Sociologist of Law
Born and raised in Beijing in the 1980s, I witnessed as a child China's great transformation from the ruins of the Cultural Revolution to the chaos of the 1989 Tiananmen Student Movement. In the 1990s, I spent six years in a math experimental class at the High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China (人大附中). During this time, I developed a strong passion for Euclidean geometry and, for this reason, decided to study law in college. As a sixteen-year-old boy, I saw many similarities between law and geometry: both begin with a small number of axioms and derive a large number of propositions from them. Then these axioms and propositions are applied to solve problems. I was drawn to law as my dream profession because I thought it resembled geometry in the real world.
Yet my legal education at Peking University proved otherwise. I came to realize that, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously said, "The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience." Furthermore, I was confused and disappointed by the limited capacity of lawyers in China's legal and political reforms. Almost by coincidence, I took two sociology classes in the spring term of my third year and spent most of the time reading the work of a few classical social theorists such as Tocqueville, Durkheim, and Weber. When that term was over, I found myself falling in love with sociology as it opened up a whole new world for my intellectual pursuit. I decided to apply to sociology Ph.D. programs and, with a great deal of luck, got into the University of Chicago, a holy place for American sociology.
In my seven harsh and lonely years of Ph.D. study, I found my intellectual home in Simmelian social geometry and human ecology of the Chicago School of sociology. I realized that, to my great joy, I was finally able to fulfill my childhood dream and study geometry in the real world, that is, to analyze the formal shape of society as social structures and social processes. Despite Simmel's lack of popularity in contemporary American sociology, I was fortunate to land a job in the prestigious Sociology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison after graduation. In Madison, my dreams of social geometry continued for seven years among a large group of number crunchers, Marxists, feminists, and theorists, most of whom I am proud to call colleagues and friends.
In the spring of 2015, my tenure case at Wisconsin was denied after a serious internal fight in the Sociology Department amid a university budget crisis. Shocked and deeply disturbed by this unjust and discriminatory decision, I went on the job market and, with the help and support of many friends and colleagues (including some at Wisconsin), found my next destination at the University of Toronto, a place that truly cares about diversity and appreciates different ways of doing sociology. After living in the United States for fourteen years, I decided to move to Canada and begin a new chapter of my career and life in Toronto.
My move to Canada, however, was delayed for a year because of a wonderful surprise - an invitation from the Institute for Advanced Study to spend the 2016-2017 academic year in Princeton as a Member of the Institute. In this paradise for scholars, I was able to enjoy some peaceful reading and writing time while a political earthquake struck Washington D.C. It was hard to leave the IAS, but I departed in the summer of 2017 with the fond memory of three things: (1) its motto "truth and beauty"; (2) its book The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge; and, (3) its exquisite desserts by a Swiss chef.
Now I am living peacefully in the fabulous city of Toronto, discovering the truth and beauty of this land every day, and continuing to enjoy good food and produce useless knowledge.