Most recent research on the first three decades of the PRC has avoided theoretical reflection on the period, instead claiming an empiricist fidelity to the heterogeneity of lived experience. Yet the refusal of theory allows unexamined conceptualizations to structure the findings—conceptualizations whose plausibility arises not from the archive but from the historian's own historically situated sensibilities. This article identifies a deep orientation at work in an otherwise highly diverse set of scholarship on the early PRC. A research paradigm privileging the individual over the collective, civil society over the state, diversity over homogeneity, contingency over necessity, and fragmentation over totality has achieved important advances, but it has also foreclosed essential new directions for research. The article then sketches an alternative approach that does not simply reverse these binaries but aims to encompass both sides through a reappropriation of classical social theories such as those of Marx, Durkheim, and Freud. Building on long-neglected aspects of these theories, such as their varied approaches to a co-constitutive relation between social appearance and essence, would not displace careful empirical investigation but deepen it by revealing the full complexity of the sources.

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