Between promises and uncertainties: an anthropological study of a city thoroughfare

  • Ximin Zhou

Student thesis: Phd


Through an anthropological study of the space and time of a city thoroughfare in Shenzhen (China), Shennan Road, the dissertation traces the cycle of promises, expectations, practices, evaluations and the emergence of new promises across scales in the contemporary context of a post-reform China. I cast the ethnographic gaze upon the newly urbanised population in Shenzhen through their daily interactions with the road and the many different uses of the road which serves different purposes. The specificity of doing ethnographic research on a road prompts the reconceptualisation of the field and my positionality. I adopt the role of a stranger-ethnographer with methods such as participant observations, archival research, filmmaking and photography, and adapt these methods to the modes of moving and pausing with people who use the road. The ethnographic materials presented in the dissertation suggest a significant discrepancy between the infrastructural and symbolic roles as intended for the road by the State, people’s social and practical activities and the many other unexpected roles created for the road by individuals. The roles played by the road render it more than a State conceived space. Spatial negotiations subsequently reconfigure the road as a series of socially produced spaces. The narrative of progress with which the road is closely associated is also challenged by the multiple disjunctive temporalities weaving through the road. In spite of its glamorous façade that is intended to produce a community of aspirations, the road also makes manifest a sense of weariness engendered by the uncertainties of the future. Promises are made by the State with the intention to deliver. They are not necessarily made to be broken but they are in many ways compromised. The road provides many possibilities but is also burdened by its own limitations in meeting conflicting expectations. The study also implies that social relations with infrastructures such as the road are not given; social relations are actively produced but also subject to forces that undo them. Finally, I have intended the visual components (a short film and a photo book) to be an integral part of the dissertation. I consider them as a way to engage in direct visual conversations with the public image of the city conveyed by the road, which the text can only assist in imagination. I recommend to watch the film and go through the photo book during the break between Chapters 4 and 5.
Date of Award1 Aug 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorPenelope Harvey (Supervisor) & Andrew Irving (Supervisor)


  • space and time
  • roads
  • mobility
  • visual anthropology
  • urban anthropology
  • infrastructure

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