Presentation: Social money? Digital money and migrant labor in China

  • DATE / TIME:
    2017•09•14    15:00 - 16:30

    Tom MacDonald, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong will visit the United Nations University Institute in Macau and deliver a presentation on how Chinese migrant workers use digital money platforms.

    Tom McDonald is an Assistant Professor at The University of Hong Kong. He obtained his Ph.D. in Anthropology from University College London in 2013, where he also worked on the Why We Post project, a European Research Council funded global comparative ethnographic study exploring the impact of social media use across a range of different societies. His first solely-authored monograph, Social Media in Rural China: Social Networks and Moral Frameworks (UCL Press) was published in 2016. He also co-authored the volume How the World Changed Social Media (UCL Press, 2016). McDonald is currently working on a new Hong Kong Research Grants Council funded project investigating the use of digital money by migrant workers in China.

    Scholars of Chinese society have predominantly regarded the region’s money to represent an unusually “social” artifact. In recent decades, China has seen a dramatic proliferation of “digital money” services within social media platforms, providing various tools for transactions, savings, and investment. While such innovations would seem to confirm the assumed social character of money in China, we present a comparison of the views of Chinese migrant laborers’ views on different social media platforms which suggests the contrary: migrants attribute a greater degree of trust to the digital money platforms which they perceived of as being comparatively less social in nature. We posit that these attitudes should be understood in the context of migrant laborers’ technologically literate yet financially precarious existence, which gives rise to their strongly held fears over becoming the victim online deception designed to part them from their savings. This paper thus argues that while money may indeed be viewed socially in China, this should not be confused with a desire for it to always act socially. The broader implications of the increasing embeddedness of everyday exchange within personal media forms will also be discussed, highlighting the importance of acknowledging how cultural and platform specifics must form part of our understanding of these new monetary technologies and practices.