The Educational Hopes and Ambitions of Left-Behind Children in Rural China: An Ethnographic Case Study

Research Highlighted:

Hong, Y. (2021). The Educational Hopes and Ambitions of Left-Behind Children in Rural China: An Ethnographic Case Study. Routledge.

Listen to an interview with Yang here, and watch the interview here.

Children who are ‘left behind’ by migrating parents is a growing phenomenon across Asia. Left-behind children is a consequence of China’s rapid urbanization and its peculiar household registration system. The number of this highly disadvantaged young population across China is overwhelming (61 million in 2013). These young people are doubly disadvantaged, first by their poverty and secondly, by the loss of their parents in their day to day life. Research in different national contexts has provided evidence of how growing up as a ‘left-behind child’ can have a profound impact on young people’s development. Large-scale quantitative research has demonstrated well that being ‘left behind’ has an impact on educational attainment as well on measures that explore sense of well-being and character development.

I conducted an ethnographic case study in a rural school with a high proportion of left-behind children in southwest China. Data were collected from 17 left-behind children. I explored in-depth the individual educational experiences of being poor and ‘left behind’ in rural China, and understood how the experiences of young people themselves had shaped their aspirations as well as self identity. Through this deeply qualitative study, first hand insights into the day to day experiences of left-behind children were gained. By living with the students for 4 months; eating, sleeping and spending academic and leisure time together, a rich and detailed understanding of what it meant to be ‘poor’ and ‘left behind’ for the children in this study were possible.

Extending from Bourdieu’s sociological theories, my study offered an original contribution by combining three theoretical/disciplinary perspectives (cultural capital – sociology, rational action – behavioural economics, and self-efficacy – psychology) in a new and useful way to conceptualize aspirations for higher education in the context of rural China. The three different disciplinary perspectives are often seen, at the surface level at least, not especially compatible; this study however integrated them as well as transferring these Western theories to an Eastern context and demonstrating cultural nuances that these theories do not capture when applying in the West.

Key findings

Results of the study were organized as two chapters (Five and Six) in the book to reflect the different educational attitudes and aspirations of left-behind children under study. “University Non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’” referred to those who did not intend to receive university education and those who had difficulty making decisions. “University aspirers’ were those who explicitly expressed that going to university was what they definitely wanted to do. Findings indicated that whilst educational aspirations were embedded in left-behind children’s disadvantaged social background, they were also shaped by the consequences of being ‘left-behind’.

University non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’, and university aspirers were primarily differentiated by their differential attitudes towards higher education as well as schooling in general. Comparing to university aspirers who demonstrated a strong faith in meritocracy, university non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’ shared a strong desire to enter, what they saw as, the real social world instead. Their beliefs and plans with respect to how to achieve their developed future goals were very individualized because they had very personal and varied understandings of the social world as well as how they saw themselves in terms of personal advantages and weaknesses.

Family played a significant role in shaping student aspirations. What was distinct for university non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’ was that educational aspirations appeared to be linked strongly with loose family connections as well as authoritarian family members. But for university aspirers, parents’ expectations, their concern and encouragement became a strong motive to learning. However, despite this, these young people expressed an extreme sense of isolation as even though having developed an aspiration for university, there was no extra parental involvement, advice or support provided as guidance when making future plans.

Although the school provided no guidance and very little support with respect to future preparation, university aspirers were able to gain support from their peers as well as their teachers, while university non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’ were left alone to make decisions only with limited source of information circulated among classmates and friends.

‘Left-behind-ness’ was seen by all these young people as being compensated by a clearly improved family financial situation and their opportunity to stay in education. However, university non-aspirers and ‘the undecided’ felt they could have more positive personal changes if they were not ‘left behind’. University aspirers, while some also acknowledged they could have a better school performance and a closer relationship with parents, being ‘left behind’ was viewed by some as beneficial for securing independence and freedom to decide the future. Overall though, university aspirers largely expressed a strong sense of loneliness and in particular, a sense of making the best of life’s circumstances with bravado. 

Conclusion

This book employed the concepts of cultural capital, habitus, social capital and emotional capital to investigate the role of family in shaping aspirations. I casted some doubts on Bourdieu’s deterministic view that the value families place on their children’s education is the result of class-based dispositions and habitus. Where Bourdieu is useful is in the ways that poverty can impact on families and in the resources families have to support their children, the results of this study led me to suggest that the idea of habitus should be re-considered specifically to different cultural contexts – in this case, in the Chinese society. Whilst family cultural capital supports a child’s education with knowledge, skills and abilities, emotional capital invested by parental encouragement, support, confidence and interest cultivates a strong sense of belonging, assurance and security for a child, which arguably is significant in promoting self-confidence and self-esteem or encouraging a sense of self-efficacy and autonomy. I also suggest it is being emotionally ‘left behind’ that ultimately is the specific disadvantage of Chinese left-behind children, as opposed to the disadvantages associated with poverty alone. 

Author Bio

Dr Yang Hong is currently a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Shaanxi Normal University, Xi’an, China. She specializes in the area of social justice, focusing on issues of poverty, gender, education and identity. She can be contacted via email: ruiyinghong2017@163.com.

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