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The term "macro" denotes "large"; thus macrosociology refers to the study of large-scale social phenomena. This covers a very broad range of topics that includes groups and collectivities of varying sizes, the major organizations and institutions of one or more societies, cross-sectional or historical studies of a single society, and both comparative and historical analyses of multiple societies. At the grandest level it may cover all human society and history.

Sociologists distinguish macrosociology from microsociology, which focuses on the social activities of individuals and small groups. The micro-macro distinction forms one of the central dualisms characterizing divergent sociological perspectives. Seemingly polar opposites such as conflict-consensus, stability-change, structure-agency, subjectiveobjective, and materialist-idealist, as well as micro-macro, provide a shorthand method for denoting differences in central assumptions, subjects, and models. As with many other oppositional concepts, however, the boundary between microsociology and macrosociology is not clearly distinguished, and at the margins there is much room for overlap.

Typically, micro-level studies examine individual thought, action, and interaction, often coinciding with social-psychological theories and models, whereas macro-level investigations target social structures and those forces that organize as well as divide individuals into political, social or religious organizations, ethnic populations, communities, and nation-states. Nevertheless, in defining these terms there is major conceptual ambiguity that can be formulated as a question: Should the distinction be based on substantive criteria (specialty and subdisciplinary areas within sociology such as social change and development), theoretical criteria (e.g., functionalist, Marxist), metatheoretical criteria (type of paradigm, epistemology), or methodological criteria (type of research design and analysis techniques)? Since sociologists often use the terms "micro" and "macro" quite casually as convenient devices for categorizing broad areas of theory and research, each of these criteria can be found in the literature, and quite often they are seriously confounded.

A useful means of distinguishing between the two approaches is based on the concept of "units of analysis." Macrosociology uses as its subjects structural-level units of analysis or cases that are larger than observations of individual action and interaction. Even here, however, there is ambiguity, since it is quite possible to make observations on smaller units (e.g., individuals) with the intention of analyzing (making inferences about) larger entities (e.g., groups, classes). Also, the issue of where to draw the line remains. Rather than attempting to draw any hard-and-fast line delineating macro-level from micro-level phenomena, it is helpful to conceptualize a continuum of the subject matter of sociology with "micro" and "macro" defining two end points and with societal-level phenomena clearly placed at the macro pole. George Ritzer, for example, describes one "level of social reality" as a micro-macro continuum moving from individual thought and action through interaction, groups, organizations, and societies to culminate in world systems (Ritzer 1988, pp. 512–518).

Since the macro end of the continuum focuses on social structure, it is important to clarify the use of this term. In a review essay, Neil Smelser (1988, pp. 103–129) describes structure as patterned relationships that emerge from the interaction of individuals or groups over time and space. Institutions and identifiable collectivities are the outcomes of systematically related structures of activities. Structure is dually defined as located in collective actors and in their interaction. Thus social class is an example of social structure, as are the relationships between classes whose locus is the economy. The study of social class and the study of the economy are examples of macrosociology.

Other examples emerge from the macrosociological focus on large-scale structural arrangements and activities of a great number of individuals in large-scale geographical space over long periods of time. Thus macroscopic questions in sociology conventionally revolve around the largest social, spatial, and temporal processes, such as the rise and decline of civilizations; the origins and development of modern nation-states, social movements, and revolutions; and the origins and consequences of social, political, economic, and cultural transformations. Examples include the rise and spread of secular ideologies and religious belief systems, democratic transitions, and the nature and effects of large-scale institutions and organizations. Macro-level analysis is usually embedded in structural and conflict theories, and in studies of societal dynamics and epochal transformations of cultures and social structures. Topics are located within numerous subfields of sociology, including but not limited to stratification and inequality, resource mobilization, political and economic sociology, world systems, human evolution, and ecology. They are equally likely to cross or link disciplinary boundaries to incorporate history, geography, political economy, and anthropology.


The concern with macro-level phenomena is as old as the discipline of sociology and arguably is the primary motivation for the creation of classical sociological theory and research. The men generally accorded honored places in the pantheon of sociology's founders, such as Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber (and additional historical figures such as Alexis de Tocqueville), all included macro-level phenomena among their dominant concerns. The traditions they established retain their definitive role for the central issues of sociology in general and macrosociology in particular.

