Politics Faculty

Benjamin Read
  • Title
    • Professor
  • Division Social Sciences Division
  • Department
    • Politics Department
  • Affiliations East Asian Studies
  • Phone
  • Email
  • Website
  • Office Location
    • Merrill College Faculty Office Annex, 157
  • Office Hours https://tinyurl.com/benreadofficehours
  • Mail Stop Merrill/Crown Faculty Services
  • Mailing Address
    • 1156 High Street
    • Santa Cruz CA 95064
  • Faculty Areas of Expertise China, Taiwan

Summary of Expertise

Comparative politics, focusing on China and Taiwan.

Research Interests

Professor Read has studied local politics and state-society relations in East Asia, grassroots-level organizations, and field research methods. A summary follows below; a full CV, plus details and PDFs for many publications, are available at http://benread.net.

His first project concerns immense networks of ultra-local organizations that incorporate popular participation yet are fostered by governments. Countries from Japan to South Korea to Indonesia feature many thousands (in some cases, hundreds of thousands) of these structures, which operate at the neighborhood or village level and facilitate administration and policing as well as serving social welfare, public health and other functions. Read's 2012 Stanford University Press book, _Roots of the State: Neighborhood Organization and Social Networks in Beijing and Taipei_, compares state-sponsored neighborhood organizations in authoritarian China and democratic Taiwan, drawing on extensive research that includes participant-observation, interviews, and original surveys. A 2009 edited volume, _Local Organizations and Urban Governance in East and Southeast Asia: Straddling State and Society_, compares eight cases of this type of institution throughout the region. Further articles and chapters focus on specific aspects or functions of these organizations, such as dispute mediation. This work explains why such structures are more deeply embedded in parts of society than one might imagine, and reconsiders theoretical accounts of the state, associations, and the networks that link government agencies and constituents.

In a second project, Read examined China’s new homeowner groups and their implications for our understanding of civil society organizations. Along with the vast expansion of private housing in China's cities starting in the early 1990s came a slew of conflicts between the purchasers of homes in new condominium towers (and other gated developments) and the companies that build and manage these communities. Authorized by the central government but often impeded by local authorities, homeowner organizations have struggled to form, make decisions, and assert control over such private neighborhoods. These groups have provided a window on the development of non-state organizations in an authoritarian context, including the possibilities they offer for activism and democratic practices, as well as the challenges and limitations they face. Prominent theories posit that civil society groups have a number of salutary, pro-democratic effects, such as inculcating habits of political participation in individuals and demanding accountability from governments. The project clarified the conditions under which groups actually manifest these positive effects in observable ways.

A third project examines the practice and purposes of field research in the study of politics. It centers around a co-authored book, _Field Research in Political Science_ (Cambridge University Press, March 2015). This book examines the many kinds of field research that political scientists do, drawing on a review of published work, in-depth interviews with researchers in all parts of the discipline, and a questionnaire survey (the first of its kind) of U.S.-based members of the profession. It explains how field research in various forms has contributed to the accumulation of knowledge about politics, provides a novel way of thinking about field research, and offers a set of guidelines for how to conduct field research in the most efficient and productive ways possible. Prof. Read has also written specifically on the role of ethnography and participant observation, or "site-intensive methods," in political science.

A fourth project looks at issues of local democracy issues in Taiwan. There, as elsewhere, studies of democracy focus most on the national level. The project examines democratic practices and processes at the local level, particularly cities. The campaigns and activities of city councilors and neighborhood leaders provide a window on the workings of Taiwan’s political system in ways that connect with ordinary people’s lives. Prof. Read is writing a book about accountability relationships between elected mayors and councils in Taiwan’s cities and counties, based on extensive fieldwork as well as news reports and other sources.

Biography, Education and Training

Born in Madison, Wisconsin
Worked and studied in China and Taiwan for a total of more than five years
BA: Asian Studies, Cornell University, 1993
MA: Political Science, UC Berkeley, 1997
PhD: Government, Harvard University, 2003

Selected Publications


  • Field Research in Political Science (co-authored book, Cambridge University Press, 2015) [html]
  • Roots of the State: Neighborhood Organization and Social Networks in Beijing and Taipei (single-authored book, Stanford University Press, 2012) [html]
  • Local Organizations and Urban Governance in East and Southeast Asia: Straddling State and Society (edited book, Routledge, 2009) [html]

Articles and Chapters (Selected)

  • “Dynamic Research Design: Iteration in Field-Based Inquiry” (Diana Kapiszewski, Lauren M. MacLean, and Benjamin L. Read), Comparative Politics Vol. 53, No. 4 (July 2022) [pdf]
  • “Problems and Possibilities of Comparison Across Regime Types: Examples Involving China,” in Erica S. Simmons and Nicholas Rush Smith, eds., Rethinking Comparison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021) [pdf]
  • “Serial Interviews: When and Why to Talk to Someone More than Once,” International Journal of Qualitative Methods, first published June 26, 2018 [journal] [pdf]
  • “Village Dispute Mediation, 2002–2010: An Enduring Institution amid Rural Change” (Benjamin L. Read and Ethan Michelson), Asian Journal of Law and Society, published online February 14, 2018 [journal] [pdf]
  • "More than an Interview, Less than Sedaka: Studying Subtle and Hidden Politics with Site-Intensive Methods," in Allen Carlson, Mary E. Gallagher, Kenneth Lieberthal and Melanie Manion, eds., Contemporary Chinese Politics: New Sources, Methods, and Field Strategies (Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 145-161 [pdf]
  • "Mediating the Mediation Debate: Conflict Resolution and the Local State in China" (co-authored article, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2008) [pdf]
  • "Assessing Variation in Civil Society Organizations: China's Homeowner Associations in Comparative Perspective" (article, Comparative Political Studies, 2008) [pdf]
  • "Political and Social Reform in China: Alive and Walking," Washington Quarterly, (co-authored essay, 2008) [html]

Teaching Interests

The following list of courses gives a sense of my teaching interests. Please see the course syllabi, which are available at http://benread.net.

Comparative politics of the developing world (Poli 60)

Politics of East Asia (Poli 140d)

Politics of China (Poli 141)

The rise of China (Poli 161), on foreign relations

Governance and conflict in East Asia (Poli 190t)

Social forces and political change (graduate seminar, Poli 200b)

Key issues in contemporary Chinese politics (graduate seminar, Poli 261)

Problems of democracy in comparative perspective (graduate seminar, Poli 210)