On a blogged recommendation from Chris Blattman, I’m now reading Factory Girls. Written by Leslie T. Chang and published in 2008, it’s a non-fiction book about the young migrant women whose labor has stoked the furnaces of China’s economic growth over the past 30 years.
One of the book’s implicit “findings” is that this migration, and the larger socioeconomic transformation of which it is a part, is a difficult but ultimately rewarding process for many. Chang writes (p. 13, emphasis in the original):
Migration is emptying villages of young people. Across the Chinese countryside, those plowing and harvesting in the fields are elderly men and women, charged with running the farm and caring for the younger children who are still in school. Money sent home by migrants is already the biggest source of wealth accumulation in rural China. Yet earning money isn’t the only reason people migrate. In surveys, migrants rank ‘seeing the world,’ ‘developing myself,’ and ‘learning new skills’ as important as increasing their incomes. In many cases, it is not crippling poverty that drives migrants out from home, but idleness. Plots of land are small and easily farmed by parents; nearby towns offer few job opportunities. There was nothing to do at home, so I went out.
That idea fits my priors, and I think there is plenty of system-level evidence to support it. Economic development carries many individual and collective costs, but the available alternatives are generally worse.
Still, as I read, I can’t help but wonder how much the impressions I take away from the book are shaped by selection bias. Like most non-fiction books written for a wide audience, Factory Girls blends reporting on specific cases—here, the experiences of certain women who have made the jump from small towns to big cities in search of paid work—with macro-level data on the systemic trends in which those cases are situated. The cases are carefully carefully and artfully reported, and it’s clear that Chang worked on and cared deeply about this project for many years.
No matter how hard the author tried, though, there’s a hitch in her research design that’s virtually impossible to overcome. Chang can only tell the stories of migrants who shared their stories with her, and these sources are not a random sample of all migrants. Even worse for attempts to generalize from those sources, there may be a correlation between the ability and desire to tell your story to a foreign reporter and the traits that make some migrants more successful than others. We don’t hear from young women who are too ashamed or humble or disinterested to tell their stories to a stranger who wants to share them with the world. We certainly can’t hear from women who have died or been successfully hidden from the reporter’s view for one reason or another. If the few sources who open up to Chang aren’t representative of the pool of young women whose lives she aims to portray, then their stories won’t be, either.
An anecdote from Wu Chunming, one of the two young women on whom the book focuses, stuck in my mind as a metaphor for the selection process that might skew our view of the process Chang means to describe. On pp. 46-47, Chang writes:
Guangdong in 1993 was even more chaotic than it is today. Migrants from the countryside flooded the streets looking for work, sleeping in bus stations and under bridges. The only way to find a job was to knock on factory doors, and Chunming and her friends were turned away from many doors before they were hired at the Guotong toy factory. Ordinary workers there made one hundred yuan a month, or about twelve dollars; to stave off hunger, they bought giant bags of instant noodles and added salt and boiling water. ‘We thought if we ever made two hundred yuan a month,’ Chunming said later, ‘we would be perfectly happy.’
After four months, Chunming jumped to another factory, but left soon after a fellow worker said her cousin knew of better jobs in Shenzhen. Chunming and a few friends traveled there, spent the night under a highway overpass, and met the girl’s cousin the next morning. He brought them to a hair salon and took them upstairs, where a heavily made-up young woman sat on a massage bed waiting for customers. Chunming was terrified at the sight. ‘I was raised very traditionally,’ she said. ‘I thought everyone in that place was bad and wanted me to be a prostitute. I thought that once I went in there, I would turn bad too.’
The girls were told that they should stay and take showers in a communal stall, but Chunming refused. She walked back down the stairs, looked out the front door, and ran, abandoning her friends and the suitcase that contained here money, a government-issued identity card, and a photograph of her mother…
‘Did you ever find out what happened to the friends you left behind in the hair salon?’ I asked.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t know if it was a truly bad place or just a place where you could work as a massage girl if you wanted. But it was frightening that they would not let us leave.’
In that example, we hear Wu’s side of this story and the success that followed. What we don’t hear are the stories of the other young women who didn’t run away that day. Maybe the courage or just impulsiveness Chunming showed in that moment is something that helped her become more successful afterwards, and that also made her more likely to encounter and open up to a reporter.
Chang implicitly flags this issue for us at the end of that excerpt, and she explicitly addresses it in a “conversation” with the author that follows the text in my paperback edition. Still, Chang can’t tell us the versions of the story that she doesn’t hear. In social-scientific jargon, those other young women left behind at the hair salon are the unobserved counterfactuals to the optimistic narrative we get from Chunming. A more literary soul might describe those other girls as the ghosts of Wu Chunming’s past, present, and future. Unlike Dickens’ phantoms, though, these other lives actually happened, and yet we still can’t see them.
In a recent blog post, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote about the relationship between a project’s research design and the inferences we can draw from it:
Research methods, a topic that is seemingly so dry, are the heart and soul of knowledge. Most data supports more than one theory. This does NOT mean all data supports all theories: rather, multiple explanations can fit one set of findings. Choosing the right underlying theory, an iterative process that always builds upon itself, requires thinking hard on how data selection impacts findings, and how presentation of findings lends itself to multiple theories, and how theories fit with existing worldviews, and how better research design can help us distinguish between competing explanation.
A good research project consciously grapples with these.
Like the video Tufekci critiques in her essay, Chang’s book is a research project. Factory Girls is a terrific piece of work and writing, but those of us who read it with an eye toward understanding the wider processes its stories are meant to represent should do so with caution, especially if it confirms our prior beliefs. I hope that economic development is mostly improving the lives of young women and men in China, and there is ample macro-level evidence that it is. The stories Chang relates seem to confirm that view, but a little thinking about selection effects suggests that we should expect them to do that. To really test those beliefs, we would need to trace the life courses of a wider sample of young women. As is often happens in social science, though, the cases most important to testing our mental models are also the hardest to see.