Nan Zhang PhD

n.zhang [at]

Mannheim Center for
European Social Research (MZES)
A5, 6 Bauteil A

Google Scholar

I currently head the Emmy-Noether research group Making Diversity Work at the Mannheim Center for European Social Research (MZES). My research spans both Sociology and Political Science, with a focus on the study of group relations, language and identity, social norms, and civic behavior. Major applications include research on immigration, ethnic diversity, and state- and nation-building.

My work has been published or is forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the American Journal of Sociology, the European Sociological Review, and Sociological Science, amongst other outlets.

I hold a Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford University, a J.D. from Stanford Law School, and a double B.A. in Economics and Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to joining the MZES, I held positions at the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods and the European University Institute.


David Kretschmer, Johanna Gereke, Fabian Winter, and Nan Zhang. No Differential Effects of Classroom Ethnic Composition on Native and Immigrant Friendship Segregation: A Comment on Smith et al. 2016. American Journal of Sociology. Accepted.

What is the relationship between classroom ethnic composition and patterns of ethnic friendship segregation amongst native and immigrant adolescents? In a 2016 AJS article, Smith et al. analyzed data on adolescents' friendship networks from four European countries and found differential effects of classroom composition on natives' and immigrants' friendship choices. In this comment, we identify estimation problems in a large number of classroom networks included in Smith et al.'s original study. We demonstrate that immigrant homophily cannot be meaningfully estimated in many networks containing insufficient numbers of immigrant students from the same ethnic group. After accounting for these estimation problems at the network level, our re-analyis provides little evidence that classroom composition has differential effects for native and immigrant homophily.

Johanna Gereke, Joshua Hellyer, Jan Behnert, Saskia Exner, Alexander Herbel, Felix Jäger, Dean Lajic, Štěpán Mezenský, Vu Ngoc Anh, Tymoteusz Ogłaza, Jule Schabinger, Anna Sokolova, Daria Szafran, Noah Tirolf, Susanne Veit, and Nan Zhang. 2022. Demographic change and group boundaries in Germany: The effect of projected demographic decline on perceptions of who has a migration background. Sociological Science. Conditionally Accepted.

In many Western societies, the current "native" majority will become a numerical minority sometime within the next century. How does the prospect of demographic change affect existing group boundaries? An influential recent article by Abascal (2020) showed that White Americans under demographic threat reacted with boundary contraction -- that is, they were less likely to classify ambiguously White people as "White." The present study examines the generalizability of these findings beyond the American context. Specifically, we test whether informing Germans about the projected decline of the "native" population without migration background affects the classification of phenotypically ambiguous individuals. Our results show that information about demographic change neither affects the definition of group boundaries nor generates negative feelings towards minority outgroups. These findings point to the relevance of contextual differences in shaping the conditions under which demographic change triggers group threat and boundary shifts.

Nan Zhang, Johanna Gereke and Delia Baldassarri. 2022. Everyday Discrimination in Public Spaces: A Field Experiment in the Milan Metro. European Sociological Review. Online First.

A large scholarship documents discrimination against immigrants and ethnic minorities in institutional settings such as labour and housing markets in Europe. We know less, however, about discrimination in informal and unstructured everyday encounters. To address this gap, we report results from a large-scale field experiment examining the physical avoidance of immigrants as an unobtrusive yet important measure of everyday discrimination in a multiethnic European metropolis. In addition to varying confederates’ migration background and race, we also vary signals of status (business versus casual attire) in order to shed light on the mechanisms underlying discriminatory patterns. We find that natives are averse to contact with Nigerian confederates, but do not discriminate against Chinese confederates. Furthermore, manipulating confederates’ attire has little effect on natives’ behaviour. Overall, our results highlight the everyday burdens borne particularly by individuals of African descent in commonplace, ‘street-level’ encounters.

Nan Zhang and Melissa Lee. 2020. Literacy and State-Society Interactions in 19th Century France. American Journal of Political Science. 64(4): 1001-1016.
- Winner of the 2020 Best Article Prize, European Politics and Society Section, American Political Science Association

Modern states are distinguished by the breadth and depth of public regulation over private affairs. This aspect of state capacity and state power is predicated on frequent and dense encounters between the state and the population it seeks to control. We argue that literacy in the language of state administration facilitates state–society interaction by lowering the transaction costs of those encounters. We support this claim with evidence drawing upon detailed historical data from nineteenth‐century France during a crucial period of state and nation building. Focusing on the specific domain of French marriage regulations, we find that increasing literacy predicts greater popular involvement with local authorities across French regions over time. These results demonstrate that literacy plays an important role in political development not solely by enhancing loyalty to the state, as the literature has recognized, but also by lowering linguistic and human capital barriers to state–society interaction.