The themes pursued by these and other classical theorists are found in subsequent theory and research. For example, the evolutionary perspectives on the development of human society advanced by early theorists have been modified, revised, and developed by contemporary evolutionary theorists such as Lenski (Lenski et al. 1995) and in the modern functionalist and neo-functionalist theories of Talcott Parsons (1966), Niklas Luhmann (1982), and Jeffrey Alexander (1998). Marx's historical materialist explanation of the unfolding of capitalism has spawned numerous offspring, including dependency and world system theories (Amin 1976; Frank 1967; Wallerstein 1974), and studies of the rise of the modern state and class conflict by Moore (1966). Similarly, Weber's comparative and historical studies of social stratification and the development of modern states are reflected in the works of Reinhard Bendix (1977; 1978), Theda Skocpol (1979) and Michael Mann (1986; 1993) Emile Durkheim's analysis of the division of labor in modern societies as well as the sources of societal integration underlie all modernization theory and functional perspectives on race and ethnic relations, as well as most contemporary studies of occupational structures. Alexis de Tocqueville's comparative study of democracy has remained an inspirational source for contemporary theories of democracy and social change. In short, the macrosociological problems defined early in the history of sociology remain major focuses of current sociological research.

Also located in these early works but often overlooked in subsequent interpretations is an issue that is the current central project of many social theorists: the links between macro- and micro-level phenomena. At least in the writings of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, to a greater or lesser degree, efforts are made to connect individual and structural level activities in some coherent fashion. For example, Marx is often considered the quintessential macrosociologist, providing the foundation for much current macrosociology. Yet as Bertell Ollman (1976) and others point out, there is a distinct social psychology anchored in Marx's concept of alienation that in turn motivates and is motivated by his macro-level modes of productive relations and class conflict. This concern with linkage has often been ignored or forgotten in the distinctive development of different schools of sociological thought. After years of separate development and sometimes acrimonious debate, efforts to conduct research and develop social theories that include both ends of the micro-macro continuum now constitute a major agenda for many sociologists.


Macrosociogical studies vary in both subject and theoretical orientation, but the two are closely related. For example, large-scale studies of single total societies or particular societal institutions often operate from a functionalist or systems perspective in which the effort is to understand how component parts fit together and serve larger social goals. On the other hand, studies of social change, either within a single society or across cultures, more often use one of the many variants of conflict—Marxist, neo-Marxist, and Weberian perspectives. They do so because such theories are better equipped to explain conflict and change than the relatively static models promoted by functionalism, and because functionalism no longer dominates sociology. These are broad generalizations, however, which invite counterexample.

Given the sweeping scope of macrosociology, it is not possible to provide comprehensive coverage of all the topics and theories subsumed under this approach. The next section will illustrate key concerns of macrosociologists by describing exemplary theory and research in some major areas of macrosociology.

Societal Evolutionary Change. The numerous approaches to the study of societal change illustrate the diversity of sociological perspectives. At the most sweeping level, evolutionary theories take all human history and society as their subject, but there are numerous variants to this approach. For example, evolutionary theory has gone hand in hand with functionalism, as in the later work of Talcott Parsons on human societies (1966), which features the basic assumptions of evolutionary theory in terms of holism (the whole unit rather than its parts), universalism (natural and perpetual change), and unidirectionality (progressive and cumulative change). An idealist version of an evolutionary perspective can be found in Jurgen Habermas (1979), who uses an evolutionary model to explain the development of normative structures and forms of rationality. Alternatively, it has also taken a materialist form, as developed by anthropologists (Harris 1977) and a few sociologists (Lenski, 1966, Lenski et al. 1995), to explain inequality and uneven distribution of social resources. Another version of societal evolutionary change that deviates somewhat from the mainstream of progressive evolution are the cyclical dynamics of societal and cultural change proposed in works of Pitirim Sorokin (1962). Evolutionary analysis also was once popular in the fields of human ecology (Hawley 1971), modernization (Smelser 1964), and structural and cultural assimilation of different racial groups in modern society (Gordon 1964).

