Trained as a sociologist, my research is informed by the intersection of historical sociology and economic sociology. Employing mixed methods, my current work revolves around three substantive areas: 1) how social networks inhabited meritocracy; 2) how organizational identities are socially constructed; and 3) how corporate social responsibility emerged and became institutionalized. My ongoing and future research centers on science, innovation, and tech entrepreneurs.
How Social Networks Inhabited Meritocracy
My interest in meritocracy goes hand in hand with my own journey of receiving education in China and in the US. The empirical context I study is the civil service examinations (CSE) in historical China, a gatekeeping mechanism for entering the bureaucracy. Exploring a unique dataset of 12,752 students who passed the grueling CSEs between1400 and 1580 to become government officials, my coauthored has articles have unraveled this allegedly earliest meritocratic institution in several aspects. For example, we explore the causal effect of social capital on upward mobility in “Intergenerational Mobility through Inhabited Meritocracy,” published in Canadian Review of Sociology. Specifically, we distinguish between the availability of social capital (whether a student’s father and ancestors served in the bureaucracy) and the mobilization dimensions of social capital (proxied by whether a student’s father was alive when he passed the examination). Empirical results confirm the effect of available social capital, while its mobilization appears less crucial. This could be a reward to a student’s family that had served in the bureaucracy, regardless of whether his father was still alive to call in a favor.
Interest in how social capital became ingrained in a meritocratic institution, we explore their origin and consequences in another article “Group boundary,” under review for minor revision at Social Forces. Then to explain why place-based favoritism was tolerated, we turn to examiners’ strategic discretion in a working paper “Hiring Managers,” which integrates the insights from personnel economics. Since examiners served as ad hoc hiring managers, we treat them as the agents of the principal and investigate how they screened other agents with the dual goals of safeguarding their private incentives while protecting themselves from the accusation of nepotism. We first develop a formal model to capture their strategic discretion in hiring. A hiring manager’s private incentives could induce him to increase screening efforts, which benefits the principal by generating the least distorted sorting outcomes. Data analysis substantiates this model, showing that an examiner tended to favor the students who came from his home province and were near the pass/fail cutoff point. For the principal, tolerating such discretion resulted in superior post-hiring performance of the entire cohort of being hired (vis-à-vis the lack of strategic discretion).
How Organizational Identities Are Socially Constructed
Just like market is socially constructed, participants in marketplace and other competitive arenas need to carve out and defend their identities to be assessed favorably. Working on a supply side perspective, I examine how organizations define themselves, anticipating the audience’s validation. My article “Becoming Buddhists” published in British Journal of Sociology documents how a novel organizational prototype emerged hand in hand with identity claims by its members. Amidst various institutional constraints, a group of elite university students became monks and founded a new temple. There they learned to articulate who they are and what they could bring to society, changing a conventional way of practicing Buddhism in China. A related working paper “The Value of Organizational Identities” further explores how about 7,000 foundations in China (including the one established by that prestigious temple) developed their organizational identities—being a generalist or a specialist and a specific profile of causes they claim to support—and how much their identities were valued by donors.
I also examine this research agenda from the demand side perspective, i.e., how audience assesses organizational identities. Specifically, I investigate the negative signaling effect of political connections on IPO valuation in a coauthored article “Revolving around Political Connections,” published in Socio-Economic Review. It challenges the well-acknowledged view that political connections are crucial for doing business in China. Instead, we theorize political connections as a negative signal, when there emerges a stark contrast between state and private ownership. This generates a dilemma of government venture capital backing, which may help secure financial resources and a quota to go IPO in the first place. But this enabling role becomes a liability in the post-IPO stage, as it signals the lack of managerial autonomy and thus lowers IPO valuation. In a coauthored article of “Colonial Influence” currently under R&R at American Sociological Review, I continue this line of inquiries.
How Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Evolved
Intrigued by the increasing influence of CSR on business community, I explore its institutional origin and changes. To start with, I trace the historic websites of global Fortune 500 companies to understand how they disclosed CSR commitment before there emerged a reporting temple. A coauthored article “Institutionalizing Corporate Social Responsibility Disclosure” published in Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Management reports our findings. In parallel to the rise of global initiatives such as Global Compact, companies learned to adjust their disclosing behaviors from ad hoc mentioning of idiosyncratic themes to elaborating proliferating themes in a dedicated website section, giving rise to a reporting template.
Underneath this guidance, however, lies in organizational heterogeneity in how firms respond to institutional pressures of CSR differently. I thus turn to firms’ founding imprints. Analyzing a dataset of 1,037 firms in China, three coauthored paper published in management and sociology journals confirm the effect of founding imprints. Firms founded in the socialist era were more likely to comply with the labor theme than other firms, while the same firms were less likely to engage in environmental protection, an absent theme of the socialist era.
As CSR continues to be significant for business and society, there emerges a recent assessment framework of environmental, societal, and governance (ESG). Together with colleagues in economics, I am working on a project of how firms have learned to improve their ESG scores through an external shock—the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 in China.
Ongoing and Future Research
I am currently completing a coauthored book manuscript tentatively titled “Revisiting the Needham Question,” under contract with The Princeton University Press. Named after Joseph Needham (1900-1995), the original question is “why and how China had ceded its leadership in science and technology to Western countries in the 17th century.” We revisit this question with empirical evidence of more than 10,000 inventions and scientific discoveries coded from a 27-volume series of Science and Civilization in China. Analysis of this and other datasets helps set the question right: Ancient China was extraordinarily inventive as it led the world in science and technology for a substantial period, but the decline started as early as the 6th century.
We answer this question highlighting a temporal variation of Chinese history rather than relying on an implicit comparison between China and Europe at a single time point. Specifically, we propose a tripartite typology of the Chinese state, a framework that conceptualizes Chinese history as a journey that transitioned through three distinct phases of polity with dramatically contrasting implications for technological development—the polycentric state (from the 5th century BCE to 6th century CE), the enabling state (from the 6th to 13th century) and the controlling state (from the 13th century on). Summarizing this historical lesson has profound policy implications today: the state should continue to provide financial and infrastructural support for science and innovation-based economy, but refrain itself from intervening in the specific topics or industries.
Going through the achievement of historical figures inspires me to study today’s tech entrepreneurs. There is a considerable number of Chinese business people who make a fortune through tech-based entrepreneurship. Still under a strong state, they are becoming an important social force and voice their opinions through social media. I plan to write a book to explore how they understand and what they do about inequality that is intertwined with the externalities of their tech business, paying close attention to the boundary they draw, discourses they employ, and behaviors they display to influence society and policy making.