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Find your method.

Book review of The Self as Method: In Conversation with Xiang Biao

Published in July 2020, the book The Self as Method: In Conversation with Xiang Biao records the inspiring dialogs between anthropology professor Xiang Biao and editor Wu Qi, which demonstrates profound and popular topics in modern society, such as the reflection on the 80s, the confusions by the youth, personal crisis, love and relationships, youth at Peking University, university education, class mobility, margins and centers, nation and populism, anthropology as a mediator, shared ideals, globalization, human reproduction and so on. Three-year-long relaxing dialogs have taken place in Beijing, Oxford, Wenzhou, Hangzhou, and Shanghai, which depict not an overview of theoretical ideas and research results, nor rely on abstract concepts and empty words but thought-provoking ideas and enlightenment. It is so impressive that Professor Xiang Biao confronts his shortcomings, crises, and anxieties while telling his story of himself and dealing with the problems of his study, research, and life practices. This book also tries to preserve the flowing state of the conversation and even the original appearance of many spoken words, with the characteristic to recover the scenes of the two authors’ rambling conversations in the coffee shop at the capital airport, on the lawn in Oxford, and in the streets of city Wenzhou. The dialogs, through ask-and-answer, in the most straightforward way, touch on various issues that have a broad resonance in contemporary society, constantly introducing extended discussions on the theoretical level to correct traditional and habitual thinking. The communication and crashing of ideas, insights, and emotions between two interlocutors present readers with the main ideas in this book: why do we need to take self as a method to understand others, clarify ourselves with honesty, curiosity, and sensitivity, and how to take self as a method.

Professor Xiang Biao graduated from Beijing University and is now an anthropology professor at Oxford University. His research focuses on social issues like immigration. In the book, he talks about the formation of personal thoughts, his experience as an anthropologist, his view of a mobile world, the anxiety of a Chinese scholar, and so on. He traces his childhood, youth, university days, research in “Zhejiang Village,” and his life and research experiences in the UK, Singapore, Australia, and China with fantastic honesty and open dialogue. The diverse experience in life and work significantly benefits present innovation in work. Moreover, his study and work experience gives him more ideas for his research. The book Originals: How non-conformists move the World by Adam Grant shows that people with more experience in different countries with various dialects, official languages, and cultures can provoke more innovative ideas and methods in work, which can be seen from Xiang’s views. Usually, an open mind and objective attitude are fundamental.

The main two features of this book are: 1) the book is written and edited in the form of dialogues; 2) authentic understanding and explanation for social issues after research.

Means of dialogues to demonstrate the issues discussed between the two scholars give a relaxing reading experience as if listening to a typical conversation, like a participant in the discussion, which is not stressed and obscure to understand the profound anthropological issues but with colloquial words. Besides, the dialogue feature is better for stimulating thinking than the single one-sided telling. Participants’ honest opinions and sagacious perceptions can be expressed honestly and completely. Although with little knowledge about anthropology, readers are not learning complex theories or complicated concepts but fascinating understandings from professional researchers. Instead of stopping at their ideas, readers would connect the book content to personal experience to seek methods themselves. The book title shows its meaning: in a society of information overload and general confusion, a spirit of dialogue is advocated to break the myth of the self by making ourselves the method.

With dialogues, readers would feel easier to understand the meaning of taking self as a method -- why and how. For example, in the traditional Chinese book Zhuangzi, there is a story in which Zhuangzi and his friend Huishi debate whether we can know the fish is happy. As you are not the fish itself, you cannot see if it is satisfied; as you are not myself, you don’t know if I can see the fish is happy. When the debate seemed endless, Zhuangzi gave the words that please trace the origin. The story not only shows the idea that subjective opinion is an inappropriate comment for others but also tells that when people are getting lost in a particular problem, looking for the origin of the problem could be a solution. In other words, slowing the pace or reconsidering the question is more valuable. And in many cases, the root of the problem is ourselves. When we attempt to make self a method, Professor Xiang gives two suggestions: squire spirit and details description, which are critical for academic research and works in industries.

What is the squire spirit? It means that a person can understand the current information and local history very well and demonstrate it in an easy-understandable way; more important is that he is willing to represent the interest of a group of people. The knowledge with squires has no relationship with the importance of knowledge but with an understandable degree, the method to practice, and the motivation to help people. A researcher with a squire spirit can significantly contribute to local development in education, academia, culture, etc. In this case, it can be helpful in the issue of centralization and marginalization. In modern society, young people would like to look for work and settle down in cities instead of the countryside, resulting in the population being centralized in towns and relevant social problems; on the contrary, the countryside faces stalled development. If more youth can have a squire spirit, after studying in cities, can return to the country to support local development, the issue can be solved better. In ancient China, talented officials returned hometowns when they retired from the capital city government and continued to develop a local society with their advanced knowledge, experience, and independent understanding of local situations.

The second way to make self a method is a details description. Many vague and general descriptions in academic research or general work reports need more details. The details description is not a conclusion but descriptive words presenting every detail as much as possible, but leaving readers to conclude. The sense of distance and assigning weight are two aspects of the details description. The sense of distance is the concept of keeping distance from the generalized global terminology but still with a worldwide academic vision. This sense is beneficial to understand the specific origin of the local issues and localized description. It is also feasible to have more innovative perceptions and ideas. And when doing research or study, the weight of practice should be assigned according to the importance of tasks. Every event has its proper weight; the overloaded weight from the media and academy may increase or reduce the average impact on society. Many weights may be assigned employing observation and experience. Professor Xiang has listed several cases in the book to prove the importance of practice before the conclusion.

In the dialogues, many attractive topics may answer popular questions nowadays and enlighten education and language study. When we think about the current social issues, the possibility of communication between theories and participants is the crucial point regardless of the new and profound theories. The critical way is to emphasize and provoke more thinking on current and future social issues, which are complex but significant for society, politics, and economic stakeholders. Studying is the method to understand the rules behind appearance and attempt to connect self to the world, despite the purpose of flattering other people. In many cases, study and research are for something different than the goal of creating success but learning to confront failures. Forming a consensus to balance the personal experience and the present actions is paramount.

The inspiration from the book may trigger the review for education as well. The specialty of squires is that they need to write choreography through observation, which is the cultivation process of study habits. It is about curiosity for life, questions about phenomena, and having fun in the process. Humanistic education should be based on this study habit with a squire spirit, understanding the stories and accumulating experience. Education stimulates the potential in every person and makes people different from each other. Teachers can learn from kindergarten and primary school teachers to comprehensively view students’ merits and demerits and discover their talents. Dissertation guidance is an excellent method to realize meaningful communication and stimulate thinking. The thinking must connect to experience from reality, which seems natural but needs lots of practice. The process requires patience rather than forming a conclusion or suggestion quickly. Regarding academic language, using exact words to explain profound and complicated issues clearly is better. The high-level academy should use plain language instead of terminology.

In conclusion, this is an unfinished conversation concerning emergent issues. Through this book, readers are expected to open their skepticism, inspire willingness and enthusiasm to express themselves and join in the new round of conversation. If you are willing to live your life with thoughts, explore your inner self, be curious about the people around you, question the changing world, and find your voice in the midst of all the complex possibilities, this book could be the start for you.


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