Using intimacy as a lens on the work and migration experiences of ethnic performers in Southwest China
This research explores how the lens of intimacy can be used to understand migration and inequalities and demonstrates the value of such a theoretical lens. It does so by focusing on the experience of a group of rural to urban, ethnic minority migrant performers in Southwest China, who perform ethnic songs and dances as part of their work at different venues such as restaurants and tourist sites. Ethnic performance is a site of encounter where minority, rural, feminised service providers interact with Han, urban, masculinised customers, and such physical proximity may render their social distance even more significant. It is also an important site where performers encounter various bordering processes relating to the rural-urban divide, ethnicity and gender. Six months’ participant observation and 60 in-depth interviews were used to understand various types of “intimacy negotiations” performers undertake regarding their emotions, sense of self, and relationships with significant others. While intimacy as a concept in sociology usually refers to the quality of closeness in relationships, this research uses this concept in more than one way, and explores how it can be used as a theoretical and methodological tool to explore broader social structures. By adopting an intimacy lens to explore how migrant performers encounter the various bordering processes, this research points out how inequalities profoundly impact on people’s emotions, sense of self and relationships. This approach also leads us to consider ethnicity as something we do, rather than something we are. I therefore propose the concept of "ethnic scripts” to refer to the culturally normative assumptions about ethnicity in China, which deeply shape the ways that migrant performers do ethnicity. Further, the lens of intimacy reveals the ways that work closely intersects with informants’ personal lives, as well as the importance of taking emotions seriously in understanding social inequalities.