Chapter 31

Materiality, Description, and Comparison as Tools for Cultural Difference Analysis

Basile Zimmermann

Working in a Chinese studies department based in Europe, I am often confronted with the challenges not only of working with cultural difference but also of working with the concept of “culture” in itself—one of the most famously difficult concepts in the social sciences and humanities. Further, recent socioeconomic changes in China—and the new media dynamics of the “Chinese Internet”—have produced new situations requiring sociocultural analysis but lacking a clear theoretical or methodological framework. In this chapter I argue that an essential first step in dealing with these issues analytically is to provide an adequate description of them, which can only be achieved by focusing on the materiality of the things (websites, platforms, communities) one is considering or comparing. I build on this idea to propose a methodology and a theoretical framework to deal with cultural difference in the context of sociotechnical change, drawing on a single case study based on this approach.

The Circulation of Cultural Waves

Culture, as a scientific concept, is famous for the impossibility of its definition. A recent book (Baldwin et al. 2006) provided no less than 300 definitions, and the authors claimed that these are actually syntheses of an even larger corpus. I will not try to perform yet another authoritative synthesis here, for others have already done this well (see e.g. ...

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