Currently, there are relatively few sociologists who operate on this scale or who find it useful for analyzing more confined periods of historical change. Nevertheless, contemporary theories of human evolution have been influential in providing comparative evidence for the material and normative bases of different forms of social organization and for describing the broadest patterns of societal change. These include the distribution of societal goods and services, enduring forms of inequality (e.g., patriarchy), and normative systems.

Modernization and Development. Sociologists often limit their study of change to the emergence of modern industrial society, either to trace the paths taken by mature industrialized societies to reach their current state of development or to investigate the problems of developing nations. Here, too, different approaches emerge from different theoretical perspectives.

Modernization theory, which until the 1960s dominated accounts of development and change, grew out of functionalism and evolutionary perspectives. In the version articulated by economist W. W. Rostow (1960), nonindustrial societies, through diffusion and a natural developmental sequence, were expected to follow a series of stages previously traversed by fully industrialized nations to attain the significant characteristics of modern societies considered prerequisites for development. This process required breaking from traditional social norms and values to build institutions based on "modern" values such as universalism, rationalization, and achievement orientation.

Although today largely abandoned in favor of more historically and materially grounded theories, modernization theory was highly influential among both scholars and policy makers of the post–World War II era. In fact, it can be argued that the influence of modernization theory in part explains its repudiation, since students of and from emerging developing nations viewed it as an instrument of continued colonial domination and capitalist exploitation. Their search for tools to provide a better explanation for their disadvantaged and subordinate position in the international arena led to the adoption of Marxist-based models of dependency, underdevelopment, and world systems to replace modernization as the dominant approach to change and development within the modern era. As summarized by Peter Evans and John Stephens (1988, p. 740), these "approaches turned the modernization theorists' emphasis on diffusion . . . on its head, arguing instead that ties to 'core' countries were a principal impediment to development."

In an influential early formulation, dependency theorist Andre Gunder Frank (1967) maintained that the experience of most nonindustrial nations is explained by the "development of underdevelopment." In other words, the exploitation of peripheral Third World nations by capital in the core, developed world increased the economic, social, and political misery experienced by the majority populations of those Third World countries. Alliances between local and international elites actively worked to defend the status quo distribution of power and privilege at the expense of peasant- and working-class majorities. Later versions refined the models of class conflict and competition or, as in the writings of Samir Amin (1976), elaborated the model of the relationships between center and periphery economies to show how underdevelopment grows out of the exploitive links between the two types of systems. All versions contribute to a refutation of the trajectory of development described by modernization theory.

A more global approach to development issues was formulated by Immanuel Wallerstein (1974, 1980, 1988) and his followers. World system theory elaborates the Marxist model of economic domination into a system in which exploitation occurs worldwide. Wallerstein broadens the focus on class relations among and across nations to examine the development of an international division of labor in the capitalist world economy where core industrial nations exploit peripheral regions as sources of raw materials and labor. This approach has been both enormously influential and controversial, generating massive amounts of research on the model itself, particular spatial and historical portions of the world system, and particular subsectors and groups. A helpful overview that charts the intricacies of this perspective can be found in a text by Thomas Shannon (1989).

The emphasis on First World as well as Third World development found in world-system theory provides a bridge to a slightly different tradition that focuses on the emergence of the core industrial nations and their political systems. Much of this literature is concerned with development of modern political as well as economic systems. For example, while Barrington Moore's study (1966) of the transformation of agrarian societies into modern industrial states remains firmly anchored in a Marxist emphasis on class relations and productive systems, it is also concerned with the political roles played by antagonistic classes and the political outcomes of their confrontation. Numerous other studies pursue a similar comparative perspective on the upheavals that accompanied the emergence of modern Western industrial nations (cf. Tilly et al. 1975).

One other type of study in this tradition deserves mention. These are studies of social and political change that occur within a particular society at various stages in the industrialization process. John Walton (1987) provides a convenient typology based on cross-classifying epochs and processes of industrialization. The resulting types range from protoindustrialization through deindustrialzation. Studies from early periods focus on the emergence of particular classes, on class conflict, and on the influence of classes on the historical development of modern nations, as in E. P. Thompson's and John Foster's influential accounts of English class formation (Thompson 1963; Foster 1974), Ron Aminzade's analysis of nineteenth-century France (1984), and Herbert Gutman's studies of American class culture and conflict (1966). Influential studies of transitions in later periods of industrial development examine the consolidation of control of the labor process (Burawoy 1979; Edwards 1979), deindustrialization (Bluestone and Harrison 1982), informalization of labor markets (Portes et al. 1989), and post-Fordist production systems (Mingione 1991).