Nan Zhang, Amelie Aidenberger, Heiko Rauhut and Fabian Winter. 2019. Prosocial Behavior in Interethnic Encounters: Evidence from a Field Experiment with High- and Low-Status Immigrants. European Sociological Review 35(4): 582–597.
- Winner of the European Sociological Review Best Article of the Year Prize 2020

Recent waves of immigration have changed the demographic face of European societies and fueled considerable debate over the consequences of ethnic diversity for social cohesion. One prominent argument in this debate holds that individuals are less willing to extend trust and solidarity across ethnic lines, leading to lower social capital in multiethnic communities. We present a direct test of this proposition in a field experiment involving native-immigrant interactions in Zurich's Central Train Station. Our intervention consists of approaching commuters with a small request for assistance (borrowing a mobile phone), which we take as a measure of prosociality. We further differentiate between reactions towards natives as well as both high- and low-status immigrant groups. Compared to native-native interactions, we find lower solidarity in native-immigrant encounters, especially in cases involving stereotypically low-status immigrants. In exploratory analyses, we further show that discrimination only obtains in 'low cost' situations where commuters could easily justify not helping (e.g. by claiming not to carry a phone). Overall our results shed light on key theoretical mechanisms underlying patterns of solidarity in contemporary multiethnic societies.

Fabian Winter and Nan Zhang. 2018. Social Norm Enforcement in Ethnically Diverse Communities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(11): 2722-2727.

How does ethnic diversity influence the maintenance of social norms in complex, Western societies? We provide evidence from a natural field experiment examining reactions to norm violations in multiethnic German neighborhoods. We uncover asymmetric patterns of norm enforcement in interethnic encounters: “Native” Germans are more active in sanctioning norm violations, while ethnic minorities are more likely to be targeted for sanctions. We link these dynamics to prevailing status inequalities between minorities and natives in German society. We further show that, as a consequence of such asymmetries, social control tends to rise with ethnic diversity.

Nan Zhang. 2018. Institutions, Norms, and Accountability: A Corruption Experiment with Northern and Southern Italians. Journal of Experimental Political Science 5(1): 11-25.

Anti-corruption research has highlighted the potential for grassroots monitoring to improve governance outcomes, but the conditions under which citizens are willing to report bribery remain under-studied. Are individuals from some societies socialized into a “culture of corruption” that makes them more accepting of malfeasance, or is the failure to denounce wrongdoing simply a response to low-quality enforcement institutions? I conduct a laboratory experiment to examine how the propensity to report corruption differs between Northern and Southern Italians, two populations experiencing different levels of corruption in everyday life. For each group, I experimentally manipulate the quality of enforcement institutions. When given high-quality institutions, all participants are more willing to report corruption. Moreover, Southerners and Northerners behave similarly when placed within the same institutional environments. These results suggest that high-corruption societies are not “culturally” predisposed to tolerate malfeasance. Rather, improving the capacity of enforcement institutions may significantly strengthen accountability norms.

Melissa Lee and Nan Zhang. 2017. Legibility and the Informational Foundations of State Capacity. Journal of Politics 79(1): 118–132.

Recent research in political science has stressed the importance of the state in curbing violence and promoting social and economic development, resulting in an explosion of scholarly interest in the foundations of state capacity. This article argues that state capacity depends in part on “legibility”—the breadth and depth of the state’s knowledge about its citizens and their activities—and that legibility is crucial to effective, centralized governance. We illustrate the importance of legibility through a novel argument linking legibility to the state’s role in curbing free-riding in collective action dilemmas. We then demonstrate this argument in the context of tax contributions to public goods using an original measure of legibility based on national population censuses. The article concludes by discussing how future research may leverage our indicator’s exceptional temporal and geographic coverage to advance new avenues of inquiry in the study of the state.

Nan Zhang, Giulia Andrighetto, Stefania Ottone, Ferruccio Ponzano, and Sven Steinmo. 2016. Willing to Pay? An Experimental Analysis of Tax Compliance in Britain and Italy. PLoS ONE 11(2): e0150277.

As shown by the recent crisis, tax evasion poses a significant problem for countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy. While these societies certainly possess weaker fiscal institutions as compared to other EU members, might broader cultural differences between northern and southern Europe also help to explain citizens’ (un)willingness to pay their taxes? To address this question, we conduct laboratory experiments in the UK and Italy, two countries which straddle this North-South divide. Our design allows us to examine citizens’ willingness to contribute to public goods via taxes while holding institutions constant. We report a surprising result: when faced with identical tax institutions, redistribution rules and audit probabilities, Italian participants are significantly more likely to comply than Britons. Overall, our findings cast doubt upon “culturalist” arguments that would attribute cross-country differences in tax compliance to the lack of morality amongst southern European taxpayers.

