Tripartite guanxi: resolving kin and non-kin discontinuities in Chinese connections

Abstract

A consensus holds that guanxi, understood as dyadic connections consolidated affectively and mobilized to achieve the purposes of members, exists in three forms (family guanxi, friendship guanxi, and acquaintance guanxi) distinguished by the strength of felt obligation between participants. It is also held that through practices of fictive kinship friendship guanxi may merge with family guanxi. This article challenges these propositions and the assumptions underlying them. Obligations of kinship and guanxi obligations are fundamentally dissimilar and the term “family guanxi” is redundant. Pseudo-family ties do not provide access to kin relations and their resources but instead affirm the distinction between family- and friendship-ties. Finally, because guanxi is cultivated by its participants, friendship guanxi and acquaintance guanxi are not distinct forms but rather are different possible stages of guanxi formation. The article goes on to consider the sources of these confusions, namely, common-language terms employed in sociological analysis, certain assumptions concerning Chinese culture, and finally methodological commitments that privilege latent structures of strong ties. The strength of guanxi ties, on the other hand, volitionally cultivated and indifferent to structural determination, fluctuates through agentic practices.

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Barbalet, J. Tripartite guanxi: resolving kin and non-kin discontinuities in Chinese connections. Theor Soc 50, 151–173 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-020-09399-w

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Keywords

  • Acquaintance
  • Exchange-obligation
  • Friendship
  • Kinship
  • Particularistic instrumental ties
  • Role-obligation