Category Archives: All about sociology

Book reviews, summaries, and other articles about sociology when I’m busy being the professional MPhil student.

Summary: Liu and Emirbayer, “Field and Ecology”, Social Theory

Liu and Emirbayer were at pains to compare Bourdieu’s field theory and Chicago school’s ecology theory as spatial views of society. There are four sections in this paper. The first section offers brief overviews of important elements in the two theories as members of “spatial theory family”; the second and third analyze their similarities and differences along different dimensions (sociologically fancy substitute for themes); the last section discusses how the two theories can borrow from each other.

Field theory and ecology theory are both “theoretical metaphors for charactering social space” (Silber 1995, as in Liu & Enirbayer 2015). There are three elements in any spatial view of society: actors, positions, and the relations that associates them. [Reflection 1] Moreover, social spaces are different with social system in that the latter doesn’t concern positions but only the roles of actors; different with social network in that the latter only sees structural ties between actors, but has no concern with actors’ shift of positions; different with social structure in that the latter only cares for positions but not actors that occupies them. [For more detailed discussion on this dichotomy, see Reflection 1]

Field and ecology theories are similar in three aspects. First is structural isomorphism – fields become similar in their interaction. In Bourdieu this process is homology, in ecology theory Abbott links different ecologies by hinges (the same actors get rewards in different fields) or avatars (actors create their alternative self in another field?). Second is their conceptualisation of time. Field theory incorporates this dimension by tracing the trajectories over time of social actors and positions they occupy – that is, relations between them. For ecology theory, the focus on interaction itself implies an emphasis on time and fluidity of structures. Finally they are similar in the social psychologies discussions. Habits – unreflective dispositions – comes first, and only when habits are not enough will there be more reflective practices. In conclusion, field theory and ecology theory both conceptualise society as relational and views social relations as structured process.

Field and ecology metaphor are different along five dimensions. First, field theory is devoted to power relations and dominance / subordination pairs. It even has a meta-field of “power of powers”, or the field of power struggle between dominants in sub-fields. It is in this field that the legitimate principle of legitimation is produced [c.f. province head vs. centre head in CCP]. Ecology theory views society more like plant ecology, there are competition but few direct domination. Second, Bourdieu insists fields are inter-connected and are receptive to external influences. But ecology theory assumes social spaces are endogenous, for example they do not research life of immigrants in Chicago city. Thus they concerns more internal interaction than preexisting structures. Third, in field theory social spaces are heterogeneous, but in ecology there is usually one type of actor. [This can be attribute to the second difference – or there will be power. but how about competition? If there is only one actor, no competition, no plant ecology?] Fourth, the two theories use different metaphors in describing [don’t approve this sub-argument – they also have different authors?]. Last, field theory is more abstract in conceptualising than ecology theory. In the former a “space” is not necessary physical, while in the later a “space” is really a space.

How to incorporate field theory with ecology theory? For ecology to learn from Bourdieu, it can take into relations between spaces, heterogeneity of actors in a space, power relations between actors. A good example is Abbott Systems of Professions. For Bourdieu to learn from ecology, it can give more attention to interactions between actors and consider wider range of interaction besides domination/subordination. For example, competition, cooperation, accommodation and exchange.


  1. Although this dichotomy between position and actors resemble the theoretical pair of structure / agency, or objective / subjective, the two authors bridge the pair by adding a “relation” dimension. According to them, on the one hand, Bourdieu also tries to bridge the European objectivism / subjectivism or structure / agency in his field. Three elements here: topological area, organisation of forces, and contestation battlefield. The third is where actors try to make position shift – that is, bridge the changeable with prepositions. They use their habitus to do this. However, since their habitus is also largely predetermined by their position, Bourdieu’s theory is still closer to structuralism / objectivism compared to interactionists’ theory. On the other hand, the second Chicago school – Park and Burgess – build on Simmel’s concept of reciprocal relationship and proposes interaction as “the fundamental social process”. This is a characteristics of ecology theory.
  2. Liu’s own PhD thesis on Chinese lawyers is an empirical application of this integration of field theory and ecology theory. He defines two fundamental processes: boundary-work and exchange. Boundary-work includes boundary making, boundary blurring and boundary maintaining. This happens between different legal professions in legal field, legal profession and state. Exchange is exchange of resources.

A Note on ethnographical methodology

The two essays by Burawoy (1991) and Lichterman (2002) shed light on a puzzle I long have: how on earth do qualitative researchers generate theory from their data? Burawoy and Lichterman both answer this methodological questions with a binding of grounded theory (coined by Glaser and Strauss) and extended case method. Researchers using the former method will engage in constant comparison to build generalizable new theory, while those using the second will examine anomaly cases to restructure existing theory.

