Susan Greenhalgh
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008

Reviewed by Stacy Lockerbie

Just One Child offers its readers a detailed and comprehensive understanding of the process of scientific policymaking and the one-child policy in China. In this text, Susan Greenhalgh outlines both the political context of the policy’s formation as well as its social history since its inception in 1979, progressing from a lenient policy that “encouraged” one child but allowed two, to a strict one that forbids families to produce more than one child (33). Her work traces the ways in which this policy created devastating social consequences in rural China and the eventual softening of its enforcement, leading to what she calls the “one and a half child policy” which allows families to have a second child only if their first born was a girl (33). She uniquely combines the qualitative approach of anthropology with population studies to highlight the science and philosophy involved in the Chinese government’s attempt to create population guidelines that strive to make China more modern through radical and drastic measures, as well as the social repercussions of these policies.

Greenhalgh’s work builds upon recent studies on the one-child policy by adding texture to the sterile framework of population studies, creating a humanistic approach. However, her work also makes a remarkable contribution to qualitative research that has tended to pursue questions that center on the consequences and social meanings of the one-child policy. Unlike these, Greenhalgh’s analysis focuses on the root of Chinese population politics in a way that no one else has. Her monograph fuses Foucauldian ideas about power and governmentality with Science and Technology Studies to suggest that the science of this policy is governed by power struggles over knowledge. She writes that the “maps of science are never final; instead opposing groups are constantly redrawing the boundaries of science, claiming authority over a particular issue by placing it within their ‘science’”(17).

Greenhalgh’s long standing connection to China is both enviable and necessary for the level of detail provided in this monograph, especially given the unique circumstances in China where officials carefully monitor and protect of the country’s image on a global scale. This research is methodologically challenging not only because of the added obstacles associated with her choice to study the elite or to “study up” (Nader 1974), but also due to the unique circumstances in China and the sensitivity of the one-child policy that has forbidden public conversations between officials and foreign researchers. She penetrates the walls of secrecy through personal contacts from years of working within the framework of an international NGO and navigates the policy landscape through her years of experience working with the population Council.  This text is also methodologically creative in the ways in which she incorporates “unlikely places…” to illuminate “the dark corners and hidden sites of policy-making that no one has ever imagined existed” (312).

Finally, the inclusion of black and white photographs of Chinese officials, politicians and economists involved in creating the one-child policy, are a particularly poignant addition to this book because they are all men dressed in suits who seemingly make the reproductive decisions for every woman in the country. Just One Childis a useful recommendation for any scholar or course that addresses a regional interest in China, especially those which intersect with the history, policy, demography, gender and globalization of China.

Nader, Laura
1974. Up the anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from Studying Up. In Reinventing Anthropology. Dell Hymes, ed. Pp. 284-311. New York: Vintage.

Stacy Lockerbie is a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. For her PhD dissertation she is researching transnational adoption between Canada and China. She is currently studying Mandarin in Beijing, China.

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