Female Migrant Workers Navigating the Service Economy in Shanghai:Home, Beauty, and the Stigma of Singlehood. Supervisors: Jeroen de Koet, Esther Peeren.
Drawing on fieldwork conducted in Shanghai, this qualitative research project, by combining multiple ethnographic methodologies, including in-depth interviews, participant observation, home-visiting and the Go-Along method (Kusenbach 2003), focuses on the everyday experiences of rural-to-urban migrant women working in the Shanghai service sector, in particular the ways they live, labor, and love. The main focus lies on three issues: the notion of home, the economy of beauty, and the stigma of singlehood. First, I explore how, in a social context in which rural migrant women are discursively categorized by urbanites as the “low-quality” (Anagnost 2004) and “suspicious” other (Sun 2009), these women nevertheless construct a sense of “home” in Shanghai. Second, I examine how rural migrant women in the beauty industry, by engaging in a form of affective labor and by also participating as consumers in the beauty industry, come to transform their bodies and sense of self. Third, with early marriage and shishi hunyin (事实婚姻 – literally, de facto marriage) still prevalent in rural China, I ask how rural migrant women present and legitimate their relationship status as single, married or having a boyfriend in relation to conflicting normative models of singlehood and marriage in their rural communities and Shanghai. Together, the three sections show that rural migrant women in Shanghai do not leave the rural behind, but are in an in-between position, leading to a constant process of negotiation that renders their identity not fixed but flexible and that, therefore, creates possibility for strategic maneuvering.