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On Judgement, Publics and Popular Justice in China  

Susanne Brandtstädter    

University of Cologne, Germany 

Anthropologists have long refrained from theorizing justice itself, and emphasized instead its normative relativist nature and embeddedness in particular histories and moralities. Recently, justice claims received anthropological attention as part of the global human rights discourse and with the world-wide emergence of popular movements for justice. Nevertheless, the tension between the universal and the particular within the justice concept itself has rather been sidelined in these studies. My paper, in contrast, argues that this tension should be central to anthropological explorations of popular justice. It takes justice’s inherent universalism as its major feature and asks how ordinary people might work towards a common (ideally, universalist) notion of justice from their particular positions or perspectives. China, where I have conducted fieldwork since 1994, is a place that anthropologists have attested a deeply fragmented vernacular concept of justice. Yet, instead of trying to “fence in” the various justice concepts that co-exit and clash on the ground, ordinary citizens actively seek public endorsement for their justice perspective, through seemingly trivial acts of passing judgement on the state of the state and of Chinese society. In “On Judgement”, the French social theorist Luc Boltanski argues that public judgment is a form of “critical reasoning” that seeks to draw general (justice) principles from particular cases (of injustice). In my paper, I will draw on Boltanski and others to reflect on the link between politics of popular judgements, emergent publics, and concepts of justice in contemporary China.

May 6, 2015