Cultural Capital and Elite University Attendance in China

Research highlighted

Anning, Hu. & Xiaogang, Wu. (2021). Cultural Capital and Elite University Attendance in China. British Journal of Sociology of Education 42(8): 1265-1293.

Despite a plethora of research, the association between cultural capital and educational inequality does not appear to follow the same pattern. Against this backdrop, an increasing number of scholars have shifted attention to the socio-institutional context in which the consequences of cultural capital vary. This is a necessary enterprise since the concept of cultural capital was proposed in the first place in the French context. In this article, we make contributions to the literature by investigating how cultural capital, among college attendees, relates to the likelihood of attending an elite university when most students are subject to standardized tests.

The research environment is China, where the standardized National College Entrance Examination (NCEE), commonly known as gaokao in China, is institutionalized as an annually-held prerequisite academic examination for the entrance into almost all higher education institutions at the undergraduate level. It is standardized in the sense that both examination subjects and examination questions are highly structured and oriented toward the evaluation of cognitive skills. Hence, what we are interested in is: under the NCEE, how cultural capital relates to one’s chance of attending an elite university. For the purpose of comparison, we also examine how cultural capital is associated with elite university attendance by virtue of exempting the NCEE, a supplementary pathway to college that is geared to overcome the NCEE’s partial emphasis of cognitive skills by taking into account the exceptional or special talents of students.

Drawing on data from the Beijing College Students Panel Survey (BCSPS), we show that (1) on average, objectified cultural capital is negatively associated with the likelihood of attending an elite university whereas embodied cultural capital shows a positive effect; (2) both types of cultural capital enhance the proficiencies of extracurricular activities, which are negatively associated with all quantiles of the NCEE score so as to curtail the odds of getting into an elite university; (3) both types of cultural capital cannot guarantee the attendance of an elite university by improving one’s learning capabilities, since learning capabilities only raise the middle and lower quantiles of the NCEE score; (4) finally, only embodied cultural capital helps one attend an elite university by virtue of exempting the NCEE.

This study highlights how a standardized examination system could come into force to affect the association between cultural capital and the formation of horizontal stratification. Under the NCEE, at least based on the experiences of China, objectified cultural capital is a damping factor for people’s likelihood of getting into a selective university. Although it has the potential of improving students’ learning capabilities, such an improvement does not seem to affect the high end of the NCEE performances. In this regard, the theory of cultural reproduction seems to be hard to maintain when the access to selective educational resources is more structurally determined. Since objectified cultural capital differentials in a population has always been an indicator of the existing class stratification, the negative effect under the NCEE implies that standardized examination could play the role of the “equalizer” in societies with a holistic evaluation system.

This article also suggests that the process of cultural reproduction as described by Bourdieu could come into being if such a standardized examination system is lifted or circumvented. Embodied cultural capital, for instance, is noted to enhance one’s chance of getting into an elite university through exemption of the NCEE. Although the evaluations faced by those who are exempted from the NCEE are not identical with the holistic evaluations adopted in other societies, the gist is indeed similar. Unsurprisingly from the Bourdiausian perspective, this pathway to higher education significantly attracts those with higher endowment of embodied cultural capital, thus bridging cultural capital and educational outcome.

The mechanisms undergirding the link between cultural capital and elite university attendance under the NCEE are more nuanced than conventionally assumed. Metaphorically speaking, cultural capital is a double-edged sword: objectified cultural capital simultaneously raises and lowers one’s standardized test score. Nevertheless, the positive mechanism only works for the middle and lower quantiles of the test score, but the negative mechanism can be extended to the higher quantiles. These two mechanisms jointly lead to the overall negative influences of objectified cultural capital on the odds of getting into an elite university. As for embodied cultural capital, it also plays both a positive and a negative role: it reduces the odds of elite university attendance by weakening students’ performance in the NCEE on the one hand, but helps one get into a selective institution through NCEE exemption on the other hand. Relatively, the overall positive effect of embodied cultural capital suggests that the positive pathway overrides the negative one. Hence, the educational consequences of cultural capital are not a simple yes-or-no matter, but a combination of multiple possibly mutually competing forces. More mechanism-oriented research is called for to reveal the complex formative process in the educational consequences of cultural capital.

Authors’ Bio

Dr. Anning Hu, Fudan University

Dr. Anning Hu is a Professor of Sociology and the vice Dean of Graduate School at Fudan University. His research interests include social inequality, education, religion, trust, culture, and social research methods. Hu has published over 90 academic articles and three monographs, with research appearing in major sociological outlets, such as British Journal of Sociology, Sociology, Social Science Research, Journal of Marriage and Family, Poetics, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, Demographic Research, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Sociological Quarterly, Journal of Mathematical Sociology, and The China Quarterly, to name a few. He can be contacted by

Dr. Xiaogang Wu, NYU Shanghai

Dr. Xiaogang Wu is the Yufeng (御风) Global Professor of Social Science, Area Head of Social Sciences, and Director of the Center for Applied Social and Economic Research (CASER) at NYU Shanghai. Wu also holds an appointment as Professor of Sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Science at NYU. Wu was the recipient of the US National Academy of Education/Spencer Post-doctoral Research Fellowship for 2006 to 2007, the Asia and Asian American Early Career Award from the American Sociological Association in 2007, and the Prestigious Fellowship in Humanities and Social Sciences by the University Grants Committee of Hong Kong in 2012. Wu is currently the President of the International Chinese Sociological Association and the founding editor of the Chinese Sociological Review. He can be contacted by

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