Research Overview

In research I aim to solve interesting and important puzzles, addressing problems that plague societies and the most vulnerable people within them.

My research is primarily centred on three areas of inquiry: First, it examines how social policies affect marginalised populations, in sometimes unintended and often disproportionately negative ways. 

Second, it explores how actors in states, markets, and societies address the inequalities that arise from these policies (including NGOs, GONGOs, social enterprises, and MNCs). 

Third—at a more conceptual and theoretical level—it attempts to make sense of the increasingly blurred lines between the state, market, and society and those organisations that move between and/or transcend sectoral boundaries.

I believe that research needn't always be 'data-driven' to be worthwhile: asking new questions, positing creative hypotheses, and undertaking thought experiments also help solve puzzles, improve policy, and protect human wellbeing.

A 2013 talk on my book at the Wilson Center. Professor Guobin Yang served as the discussant. And Dr Jennifer Turner, my former boss, mentor, and friend chaired.  

research on ngos and other social organisations

My book, Social Organizations and the Authoritarian State in China, identifies one particular puzzle: the massive growth of NGOs in China has not led to the political change many theories of civil society and democratisation predict. I ultimately explain the puzzle by showing that this growth is due largely to NGOs' willingness to be 'self-limiting' in their behaviour and activities. In positing the concept of ‘co-dependent relations’ to describe state-NGO interaction, I argue that the contingent nature of NGO development more likely strengthens authoritarianism in China than weakens it.

Another project began by asking how Chinese NGOs partner with their government's emerging international aid projects as Northern NGOs have long done with their own home governments.

Addis Abba, Ethiopia 2014

Field research with my co-authors in Ethiopia and Malawi ultimately did not answer that question, but instead identified a different puzzle: despite Chinese investment and official development assistance in these countries, Chinese NGOs were nowhere to be seen.

This 'null finding' allowed us to then explain why Chinese NGOs have not 'gone out' and internationalised. We argue that this is due both to political pressures at home , and restrictive regulatory environments for international NGOs in host countries.

My research also examines the entirety of the 'life cycle' of social organisations, and in particular to better understand the puzzle of an NGOs 'success paradox': when an organisation has done their job too well, they can lose key donors and supporters who opt to move on to address problems elsewhere.

But not all NGOs simply 'close-up shop' and die. Others evolve into new organisational forms. For example, I have explored how many LGBT NGOs in China that were operating almost solely with HIV/AIDS-related funds, resources that have now mostly been withdrawn, change form into social enterprises to ensure longer-term sustainability.

A 2013 talk on NGO evolution and success at the University of Alberta.

In addition, I am engaged in conceptual and theoretical work to better understand how government organised non-governmental organisations (GONGOs) fit into this large picture of organisational change around the world. These areas of inquiry are part of a larger research agenda exploring how the lines between society, state, and market are blurring and the implications that has for policy, civil society, and organisational sustainability.

Research on LGBT Activism, sexuality, gender identity and social policy 

I research a wide range of issues related to sexual and gender identity primarily from a political economy perspective—a departure from the majority of research on these issues which draw more upon post-structuralism, gender and queer theories. My approach has proven especially useful in examining gay and lesbian activism in a comparative context.

  • A study on Singapore and China, demonstrates how HIV/AIDS funding has shaped gay activism in the two countries [Journal], while research on China and Myanmar underscores how lesbian activists are often politically and economically invisible because they lack such funding [Journal].

  • My research on LGBT NGOs in China has challenged assumptions about a shared 'global gay identity' amongst activists, demonstrating how strategic ‘self-limiting’ behaviour of these groups stands in the way of transnational advocacy networking [Journal].

Based in a social policy department, I am especially interested in understanding how policies have both direct and indirect, intended and unintended effects on marginalised groups such as LGBT people. By identifying how policies can negatively affect the wellbeing of the most vulnerable and excluded in society, we can hopefully improve policies to better their lives overall. 

  • To understand why Chinese LGBT people report 'family pressure' as the greatest struggle in their daily lives, I have shown how social policies such as the one-child policy and elder care reforms that shift the burden of care from the state to the family have had the combined effect of increasing pressure for lesbian women and gay men who do not fit the socially acceptable norm. [Journal]

  • Amidst the global trend of re-thinking 'traditional' opposite-sex marriage, I evaluated the prospects for same-sex marriage in China. While I show that the country lacks many of the cultural and institutional barriers to such a policy change common elsewhere in the world, I also uncover some unintended negative consequences that such a policy could have for LGBT people and activism more generally. [Journal]

More recently, I have begun to examine how sexual minorities and transgender people are affected by policy decisions, and public opinion, in a wide range of issues in the UK and US. 

  • In several ongoing projects, my co-authors and I employ survey experiments to understand how the general public feels about different policy interventions related to: transgender people in the UK and US; and the public provision of PrEP, an anti-HIV drug, in Britain. These projects seek to uncover to what extent anti-gay and transgender biases affect policy support.

A 2009 presentation of my PhD dissertation at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC,