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2018-12-21 01:33:45 Commentary

In late November, a Zhejiang University student’s master’s thesis accomplished a rare feat: going viral and sparking a nationwide debate.

Unfortunately, netizen feedback wasn’t entirely positive. Written by a graduate student of communications named Wang Chang, the thesis was mocked both for its premise and for its usage of academic jargon for a supposedly mundane topic. Titled “The Utopian Cat: ‘Cyber Cat Petting’ Fanatics’ Identity and Fantasy,” it applied academic terminology and analytical frameworks to cat memes and the people who share them.

The subculture at the center of Wang’s thesis is known as “cat smoking” — xi mao in Chinese. So-called cat smokers are cat lovers who express their passion for their pets through various exaggerated displays of affection, including sniffing their cats’ fur.

Online, cat smokers, some of whom don’t own cats of their own, can spend hours every day swapping photos and videos of cats. Wang argues that the Chinese word xi — which means both “to smoke” and “to sniff” — perfectly encapsulates the addictive nature of this subculture. Cat smokers, in Wang’s analysis, see such feline photos as a much-needed form of release, allowing them to escape from the frustrations of their daily lives and jobs into a warm and furry embrace. In this sense, Wang compares the habit to a kind of “spiritual opium.”

For six months, Wang’s thesis went largely unnoticed. It wasn’t until someone dug it up and posted screenshots of her arguments on the review site Douban that she found herself at the center of a wide-ranging debate on everything from the value of research in the social sciences to what constitutes a valid subject of academic inquiry. While some defended Wang’s choice of topic, saying that social phenomena like cat smoking are legitimate and interesting research subjects, many ridiculed her ideas and how seriously she took them. The skeptics argued that academic researchers should take a bird’s eye view of society, identifying and researching major trends, rather than hyping up insignificant phenomena.

Just because we don’t agree with or understand why researchers would be interested in a particular subject, it doesn’t automatically mean the research is invalid.

Although I personally have never been a cat smoker, I do have a cat — who happens to be napping on my lap as I type this — and my parents have two dogs. Animals have always been an important part of my life, so I can understand why ordinary pet lovers might not appreciate having their habits and relationships with their pets dissected by academic researchers. Many, including myself, think of the happiness pets bring as something pure and good, so seeing seemingly innocuous hobbies like cat smoking compared to spiritual opium can be a hard pill to swallow. Still, non-academics must understand that studies into everyday phenomena are an important part of academic research, and that just because we don’t agree with or understand why researchers would be interested in a particular subject, it doesn’t automatically mean the research is invalid. 

Indeed, many social scientists have argued that it’s important for academic research to be connected to people’s everyday lives. The purpose of such research, in their view, is to shed light on our lives, and so, some of the best studies are those focused on individuals and society. This is especially true in fields like Wang’s, where scholars have conducted good, important research into online communities and subcultures.

Academia is also a relatively unique industry. Each individual discipline possesses its own distinct diction and analytical frameworks, which naturally influence the perspectives of scholars working in that field. It’s important to remember that the target audience for most research is other researchers, and that conversations between scholars are a key means of progress. When academic reports make the news, we must remember to think of them in the context of this ongoing scholarly discussion. It might feel satisfying to rush to judge and condemn researchers for engaging in research we may find unimportant or unwarranted, but public disapproval should not be the standard by which academic work is judged.

In part, that’s because netizens aren’t really the best arbiters of academic value. In Wang’s case, many complained that, by applying academic terminology and framework to cat smoking, she was exaggerating the importance of a mundane topic. What may seem like abstract, pretentious jargon when it shows up in our social media feeds, however, may not appear so to the intended audience. In China, the standards of academic writing often leave non-academic readers complaining that researchers don’t speak “human,” but sometimes that’s simply how articles must be written to make an impact in their field.

Partly because of this, academic work is generally low-profile, especially in comparison to literary works, essays, and news coverage. It’s a shame that some of our foremost experts are not only rarely read, but often dismissed. The public should encourage researchers to explore more topics related to our lives, and we should appreciate research that manages to find breakthroughs and spark discussions outside of academia.

According to Wang, the popularity of cat smoking “reflects an outbreak of anxiety from young urbanites.” She may have overreached by comparing it to spiritual opium, but the issues at the heart of her research do matter. Our routines, no matter how banal, are reflections of our lives. And if academia is a conversation, Wang’s conclusion — that cat smoking has become a form of spiritual escapism — wasn’t meant to end a discussion, but to start one. Perhaps if we take her ideas seriously, we might discover something about ourselves and our society in the process.

Editor: Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.