Cherry Ji

Cherry Ji, fifth year sociology graduate student, is a recipient of the A. Kimball Romney Award for Outstanding Graduate Paper. The honor recognizes Ji’s work examining Olympic figure skaters' social performance of artistry under an increasingly rationalized judging system. Below, the grad student from Beijing who earned her bachelor’s in educational studies from Vassar College expands on her research and plans post-Ph.D. in 2024.

What piqued your interest in sociology and graduate study at UCI? What interests you most about your work?

When I was in high school, I received a wonderful opportunity to attend the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy (PEA) one summer, which was my very first trip to the United States. Immediately upon arrival, I observed drastic differences between public education in China and the Harkness Classrooms at PEA, which encouraged student participation and collaboration. I began comparing educational systems and pedagogical practices, pondering their implications for educational outcomes and social mobility.

Even though my research interests initially stemmed from an eagerness to make sense of my multicultural educational backgrounds, it soon evolved to an exploration of both the inequitable distribution of educational resources worldwide and how education systems as social institutions are shaped by global cultural changes in the era of globalization. I became particularly interested in investigating educational inequalities through a globalized and sociological lens and hoped to continue exploring these issues in graduate school.

I was drawn to the sociology Ph.D. program at UCI for several reasons. First, the department has a strong tradition in my intended fields of global & transnational sociology and comparative sociology of education. I dreamed of working with leading scholars in these fields, who are now my advisors and dissertation committee members. In addition, faculty members at UCI sociology are committed to mentorship and the success of graduate students. Finally, the diversity and vitality of Irvine and surrounding communities appealed to me as an ideal site for my graduate studies.

Tell us more about your research. What problem will your findings help solve?

Broadly speaking, I have focused on two lines of sociological research: on one hand, my dissertation examines how global cultural changes have shaped higher education systems around the world and propelled women to pursue postsecondary education. On the other hand, I study the consequences of growing rationalization in evaluation systems, specifically through the case of Olympic figure skating. My interview-based research that earned this year’s Romney Award explores how elite figure skaters maneuver between conformity to the formally rationalized rulebook and the non-isomorphic yet culture-structured performances of artistry. Situating my research within research on growing formal rationalization in evaluation systems, I argue that existing scholarship may have overestimated the extent of isomorphism in individual or organizational practices under highly rationalized systems of assessment. My work reveals that despite rationalizing tendencies of the scoring system, skaters strive for varied social performances of artistry based on shared cultural scripts of greatness in the sport.

In addition, my dissertation research centers around how education systems as social institutions have been shaped by global cultural changes. My dissertation, situated in recent global initiatives to promote gender equality in education, examines rising female participation in higher education through a cross-national lens. Women, once excluded from college education for centuries, have been flooding into colleges and universities in record numbers. Strikingly, this has occurred not merely in the U.S. and other Western liberal democracies, but around the world, even in countries known to subscribe to traditional gender ideologies. I use quantitative, longitudinal data of 155 countries from 1970 to 2020 to investigate factors propelling the remarkable ascendance of women in higher education. I argue that growing international attention to women’s rights and educational inequalities has brought the spotlight on women’s participation and propelled increasing enrollments worldwide. Such global expansionary pressures on education systems have shown particular salience in the post-cold war era, when neoliberalism emphasizing empowered individual actorhood became the dominant cultural framework around the world.

Where can your work be found if someone wanted to learn more about your research?

Peer-reviewed articles
Ji, Zaoying. 2022. “Gliding on the Edge of the Iron Cage: Performing Rationality and Artistry in the Sport of Figure Skating.” American Journal of Cultural Sociology. 10, 657–675 (2022).

