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Trailblazing research in Shanghai published

November 25, 2011

When Royal Roads University professor Phillip Vannini visited former student Denise Sabet in Shanghai last summer, he saw her thesis research playing out on the city streets.  

“I went into the city with the knowledge that she had given me from her thesis and I saw personally the changes that she was describing are quite accurate,” says Vannini, who supervised Sabet’s thesis entitled Confucian or Communist, Post-Mao or Postmodern? Exploring the Narrative Identity Resources of Shanghai’s Post-80s Generation.

“I found that they are just so fascinating and a really unique group,” Sabet says of the first generation of the one-child policy. “I feel like they’re very important because of the sheer number of them and the kind of influence and power they could potentially have in the world in the years to come. Ultimately, what I was really hoping is that more people would be exposed to the lives and stories of this group.”

Vannini and Sabet both noted a lack of research on China’s post-80s generation, which they saw as an opportunity to explore the subject and share findings with a wide audience.

“Denise describes in very narrative detail a face of urban China that is only beginning to emerge,” Vannini says, adding that when in Shanghai he witnessed some Western trends catching on among younger generations in China, primarily individualism and consumerism. For Vannini, he observed these cultural shifts on the streets of Shanghai in various forms, including the proliferation of cafés selling expensive lattes and luxurious malls welcoming well-heeled young people chatting away on their cellphones.

Now many others will be able to read Sabet’s research as her thesis was recently published in Symbolic Interaction, a journal showcasing the work of influential scholars on the study of interpersonal conduct and experience.

Vannini says it’s extremely rare for MA students to have their theses published and it is a significant accomplishment, but he’s not surprised Sabet has found herself among an elite few. “Denise is one of those students who is naturally talented and makes the job of supervising very, very easy,” he says. “She’s very dedicated and very driven and she’s a great writer, so my job was made simple by her skill.”

Sabet, who is from Saskatchewan, graduated from the MA in Professional Communication, International and Intercultural Communication program (now the MA in International and Intercultural Communication) in 2010. She did most of her degree from Shanghai, where she has lived for five years, becoming friends with members of the influential group of 30-somethings she studied. Her paper explores the narrative resources members of Shanghai’s Generation Y use to construct their identities.

In China, Generation Y is called the Balinghou, or the post-80s generation, referring to the cohort born between 1980 and 1989. Sabet’s motivation for researching the subject was to educate more people about this group of roughly 300 million who have witnessed China’s gradual opening up and rapid economic growth.

Sabet’s research involved one-on-one and group interviews with members of the Balinghou. Through her narrative inquiry, she discovered that although the post-80s generation has unique structural conditions (such as a communist government and the one-child policy) within which they construct their identity, these conditions do not determine who they are.

“It’s not determined that they’re communist. It’s not determined that they’re consumers. Their own choices in their everyday life construct who they are,” Sabet explains, adding that post-80s individuals are self-determining within certain constraints.

In addition to have her paper published, Sabet has reaped the benefits of her research at work. Sabet did her MA at Royal Roads to shift her career from finance to communications and now works for Labbrand, an agency that provides market and consumer research, brand strategy and creative services such as brand naming and corporate identity development.

“How to work with Generation Y is the big question on a lot of company’s minds, whether they’re in China or elsewhere,” Sabet says. “Through my work and through my everyday life, I’ve been exposed to this group and understand more about them, which has been helpful with my work with foreign clients. From a marketing perspective, this is the up and coming consumer who’s really important for brands to understand.”

As vice general manager of Labbrand, Sabet works with foreign brands that are trying to come to China, helping them refine their strategy and positioning for the market. She was recently quoted in a New York Times article about naming Western products for the Chinese market. Sabet says developing branding that appeals to the Balinghou is an important part of her work.

“Because of their large numbers and financial resources, the Shanghai post-80s generation will undoubtedly have a significant impact in our present and future world,” Sabet writes in the conclusion of her paper. “This may be the first time my participants have had their voices heard, but it certainly will not be the last.”

Read Sabet’s musings on communication, culture and life in Shanghai here.