China-to-UK Student Migration and ‘Green’ Behaviour Change: A Social Practice Perspective

Tyers, R., Berchoux, T., Xiang, K., & Yao, X. Y. (2018). China-to-UK Student Migration and Pro-environmental Behaviour Change: A Social Practice Perspective. Sociological research online, 1-23. Online first


Dr Roger Tyers, University of Southampton

Significant life-course changes can be ‘windows of opportunity’ to disrupt practices. Using qualitative focus group data, this article examines whether the life-course change experienced by Chinese students migrating to the UK has an effect on environmentally impactful practices. It does so by examining how such practices are understood and performed by Chinese and UK students living in their own countries, and contrasting them with those of Chinese students in the UK. Using a social practice framework, these findings suggest that practices do change, and this change can be conceptualised using a framework of competences, materials, and meanings. The findings show meanings – the cultural and social norms ascribed to pro-environmental behaviour – to be particularly susceptible to the influence of ‘communities of practice’ where immigrants and natives mix, with pro-environmental behaviour change resulting from assimilation and mimesis rather than normative engagement.




我们采用了小组访谈和讨论的方法, 收集了中国本地大学生和中国留英大学生对不同的环境保护的意识和行为的理解。为了对比的 方便,我们还就同样的话题,询问了英国本地大学生。在数据分析上, 本研究借用了社会行为分析框架,并采用了纯质性分析。


When students leave home to go to university, they are likely to change many aspects of their behaviour, and adapt and develop many of their attitudes and values as well. Some of these changes might be profound, and possibly last a lifetime. When students migrate to a new country, such changes can be even more dramatic. This paper looked specifically at ‘green’ behaviours and attitudes – those that relate to individual environmental impacts such as energy use, transport choices, and waste disposal, and specifically at Chinese students who come to study in the UK.

To collect data for this paper, my colleagues and I conducted qualitative focus group interviews with three groups of students: Chinese students in China (at the University of Xiamen), British students in the UK (at the University of Southampton), and Chinese students who had come to the UK to study (also at the University of Southampton). In total, we held seven focus groups with 46 participants.

We used ‘practice theory’ as our theoretical framework. Practice theory is a relatively novel way to think about the collective ways we do things (Scott et al, 2012; Shove et al , 2012). Practices – habitual ways we commute, eat, wash, cook, play sport, go on holiday, and so on – can be thought of as a combination of three elements: the meanings, competences, and materials involved in their ‘performance’. Competence refers to the ‘skill’ necessary for a given activity (for example, knowing how to recycle properly), materials refer to the physical ‘stuff’ required for it (e.g. access to recycling bins in your house or workplace), and meanings refer to the socio-cultural connotations or ‘image’ attached to it (e.g. thinking that it is important and worthwhile to recycle).

In our focus groups, it became clear that the three elements were more present and deeply embedded for the UK students than the Chinese students (that had stayed in China). To use the recycling example, the British students reported having far more experience of the ‘skill’ to recycle for many years compared to the Chinese students. They also reported having the ‘stuff’ to recycle – recycling bins, regular collection of plastic, glass etc, and the importance of recycling – the ‘image’ – was something that was ingrained in them from childhood. For Chinese students, these elements were not always present. In particular, the ‘image’ or ‘meaning’ element – the importance of recycling, was far from universal. Jing (a 21-year-old female Chinese undergraduate in the UK) illustrates the difference regarding ‘materials’ or ‘stuff’ which enables recycling:

“About litter sorting. I am quite environmentally-friendly I think so I do litter sorting. But in my home [in China] there are not corresponding boxes for different kinds of litters, but here [in the UK] I do ‘cause I see different boxes. So …”

For the third group – those Chinese students who had come to the UK – something interesting seemed to have happened after they migrated to study. Many students in this group said that they had changed their ‘green’ practices since coming to the UK. They had become far more likely to recycle and turn off lights, and less likely to litter or waste energy. The three elements were now present in their daily lives, in a way that had not always been true when they were at home in China. In particular, the ‘meanings’ or ‘image’ element was the one that changed the most. The students said that the cultural value of green behaviour in the UK which they observed among their western classmates and lecturers both on- and off- campus (their ‘community of practice’), led them to want to ‘fit in’. One participant Xiaoke (a 22-year-old female Chinese postgraduate in the UK) put it as follows:

“In China if everyone just throw litters around, and you put it in your pocket, it’s weird. But here everyone put it in pocket, then you won’t throw it around. It’s much like we say ‘thanks’ or ‘sorry’ more frequently here. Big social environment is important.”

The Chinese students who had come to the UK did not say that they suddenly had a revelation of the importance of being green, they just wanted to fit in. For those concerned by behaviour change, this is interesting because it suggests that the desire to fit in and be accepted by one’s peers – a process Bourdieu (1977) called ‘Mimesis’– might be more powerful than actively educating people to change.

I am now planning to build on these findings by looking at Chinese students who have studied in the UK and since returned to China. It will be interesting to see if behaviours revert back to the way they were before they left China, or if the green changes that arise from the time spent abroad are longer-lasting. In other settings, migrants are seen to ‘transmit’ the new attitudes they have learnt within a host country, along their transnational networks, and to their home communities (Nowicka, 2015). The scope for and power of such transmission might be greater for Chinese students who, after graduation, may go back to form the future social, economic, and political elites in their country. With around 60,000 Chinese students coming to UK universities each year, and many more studying in other Western universities, this group could potentially have a pivotal role to play in a future that is greener both for China and the wider world.


Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nowicka, M. (2015). Bourdieu’s theory of practice in the study of cultural encounters and transnational transfers in migration (No. ISSN 2192-2357). Göttingen.

Scott, K., Bakker, C., & Quist, J. (2012). Designing change by living change. Design Studies, 33(3), 279–297.

Shove, E., Pantzar, M., & Watson, M. (2012). The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday Life and How it Changes. London: Sage.


Author’s bio

Dr Roger Tyers is an ESRC-funded research fellow at the University of Southampton, based in the department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology. His interests are in behaviour change and public policy, particularly those behaviours and policies regarding the environment, energy, and transport. He can be contacted using

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