Conference papers
Ji, Zaoying. The Global Rise of Female Participation in Higher Education: Divergent Pathways and Global Discursive Changes, 1965 - 2021.” 2023 American Sociological Association Annual Meeting.
Ji, Zaoying. “Blades of Glory: Hyper Rationalization and The Social Performance of Artistry in Elite Figure Skating.” 2023 American Sociological Association Annual Meeting.
Ji, Zaoying. “The Global Rise of Female Participation in Higher Education: Divergent Pathways and Global Discursive Changes, 1965 - 2021.” 2022 The Future of World Society Theory Conference.
Ji, Zaoying. “Gliding on the Edge of the Iron Cage: Performing Rationality and Artistry in the Sport of Figure Skating.” 2022 American Sociological Association Annual Meeting.

Under Review
Bandelj, Nina, Yader Lanuza and Zaoying Ji. “Raising Kids, Rising Debt: Does Having Children Impact Mortgage Debt?”

What activities have you been involved in on campus as an Anteater? In addition to the Romney Award, what others have you received?

  • Competition Team, UCI Figure Skating (2019-present)
  • 2023 A. Kimball Romney Award for Outstanding Graduate Paper, UCI School of Social  Sciences (2022/2023 academic year)
  • Honorable Mention, Robin M. Williams Competition for Best Empirical Paper, UCI Sociology (2022/2023 academic year)
  • Faculty Committee Representative, Sociology Graduate Student Association (2021-2022)

Who have been your faculty mentors while here, and what impact have they had on your graduate career?

Throughout my time at UCI, I have been beyond grateful for the exceptional mentorship I have received from many faculty members. I have had the distinct privilege of working with my co-advisors, Dr. Evan Schofer and Dr. Julia C. Lerch, since day 1 and they have been pivotal in shaping the scholar and person that I am today. Under their tutelage, I have turned my overarching research interests into concrete research agendas, grown immensely as a quantitative social scientist and developed a clear vision for my future career path in academia. As much as they are committed to supporting my research endeavors and success as a graduate student, they have always prioritized my wellbeing first and foremost, ensuring that I maintain a work-life balance and progress in a consistent and sustainable manner.

In addition, Dr. Nina Bandelj has been an extraordinarily inspiring and supportive mentor to me throughout my time at UCI. Through working with her in various capacities, including as her Graduate Student Researcher over the past two years, I have developed new research interests at the intersection of economic sociology and educational investment and honed cutting-edge methodological tools such as causal inference. Dr. Bandelj offered me a wealth of constructive feedback and unwavering support when I was revising my article that received the 2023 A. Kimball Romney Award for Outstanding Graduate Paper. Following her example, I have also become more involved in service and leadership, working as our department’s faculty representative last year for example as a liaison between faculty members and graduate students.

Last but certainly not least, I would not have received this award without the tremendous support and guidance from Dr. Francesca Polletta. I began my project on Olympic figure skaters’ social performance of artistry in her graduate seminars on Sociology of Culture and Interview Methods, which gave me the conceptual frameworks and methodological tools that grounded this article. A world-renowned scholar in cultural sociology, Dr. Polletta helped me select the most appropriate journal to submit my work to, dissect reviewers’ comments and craft an actionable plan to revise my article. My research has benefited immensely from her expertise and her commitment to support students’ research.

When do you plan to complete your Ph.D.? What are your plans thereafter? How has UCI prepared you well for this role?

I plan to complete my Ph.D. in the spring of 2024 and aspire to become a faculty member in sociology or related fields upon graduation. UCI has adequately prepared me for this role by offering me the incredible opportunity to work with leading scholars in my fields of study, teach and mentor undergraduate students and workshop my projects at various research institutions on campus. My graduate studies have equipped me with the necessary skill sets to work in academia.

Any other tidbits you’d like to share?

I returned to competitive figure skating when I started my doctoral studies at UCI after a decade-long hiatus and have worked with World Champion and Olympic Medalist Alexa Knierim for four years. I placed first in my age group in the Southern California InterClub Series in 2021 and 2022. My experience training at the Great Park Ice & Five Point Arena in Irvine inspired my work on the social performance of desired aesthetics in sports.

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