Hysteresis Effects and Emotional Suffering: Chinese Rural Students’ First Encounters With the Urban University

Research Highlighted:

Chen, J. (2020). Hysteresis Effects and Emotional Suffering: Chinese Rural Students’ First Encounters With the Urban UniversitySociological Research Online. doi.org/10.1177/1360780420949884

Ms Jiexiu Chen, Institute of Education, University College London


In the Chinese context of a stratified higher education system and significant urban-rural inequality, rural students are generally facing with constrained possibilities for social mobility through higher education. Despite these structural constraints, some exceptional rural students, like all the participants in this research, manage to get themselves enrolled in the urban university. Drawing on participants’ subjective narratives about their first encounters in the urban university, I argue that the rural students in this research were confronted with two levels of habitus-field disjunctures, respectively the rural-urban disjuncture and academic disjuncture. Then through examining participants’ narratives about their hysteresis effects and emotional suffering, I suggest the sense of feeling lost and inferior reveals how various types of domination in the external structure of the field of the urban university play a part in affecting rural students’ inner emotional worlds.


The role higher education plays in processes of social mobility is a central concern for researchers and policy makers around the world. This is especially true in China, where the country’s social, economic, and political environment has gone through significant changes since the Reform and Opening-Up policy in 1978. Though higher education expansion has been widely considered a useful tool for moderating social stratification (Haveman and Smeeding, 2006), some researchers have shown that the expansion of higher education has actually intensified and reinforced educational inequality in some developing countries (Buchmann and Hannum, 2001). In the UK context, higher education expansion have been found to widen rather than bridge participation gaps (Boliver, 2011). In China, scholars have found that the rapid massification of higher education systems has failed to reduce educational inequity (Luo et al., 2018). According to a study, rural students accounted for 11% of the total student body at an elite university located in Beijing in 2009, while the population registered as rural residents accounted for 52% at that time (Lu et al., 2016). Thus, for rural students who are the first in their family, or even the first in their village, to enrol in an urban university, their journeys to the university include a series of massive changes and successive challenges.

In terms of the socio-economic constraints caused by the hukou system, there are several associated factors shaping the disadvantaged situation many rural students find themselves in when considering their educational trajectories. First, rural students’ parents tend to have much lower educational levels compared with their urban peers. According to Wu’s (2013) research based on an analysis of the Chinese General Social Survey in 2008, since the restoration of the CEE in 1978, the impact of a father’s education level has increasingly affected the college attainment of his children. Second, limited educational resources are allocated to rural areas. Schools providing basic education in urban cities are generally much better equipped with teachers and facilities than the rural schools (Liu, 2008). Third, rural students’ hukou status and financial difficulties restrict their opportunities to attend urban high schools, where the education is considered to be of a higher quality (Tsang, 2002). Therefore, in key national universities, the number of rural students is shrinking, while more rural students are enrolled in provincial or local institutions with a lower academic reputation and quality of provision.

Theoretical framework and methodology

This research mainly adopts Bourdieu’s conceptual tools in the analysis. Habitus, as Bourdieu argued, is ‘a product of social conditionings’ (Bourdieu, 1990 p. 116). As a compilation of collective and individual trajectories, when habitus encounters an unfamiliar field, individuals are supposed to experience ambivalences when having to deal with moments of misdisalignment (Reay, 2004). After migrating from rural villages to the urban city, the participants in this research all entered a novel field, different from their previous environments. Thus, along with the change and the mismatch between their past habitus and current field, varying degrees of habitus-field disjuncture emerged, and further led to hysteresis effects and suffering in the rural students’ university lives. As Hardy suggested, Bourdieu’s conceptual tools can be usefully applied to understand ‘change’, which in this research refers to rural students’ transition from rural schooling to urban higher education (Hardy, 2014).

In the China context, Xu (2017) examined Chinese mainland students’ with rich economic and cultural capitals encountered with differential capital valuations in an elite Hong Kong university, and uncovered how habitus-field disjuncture revealed itself in a transborder context. Xie and Reay’s (2019) longitudinal research on academically successful rural students at four Chinese elite universities revealed ‘habitus transformation’ and ‘habitus hysteresis’ derived from the ‘compartmentalized fit’ between the students’ previous habitus and the exclusive field of top universities (p.2).

Drawing upon Bourdieu’s conceptual tools, I delve into the following two major themes in this paper. First, I focus specifically on rural students’ subjective perceptions of their mobility trajectories to investigate what kinds of habitus-field disjuncture (if any) they had encountered when entering an urban university. Second, through the theoretical lens of hysteresis effects and emotional suffering, I examine participants’ narratives about their sense of feeling lost and inferior, and explore how various types of domination in the external structure of the field of the urban university play a part in affecting rural students’ inner emotional worlds.

This research reports part of the findings of my Ph.D. project on rural students’ social mobility trajectories in China. In 2018, I conducted life history interviews in several cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Ji’nan in China. I recruited 40 university students who graduated in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, and who were now working in cities, to participate in this research. All of the participants were born and brought up in rural areas (including villages, parishes, and towns), and they had graduated from public universities and been awarded at least bachelor’s degrees.

Findings and discussions

Drawing upon Bourdieu’s conceptual tools of habitus and field, this research focused on rural students’ subjective social mobility experiences from rural villages to urban universities, and explored how habitus-field disjuncture, hysteresis effects, and symbolic violence are lived and manifested in the China context. Instead of regarding mobility across urban and rural fields as a straightforward transition of social group, this research took a step further to dig into the complexity and hierarchy embedded in rural students’ mobility process. In the process of entering a novel field, rural students experience habitus-field disjuncture at two levels: urban-rural disjuncture, which refers to the metropolitan and cultural (geographical) distance between rural students’ origin and destination, and academic disjuncture, which is marked by the changes in the rules of the game between rural schooling and urban higher education. The two levels of habitus-field disjuncture led many participants to various experiences of hysteresis effects and emotional suffering, such as a widely-mentioned sense of inferiority when living at an urban university.

The rural students’ emotional suffering discussed in this research resonates with research on working-class students conducted in the Western context, in which the hidden injuries and struggles related to social mobility have been broadly reported. As discussed above, rural students’ first encounters with a metropolitan context shares certain similarities with immigrants’ culture shock when entering a foreign country. The lack of metropolitan knowledge and culturally and geographically distant mobility creates a strong sense of alienation and inability. Moreover, I found the encounters of hysteresis effects and emotional suffering were widely reported by participants across all the cohort groups, which demonstrates how dominant and lasting the urban-rural inequality has been during the past decades.

This research contributes to the application of Bourdieu’s conceptual tools in a non-Western context. The existing literature on Chinese rural students generally has adopted the notion of working-class habitus to understand rural students’ experiences, and has diluted the uniqueness of the Chinese rural context where those students originally generated their habitus. Through unpacking the multilevel of habitus-field disjunctures, this paper strives to present the complexity and hierarchies embedded in the urban-rural inequality in China and the distinctive features of China’s social and cultural milieu. Thus, I suggest Bourdieu’s concepts should be carefully approached with recognition of the significant differences between urban-rural disparities in China and class inequality in the Western context and mindful reflections should be conducted to challenge the long-existing Western and/or urban analytical perspectives in the study of Chinese rural students.

Author Biography

Jiexiu Chen is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Education, University College London, UK. Her research interests include social mobility, cross-cultural adaptation, and education policy. She has an emerging journal article and book publication on Chinese rural students’ social mobility through higher education and international staff’s experiences in Chinese universities. She can be contacted via the following email address: jiexiu.chen.16@ucl.ac.uk.

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