Manning Zhang

June 3, 2024

Abigail Arnold | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Geeking Out With…is a new feature in which we talk to GSAS students about their passions. You can check out past installments here.

Manning Zhang is a fifth-year PhD student in Sociology and Social Policy. She is interested in social, especially neighborhood, determinants of health. Her dissertation research focuses on gym-goers in different Boston neighborhoods; she interviews both those who regularly use fitness resources and those who are uncertain about maintaining access to them to investigate the meaning of fitness in an urban context, as well as how the accessibility gap in physical exercise resources contributes to community health disparities in the Boston area. With the Heller School’s Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy, she’s also involved in research exploring how neighborhood opportunity relates to violent death among young residents. She joined Geeking Out With… to discuss her research, how it relates to her own experiences, and how she hopes to use it to make an impact.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

How did you develop your research interests?

I decided to focus on culture and medical sociology as early as my first year in the Sociology PhD program. I’ve been passionate about culture theory, which focuses on how we make sense of our world, since my undergraduate days. And I became interested in medical sociology after taking a course here with Professor Siri Suh. Her course focused on health inequality, which I found super interesting. I became even more invested in the topic after TA-ing for her for two semesters. I wanted to combine my interests in culture and health in pursuing research that would help solve social problems. This idea led me to apply for the joint PhD program at the end of my first year, which puts me in the unique position to be able to look at health-related social phenomena from both theory and policy angles and to think about what I can do to make an impact as a scholar.

What inspired the focus of your dissertation project?
I started going to the gym frequently in my last year of undergrad in China. Initially, I saw it as simply a place for relaxation. However, the more I interacted with this space, the more I noticed differences among the users, by age, gender, socioeconomic status, and the types of exercise they were doing. I came to the US in the second year of the PhD program, after a year of distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I noticed that the fitness industry is much more advanced here, whereas in China, it’s a rather new industry, and for-profit gyms dominate the market. In the US, I saw that fitness programs could take on social responsibility and play an important role in promoting social justice in health and beyond. After taking a few more sociology and social policy classes, I realized that my research interests in fitness attend to both differences in how people perceive health and fitness and in how fitness is managed through organizations. They are questions at different levels. My advisor, Professor Laura Miller, also encouraged me to look not only at people who are fitness experts but also at those who would potentially engage with fitness but do not yet have access to it.

For my dissertation, I thought of doing a comparative analysis of gyms in China and the US. As my research progressed, I decided to focus on Boston. On the one hand, it is a major metropolitan city known as the hub of world-famous pharmaceutical companies and home to some of the most prestigious hospitals and medical schools. However, on the other hand, striking health inequalities exist in this city. The oldest YMCA gym in North America was founded in Boston, giving the city a long history of fitness. In my field notes, I wrote down my observations of both disparity and diversity in Boston fitness. Gyms have very different vibes across neighborhoods. For some people, the motivation for going to the gym is to maintain a beautiful body and a middle-class lifestyle. For others, the gym is a haven and protective area to spend a night or take a clean bath in. Some gyms also allow senior people to better navigate an unstructured life, especially when their siblings are away. But the distribution of fitness resources across neighborhoods is unequal, and underserved neighborhoods face intersectional barriers to accessing physical exercise facilities.
What kinds of gym-goers do you look at in your research?

My project was initially named ‘Asian Women in the Weight Room’ – focusing on the meaning of muscle-building for Asian women. This is a direction situated in gender and cultural studies. But when I started interviewing people, listening to them talk, and expanding my sample beyond Asian or Asian-American women, I saw more variety in why people go to the gym and exercise, which fascinated me.

I am still actively conducting ethnography in social gyms. In the next phase, I want to interview people from similar neighborhoods who do not go to gyms. I am curious about the processes of how they make these decisions. Is it as easy an explanation as that exercise and health never crossed their minds, or is there any barrier preventing them from participating in physical activities? I’ve interviewed a few people who would love to pursue fitness but are struggling with financial and time restraints. They inspired me to pay attention to the possible barriers.

You participated in this year’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition and were the winner for the Divisions of Creative Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. What did you get out of the experience?
3MT was a really good way for me to test whether my research was meaningful to people within and beyond academia. Through so many revisions of my talk, I was glad to see that people found my research interesting, which was really reassuring to me.
What kind of impact do you want to make with your research?

Throughout the PhD process, I keep coming back to the question of what types of jobs I’d like to do. I started the PhD to be a teacher and produce intellectual work within academia. As I get farther in the process, I’ve thought more about finding the balance between scholarly work and a real impact in the social world. This is part of the reason why I chose to study health, a field that requires both efficacy and effectiveness. I also learned from scholarship in urban sociology and social policy in terms of how I can collaborate with different stakeholders, such as the city of Boston, gym managers, and community leaders, to transform my intellectual projects into social actions. I’m taking a zig-zagged pathway, and I am still exploring.

Who at Brandeis has helped you in your research process?

My advisor, Laura Miller, and committee members – Siri Suh of Sociology and Christine Bishop and Tatjana Meschde of Heller – have been very helpful in helping me develop my research. I am also benefiting from taking classes and discussing my research with other faculty members in both departments.

The GSAS research awards have helped me compensate interviewees for their time, and GSAS staff, including but not limited to Becky Prigge, Marika McCann, Alyssa Canelli, and Jon Anjaria, have helped me in the 3MT and career exploration process. Scott Moore in ELP, whom I meet frequently with, helps me a lot with writing, as do my Writing Center colleagues Robert Cochran and Yi He. My mentors at ICYFP (Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy), IERE (Institute for Economic and Racial Equity), and URCC (Undergraduate Research and Creative Collaborations), Robert Ressler, Clemens Noelke, Zora Haque, Marji Erickson Warfield, Rebecca Loya, Madeline Smith-Gibbs, Dolores Acevedo-Garcia, and Margaret Lynch, have provided valuable guidance to me in academic development.

When you’re not doing research, how do you like to spend your time?

I cook almost every day. I also like to go to the gym and to dance – I am a popping (a form of hip-hop) dancer. I always like to go out on the weekends.

I will also be performing in a fall production in the theater department. The name of the play is Everybody. It’s a brilliant show, and I love the lines in the script. Please come and support us if you can! The show days are October 25 - 27, 2024.

What advice do you have for other students exploring their passions?

Every PhD student finds a unique path. There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to choosing research interests, but those who end up in a more comfortable place often follow their hearts and choose projects they are passionate about. Some try to be strategic, planning their research based on what they believe will make them more competitive job candidates. However, I believe that if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, it’s hard to develop your own identity and sustain it as a long-term project because you’ll always question its meaning. While I strategically plan many other things, when it comes to my dissertation project, I tend to place my personal interest in the central place.