Theoretically, I am a follower of Georg Simmel and the Chicago School of sociology. Since the mid-2000s, I have been developing an ecological and processual approach to studying law, professions, markets, states, and other social entities. In contrast to many sociological theories that emphasize causal mechanisms or hypothesis testing, I take an alternative approach that resembles social geometry: it seeks to explain the emergence and transformation of social structures by examining their positions in social spaces and the social processes that constitute their topology and temporality. Following the Chicago School, 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.

After the completion of my Ph.D. dissertation project, I further developed its ecological and processual approach theoretically in four recent articles in Sociological Theory (“Field and Ecology”), American Journal of Sociology (“The Ecology of Organizational Growth”), Sociology of Development  (“Overlapping Ecologies”), and European Journal of Social theory ("Between Social Spaces"). By contrasting the Chicago School ecological approach with Pierre Bourdieu’s field-theoretic approach, I argue that, as a spatial metaphor, ecology emphasizes less on power or domination but more on processes of interaction over space and time. It is especially useful for analyzing emergent social spaces such as a highly fluid city like Chicago in the 1920s or a rapidly developing legal services market in early 21st century China, where possibilities of growth and change are enormous. While this ecological and processual approach that I am developing remains a work in progress, its ultimate aim is to provide a Simmelian theory of social spaces as an alternative to Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory and Niklas Luhmann’s theory of autopoietic social systems.

In addition to my contribution to general social theory, I have applied this ecological and processual approach to the sociology of law and the sociology of professions. In my 2015 Law & Social Inquiry article (“Law’s Social Forms”), I outline a new “powerless” approach to challenge the dominant “power/inequality” approach in the sociology of law. This “powerless” approach analyzes the legal system not by its power relations and patterns of inequality, but by its social forms, or the structures and processes that constitute the legal system’s spatial outlook and temporality. In my 2018 Journal of Professions and Organization article (“Boundaries and Professions”), I propose a processual theory of action for the sociology of professions. It argues that professionals make social actions by fighting for jurisdictions with boundary work, defining expertise by diagnostic struggle and coproduction, and building social networks through exchange. This processual theory examines the interactions of professionals and other actors over, within, and across boundaries and uses this theory of action to complement existing theories of order and change in professional life. 

My current theoretical project is tentatively titled "The Social Spaces of Law." It seeks to provide a Simmelian alternative to two existing spatial or functional theories of law, namely Pierre Bourdieu’s “The Force of Law: Toward a Sociology of the Juridical Field” (1987) and Niklas Luhmann’s Law as a Social System (2004). Building upon the “powerless” approach that I proposed in my 2015 Law & Social Inquiry article (“Law’s Social Forms”), I will provide a vocabulary of the social forms of law and analyze how these social forms shape substantive issues in the legal system such as power, inequality, stratification, monopoly, mobilization, and resistance. 

Social Spaces

Sida Liu

Sociologist of Law