Research Projects

Raising Upper-Middle-Class Children in China

Photo by Lily Liang

My dissertation examines real and anticipated social change in China through the lens of upper-middle-class child-rearing. During my 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Shanghai, I interviewed and surveyed 80 upper-middle-class parents and intensively followed 20 households. I argue that the faster China develops, the riskier social reproduction becomes even for relatively rich parents. Chinese upper-middle-class parents worry that their children’s future success and well-being may be hampered by the ugly side of China’s economic development. They want their children to rise in China—but also be able to leave China if the politics become too fraught.


My case illustrates how elites in developing countries insure themselves against costs of national development by redefining their relations to the state. I show that Chinese upper-middle-class parents understand their intensive involvement in the context of their changing relations to China’s socialist past, moralized present, and global future. By taking it upon themselves to avert risks associated with state retrenchments, inadequate educational reforms, and deepening inequalities, the parents are reinforcing widely shared Chinese beliefs that moralize social inequalities as qualitative differences between “winners” and “losers” of economic reforms.

Education, Poverty, and Morality in Urban China

Photo by Lily Liang

For one very hot summer, I lived with 36 women in a 3-bedroom rental in Shanghai. Enrollment expansion has disproportionately affected the job prospects of graduates located at the bottom of China’s higher education hierarchy. These graduates make ends meet by clustering in cheap, crowded rentals. My Symbolic Interaction article, “No Room for Respectability,” explored the social isolation and moral indignation of young women graduates. Unlike the rich middle-class parents, these poor university graduates live in moral fear of being misidentified as “low-quality” people with no future. I argued that institutional changes introduce new dimensions of inequality that reinforce China’s existing social order. My article received a graduate paper award from the ASA Culture Section.

Stratification of Chinese Legal Profession

I have published works on the stratification of China’s legal profession with Sida Liu (Toronto). Specifically, we looked at how migrant lawyers overcame their position at the bottom of the stratified legal profession by specializing in niche fields.

Bourdieu Meets Dewey in Relational Sociology

I have also published work that examines the enduring influences of Pierre Bourdieu and John Dewey on a major strand of relational sociology with Sida Liu.