Yueran Zhang

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Yueran Zhang

Curriculum Vitae
Research Interests
Comparative-historical sociology, political economy, state and class politics, (de)mobilizations, production and social reproduction, development, global and transnational, theory

I am a PhD candidate in sociology at UC Berkeley. In July 2024, I will join the University of Chicago as an Assistant Professor of Sociology and the College.

A political and comparative-historical sociologist, I specialize in the comparative studies of capitalism(s), socialism(s), and transitions in between, with a special emphasis on political economy and the dynamics of development in the Global South. I am particularly intrigued by questions pertaining to the politics of class, (de)mobilization, democracy, production and social reproduction. More specifically, I study how ideals of democracy and egalitarianism are articulated, enacted, contested and appropriated in economic policymaking, within contexts of both contemporary capitalism and “actually existing socialism” of the 20th century. I use these processes to capture moments when contradictions in the polity and economy intersect to produce explosive mobilizations and social change. Conceptually, this research agenda enables me to historically, comparatively and transnationally interrogate some of the long-standing analytical binaries in the social sciences, such as capitalism/socialism, democracy/authoritarianism, state/society and mobilization/demobilization.

These general interests are encapsulated in my dissertation, tentatively titled "Whither Socialism? Workers' Democracy and the Class Politics of Reform in China's Early Post-Mao Transition". It focuses on a surprising and significant, yet almost completely overlooked, policy episode in China’s early post-Mao years (the late 1970s and early 1980s): a substantial push to advance workers’ democratic management of industrial enterprises beyond what had emerged in the Mao era. Rarely mentioned in existing scholarship and conventional narratives, workers’ democracy as a policy concern actually played a key role in shaping some of the most important political and policy battles in China’s first decade of post-Mao economic reform. Drawing on a vast amount of diverse and wide-ranging source materials – such as official archives, speeches, declassified meeting minutes, pamphlets, gazettes, memoirs and newspaper articles – along with in-depth interviews, this project traces how the emergence, unfolding and demise of this policy episode to advance workers’ democracy profoundly shaped the direction and characteristics of China’s economic reform between the late 1970s and the late 1980s.

In close dialogue with the fields of modern Chinese history and comparative socialism studies, this project explores how workers' democracy emerged as a key policy concern at a critical historical juncture when the very meaning of "socialism" was being rethought, how it was articulated, contested and ultimately marginalized in a series of political battles, how comparative lessons from East European socialist projects informed these processes, how workers related to and practiced democratizing initiatives on the shop floor, and how policies to advance workers' democracy paradoxically ended up facilitating radical marketization towards the end of the 1980s. It seeks to both provide a significantly novel understanding of China's transition from state socialism to capitalism - including the origins of the mass political movements of 1989 - and advance an alternative general theory of market, democracy and class politics in the context of ambiguous, contingent and contested transitions from socialism to capitalism.

My previous research uses the case of taxation on private homeownership as a lens to both make sense of a key moment - the "Chongqing Model" - in China's recent political history and advance a Bourdieusian state theory. It was published in Theory and Society and has won multiple paper awards from the American Sociological Association (ASA).

Dissertation Title
"Whither Socialism? Workers' Democracy and the Class Politics of Reform in China's Early Post-Mao Transition"
Dissertation Committee
Cihan Tugal (chair), Laura Enriquez, Dylan Riley, Yan Long, and Winnie Wong (Rhetoric)