Finally, while beyond the scope of this review, there are also other important traditions that have strong links to one or the other approaches described above. One of these is found in a vast literature on social movements that has many points of intersection with the work on comparative and historical social and political change discussed here. Another is work that applies the theories of dependency and uneven development to regional development problems internal to particular societies. Finally, there are structural and poststructural approaches to the development of major social institutions and forms of repression, as found in the complex but influential work of Michel Foucault (1979, 1980, 1985). While this last example could as easily be classified under studies of social institutions and processes, it is included here because of its focus on changes in historical times that have produced modern social forms.

State Formation and State Breakdown. The study of state formation and state breakdown has always been a central focus of macrosocial inquiry, especially in the area of comparative historical sociology. Studies of state formation examine the nature of state power and the processes by which it develops. While some sociologists have seen the state as emerging from internal dynamics of society, largely in terms of the interests and struggles of social classes, others have turned their attention to the external dynamics of society along with the market forces of the capitalist system. Tilly (1975, 1990) demonstrates that the modern states were created in the process of capital concentration and consolidated under the pressure of increased international military competition (war and preparation for war).

Michael Mann (1986, 1993) examines the nature of power in human societies by focusing on the interrelations of four principal sources of social power—economic, ideological, military, and political resources—and relates them to the rise of city-states, militaristic empires, modern nation-states, and nationalism. Another important theory on the relations between the state and society is Robert Wuthnow's (1989) analysis of how conflicts between the state, elites, and cultural entrepreneurs caused the great ideological movements to challenge the status quo in the development of modern society.

Contemporary theory of revolution and state breakdown starts with Barrington Moore (1966) who proposed a model of agrarian class politics. Drawing upon both Marxian and Weberian theoretical perspectives, Skocpol's (1979) breakthrough analysis introduced the state-centered theoretical paradigm of revolution in her case study of French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions. Treating the state as an "autonomous entity," Skocpol argues that the state has its own military and fiscal interests, and that under certain circumstances, state interests necessarily are in deep conflict with the interests of social classes. State breakdown occurs when the state experiences high levels of fiscal crisis induced by strain on resources from both internal elite conflicts and external military pressure. In Skocpol's theory, the state thus becomes the central actor and the location of crisis in revolutionary situations.

This state-centered theme developed by Skocpol has been further expanded by Goldstone (1991), who uses a structural-demographic approach to indicate that the early modern boom in population led to strain on state resources associated with the taxation system and economic development. Goldstone argues that in a system tied to agricultural output, the agrarian state depends mainly on land taxes for revenue. As growing population places pressure on the agricultural economy, rising grain prices result in inflation that erodes state revenues, leads to higher taxes, and exacerbates elite conflict. Rising prices generate profits for some elites who are quick to take advantage of commercial opportunities, but hurts other elites who are slow to adjust and lag behind in social mobility. Revolution is the ultimate outcome of the state's failure to meet its obligations. While Skocpol's and Goldstone's models emphasize either structural or demographic sources of strain on the state, interest in geopolitical principles and strains became increasingly prominent during the 1980s, inspired by Paul Kennedy's analysis (1987) of the rise and fall of great powers. Randall Collins's geopolitical theory (1986, 1995) offers another route to state breakdown. Bringing in the Weberian principle that legitimacy of the governing apparatus at home depends on the state's power and prestige abroad, Collins's analysis, given validation by his prediction of the collapse of the Soviet Union, demonstrates that a state's geopolitical position has a crucial effect on its ability to mobilize critical resources and manage internal politics. In Collins's model, geopolitical strains result in inability to maintain fiscal health. A state that suffers the geopolitical disadvantage of being surrounded by multiple enemy states experiences logistical overextension and fiscal crisis, and thus tends to decline and disintegrate to the point of revolution and state fragmentation.

