The micro-politics of cultural change: A Chinese doctoral student’s learning journey at an Australian university

Research Highlighted:

Dai, K., & Hardy, I. (2020). The micro-politics of cultural change: a Chinese doctoral student’s learning journey in Australia. Oxford Review of Education, 1-17. DOI: 10.1080/03054985.2020.1825369

Read about Kun’s other publication here.

Dr Kun Dai, Peking University, China


Considerable research has investigated Chinese students’ intercultural insights in different national contexts, where culture is understood as coterminous with nationality/regionality. However, few have explored the more micro-political aspects of Chinese doctoral students’ narrative experiences in national settings, within a more cultural framework. This article seeks to take such an approach through a reflexive narrative account of the first author’s experiences as a Chinese doctoral student in Australia. To do so, we draw upon Bhabha’s notion of “in-between space”, and work by Gill on intercultural adjustment. We show how the first author’s doctoral journey was characterised by a sense of “in-betweenness” at the micro-political level, including in relation to the cultural boundary crossing associated with having to change fields of study and supervisors. This narrative provides a nuanced account of an international student’s experiences and reflects the usefulness of examining the particularity of international doctoral students’ learning experiences at a much more fine-grained level, via a more intercultural lens.


Doctoral education is a significant part of the HE system and doctoral students are also one of the major groups contributing substantively to creativity and innovation in knowledge, which productively influences the development of society (Shin, Postiglione, & Ho, 2018). At the same time, when international doctoral students encounter different academic and sociocultural contexts, they experience complex changes to their identity, with attendant changes to their sense of agency as diasporic academics (Lee & Elliot, 2020). As part of this journey, vacillating between the standpoints of being a more independent and dependent learner, as a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) candidate, can be associated with senses of both empowerment and disempowerment (Goode, 2007). Thus, doctoral students’ learning experiences can be very diverse, so it is necessary to understand the specificity of the circumstances within which these students conduct their research in different educational contexts (Pearson et al., 2011). To contribute to scholarship in this field, we illustrate and analyse the first author’s experiences as an international doctoral student at an Australian university, and how specific micro-political intercultural issues that he faced during his journey influenced his learning through this experience.

Research Method

This study adopts notions of intercultural adjustment, especially Gill’s (2007) analysis of Chinese students’ transformative learning framework. Furthermore, Bhabha’s (1994) concept of in-between space was used to examine the fluidity of the first author’s experiences through a more critical lens. To tell the story of this positioning in various in-between spaces of intercultural adjustment as part of the first author’s doctoral journey, we draw upon a reflexive narrative approach. In this study, we adopted narrative as the method to frame the data analysis. At the same time, we recognise that the first author’s story/ies is/are not simply a product of his “own” understandings of the world, but also the result of the broader conditions within which his story/ies become comprehensible. By adopting these approaches, we were able to critically and reflexively examine his experiences whilst maintaining confidentiality.


The narrative started with illustrating the first author’s doctoral research journey in a cross-disciplinary context from Digital Media to Education. As he has studied in Australia for about three years, he felt confident in this initial stage even though he changed his focus from digital media to educational technology. After starting his journey, he gradually realized that he might not get proper supervision, and then he worried about his research. However, dramas always happened. His supervisors left the university, and he had no choice but to change supervision teams. Due to the differences between his research focus and the new supervisor’s expertise, while they worked together and attempted to make his study better, his research was still not on the right track. In the third-year assessment, internal panel members still questioned his research. After this assessment, change happened again. Unfortunately, the new supervisor needed to retire due to personal reason and left the university. In this case, he felt so disempowered and lacked the confidence to complete the study. Luckily, he found new supervisors to support him. Although research topics have been changed due to the shift of supervisions teams, he did not give up and finally completed the study. When he reflected his journey, he felt that the doctoral journey is a process of shaping a sense of in-betweenness: shifting between different research fields, topics, and supervision teams.


Based on the first author’s ‘zigzag ‘doctoral learning experience, this study reveals that his PhD journey positioned him in an in-between space where he was constantly immersed in a cycle of stress-adaptation-development, and where he established a sense of in-betweenness, characterised by different senses of agency, identity, and belonging. In these arrangements, power was always at play. Various predictable (e.g. change of majors) and unpredictable changes (e.g. changes of advisors) dynamically and constantly positioned him within different power dynamics. The interaction between intercultural adjustment model and the concept of in-between space shed light on this learning transition, particularly in relation to the micro-politics of cultural change that surrounded the forms of cross-disciplinary academic cultural adaptation he had to undertake in his journey. Importantly, they also flag the significant power relations more broadly that infused his whole doctoral journey. His reactions to the changes indicate a resilience towards expected and unexpected adversities as well as the effects of such power relations.

His journey suggests that he was in the stress-adaptation-development trajectory, but in a very different way from how such a trajectory is conceptualised in existing literature. It could not only be adopted in the analysis of more typical nationally/regionally based intercultural learning and adjustment, but also could be used as a lens to theorise and analyse more micro-political processes of learning trajectories. Moreover, his PhD research trajectory indicated he was ultimately able to become a self-determined and active agent (Marginson, 2014) but this process was tortuous with many twists and turns, establishing a complex sense of in-betweenness in response to different expected and unpredictable changes. His experience indicates that he was immersed in a unique in-between space that was created by constant negotiations between colonising and colonised cohorts, complicated relations of power, and various clashes in and between different types of “cultures”, which potentially shape individual hybridity and sense of in-betweenness.

This study revealed that as a result of the first author’s peculiar cross-disciplinary academic cultural adaptation, he became an in-betweener at not just the macro level of culture, but at a micro-political level. In this particular space, he had to navigate twists and turns in different stages of the learning journey which was not a straightforward process of stress-adaptation-development as some other studies have found. In contrast, his journey was a pathway of continuous processes of stress, adapting and development, characterised by a more or less continuous sense of in-betweenness in relation to each of these states. His experiences certainly confirm doctoral learning and research journeys as complicated rather than linear. However, students may engage in multi-faceted and complex journeys, far beyond what might be anticipated.

Authors’ bios:

Dr Kun Dai is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Funded by China International Postdoc Exchange Program) at Graduate School of Education, Peking University. His research focuses on transnational higher education, international students mobility, intercultural learning and adjustment, teaching and learning in higher education.

Dr Ian Hardy is an Associate Professor at the School of Education, University of Queensland, Australia. Dr Hardy’s research focuses on educational policy, globalisation, and teacher education.

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