My research advances our understanding of youth identity formation, education, and social changes. A primary focus is how adolescents grow into mature adults in social changes. Traditional social theories emphasize the role of school education in preparing adolescents for the necessary social, cultural and cognitive skills in their coming of age process. However, when school education fails to do so, how do adolescents grow into adult social members and what challenges, difficulties, and struggles do they have to deal with? I explore this question in the context of modern and contemporary China, a country whose incredible socio-cultural and political changes make it especially well-suited for this study. I also reflect upon the methodological and ethical issues in conducting fieldwork in an authoritarian state like China, where the public discussions on politically sensitive topics are strictly censored. My research practice on this agenda is best reflected in the Changing Fate Project.

Also, I am involved in a collaborative study on teaching and learning research methodology. Entitled the Researching Research Project, this is a critical action research exploring the evolution of graduate students’ conceptualization of research in a graduate-level research method class.

The Changing Fate Project

The Changing Fate Project examines Chinese rural youth’s coming of age experience during the country’s transition from the Cultural Revolution to post-Mao market reforms. During the Cultural Revolution, the youth in China’s countryside received a rural-oriented and collectivist school education, which did not prepare them for the ensuing social changes that led to a world of urbanization and individualization. This phenomenon then leads me to ask how rural youth in China navigated their lives and transformed their identity during and right after the years of social changes. Based on ethnographic and oral history data, I argue that a combination of micro and macro level factors—most importantly, family, state ideology and gender—enabled rural youths to internalize different sets of social norms and channeled them to distinctive life paths. Currently, I am working on a book manuscript derived from this project, which is tentatively titled Changing Fate: The Cultural Revolution’s Rural Youth in Transition to Post-Mao China.

Meanwhile, I am also completing a journal article to address the methodological and ethical issues on doing fieldwork in an authoritarian state. The article argues that when doing fieldwork in an authoritarian state like China, a researcher and her research participant engage in an implicit negotiation on what is counted as “politically sensitive.” The interaction between the two sides is mediated through their perception of the state.

The Researching Research Project

In this action research project, I work with three colleagues (Barbara Dennis, Peiwei Li & Karen Ross) to explore how graduate students conceptualize research and how this conception evolves in a graduate-level research method class.

Findings from this project have been reported in two journal articles and a book chapter: “Exploring Graduate Students’ Understanding of Research” (International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, third author PDF) explores the tension often present between the way students conceptualize research and the way they perceive themselves in relation to the research process. It advocates for a pedagogical approach more locally and organically connected to students’ lived experiences.

“Methodological Tool or Methodology?” (Forum: Qualitative Social Research, first author PDF) uses the Researching Research Project as an example to examine a methodological question—how to determine the validity of computer-assisted qualitative data analysis. It suggests researchers shift their analytic focus from the instrumentality and efficiency of the software to the research practice itself. It argues that deliberative methodological decisions should be made by considering three factors: a researcher’s methodological approach, the built-in validity structure of the data analysis software, and the specific research context.

“Critical Action Research” (Sage Research Methods Cases, third author PDF) reflects upon the key methodological and practical challenges of conducting collaborative action research.

The products of this project also include a research methodology textbook, which is tentatively titled Making sense of social scientific research: A Student- and Practitioner-Centered Approach. The book is now under contract with Sage Press and scheduled to be published in 2019.