Revisiting my journey to a critical sociology of Chinese education through Bourdieu’s bequest

Michael Picture

Dr Guanglun Michael Mu 

The transmission and transformation of dispositions and capitals across generations and geographies is an enigmatic problem. Concomitant with this problem are challenges of disparity and diversity, of distinction and discrimination, of parity and partiality, and of prerogatives and pejoratives. In an educational context, these challenges are indeed real and persistent. To take up the challenges, I often have recourse to Bourdieu’s relational, reflexive sociology to ponder over power, politics, and participation in education and socialisation. To realise the full value of the epistemic tools bequeathed by Bourdieu, I employ ‘field analysis’ and ‘participant objectivation’ to sociologise myself. Over the years, I have studied and worked, transnationally, in different sociocultural and geopolitical contexts of China, Canada, and Australia. My dispositions and positions have changed, but one thing remains constant: I am Chinese by birth. Such a biological fact and a cultural heritage, and sometimes a political stance, consciously or unconsciously, come to shape my academic habitus – a habitus that manoeuvres my scholastic and social engagement with Chinese young people struggling to survive and thrive in transborder or/and transcultural contexts. Diasporic Chinese constitute one group of these young people and floating children and left-behind children constitute another. In this essay, I introduce to the reader my books about these young people. I also take advantage of this introduction to revisit my journey to a critical sociology of Chinese education through Bourdieu’s bequest.

Twelve years ago, a Chinese Australian young fellow allowed me a unique opportunity to approach his inside world – a secret, subtle microcosmos that has never ever been touched before: “I am Australian but I look Chinese; I look Chinese but I can’t speak Chinese”. His very predicament prompted me to mull over the tensions around language and identity of Chinese diaspora. Such tensions later became the empirical foundations of my first book (Mu, 2016). Working with over 200 Chinese Australian young people, I grappled with the complex entanglement of their habitus of Chineseness and linguistic dispositions within the immediate fields of family, school, community, and workplace. My affective and academic engagement with Chinese diaspora and Pierre Bourdieu urged me to write another book (Mu & Pang, 2019). This work involves hundreds of Chinese Australian and Chinese Canadian young people and comes to grips with their racialised and gendered body, limitations and liberations around their socialisation and education, as well as their resilience process in the face of structural constraints. The book is a valorous attempt, however polemical and rudimentary, to develop a critical sociology of Chinese diaspora. The intention is to spark questions of cultural, racial, and social identification and affiliation, of lineage and identity, of story and memory, and of participation, representation, and socialisation in multicultural societies challenged by complex and difficult issues of diversity, inclusivity, and citizenship.

Parallel to my work on Chinese diaspora in the global, multicultural contexts is my interest in floating children and left behind children in the internal migration context in China. My first book in this regard (Mu & Hu, 2016) reports on the potholes and distractions within the living and schooling of these children. Yet the book shifts from the deficit model and ‘do-gooder’ approach to a transformative and strength-based perspective that recasts vulnerabilities into opportunities. It invites a recognition of the qualities of left-behind children and floating children, and proposes to reshape the taken-for-granted social structures within dominant institutions that often arbitrarily misrecognise the rural dispositions of these children. This ushers in my development of a sociology of resilience to structural constraints and my recent book on a Bourdieusian analysis of the resilience process of floating children and left-behind children (Mu, 2018). Working across policy documents, ethnographic interviews, and a large-scale quantitative dataset, I propose that resilience is a process of socialisation that reshapes a particular social arena (field) where young people are enculturated into a system of dispositions (habitus) and endowed with a set of resources (capital) required for rebounding from adversities and performing well across multiple domains – physical, psychological, social, and educational.

At the end of the essay, I provide a brief introduction to my edited book “Bourdieu and Chinese Education” (Mu, Dooley, & Luke, 2019). In this volume, a group of scholars in China, Australia, Canada, and the USA dialogue with Bourdieu and raise persistent questions not only about issues of equity, competition, and change in Chinese educational policy and practice, but also about the value, venture, and violence in using established Western intellectual frameworks for analysing Chinese education. The book makes a collective call for a ‘reflexive reappropriation’ of Bourdieu’s sociology in the study of Chinese education. Drawing on this collective wisdom, I conclude the essay with a research agenda that may spark debates on:

  • the attractions and contradictions of using Western social scientific models, frameworks, and worldviews for studying Chinese education;
  • the germinating development of contemporary Chinese habituses in response to academic capitalism and edubusiness;
  • the everyday lived experience, resilience, and conundrum of Chinese students, parents, and educational professionals in the ordinary and extraordinary fields of home, school, and community; and,
  • the status and education of non-Han, ethnic minorities in the context of increasingly visible multicultural politics and growing doxic urgency for social cohesion and nation-state building in rising China.



Mu, G. M. (2016). Learning Chinese as a Heritage Language: An Australian perspective. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Mu, G. M. (2018). Building resilience of floating children and left-behind children in China: Power, politics, participation, and education. London: Routledge.

Mu, G. M., Dooley, K., & Luke, A. (Eds.). (2019). Bourdieu and Chinese education: Inequality, competition, and change. New York: Routledge.

Mu, G. M., & Hu, Y. (2016). Living with vulnerabilities and opportunities in a migration context: Floating children and left-behind children in China. Rotterdam: Sense.

Mu, G. M., & Pang, B. (2019). Interpreting the Chinese diaspora: Identity, scialisation, and resilience according to Pierre Bourdieu. London & New York: Routledge.




Author Biography

Guanglun Michael Mu is Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology. His current project on culture, class, and resilience is funded by the Australian Research Council ($418,489.94). Michael draws on theories from sociology of education (e.g., Bourdieu’s reflexive sociology) as well as mixed methods and quantitative approaches (e.g., meta-analysis, factor analysis, path analysis, process analysis, structural equation modelling, and social network analysis) to probe and prod research problems evolving from three areas: negotiating Chineseness in a diasporic context; building resilience in (im)migration and multicultural contexts; and developing teacher professionalism in an inclusive education context. Michael’s publications include five scholarly books and over 40 scholarly papers.

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