According to Burawoy, grounded theory and extended case method are two suitable methodological responses to two criticism of participate observation. Namely, that participate observation face both the problem of generalisation and macro-micro link, because of it focus on particular cases and micro interactions. Before justify the two methods mentioned above, Burawoy first disputes another two responses to these criticisms, ethnomethodology and interpretive case method. These two both deny the criticism by nature. Ethnomethodology says macro structures do not exist beyond a hodgepodge of socially constructed understandings of micro level interactions. Thus, generalisation is unnecessary, because there is no “objective” reality shared by all members of human society. Macro-micro link is also unnecessary because of the same reason. Interpretive case method, on the contrary, says that micro world is nothing but the hermeneutic interpretation of the macro. Thus, there is no need for generalisation or build micro-macro link because the micro is by itself already part of the coherent macro. An example is Geerz’s classical study of cockfight in Baliese, in which he claims Baliese men who engage in cockfight are reading and living Baliese culture out.

So how do extended case method and grounded theory answer the two criticisms differently? According to Burawoy it is by comparison. Grounded theory constantly compare particular cases to other particular cases, code concepts and categories that emerge from field notes, and ardently pursue generalizable theories. Note here it represses the specificity of cases, and look for similarities between them. It differs from ethnomethodology in the sense that the former use discourse as resources for generalisation, while the latter grant merit to interpret the discourse itself.

Extended case method compare cases to existing generable theories. It look for abnormal cases that theory cannot explain, and reconceptualize existing theories to improve them. In other words, abnormal cases do not do any generalisation by themselves. The burden to justify such generalisation lay in existing theories.

Litcherman agrees on most of Burawoy’s point and only parts when he mentions extended case method and grounded theory both bear merits and can be used together. The ideal working routine, accoridng to Burawoy as cited in Litcherman, is to

  1. Go into the field with written expectations of what will happen in the field. If you already have theory, that’s better. Just take it with you.
  2. Take field notes industrially from the beginning on.
  3. Start compare field notes to expectations (theory) immediately after the first field session.
  4. Reconceptualize the concepts – here is extended case method working.
  5. Compare the first field notes also with later notes to see if new concepts emerges – here is grounded theory working.

Cheris also mentioned a mix of both methods during her class. Basically, I would say the most important here is comparison. Comparison solves both the problem of generalisation by seeing common variables in particular cases, and the problem of micro-macro by shifting the burden to existing theories. Considering my own research, I should first of all find an empirical puzzle, then find theories to explain it as well as see if I can construct new concepts from my field data. But honestly, the biggest problem I have for now, is that I do not have a puzzle.


  • Burawoy 1991, The extended case method, in Ethnography Unbound. University of California Press.
    (Might also be similar to Burawoy 1998 – I haven’t read this paper but here is a link for future reference –
  • Litcherman 2002, Seeing structure happen, Methods of social movement research. University of Minnesota Press.

Book Review: The Power of Tiananmen

On my very first day of college, my roommate, who was a Hong Kong local, asked me her all-time favorite question for mainlanders:”Have you heard of liusi (six-four)?” To her delight, I haven’t. The word – a number alluding to the date of the military repression in Tiananmen – has been largely invisible in the Chinese public sphere during the past twenty-five years. Any mention of the event seems jarring to the people who are used to living in silence. Yet rumors find their way to the insubordinate city of Hong Kong, which has witnessed waves of indignant protests after its handover to China in 1997. Deficiency of information facilitates various colorful descriptions of the tragedy. One of the most outrageous version I’ve heard claims there are thousands of death that night.

Prof. Dingxin Zhao’s book helps upend such rumors and set the record straight. With his scholarly attitude and extensive interview data, Zhao reconstructs the movement as a series of chaotic interactions between idealistic students and a desperate state. Both sides were inexperienced in such a crisis. The absence of formal movement organizations made dialogues ineffective, and both groups radicalized. In Zhao’s words, students and the state thought they were playing the same chess game, but in fact they were following different rules. The repression was thus inevitable.

But the book has a more ambitious theoretical thrust in mind. Zhao tries to fit the movement into his state-society model, a theoretical construct that seems grand and parsimonious. There are three elements in this model: nature of state, nature of society, and state-society linkage – or legitimacy. In the case of Tiananmen movement, “the state was authoritarian, society was poorly organized, and state legitimacy was based on its moral and economic performance” (p. 8).

