Student Spotlight: Yifeng Troy Cai MA, MS

Graduate Program:

Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology, MPH Candidate, Andrew W. Mellon Graduate Fellow in Collaborative Humanities 


Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province, People’s Republic of China 

You recently received the China Initiative Dissertation Award, which supports archival, library or onsite field research. What is the focus of your research? 

My research asks a basic question: how is human society formed and changed? The answer to this question varies drastically depending on the specific socio-historical, politico-economic, and technological conditions. My doctoral research, which is generously supported by the China Initiative Dissertation Award, answers this basic question through an ethnographic study of the impact of digital technologies on the formation and transformation of social relations and social groups. Particularly, I want to understand how sociality is formed under the influence of booming smartphone apps that increasingly mediate multiple aspects of social life in contemporary China. I choose gay men as the main population for this study. I believe that their lived experiences in today’s China best embodies the unforeseen changes apps have brought to social life. 

What aspects of your project have you been focused on while completing fieldwork in Shanghai, China? 

I am collecting ethnographic data in Shanghai through participant observation, daily conversations, and in-depth qualitative interviews. I also borrowed methods from media studies to better understand the roles of apps on social life. The purpose of using multiple research methods in this fieldwork is to better contextualize the data and provide a more holistic analysis on digital technologies’ impact on the (trans)formation of social life. Although the official field site of this study is Shanghai, my ethnographic study thus far have revealed the ability of apps to form/break social relations from afar. Thanks to the China Initiative’s funding, I have been able to follow the “digital footprints” of my research participants and traveled to different locations to collect data. I believe my research findings will be more representative and convincing with the “multi-sited-ness” of this fieldwork.  

How does your current project continue the work you’ve done previously, including the research you did for the master's in anthropology you received at Brown in 2018? 

Broadly speaking, my research interests since my undergraduate years have been in one way or another concerned with exchange relations and what they tell us about the (trans)formation of sociality. During my undergraduate times at Renmin University of China and the University of Chicago, I studied the commercialization of women in English literature. At the University of Pennsylvania, I switched my research to the empirical side and studied why women college students in China engaged in sex work. My master’s in anthropology studied the male sex work industry and the lived experiences of these men who sell sex in urban China. I found out that digital technologies have saturated and transformed the male sex industry, changing the participants in the sexual economy. Furthermore, this study reveals that various forms of exchange relations including but way beyond sexual economy (which is itself a term to debate, of course), mediated through what I tentatively term China’s app-infrastructure, are important aspects to understand the dynamics of urban sociality. 

You are also working towards a Masters in Public Health at the university. How do you see your studies in public health informing your anthropology studies? 

They mutually enhance each other. My public health research focuses on HIV/AIDS intervention among men who have sex with men (MSM) in China. Within this broad topic, I am most interested in how culture may influence the use of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) among MSM in China and what we should do in order accordingly. Anthropology’s attention to the particularities of everyday lived experiences and the emphasis on extensive contextualization will enrich public health research, which mostly relies on quantitative data. Likewise, quantitative training in public health will enable me to increase the generalizability of my research findings and push me towards more robust and meticulous research design, especially since a multi-sited, digital, and physical ethnography is relatively unconventional and thus prone to flaws in research designs. In addition to these more general benefits, health-related topics, such as HIV/AIDS and recreational drug use, are also integral to the social life of gay men in contemporary China and beyond. As a result, when I collect and analyze data on these issues, I will be informed by social sciences and life sciences alike.