Global “Body Shopping,” by Xiang Biao
I am reviewing Xiang Biao’s Global Body Shopping: An Indian Labor System in the Information Technology Industry (Princeton, 2007). The book itself is very good: an ethnography of technology that shows how it changes migration trajectories and marriage expectations; an ethnography of migration that shows how flexible capitalism creates hypermobile populations that land at unexpected, yet perfectly logical and well-calculated, locations. Short and lucid, too. No wonder it earned accolades from George Marcus, Peter van der Veer, and Aihwa Ong (and neither of the latter two are known for their generosity in praise). In fact, I’d venture to prophesize that Xiang Biao might even become what no one else from China has managed: an international anthropological star. After all, this is his dissertation research here (though he has published, much earlier, a pioneering study of rural migrants in Peking).
What is particularly significant is that this book breaks with a pattern that has until now been almost de rigeur in Chinese anthropology, in stark contrast to India: studying China. Even as Chinese graduates from US anthropology departments returned to China and established a credible anthropology away from the earlier tradition of ethnology as a science of man serving the state (for which Fei Xiaotong had been largely responsible), they have largely continued to write on China itself (though now establishing themselves in the West as authorities rather than “native informants”). In the Prologue, Xiang describes his decision, influenced by our common mentor Frank Pieke, not to follow this tradition. (The prologue is a highly insightful piece on its own right, about a young man from Peking trying to find his way in the trendy discourses of diaspora studies — and by implication about choices of language, jargon, academic camp, and so on.) I hope that others will follow his example, and not just to study the “global South.” North America and Europe are in need of strangers’ insights.