Several empirical characteristics then emanate from this state-society relation. First is of Zhao’s actors. He discusses opportunistic intellectual elites who craved Western electoral democracy after repression of Mao, naive rank-and-file intellectuals and students who were discontent with their status loss during the market reform, and a hardcore state who clung to its old ideological legitimacy. Irritated by the state’s bad economic and moral performance, the former two thought of democracy as a panacea of all their problems, but the state refused to let go of its power.

Such political characters of actors then determined their strategies in the mobilization process. For example, students frequently used discourses of moral examplars in traditional Chinese culture. On the one hand, this challenged the corruptions of the state on a moral basis; on the other hand, they also justified their protest as morally acceptable. On the contrary, the state named the uprising as “antirevolutionary”, a term used to attack political enemies in Mao’s era. This attempt of ideological control no longer worked, and the people was largely exasperated.

Perhaps more worthy of noting is Zhao’s famous observation about ecology-based mobilization. His paper on this topic was published on American Journal of Sociology and was cited over a hundred of times. During the 1950s, to facilitate political control over university students, the communist party established a giant university district around the Haidian District of Beijing and put hundreds of thousands of students around that area. Such dense living environment provided great convenience for the movement to enlist participants. For example, some student leaders led tens of hardcore radicals marching around campus, and the number of participants would grow to hundreds. This would not be possible had students lived far away from each other.

Parsimonious as Zhao’s state-society model might be, it can also be over-deterministic. Compared with resource mobilization and political opportunity approach, which were more prevailing in the field of social movement, the state-society seemed grand and ambitious. By isolating state out as an actor, it subjugates political opportunity as a mere derivation of its assumption. The same happens to resource mobilization. But such a giant construction should employ richer data to account for variations, and a single case of Tiananmen is not enough. What about democratic state? Also, seventy formal interviews could hardly support such a bold claim.

More severe critique was made by Craig Calhoun, now at London School of Economic and Political Science, who published his review on Mobilization. Calhoun doubt the scope of Zhao’s data because, firstly, the interviews were all from Beijing. And secondly, sometimes Zhao was not attentive in handling claims by students leaders. He also criticized Zhao for omitting other variables, dismissing other literature on Tiananmen, and presenting amplification of earlier spatial mobilization studies as brand new.

Overall, the book provides some insights on the movement, at least from a narrative level. It also offers interesting reading for general readers who were avid to know exactly what happened. But allow me to warn you that Zhao sees himself as a realistic – that is, he portrays the students as idealistic, if not naive. If you would like to befriend a Hong Kong local who is fond of denigrating mainland youths as being “brain-washed”, do not mention to them conclusions from this book.

On reader’s block

Occasionally I find myself amid stormy and difficult relationships with my sociological readings. During those dark times, I would struggle between carefully crafted lines, flip back and forth with a speed of 10 pages per hour, and return later only to find myself remember not a single word. There was a time I spent eight hours trying to summarize a thirty page paper on history of conversation analysis. Instead of devouring, I felt myself devoured by that merciless monster. I felt thoroughly alienated from the youthful lives that had been occupying library seats around me. In an ironical sense, I felt the kind of scholarly loneliness.

With regard to the infamous “writer’s block”, I name this phenomenon “readers’ block”. This painful experience is by no means unique to me. My supervisor used to tell me that her graduate students have this problem too. They would blatantly complain to her that they could not understand the readings. She, with the kindness of a mentor, would respond that this was due to their lack of background knowledge, not talent.

I suppose that for a graduate student in sociology, losing the ability to read is like the second most frightening nightmare – the first is losing the ability to write. Let’s be honest, there are not many professional technical skills left disposable to sociologists. How many student enter this filed, not as a march towards mastering sociological imagination, but as an escape from math and science? And how many times are sociologists bitterly criticized by statistician for using statistics in an incorrectly way? On hearing my transfer to sociology, the first thing that came out of my statistics professor’s mouth was:” Oops, then you have to read those gigantic books!”

My impression is that reading as a skill tend to be undervalued, especially when compared with writing. As one of my professor recalls her encounter with researchers in hard science: “we do experiments and complicated math, but you – you read.” Also to quote Hilma Wolitzer, a writer, those with talents become professional writer while those without become “much better readers”.

Yet reading and writing are nothing more than two sides of the same coin. After all, it is sociologists themselves who write those impossible readings for each other. Sociologists of our time write from what they have read, and what they write continue to trouble the next generation. Thus the difficulty of reading is closely intertwined with difficulty of writing. If only the power trio had produced less convoluted text!

