Theoretically, I am a follower of Georg Simmel and the Chicago School of sociology. In the past decade, I have been developing an ecological and processual theory of social space for studying law, professions, markets, states, and other social entities. Unlike some mainstream sociological theories that emphasize causal relationship or hypothesis testing, I take an alternative Simmelian approach that resembles social geometry: it seeks to explain the emergence and transformation of social structures by examining their locations in the social space and the social processes that constitute their spatial outlook and temporality. In particular, I use a number of general social processes (competition, conflict, boundary work, exchange, migration, etc.) to describe and analyze the changes of social entities over space and time.
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 my theoretical approach to social spaces is summarized in my four recent articles in Sociological Theory (“Field and Ecology”), American Journal of Sociology (“The Ecology of Organizational Growth”), Sociology of Development (“Overlapping Ecologies”), and Journal of Professions and Organization ("Boundaries and Professions"). In my two essays in Law & Social Inquiry (“Law’s Social Forms” and “The Legal Profession as a Social Process”), I have applied this approach to develop new theoretical tools in the sociology of law and challenge the dominant “power/inequality” approach. While the theory remains a work in progress, its ultimate aim is to provide a Simmelian alternative to Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory and Niklas Luhmann’s theory of autopoietic social systems.
My next theoretical project builds on my 2015 article “Law’s Social Forms: A Powerless Approach to the Sociology of Law” and seeks to develop a full-fledged sociolegal theory that analyzes the legal system as a social space with niches and jurisdictions, transforming through a variety of social processes. My ultimate goal is to write a book titled Law as a Social Space as a Simmelian alternative to Niklas Luhmann’s Law as a Social System, Donald Black’s The Behavior of Law, and Pierre Bourdieu’s “The Forces of Law.” In addition to the book manuscript, I am also working on two related theoretical essays on the nature of social space: “Social Space: From Georg Simmel to Erving Goffman” and “Between Social Spaces.” Taken together, the book and the two essays will lay out the foundation for a general theory of social space and demonstrate how it can be applied to analyze the legal system and other institutions.