Building Monsanto With Chinese Characteristics: State-Industry Symbiosis, Organizational Chimerism, and China’s Nationalist Modality of Entrepreneurial Science

Building Monsanto With Chinese Characteristics: State-Industry Symbiosis, Organizational Chimerism, and China’s Nationalist Modality of Entrepreneurial Science

Abigail Coplin - Postdoctoral Associate in East Asian Studies and Lecturer in Sociology

Monday, December 4, 2017 - 12:00pm to 1:30pm
Room 202, Henry R. Luce Hall See map
34 Hillhouse Avenue
New Haven, CT 06511
Lunch will be served.

This talk contends that China’s approach to developing biotechnology centers on the principle of “technological domestication”, whereby social anxieties surrounding genetically modified technology are recast as an opposition to foreign aggressors, be they countries, companies, or individual actors. This nationalist frame is a principle of institution building, generating not only distinctly “Chinese” technologies, but also new ethical frameworks, modalities of social order, and ontologies of state, science, and market collaboration. In this talk, I focus on how these dynamics drive the emergence of unique organizational forms and entrepreneurial strategies in China’s domestic agrobiotechnology industry. I show that solidifying the salience of national boundaries enables the emergence of organizational forms that transcend the boundaries between state-owned/private and academic/commercial entities. Chinese biotech firms are akin to Schrodinger’s cat, simultaneously occupying plural states and defining themselves as different organizational “types” once context is specified.  I call this phenomenon “organizational chimerism”. This ability to inhabit a dualistic, “chimeric” state, in turn, is leveraged by individual firms, entrepreneurs, and local state officials as they navigate a system characterized by competing logics and high levels of uncertainty. Ultimately, however, the very characteristics optimizing firm’s performance within China’s domestic knowledge economy also contribute to these companies’ “domestication” by the state.

Abigail Coplin’s research is situated in political sociology, economic sociology, and science and technology studies. It examines the entanglement—and coproduction of—science, politics, and nationalism in contemporary China, and exposes mechanisms by which non-democratic states contend with experts and incorporate expertise into their governance schemes and legitimacy claims. Her various projects demonstrate that while the Chinese Communist Party-state (CCP) seeks to harness science and technology as a legitimizing ideology and economic driver, semi-incorporating them within the state also gives rise to new, often unintended, dynamics that the party-state must address. 

Abigail’s book project, “Domesticating Biotechnological Innovation: Science, Market, and the State in Post-Socialist China,” demonstrates how these interactional dynamics and legitimacy struggles drive China’s distinctive trajectory of knowledge-economy development. Specifically, she analyzes China’s agrobiotechnology sector, an industry that is both deeply significant, economically and politically, to the Chinese party-state and highly contentious in Chinese society. Drawing on extensive mixed method qualitative fieldwork, Abigail shows how China’s efforts to “domesticate” GM-technology center on deploying nationalist ideologies to reframe social anxieties around the technology as a struggle between China and foreign interests. This nationalist frame functions as the crucial logic organizing relations among science, state, and market, and thus sets China on a path of knowledge-economy development divergent from advanced, liberal democracies. Moreover, this institution-building principle structures each tier of China’s agrobiotech project: the nationalist dynamics of the sector; the emergence of unique commercial/academic organizational forms; the career trajectories of actors in the industry; the type of technology developed; and even the contours of social criticism leveled against this technology. 

In addition to working on her book project, Abigail will also be teaching “State-Society Relations in Post-Socialist China” in spring 2018. In her minimal free time, Abigail is an avid sailor and aspiring molecular gastronomist.