perhaps, what we assume). What we (the scholarly community) often miss is what Tessa Morris-Suzuki has termed “invisible politics” (2013).

Invisible politics is informal, or non-governmental, in the sense that involves “situations where groups try to shape the present and future of their own lives without recourse to the intervention of the state” (ibid). Invisible politics can thus manifest in the collective avoidance or mitigation of a threat or perceived threat. I like to think of political actions as vectors, having both directionality (quality) and magnitude (quantity): if the threat is represented by a first downward arrow, the second arrow represents the response to this threat. Protest can be represented by an upward arrow, compliance or acceptance can be represented by a downward arrow, and avoidance or mitigation can be represented by a horizontal arrow. Most actions in the real world would need to be represented by arrows on angles, which are rarely straight and sometimes reverse direction completely.

At the same time, invisible politics is not – cannot be – sealed-off physically or conceptually from either contentious politics or compliance. The concepts and their manifestations are like blobs of plasticine melting in the sun, and the more that they are kneaded by our observation and analysis, the more it becomes clear that the borders between them are indistinct.

We cannot “see” invisible politics using conventional optics. A black hole cannot be seen, but it can be inferred from its effects on surrounding celestial objects; the same technique of inference can be used to identify situations in which invisible politics may play an important role. And we (the Informal Life Politics research group) hypothesise that there are many such situations. The union movement in South Korea was shaped by patriarchy and statism—and by informal and familial networks (Paik). Regular protest actions against the building of the fourth nuclear power plant in Taiwan give shape to certain class and cultural differences within Taiwanese society, but at the same time highlight the commonality of their cause (Wei). The success of land-rights claims by Mongolian herders in Inner Mongolia hinges on the sharing of information across social, cultural and ethnic boundaries (Wuqiriletu). The apparently-sudden existence of commodities like sweet potatoes and medicines in parts of North Korea implies multiple – collected, not necessarily collective – actions of self-help (Soh). And the political potential saturated in family networks, native-place associations and other communities of identity throughout Northeast Asia hangs invisible and relatively undisturbed in the rising tumult (Cliff).



Inner-Mongolia Case Study

At the workshop, I presented my background study on a Mongolian case. The presentation was focused on people from Inner Mongolia who are taking actions on a daily basis against pollution and protecting the grasslands and resident right. Here is a brief overview of my presentation.

Since the late 1990s, Inner Mongolia has experienced rapid industrialization; the development of the mining industry (like coal) and the paper industry, for example. These created the main causes of pollution damaging grasslands. To protect their home land from effects of pollution, many people in Inner Mongolia have begun to raise their voices and take actions against the main polluters. People from different walks of life are taking direct and indirect actions to protect grasslands and resident’s rights. In the local context, many cases show that affected victims have taken a range of actions against the main polluters in order to protect their livelihood. Such direct actions include disrupting the mining factory’s electricity provision or blocking ways so that tractors could not transport coal. On the other hand, people such as scholars, artists and university students have taken indirect actions to protect the grasslands and resident’s rights. For example, people living in cities like Beijing or Hohhot, are helping herdsmen to protect their rights with their knowledge of the law or by using their connections to upper level of governments.

I have benefitted a lot from listening to other case studies and considering the implications for my case. First, it is possible to place the emergence of grassroots action and grassroots network in Inner Mongolia in a large context of North East Asia. The structure of the case from Inner Mongolia is similar to other cases from the region. The grasslands pollution in Inner Mongolia is caused by the central and local government development projects, and the emergence of grassroots action and network is a grassroots response to the pollution. Similar grassroots actions discussed at the workshop including Saku Ueda Informa Life Politics in Japan (Tessa), From Formal to Informal: The Anti-Nuclear Movement in Taiwan (Shuge), and the documentary watched at the workshop (姜尚中がゆく、韓国ルート1の旅) reflect local people’s actions of creating and protecting their way of life. Second, it is possible to address a similar set of questions:

  • What kind of thoughts and ideas drive people to take grassroots actions?
  • What are the existing differences between grassroots network of different regions?
  • What are the activities taken at local, national, and international level? And their interrelations?

These are important questions that will direct my research in the Mongolia case.

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