Giulia Andrighetto, Nan Zhang, John D'Attoma, Stefania Ottone, Ferruccio Ponzano, and Sven Steinmo. 2016. Are Some Countries More Honest than Others? Evidence from a Tax Compliance Experiment in Sweden and Italy. Frontiers in Psychology 7: 472.

This study examines cultural differences in ordinary dishonesty between Italy and Sweden, two countries with different reputations for trustworthiness and probity. Exploiting a set of cross-cultural tax compliance experiments, we find that the average level of tax evasion (as a measure of ordinary dishonesty) does not differ significantly between Swedes and Italians. However, we also uncover differences in national “styles” of dishonesty. Specifically, while Swedes are more likely to be either completely honest or completely dishonest in their fiscal declarations, Italians are more prone to fudging (i.e., cheating by a small amount). We discuss the implications of these findings for the evolution and enforcement of honesty norms.

Nan Zhang. 2015. Changing a ‘Culture’ of Corruption: Evidence from an Economic Experiment in Italy. Rationality & Society 27(4): 387-413.

Empirical evidence demonstrates that bribery, extortion and graft are often the outgrowths of a deeper ‘culture of corruption’ which has proved disconcertingly resilient in the face of public sector reforms. This article investigates whether changing collective beliefs about how ‘most people in society’ will behave can reform prevailing cultural practices. Employing an economic experiment involving northern and southern Italian university students, this study shows that (costly) honest behavior can be sustained by conditional beliefs about the honesty of others. I also hypothesize that, given southern Italians’ reputation for corruption, informing participants that they are interacting with southerners should increase the level of bribery in the experiment. However, surprisingly, I find the opposite effect: when exposed to information about the identity of their fellow participants, southern Italians are not only less corrupt, but they are also more likely to believe that their counterparts are less corrupt. I discuss several explanations which may account for these unexpected findings. Overall, the paper provides theoretical foundations and experimental support for how new cultural practices might emerge.

David Laitin and Nan Zhang. 2012. Political Culture. in the Oxford Companion to Comparative Politics. Joel Krieger (ed). New York: Oxford University Press.

Making Diversity Work

Recent trends in global migration have raised public concerns about the potentially negative consequences of ethnic diversity for social solidarity in Western societies. Few studies to date however have sought to explain how trust and cooperation can conversely be sustained in diverse settings. Against this backdrop, the Making Diversity Work project aims to create novel behavioral indicators of social cohesion across multiethnic German neighborhoods in order to analyze the emergence of positive community relations. In contrast to existing studies which predominately privilege comparisons between ethnically-homogenous and heterogeneous areas, a key contribution of this project is to focus explicitly on important unexamined differences between highly-diverse contexts in order to understand the conditions under which diversity may undermine or, conversely, promote cooperation.

Using innovative field experimental methods, this project will develop a sophisticated set of behavioral indicators to map variation in “prosocial” behavior across diverse urban areas. Further, this new data will be used to (i) systematically test novel theories about how different features of diverse neighborhoods contribute to local cooperation, (ii) disentangle the behavioral mechanisms – other-regarding preferences, social norms enforcement, and intergroup contact – underlying social cohesion in multiethnic settings, and (iii) develop a richer understanding of social relations that takes both natives’ and minorities’ experiences into account. Overall, results from this research will open up new scientific perspectives on cooperation in diverse communities and generate critical policy knowledge about how to “make diversity work" in an era of rapid demographic change.

This project is funded by the Emmy-Noether program of the German Research Foundation (DFG).

We are hiring! If you would like to do a student assistanceship as a part of the Making Diversity Work team, please do not hesitate to contact me. Some potential research topics are listed below, but I also welcome the opportunity to discuss your own ideas and / or potential funding possibilities.

(1) Deprivation and Inequality: previous research provides ample evidence of the negative effects of neighborhood deprivation on the quality of local civic life. That said, insufficient attention has been paid to the interaction between the level of deprivation and its distribution across ethnic lines. How are intergroup interactions affected when ethnic differences also intersect with status inequalities? Conversely, in comparison to encounters involving unequal status, are we more likely to observe cooperative or conflictual interactions between members of different low-status groups?

