My research is at the intersection of the sociology of religion, global and transnational sociology, and the sociology of culture.

Serenity: Happiness and Death in China

I am finishing a book 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.

Categories for Religion

I am interested in the categories people use for religion. The cutting edge of research in the sociology of religion aims to move beyond the “world religion” categories (e.g., Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim). Decades ago, historians revealed in detail how a rather small group of 18th- and 19th-century Western European scholars of language created these categories as a mirror of the racial-national-geographic demarcations—and civilizational hierarchies—with which they understood the world. Though the problems of the world religion categories are apparent, they are currently naturalized and remain stubborn mainstays of academic and public discourse. But continuing to use the “world religion” categories reproduces and institutionalizes a bounded, territorialized, and racial notion of identity.

An example of racial-geographic demarcation: When Buddhism was “discovered” by the West, an enormous array of vastly different texts, practices, and concepts were thrust into this singular label, approximating what a few British men thought of as “the Orient,” as Philip Almond's research shows.

An example of limited knowledge: Tomoko Masuzawa's painstaking work uncovers how the construction of Hinduism centered around the designation of the Vedas as “the sacred books of the Hindus” came to be mostly because of what the Europeans could and couldn’t read.

Sociologists have noted that what has been and is still considered religion is narrowly Protestant in form, centered on individual self-identification and participation in a congregation.

My fieldwork on happiness brought me to examine practices in China—including grave-sweeping, preparation of burial clothes for the afterlife, speaking to deceased family members, and filial piety—that involve neither congregational membership nor self-professed religious identity. Yet these activities address the meaning of life, the divine, the afterlife, the supernatural, and virtue. That is why, when surveyed, only 19% of people in China say they have some kind of religious belief. Yet 65% of people say they have worshipped God or gods/spirits in a variety of settings. The numbers show that new conceptual frameworks for religion need to be developed in order to capture how people actually approach virtue, divinity, the afterlife, and morality .