Migration, intersectional identity and habitus re-structuring: struggling between marginalisation and inclusion in Chinese urban schools

Dr Hui Yu, South China Normal University, China

Highlighted research:

Yu, H. (2019). The making of “incompetent parents”: intersectional identity, habitus and Chinese rural migrant’s parental educational involvement. Australian Educational Researcher, 1-16. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s13384-019-00361-z

Yu, H. (2019). Inheriting or re-structuring habitus/capital? Chinese migrant children in the urban field of cultural reproduction. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 1-13. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2019.1689814

Abstract

This paper presents the findings of my recent study on Chinese rural-to-urban migrants and cultural reproduction. Drawing on Bourdieu’s theoretical lens, it examines how the intersection of rural origin, migration status and working-class identities shapes the parents and children’s habitus and their exertion of capital in the urban field of education. Semi-structured interviews were conducted in Beijing and Shanghai with 64 teachers, rural migrants and local parents and students. The findings reveal the intersection of two aspects of the migrant parents’ habitus – one, resulting from their rural background, this habitus leads them not to treat themselves as academic educators, and a second, arising from their migrant working-class status, they perceived the necessity to ‘strive for survival’. As for the children, they have experienced re-structuring of habitus, which is illustrated by their internalization of standard Mandarin as the normal way of speaking, their urbanized bodily hexis in terms of dress, appearance and behaviour, and their appreciation of extra-curricular activities. In urban schools, the migrant parents are identified as ‘incompetent’, since their actions do not match with the teachers’ expectations of home-school cooperation, while a well-integrated relationship can be identified between migrant and local children. This situation contributes to the production of a generation of ‘new urban citizens’, yet in the meantime reproduces the migrant families’ class status as low-skilled labourers. This study extends the extant Bourdieusian theorisations of the intersectional positionality of working-class parents in the field of education by adding the less examined axes of rural origin and migration status. It also extends Bourdieusian reflexive sociological thinking by calling for a holistic view of the studies of cultural and social reproduction of migration in Chinese context.

Changing landscape of migration and education in China

Within contemporary Chinese social structural changes, urbanisation and industrialisation processes break through the rural/urban boundary and bring rural migrant labourers into a new arena. Over the past decade, the state school sector has accommodated around 77-80% of migrant children nationwide, indicating that the majority of migrant children are offered access to state schools. In some metropolitan cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, the number of migrant children accounts for around half of the total student population of compulsory education age. In the meantime, the demographic characteristics of migrant children has been changed: in Beijing and Shanghai, most of the so-called ‘migrant children’ are now born and/or raised in urban areas and are second-generation migrant children.

Research question

Drawing on Bourdieu’s theoretical lens, this paper examines how the intersection of rural origin, migration status and working-class identities shapes the parents and children’s habitus and their exertion of capital in the urban field of education.

Methodology

Three months of fieldwork were carried out in a total number of 14 schools and one nursery in Beijing and Shanghai. The data was generated through semi-structured interviews with 17 teachers (including headtechers), 26 migrant parents, 12 migrant children, five local parents, and four local children. The development of the interview questions was guided by the key research questions: how involved are rural migrant parents in their children’s education inside and outside of school? What is the relationship between migrant and local children? How are these relationships influencing migrant children’s study and social inclusion? Are there any pressing issues for the teachers concerning migrant parents and children?

The making of ‘incompetent parents’: rural migrant labourers and intersectional identity

For the migrant parents, even after migration their rural disposition of not treating themselves as educators is partly retained. In the meantime, their working-class habitus has been restructured by the intensified social and financial disadvantages of urban areas, producing a disposition of striving for survival. The parents’ habitus shapes their understanding of parental educational responsibility and their exertion of cultural capital, producing a child rearing approach of ‘accomplishment of natural growth’ (Lareau, 2002). Not perceiving themselves as educators, communicating with the teacher was the main channel through which the parents responded to their children’s educational strengths. Many of them were reluctant to deploy their (weak) literacy as cultural capital to support their children.

Producing a generation of ‘new urban citizens’: re-structuring habitus and capital in the urban space

The second-generation migrant children have experienced re-structuring of habitus and accumulation of new forms of cultural capital in the urban field of cultural reproduction. With the logic of reproducing and validating urban-specific cultural configurations, this field offers rural-to-urban migrant spaces and forms of socialization, which shape the children’s habitus and capital in different ways and in contrast to their parents’. This is illustrated by the children’s internalization of standard Mandarin as the normal way of speaking, their urbanized bodily hexis in terms of dressing, appearing and behaving, and their appreciation of extra-curricular activities. These are valuable and valued forms of cultural capital in the urban field of education.

Towards marginalisation or social inclusion?

The migrant parents’ child rearing approach does not match with the teachers’ expectations, since the urban school field has a logic of home-school cooperation. As a result, these parents are vulnerable to being judged as failures. Their weak position in the field of urban schooling is a result of their intersectional disadvantaged status of having formerly lived in rural areas and then migrated to urban areas, yet they continue to engage in labouring occupations. Unlike their parents, a well-integrated relationship between migrant and local children can be identified in schools, which reinforces the children’s sense of belonging to urban society, producing a generation of ‘new urban citizens’. However, these children might well become a new generation of the urban working-class, since their opportunities for upward social mobility are still limited because of their weak urban-specific familial cultural resources. The majority of them later on end up with a high school or vocational school qualification, continuing their parents’ occupational paths as low-skilled or unskilled workers. This situation does not match the achievements of their local classmates.

Theoretical implications

This study recognises the necessity and usefulness of intersectionality theory (Crenshaw, 1991) and highlights its explanatory power in the Chinese context. It extends the extant Bourdieusian theorisations of the intersectional positionality of working-class parents in the field of education by adding the less examined axes of rural origin and migration status. Furthermore, it extends Bourdieusian reflexive sociological thinking by highlighting the fluid nature of habitus/capital and calling for a holistic view of the studies of cultural and social reproduction of migration. That is to say, there is a need to examine both the unchanged and re-structured aspects of habitus/capital, and to recognise the intra-group and intergenerational differences in the migrant group in Chinese context. The theorisations of this study offer implications for international studies on the parental involvement of migrant labourer groups, especially those from disadvantaged cultural or national backgrounds, such as domestic workers, travellers, and refugees.

Author Bio

Hui Yu (PhD, IOE) is a senior research fellow at School of Education, South China Normal University. As a Bourdieusian-informed sociologist, Dr Yu’s particular research interests include educational policy enactment and cultural reproduction of rural migrant family in urban China. His research focuses on: 1) how the cross-field effects shape the logic of the educational policy field and generate policy changes; 2) how the intersection of rural origin, migration status and working-class identities shapes the migrant families’ habitus. Email: hui.yu@m.scnu.edu.cn

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