My research centers on local and grassroots politics in East Asia, mainly China and Taiwan. The process of trying to learn about these things has also stimulated me to write about field research and comparative methods. Below is an overview of my work, organized by topic. My full CV is here.

Cambridge Elements / Politics and Society in East Asia

I co-edit a series of short books on politics and society in East Asia. Each Element takes stock of scholarship on an important issue or concept and advances an original argument about it. They are available in PDF and print editions, with some permanently open-access. Since the series started publishing in 2021, tens of thousands of readers have viewed and downloaded the various contributions. These are some of the Elements published so far:

Full details here.

Local Democracy in Taiwan

In Taiwan, as elsewhere, studies of democracy focus most on the national level. Here, I examine democratic practices and processes at the local level, particularly cities. The campaigns and activities of city councilors and neighborhood leaders provide a window on the workings of Taiwan’s political system in ways that connect with ordinary people’s lives.

I’m writing a book about accountability relationships between elected mayors and councils in Taiwan’s cities and counties, based on extensive fieldwork as well as news reports and other sources.

Articles, book chapters, and more from this project:

State-Fostered Organizations

Early in my studies I became fascinated by ultra-local organizations that incorporate popular participation yet are fostered by governments and drawn upon for administrative purposes. They are unfamiliar in Western settings, but Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and other East and Southeast Asian countries feature tens of thousands of these structures, which operate at the neighborhood or village level and facilitate social welfare, public health, policing and other state functions.

The first such institution that I have studied is China’s system of urban Residents’ Committees (jumin weiyuanhui). My doctoral dissertation was based on fourteen months of fieldwork in Beijing and other cities, which included repeated visits to a set of ten RCs, along with interviews and a survey of 1,124 Beijing residents. I later conducted several rounds of follow-up research. Meanwhile, from 2003 on, I have also studied Taiwan’s neighborhood administrative system, which constitutes a second example of such an institution. Urban neighborhoods (li) in Taiwan are headed by elected leaders (lizhang) who work with city government liaisons (liganshi) and choose a set of block captains (linzhang) to help them. Extensive interviews in Taipei and Chiayi, as well as a telephone survey of 1,140 Taipei residents, have helped me to understand this system.

I analyze and explain how ordinary citizens look upon and interact with these extensions of the state. I argue that the ways in which such organizations selectively draw upon and cultivate community networks highlight the efficacy of social capital, a concept theorized by scholars like James Coleman, Robert Putnam and Peter Evans — but also show its ability to further state projects, not just societal purposes. While China’s authorities hold the RCs on a tight leash, Taiwan’s lizhang system illustrates that institutions like these can evolve from authoritarian origins into highly democratic practices.

This book lays out the Chinese and Taiwanese cases in full detail and compares them to one another, also placing them in the context of other East and Southeast Asian cases:

cover of roots of the state

I’ve also co-edited a book in which contributors compare varieties of such state-linked organizations in countries throughout the region, including Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore:

cover of straddling state and society

Articles and book chapters from this project:

Civil Society Organizations

In other work, I’ve examined groups that are largely autonomous from state funding or control, in other words, civil society organizations. Prominent theories posit that such groups have a number of salutary, pro-democratic effects, such as inculcating habits of political participation in individuals and demanding accountability from governments. My work has focused on the nascent homeowner movement in China and its organizations (yezhu weiyuanhui). This research has aimed, among other things, to clarify the conditions under which civil society groups actually manifest positive effects in observable ways.

Articles and book chapters from this project:

Methods: Field, Comparative, Qualitative

I use a range of different methods in my research, qualitative and quantitative. I don’t aspire to be a methodologist per se. But over the years I’ve been inspired to write several papers and to coauthor a book about methods. The inspiration for all of it stems from experiences and questions I’ve encountered in my own work.

cover of field research in political science

Articles and book chapters from this project: