Understanding Educational Inequalities in a Transitional Era: The Surging Role of Culture Practice in Chinese Sociology of Education

Ailei Xie

Dr Ailei XIE, Guangzhou University, China

Research highlighted

Xie, Ailei, Kuang, Huan, Hong, Yanbi, and Liu Qunqun.(2018a) . Integrated cultural capital investment and social adjustment of urban and rural students in elite universities (in Chinese). Higher Education Research39(9), 30-36.

Xie, Ailei, Kuang, Huan, Hong, Yanbi, and Postiglione, Gerard A (2018b). Cultural capital deficiency as challenges: rural students in Elite universities (in Chinese). Peking University Education Review, 16(4), 45-64.

Xie, Ailei.(2016) . Rural Students in China’ Elite University: Social Mobility and Habitus Transformation” (in Chinese). Education Research16(4), 74-81.


In less than 40 years, China has become the world’s second largest economy. Encouraged by the link between schooling and a modern state, tremendous efforts have been made by the Chinese government to expand its school system. The higher education sector, for example, experienced an unprecedented growth since the end of the 1990s. The number of students has increased from less than 0.86 million in 1978, when the socialist country tried to reopen it to the outside world, to more than 27.53 million in 2017 (National Bureau of Statistics of China 2017). With its increasing capacity to serve more students, a key question is whether the education system has become more equal (Xie 2015a, 2015b). The literature produced in recent years suggest a patterned school success. While urban students still outperformed their counterparts from rural areas in term of access to quality schooling and universities, the changing fabric of the social structure gradually left those students with a lower socioeconomic status far behind (Postiglione 2015). In other words, the rural-urban gap is still there, and the rising socioeconomic differences among people are having their imprint on Chinese education system. The education opportunity structure is still changing but becomes increasingly clear, leaving more questions on how the new education opportunity structure becomes possible.

The market transition brings back the issue of capital and its role in social competition for privileges in education (Postiglione, 2015). Yet, the picture depicted by the literature is still unclear, which reveals the complexities in understanding a society that is in constant transformation. For example, economic capital is an important predictor for admission into first-tier universities. Yet, controlling the influence of family residence, father’s occupation as well as level of education, students from high income families are less likely than their counterparts from middle- and low-income families to gain access to higher education institutions (Chen 2015). Social capital helps for school success (Xie & Postiglione 2016; Xie 2016a). Yet, it works only partially for employment upon university graduation (Lai, Meng & Su 2012). Cultural capital helps in middle schools, but does not work out in universities, for academic performance (Zhu 2018). The complex picture of the roles played by varied forms of capital highlights the importance of understanding the social and cultural context by applying the concept capital developed in western contexts.

My publications over the past two years are inspired by the work of Bourdieu on cultural capital. The data used in each of the publications is from a mixed-methods ongoing longitudinal study of students at four elite, research intensive, public Project 985 universities (The Study of Elite Universities Student Experience, SEUSE) in China. The concept cultural capital itself has the potential to demystify the privileges in education that certain social groups (for example, the urban and middle class) have. As a new structure is arising, the ways those privileged social groups have in passing their advantages to their children are becoming more sophisticated. Yet, a misuse of it may tend to imply that the Chinese social structure is static, and a dominant culture have already gained its arbitrariness. Under such circumstances, some may assume that assimilation to mainstream culture can mean privileges, while rebellion can entail failures in schools. Yet, this is questionable. My paper published in Higher Education Research (Xie 2018a), for example, suggests a mixed practice in cultural capital investment, which I conceptualize as integrated cultural capital strategy. It suggests that the cultural practices of middle-class families in cities provide their children with advantages in social success in elite universities. Furthermore, their cultural practice is featured by their investment in both highbrow cultural activities participation (for example, visiting art museums, attending classical concerts and visiting theater plays) as well as trainings in helping children to gain such skills as singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. The trainings demonstrate a preference to low-brow cultural consumption. Yet, this, by no means, suggests a cultural omnivore among the emerging largest middle-class group (Sintas & Álvarez, 2002). Rather, it arises from the intensive status competitions among middle class parents who are influenced heavily by a neo-liberal discourse on individual responsibilities for their own success (Ball 2003). While there is not a clear pattern of dominant culture practice, anxious middle-class parents in cities tend to invest on anything that they think might bring privileges to their children. And, these cultural capital strategies are successfully translated into their children’s social success in elite universities. Rural students are left far behind in terms of social success, with their chances of being appointed/selected as leaders of important students’ bodies remaining low (Xie, 2018a).

Gaining insights from Lareau’s tradition in interpreting cultural capital as family strategies that align with schools’ institutional rewards, my paper in Peking University Education Review examines how the above-mentioned cultural practices bring privileges to urban students in China’s most elite universities (Xie 2018b). While the paper published on Higher Education Research is based on the quantitative data collected in SEUSE, this paper is based on both the quantitative and qualitative data. What the data analysis suggests is that the integrated cultural capital strategy is translated into urban students’ privileges in social success in two ways. First, it cultivates a sense of belongings and entitlement to elite universities among urban middle-class students. Second and more importantly, it helps them to build the confidence to succeed, a mixed effect of both highbrow cultural activities’ participation and long-term training in cultural skills. For those students from rural background, they could barely understand the importance of the social aspects of their university life upon coming to the elite milieu. What is even worse is that they feel “being socially incompetent”, a feeling caused by the lack of family investment in trainings of cultural skills in singing, dancing and playing musical instruments (Xie, 2018b).

What I suggest is that these micro-level analyses could not be fully understood without a knowledge on the macro-level changes. In a fast-changing society with a more dynamic social structure, different social groups are competing for the cultural hegemony by empowering their own cultural tastes, dispositions and practice into a more senior position. The anxious urban middle-class families are, to some extent, successful in imposing their values onto the whole society, including those vulnerable social groups from the rural communities. Their integrated social capital strategy is also rewarded by China’s elite universities. Yet, the strategy itself is still ambivalent, featured for its nature of half-breed between highbrow culture and lowbrow culture participations, reflecting a fierce status competition among the newly-made middle class families and the fear of falling from their privileged places. The new boundary setting up by the urban middle class shows another face of the rapid-changing Chinese society, and the gradual solidification of the social structure. Investment in cultural practices that is still unclear in its fabrics and has not yet fully gained its hegemony in the society demands not only tremendous efforts but also entails high risks for individuals. It produces new barriers for social groups that have long been marginalized.

At the collective level, cultural practices help in shaping and reinforcing group identities. They produce loyalties and shape group/class relationships to education (Reay 2017). The third paper I introduced was published in Education Research (Xie 2016b) and is further developed in a manuscript that is under review. It examines the rural’s relationship to education by looking at the habitus transformation of rural students in elite universities. From a Bourdieusian perspective, the rural students may come to the elite environment as cultural outsiders, which may suggest the importance of habitus transformation for academic and social success. The premise is that there is a hierarchical relationship between the home culture and dominant culture rewarded in an elite environment. The feeling that their home culture is inferior to the dominant culture brings a painful dislocation between an old and a newly developing identity and becomes barriers to integration at elite universities. Yet, my analysis of a small group of academically successful rural students’ interview data suggests two different types of integration outcomes for them in an elite environment: “habitus transformation” and “habitus hysteresis”. I argue that the reason is they start from a compartmentalized fitness between their original habitus and the elite milieu they enter (Xie 2016b). This again reveals the characteristics of a society in transition. The cultural practices of the urban middle class are gaining its dominant position, bringing advantages to their children: the habitus alignment between their home environment and the elite institution. Yet, its half-breed, evolving nature and not yet fully arbitrary position leave space for students from other backgrounds. For example, those rural students coming to an elite environment find their own cultural elements are partially aligned with that of the emerging middle class in cities (valuing education and highlighting hard work). Some of them take refuge in a sense of familiarity and hide from unfamiliar social challenges in the new elite milieu. In other words, the field conditions have changed but their habitus lags behind. Yet, full integration into universities guarantees more chances in the accumulation of social and cultural capital (Stuber 2011).

All of the three publications gain theoretical insights from the work of Bourdieu on cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984, 1986, 1988), as well as later studies by DiMaggio (1982, 1997, 2012) and Lareau (1988, 2000, 2002). They, however, examine its relevance by placing it in the specific social context of Chinese society which is in constant flux. By linking the macro-level analysis on the competition for arbitrariness of their own cultural practices by city middle class to micro-level competition for privileges in elite universities, these papers explore the possibilities of Bourdieu’s theoretical tradition in understanding a transitional society. The fabric of the social structure is becoming increasingly clear but not clear enough yet, and the competition for cultural arbitrariness is becoming more fierce. What this means deserve further exploration.



 Ball, S. J. (2003). Class strategies and the education market: The middle classes and social advantage. New York, London: Routledge.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241–258). New York, NY: Greenwood.

Bourdieu, P. (1988). Homo academicus. Cambridge, England: Polity Press. Bourdieu, P. (1989). The state nobility. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Chen, X. (2015). Who Has More Opportunities to Attend College?—An Empirical Study of the Strata Distribution of Different Qualities of Higher Education Opportunities in China. Chinese Education & Society, 48(3), 201-217. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/10611932.2015.1085769. doi:10.1080/10611932.2015.1085769

DiMaggio, P. (1982). Cultural capital and school success: The impact of status culture participation on the grades of U.S. high school students. American Sociological Review, 47, 189–201. doi:10.2307/2094962.

DiMaggio, P. (1997). Culture and cognition. Annual Review of Sociology, 23, 263–287.

DiMaggio, P. (2012). Sociological perspectives on the face-face enactment of class distinction. In S. T. Fiske & H. R. Markus (Eds.), Facing social class: How societal ranks influences interaction (pp. 15–38). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

DiMaggio, P., & Mohr, J. (1985). Cultural capital, educational attainment, and martial selection. American Journal of Sociology, 90, 1231–1236. doi:10.1086/228209.

Lamont, M., & Lareau, A. (1988). Cultural capital: Allusions, gaps and glissandos in recent theoretical developments. Sociological Theory, 6, 153–168. doi:10.2307/202113

Lareau, A. (2000). Home advantage: Social class and parental intervention in elementary education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. (Original work published 1989)

Lareau, A. (2002). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Postiglione, G. A. (2015). Education and social change in China: Inequality in a market economy. New York, London: Routledge.

Reay, Diane. (2017). Miseducation: Inequality, Education, and the Working Classes. Bristol: Policy Press.

Sintas, J., & Álvarez, E. (2002). Omnivores show up again: The segmentation of cultural consumers in Spanish social space. European Sociological Review, 18, 353–368. doi:10.1093/esr/18.3.353

Stuber, J. M. (2011). Inside the college gates: How class and culture matter in higher education. Lanham, MD:  Lexington Books.

Xie, A. (2015a). Inside the College Gate: Rural Students and Their Academic and Social Success. Chinese Education & Society, 48(2), 77-80. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10611932.2015.1040672. doi:10.1080/10611932.2015.1040672

Xie, A. (2015b). Toward a More Equal Admission? Access in the Mass Higher Education Era. Chinese Education & Society, 48(3), 157-162. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/10611932.2015.1095614. doi:10.1080/10611932.2015.1095614

Xie, A. (2016). Family strategies, guanxi, and school success in Rural China. New York, London: Routledge.

Xie, A., & Postiglione, G. A. (2016). Guanxi and school success: An ethnographic inquiry of parental involvement in rural China. British journal of sociology of education, 37(7), 1014-1033.


Author Bio

Dr. Xie Ailei is Associate Professor and the Associate Dean of the Bay Area Education Policy Institute for Social Development at Guangzhou University. His main areas of research are on higher education and social justice, and rural education development in China. His publications examine the academic and social success of rural students in China’s most elite universities (Peking University Education Review, 2018; Higher Education Research, Educational Research, 2016); the value of rural parents on schooling (Peking University Education Review, 2017); how guanxi structures rural parents’ choices of school participation (British Journal of Sociology of Education, 2016); and access to China’s higher education (Chinese Education & Society, 2015) . The current research project that he is leading is on the social and academic experience of rural students in China’s elite universities. He has also been involved in studies on access to higher education institutions by the rural and ethnic minorities in Gansu. Dr. Xie Ailei gained his Ph.D degree in sociology of education from the University of Hong Kong. He was an Assistant Professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University from the 2012 to 2013, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Hong Kong from 2014 to 2017, and was selected as a visiting fellow to Cambridge University in 2016. He can be reached at xieailei@gmail.com.

Dr. Xie Ailei currently serves as the associate editor of the journal Chinese Education & Society. He is also on the editorial advisory board of the Journal of Education Policy.

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