I want then to posit the relation between writing, reading and codification. Writing is the process of codifying sociological knowledge into text, and reading is the process of translating the codified text back into knowledge. Thus any difficulty in these two processes reflects failure in codification or de-codification.

For example, we always say that ambiguity in writing is the ambiguity in thinking, but this only accounts part of the truth. Difficult text might result from either inscrutable knowledge that cannot be codified, or merely unfamiliarity with the skill of codification. In other words, sometimes we cannot write because we don’t know what to write, other times we cannot write simply because we don’t know how to put down what we know onto paper.

The same applies to reading. Failure in reading is failure in de-codification. Now that I recall, the problem with that forbidding paper I spent eight hours on, is that it requires a translation key that I do not have. It’s too “deep”. And in my supervisor’s words, I might lack the relevant background information. But there are other texts that are hard to read simply because the language they use are unnecessarily cumbersome. Some criticize that those pretentious texts are produced by scholars who seek to hide the secret that they don’t know anything at all. Because the knowledge to be codified is easy, they manipulate the codification process and make the resultant text hard.

I don’t want to go deeper into a discussion about professionalization of sociology that I cannot handle. In this post I only want to destigmatize my reader’s block by passing the responsibility to someone else, and rekindle my faith in being a good graduate student. After all, reading can be fun – as long as you don’t run into German or French writers.

An Unintended Encounter

I bet you are familiar with that overwhelming feeling of facing a 10 page essay assignment. This always get me freaked out. As usual, to avoid the pain of actually writing it, I instead turn away to study “how to write” it. Typical me.
That’s how I picked up this little book by Howard S. Becker, Writing for Social Scientists. My criminology professor recommended this one to me when I asked him how he could be so productive in publishing top research papers. With a modest cover, the book doesn’t look much different from other written instructions. Moreover, since its subtitle starts with a “how to”, I thought this would be an instrumental book filled with handy grammar rules.

But I was wrong. Being an influential American sociologist, Becker writes his book in a subtle, sociological way. This doesn’t mean he writes convoluted scholarly sentences. On the contrary, his writing is so accessible that I frequently lose his thread of argument. The point here is Becker approaches the difficulty of writing in a sociological way. He analyzes the social origins of the problem, and discusses the process that creates the problem. Instead of selling specific writing tips, Becker actually talks about an informal theory about writing and sociology of profession.

I have to admit that I am disappointed both by the style and content of this book, because all I want for tonight is a clear written reference book that can be quickly digested in two hours. But for this one? It takes me the whole night to read the first five chapters and I am not sure I grasp all of the main arguments.

I titled this as “an unintended encounter” because I heard of Becker’s name long ago. My then supervisor recommended his 1967 book “Outsider” as leisure reading to me. She might be fond of this one because she was trained at Chicago – Becker is known as one of the Chicago school scholars. Also, at HKU we learned about Becker’s labeling theory in criminology class. Anyway, I just didn’t expect to run into Becker here.

So what exactly did Becker say in the first part of this book? I divide my take-home into two parts: theory and tips. To save time I have to use bullet list again. I am not surprised at all that I write super slow in English.

Becker’s discusses how the hierarchy structure of academic world creates the problem of writing for students and young scholars. Students as subordinates learn the preferred style of writing from their professors in education system. Those scholars talk in a pretenious way, so their students also talk this way. Another point is that sociologists writes in difficult way to show they know more than ordinary person. They use writing as device to establish expertise and authority.
Also, the excessive use of passive construction reflects sociologists’ fear of committing to causal claims.

1. Free writing. Write down everything you think of in your first draft, in an as fast as possible way. Identify key arguments and support in this draft. Reorganize them. Edit and rewrite them. A clear and sound outline is unnecessary.
2. Fix dissertation topic. Write one hundred dissertation topics in one to two sentences. After twenty five of them you will find there are in fact all about two or three key arguments and their variations.
3. Use active verbs and put crucial actions into them.
4. Use fewer words if possible. This can be done in editing and rewriting.
5. Don’t repeat yourself. Similar point at 4, but at sentence level.
6. Only use carefully constructed metaphors. “The tournament of associates” is good metaphors, while “a growing body of literature” is cliche.

1. Nothing will happen without work. But you must also take some chances, show others your work and open yourself to criticism.

I don’t know whether I will read this book again in the near future. For now it seems the “Berkerley Guide to Writing” is more helpful. This one is good, but just takes more time for me to understand.