For the past decade, I have been developing a Simmelian theory of social space for studying law, professions, and other social entities. Unlike some mainstream sociological theories that emphasize causal relationship or hypothesis testing, I take an alternative approach that resembles social geometry: it seeks to explain the formation of social structures by examining their locations in the social space and the social processes that constitute their spatial outlook and temporality.
As this is a rather novel theoretical approach in contemporary social sciences, let me begin with a few empirical examples. My Ph.D. dissertation uses two social processes, boundary work and exchange, to explain the fragmented social structure of the Chinese legal services market. My 2014 Law & Policy article with Lily Liang and Ethan Michelson on lawyer migration ("Migration and Social Structure") follows the same approach and investigates the relationship between the spatial mobility of individual law practitioners and the social structure of the bar. I also utilize this Simmelian approach to provide a broad spatial analysis of the shape of the Chinese legal system in my 2014 Peking University Law Journal article (Chinese version: "中国法律的形状"; English version: "The Shape of Chinese Law"). Most recently, my 2016 American Journal of Sociology article with Hongqi Wu ("The Ecology of Organizational Growth") uses this spatial and processual approach to analyze the growth of large corporate law firms in China.
The gist of this theoretical agenda is summarized in my 2016 article "Field and Ecology" in Sociological Theory (with Mustafa Emirbayer), as well as my 2013 and 2015 articles in the Law & Social Inquiry. I see these three articles as the stepping stones for my long-term theoretical project, i.e., to develop a general theory of social space and write a book tentatively entitled Law as a Social Space as a theoretical alternative to Pierre Bourdieu's "The Force of Law" and Niklas Luhmann's Law as a Social System.
"The Legal Profession as a Social Process" presents a processual theory of the legal profession, which integrates four general social processes (i.e., diagnostic struggle, boundary work, migration, and exchange) to conceptualize the dynamic linkages between micro interactions and macro structures in four major aspects of professional life: expertise, jurisdiction, mobility, and politics/regulation. It is not only a theoretical summary of my empirical work on Chinese lawyers but also a conceptual framework generalizable to other studies of the professions, especially in the context of globalization.
"Law’s Social Forms" proposes a “powerless” approach to the sociology of law as an alternative to the dominant power/inequality approach. By revisiting social theory and a number of classic sociolegal studies, the article conceptualizes the legal system as a social space with niches and jurisdictions, constituted and transformed by a set of temporally contextualized social processes. It is an agenda-setting piece that will guide my future book project on sociolegal theory. (See two comments on "Law's Social Forms" in the inaugural volume of the LSI Forum by Bryant Garth and Pompeu Casanovas, as well as my response to them.)
To broaden the theory of social space beyond the sociology of law, I wrote an essay entitled “Field and Ecology” in collaboration with my Wisconsin colleague Mustafa Emirbayer. The essay took us five years to complete and was eventually published in Sociological Theory in 2016. It offers a fine-grained comparison of the similarities and differences between Bourdieu’s field theory and the Chicago School’s ecological theory, two major theories of social space in sociology. It seeks to provide the basis for a continuous dialogue among social theorists and empirical researchers regarding the nature of social space, its structural and processual composition, and how it changes over time.
My next step in this social theory project is to write two papers on social space. The first paper is tentatively entitled "Social Space: From Georg Simmel to Erving Goffman," in which I will trace the Simmelian tradition on social space and try to bridge the historical divide between human ecology of the first Chicago School of sociology and symbolic interactionism of the Second Chicago School. The second paper is tentatively entitled "Between Social Spaces," in which I will develop a theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between social spaces. After completing those two papers, I will begin to write the book - Law as a Social Space.