Shameless modernity: Reflexivity and social class in Chinese personal growth groups

Amir Hampel


Critical scholars suggest that self-help psychology discourages political activism and encourages entrepreneurship by promoting a “positive” attitude. This article complicates this finding, arguing that for Chinese youth, self-help groups reproduce class distinctions, expressed through leisure and perceived modernity, and that these groups mobilize negative affects, particularly shame. Drawing on extensive fieldwork, the article shows how Chinese youth recount shameful experiences in personal growth groups, reflecting on their perceived failures and committing to redefine themselves. Their shame induces reflexivity, or self-awareness; this reflexivity helps Chinese youth to position themselves in a highly stratified society. Furthermore, reflexive self-definition indexes social class and personal fulfillment. Youth use self-help groups as spaces in which to align their personal identity with local moral registers championing urban consumer lifestyles and modern values. Therefore, self-help practices channel negative affects into reproducing social class and into constructing an imagined national modernity.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/717182