My research is at the intersection of the sociology of religion, the sociology of culture, and the study of institutions. 

Mourning Well in China

I am finishing a book on grave sweeping that builds on my exploration of how people in China define happiness. From 2013–2019, I collected interview, ethnographic, and survey data.

The Washington Post featured two videos from my fieldwork in an article (“What people around the world mean when they say they’re happy,” February 3, 2016). One video I had taken when an 86-year-old woman in Fujian showed a group of friends (including me) her burial clothes. It was a jovial, cheerful atmosphere as everyone admired her selections. She had had a good life; she was proud of it, and she knew she was going to be seen at her funeral one day and visited as an ancestor. So, even though she was still healthy, she was prepared. We in the small group reciprocated her emotions and could be happy, too, as we admired the items she had chosen. 

In the other video, I participated in one family’s visit to graves during the Grave Sweeping Festival in a suburb of Chengdu, Sichuan. The family joked and laughed with each other, as they burned paper offerings to their deceased grandfather. This included a paper version of a modern Western suit with leather shoes, and a Samsung cell phone.

The Chinese Pursuit of Happiness

My last work is a project that tracks the moral reference points that people in China use as they organize their lives— their “habits of the heart,” to use Alexis de Tocqueville’s term—providing the first-ever study of how people in China define a good life. This has been published in The Chinese Pursuit of Happiness: Anxieties, Hopes, and Moral Tensions, which I co-edited with Richard Madsen. 

There have been many definitions of happiness and the good life, varying over time and space.  In China, people talk about happy families with children who are good to their parents. One successful 28-year-old woman who worked in finance in Beijing said, “You would naturally think of your parents when you enjoy some delicious food and wish they could enjoy it with you.” For her, thoughts of parents are, ideally, always present.  

Young adults face pressure to be close to their parents, but they also want to pursue their careers.  Guan Xiaozhi, a young man I interviewed, said he could only be 95% happy at the moment. In his mid-twenties, he had already risen from very humble beginnings—most of his extended family is still in the village, where installing a heater for a hot shower is considered a luxury. When they go to the city, they must work at temporary jobs at restaurants, as nannies, or in construction. 

By contrast, Guan Xiaozhi has a steady job (he started as a security guard, later moved to a hotel’s front desk) and takes classes at the local university in law. Though Guan revels in his opportunities, he feels pressure from his extended family, who had hoped to see him married and parenting by now. Their disappointment is solely about his decision not to marry—that is the 5% that blocks him from being completely happy. But the numbers are a bit deceiving: he says that this 5% has the potential to overturn the rest of his 95%, so whether his parents are happy with him has a larger influence on him than it appears. 

Morality and Microfinance

My dissertation examined modeling in economics. Though well-intentioned, these efforts to reduce in poverty worldwide used the economic models that were inadequate for predicting villagers’ actions in microfinance programs in rural China. 

My ethnographic work took place over three years, when I lived with NGO staff and government officials, observed them as they did their work, conducted 136 interviews in Mandarin Chinese, and examined microfinance account books in four townships. 

In microfinance, lenders aim to address global poverty by providing small loans for the purpose of profit-making. The microfinance models predict that borrowers repay if they are promised future loans. Instead, I found that borrowers repaid depending on their social relationships and their social status. Were they repaying their uncle, their neighbor, or the township official? If repayment was to the official, did they owe him a favor, or did the official owe them a favor? For the borrowers embedded in various sets of relationships, debt and indebtedness took on different meanings depending on who they owed. This has been published in Borrowing Together: Microfinance and Cultivating Social Ties.