(2) Minority Diversity and Group Size: existing studies of diversity effects privilege comparisons of neighborhoods with varying shares of native residents, and thus largely overlook the impact of immigrant diversity on collective outcomes. Yet intuitively, we might think that social relations would look different in neighborhoods dominated by a single minority vs. neighborhoods with many small groups. Research along these lines might fruitfully investigate how the number and size of immigrant groups shapes both native-minority and minority-minority interactions in areas that, at least superficially, look similarly diverse with respect to native shares.

(3) Getting to Diversity: social behavior in neighborhoods today may reflect different historical trajectories of demographic movement. For instance, inter-group interactions may differ across (i) areas with longstanding minority and native communities, vs. (ii) those that recently became diverse as a result of minority in-migration and "white flight," vs. (iii) traditional minority enclaves that experience diversification as a result of gentrification. In studying these differences across contexts, we can begin to illuminate how the process of "getting to diversity" matters for contemporaneous social relations.

Research in Progress

The Paradoxical Effects of Combating Corruption on Institutional Trust and Political Engagement: Evidence from Two Natural Experiments.
with Mathias Poertner.

While a number of high-level figures around the world have been prosecuted and even jailed for corruption in recent years, we know little about how such anticorruption efforts shape public opinion and patterns of political engagement. To address this question, we examine natural experiments from Argentina and Costa Rica involving the unprecedented sentencing of two former Presidents on corruption charges. Exploiting the coincidence in timing between these cases and fieldwork on nationally-representative surveys, we find that citizens interviewed in the aftermath of these events paradoxically expressed lower trust in institutions and were less willing to vote or join in collective demonstrations. Overall, these findings suggest that high-profile efforts to punish corrupt actors may have similar effects as political scandals in shaping citizens' relationship to the political system.

From Pluribus to Unum? The Civil War and Imagined Sovereignty in 19th Century America.
with Melissa Lee and Tilmann Herchenröder.

Contestation over the structure and location of final sovereign authority -- the right to make and enforce binding rules -- occupies a central role in political development. Historically, war often settled these debates and resulted in the institutionalization of the victor's vision of sovereignty. Yet sovereign authority requires more than a set of institutions; it ultimately rests on the recognition and acceptance of the governed. How does war shape the popular imagination of sovereignty? Does war promote ideational convergence around the victor's ideals, or does it polarize and harden attachments to competing visions of sovereignty? We explore the effect of warfare on imagined sovereignty in the United States, a case where the debate over two competing visions of sovereignty culminated in violence during the American Civil War. We exploit the grammatical shift in the "United States" from a plural to a singular noun as a measure of how sovereignty is imagined, drawing upon two large textual corpuses: newspapers between 1800--1899 and all Congressional speeches between 1851--1899. Our results indicate that war shapes the popular imagination of sovereignty, but for winning partisans only.

Cultural Adaptation and Demographic Change: Evidence from Mexican-American Naming Patterns During the California Gold Rush.
with Maria Abascal.

A large body of research examines the reactions of dominant groups to demographic change. Existing studies demonstrate that, when faced with the threat of a large and growing outgroup, dominant groups take actions to reinforce existing status hierarchies (e.g. racial discrimination) and sharpen in-group boundaries (e.g. adopting more restrictive definitions of "whiteness"). To date, much of this work has focused on the contemporary empirical case of Whites in the United States and their reactions to the size or growth of Black and Latino populations. However, a unique feature of the US case is that the demographic threat to Whites' status is largely hypothetical -- not only because Whites maintain the political and economic upper hand, but also because demographic change is, as of yet, incomplete. In other words, status hierarchies remain subject to contestation, which works to promote strategies aimed at curbing demographic change and maintaining the status of the dominant group. In contrast, we conjecture that when demographic turnover is overwhelming and rapid, the most appealing strategy may not be to brighten the boundary with outgroups but rather to blur it (e.g. via assimilation). We empirically evaluate this conjecture using the case of the California Gold Rush of 1849. Within a decade following the discovery of gold, settlers from the Eastern United States flooded into California, "anglicizing" the state and overwhelming its long-established Spanish-speaking population. Leveraging this natural experiment in combination with complete count data from the 1860 census, we examine the cultural responses of Mexican Americans to rapid demographic change as measured in parents' naming choices for their children. Evidence indicates that Mexican American children born in California after 1849 were significantly less likely to be given distinctly Spanish names. As a placebo test, we further show that similar patterns do not obtain in areas (e.g. New Mexico) that did not experience a rapid influx of English-speakers. Finally, we show that "anglicizing" trends emerge particularly strongly in the choice of boys' names.

Plain Academic