Social Structures, Processes, and Institutions. The research described above incorporates investigation of many of the major social structures, processes, and institutions that form the core subject matter of sociology. Studying change in economic and political systems requires scrutiny of economies, polities, and other social institutions and their major organizational manifestations and constituencies. However, other theoretical and substantive approaches subsumed under macrosociology either have fallen outside the scope of these large-scale studies of social change and development or are at their periphery. Theoretical perspectives include relatively recent developments such as structural, poststructural, postmodern, and feminist theories. Important substantive areas are defined by cumulating empirical bases of knowledge about power structures; work structures; social stratification and mobility; labor markets; household and family arrangements; and the intersections of race, class, gender, and nationality.

While it is impossible to survey each of these areas, the explosive growth of feminist theories to investigate both gender stratification and economic change and development provides a prime example of new influences on macrosociology. Feminist theorists argue that gender analysis must be integrated with class, race, ethnicity, nationality, and other sources of social cleavage, and that analyses that ignore the system of gender relations embedded in society are incomplete. Feminist theories have contributed to macrosociology by demonstrating how theories of social reproduction must be joined to theories of economic production to understand social life fully, thus delineating the ways patriarchy coexists with particular economic and political systems to explain the position of women in society.

For example, the subordination of women is predicated on the allocation of tasks that exist outside formal labor markets such as household and reproductive labor and consumption activities as well as labor market work. Heidi Hartmann's early, influential, socialist feminist analysis of the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy (1981) explains women's disadvantaged status in both the labor market and the household in late capitalism as the outcome of an uneasy alliance between the two systems. With increasing demand for women's labor in the second half of the twentieth century, the intersection of the two systems has taken the form of the double and even the triple day—that is, women burdened by responsibility for formal labor market activity; household work; and, frequently, informal work as well.

Similar insights from feminist perspectives have informed studies of developing nations and processes of industrialization and globalization. For example, Ester Boserup's critique of conventional development theories (1970) demonstrates the pitfalls for development projects resulting from ignoring women, as well as the ways women have been marginalized by development scholars and practitioners. Numerous feminist scholars have built on this and related work, combining it with other theoretical perspectives such as world systems and globalization theories, to expand knowledge of the gendered social consequences of core nation exploitation of the periphery (Ward 1990) and the general pattern of ignoring women in large-scale societal accounting schemes (Beneria 1981). Postcolonial theories and "Third World feminism" further explore the intersections of race, class, and gender as they influence different populations in the global economy (Alexander and Mohanty 1997) Finally, the historical research of Louise Tilly and Joan Scott (1978), among others, has been important in an understanding of how the shift from household economies to wage labor affected working-class women and their families. Unfortunately, much of this work remains underutilized and unincorporated in the kind of macro-level analyses reviewed in previous sections, representing parallel developments rather than integrated studies of macrosocial processes.


In the past decades, research methodology in macrosociology has been widely discussed among sociologists. Both quantitative and qualitative methods are used extensively, often in the same larger study. Virtually any methodological tool available to social science is found in macrosocial analysis, ranging from survey research to hermeneutic inquiry.

Quantitative approaches include quantification of documentary and archival data, such as analysis of the lists of grievances, or cahiers de doleances (Markoff 1996); analysis of official socioeconomic, demographic, and political data aggregated for larger geopolitical units such as counties, states, or nations; time series of such data for a single state or nation; and standard survey research techniques interpreted to represent structural and contextual process (Coleman et al. 1970). Trend analysis using survey data is one method frequently used by sociologists to establish long-term patterns of change by examining historical change in statistical data. Quantitative methods that use longitudinal designs of panel and cohort analyses to conduct observations at two or more points in time have been extensively employed in the assessment of social change and development at the local, national, and global levels.

Historical and comparative methods are featured prominently in macrosociological analysis and have been consistently used by the most prominent classical and contemporary sociologists. This approach develops ideal-typical case studies of large-scale organizations, nations, and civilizations across time and space. Thus, social and cultural differences manifest in temporal processes and contexts are the focal point of macrohistorical studies that, as Skocpol (1984, p. 1) summarizes: (1) "address processes over time, and take temporal sequences seriously in accounting for outcomes," (2) "attend to the interplay of meaningful actions and structural contexts in order to make sense of the unfolding of unintended as well as intended outcomes in individual lives and social transformations," and (3) "highlight the particular and varying features of specific kinds of social structures and patterns of change."

