Training in theory construction linked to empirical research, 1987–2023


ver the past three-and-a-half decades, graduate students from Sociology and other social science departments have participated in the Economic Sociology Lab, which has provided training in theory construction linked to empirical research. The Lab has carried out collaborative research in different substantive subfields, employing an advanced mixed methods approach.

Lab-Based Research Projects

Early Research

In the late 1980s, the Lab received a grant from National Science Foundation (NSF) for research on immigrant labor markets. Scott Sernau and Sijin Su served as graduate research assistants (GRAs) on this project. The Lab also contributed a socioeconomic dimension to the Cornell–China–Oxford Project on Nutrition, Health and Environment, the comprehensive study of diet, lifestyle, and disease in China led by T. Colin Campbell in Nutrition Science at Cornell, Sir Richard Peto at Oxford University and Dr. Junshi Chen of the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine. The Lab designed a survey research instrument that was added to the expanded 1989-90 re-survey of selected families in eighty-five counties in rural China, so as to assess socioeconomic conditions. Yang Cao, Lisa Keister, Rebecca Matthews, Zun Tang and Raymond Lieka participated in the design of this survey component and the subsequent analysis of the economy and society survey data. In 1993, the NSF funded survey research on institutional change in the transition to a market economy in urban China. Frank Young in Development Sociology and Banoo Parpia, a senior research associate who later earned a Ph.D. in Sociology, contributed to the graduate training and research. These Lab-based research projects generated numerous articles, accepted by the American Sociology Review (six, from 1987 to 1996), American Journal of Sociology (two), Theory and Society (two), Ethnic and Racial Studies (two), Social Forces, Administrative Science Quarterly, Annual Review of Sociology, Social Science Research, Rationality and Society, Economic Development and Cultural Change, Journal of Asian Studies, and also an award-winning edited volume, The New Institutionalism in Sociology. Nearly all publications were co-authored with graduate student members of the Lab.

“The Lab was a recognized and invaluable incubator of important pioneering work in the field and as we all know, launched and generated key new directions, approaches and ideas in Economic Sociology. I for one, feel privileged and fortunate to have been part of this effort. Hope we can commemorate and celebrate this together at a festschrift for your work in the near future.”

—Banoo Parpia, Cornell University International Alumni Affairs and Development

The Emergence of Rational-Legal Capitalism in China’s Yangzi River Delta Region

In 1996, the John Templeton Foundation began its generous funding of a twelve-year longitudinal study (1995-2017) of the emergence of rational-legal capitalism in China’s Yangzi River Delta region (Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces). Sonja Opper, a 2001 post-doctoral fellow from the University of Tubingen, participated in the study. Graduate student research assistants included Yujun Wang, Christopher Yenkey, Li Ma, Paul Lee, Lisha Liu, Daniel DellaPosta, and Mario Molina. Completed questionnaires and data for four waves of survey research (2006, 2009, 2012 and 2016) were sent to the Economic Sociology Lab, where they are currently stored. As a GRA, Yujun Wang (now an associate professor of Sociology at Renmin University in Beijing) worked closely with the Shanghai Academy of Social Science survey research firm in reviewing the data entry and quality. In turn, Lisha Liu (now an assistant professor at Jiao Tung University in Shanghai) led a team of Cornell undergraduate research assistants to continue and complete this work for the final fourth wave of the Yangzi Delta survey. In this period, research articles co-authored with Lab members were published in Annual Review of Sociology, Social Science Research (2), Theory and Society, Organization Science, Daedalus, Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, and Sociological Science. Mario Molina is first author of an article published recently in Organization Science analyzing a laboratory-in-the-field behavioral experiment conducted as part of the Yangzi Delta study. In China, Zhilin Liu, Professor of Public Policy at Tsinghua University, and Yujun Wang have edited a volume of published articles produced by the Lab, which has been submitted to Peking University Press.

Capitalism from Below: Markets and Institutional Change in China, co-authored with Sonja Opper, is based on the advanced mixed methods theory-driven approach of the Economic Sociology Lab. It won multiple best book awards including the George R. Terry Best Book Award from the Academy of Management.

The Emergence of the Knowledge Economy in New York City and Sweden

In the 2010s, another study, funded by the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation, focused on the emergence of the knowledge economy in New York City and Sweden. This Lab-based research project (PI, Sonja Opper; co-PI, Victor Nee) involved Michael Siemon, Daniel Della Posta, Lucas Drouhot, Yujin Oh, and a Cornell undergraduate research assistant, Sirui Wang, who completed his PhD in 2023 at the Wharton School. Sirui and is lead author on two of three completed research reports.

Additional Lab Members

Other Lab members who actively participated in weekly research meetings included Paul Ingram, Arnout Van De Rijt, Hilary Holbrow, David Dornisch, Qi Li, Scott Golder, Shuo Zhang, Erik Voltz, Zhilin Liu, Yujin Oh, Yanmin Gu, and Christiana Agawu.

Lab Member Bios and Retrospective Remarks →

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“A hardhitting economic sociology would attempt to draw on the best of sociology and economics, and to unite interests and social relations in one and the same analysis.”— Richard Swedberg