In the existing literature on macrosociological research, historical and comparative methods, with their focus on case studies devoted to understanding the nature and effects of large-scale structures and fundamental processes of change, have proven to be an effective approach to macrosociological explanations of macrosocial phenomena. While most historical and comparative research still involves qualitative analyses using available documents and records, more and more research attempts to employ both qualitative and quantitative approaches.

In advocating "moving beyond qualitative and quantitative strategies" Charles Ragin (1987) points out that, in macrosociological analysis, there are two basic strategies: the case-oriented strategy and the variable-oriented strategy. The former is very much evidence oriented, while the latter is theory centered. The goals of case-oriented investigation, with its extensive use of ideal types, often are both historically interpretive and causally analytic. "Investigators who used case-oriented strategies often want to understand or interpret specific cases because of their intrinsic values" (Ragin 1987, p. 35). Work by Bendix (1977, 1978) exemplifies this approach.

Unlike the case-oriented strategy, the variable-oriented strategy tests hypotheses derived from theory, often using quantitative techniques such as multivariate statistical analysis. In macrosocial analysis, a typical variable-oriented study "examines relationships between general features of social structures conceived as variables. Social units, such as nation-states, have structural features which interact in the sense that changes in some features produce changes in other features, which in turn may produce changes in others" (Ragin 1987, p. 55). For example, a cross-national study of modernization by Delacroix and Ragin (1978) is a typical example of variable-oriented research, and this approach has remained quite popular in the study of development issues as well as in macro-level studies of organizations.

Each of these two strategies has its strengths and weaknesses. The case-oriented research enables investigators to comprehend diversity and address complexity by examining causal processes more directly in historical and comparative context. In variable-oriented research, by contrast, generality is given precedence over complexity when investigators are able to digest large numbers of cases. In some macrosociological studies, scholars combine the two approaches, as in Jeffrey Paige's Agrarian Revolution (1975).


Macroscopic analysis of human society stands as a foundational area of research in sociology, and it is safe to predict that it will continue to grow and expand its scope of inquiry. In an increasingly global economy, marked by shifting boundaries and allegiances, and linked by rapidly advancing communications and information technology, there will be pressing need for explanation and analysis of the major historical and contemporary social movements and upheavals. Events of state formation, transition, and breakdown; revolution and devolution; conflicts based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, region, and class; global movements of populations; and numerous other large-scale processes that increasingly mark the post–cold war era will provide the raw materials for scholarly and policy relevant analysis.

At the same time, in the interests of advancing social theory, sociologists will continue to seek ways to link macroprocesses to microprocesses. One of the perennial debates that surfaces among sociologists is whether macroprocesses or microprocesses have primacy in explaining social life. A variant revolves around the issue of whether microprocesses can be derived from macroprocesses or vice versa. Those who believe that the macro has causal priority risk being labeled structural determinists. Those who think that macrophenomena can be derived from microprocesses are dismissed as reductionists. Quite often an uneasy truce prevails in which practitioners of the two types of sociology go their own ways, with little interaction or mutual influence.

Despite pendulum swings that alternately emphasize one approach over the other, there are ongoing efforts to construct theory and conduct research built on genuine principles of micro-macro linkage. These have come form a variety of theoretical traditions and perspectives, including those with both macro and micro foundations. While many of these efforts ultimately result in de facto claims for theoretical primacy of one or the other approach, they nonetheless represent an interesting effort to create uniform and widely applicable sociological theory (Huber 1991).

Ultimately, most of the efforts to integrate micro and macro levels reflect the initial concerns of the theorist. For example, Randall Collins's efforts (1998) begin with a microfocus on interaction to derive macrophenomena, while neofunctionalist Jeffrey Alexander (1985) gives primacy to subjective forms of macrophenomena. Perhaps the most highly developed integrative effort is found in Anthony Giddens's theory of structuration (1984) in which social structure is defined as both constraining and enabling human activity, as well as being both internal and external to the actor.

The efforts to link microphenomena and macrophenomena are mirrored in a growing body of empirical research. Such work appears to follow Giddens's view of the constraining and enabling nature of social structure for human activity and the need to link structure and action. It appears safe to say that, while macrosociology will always remain a central component of sociological theory and research, increasing effort will be devoted to creating workable models that link it with its micro counterpart.


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Ann R. Tickamyer AND Jieli Li