Bourdieusian Boundary-Making, Social Networks, and Capital Conversion: Inequality among International Degree Holders in Hong Kong

Au, A. (2023). Bourdieusian Boundary-Making, Social Networks, and Capital Conversion: Inequality among International Degree Holders in Hong Kong. Cultural Sociology

The following summary was prepared by Dr Anson Au’s student: Yuxiao Liu (刘宇骁)

Within the sociological perspective of education, capital and distinction, existing literature has fully discussed the various ways and mechanisms of education transforming from cultural capital to other forms of capital (Lareau and Weininger, 2003). 

However, this direct conversion of different types of capital is not always smooth. With the popularization of international education, non-elite middle-class families are also able to send their children to overseas countries for higher education. The number of international bachelor’s degree holders or above is gradually increasing, which leads to the increasingly saturated labor market and increasingly fierce competition in the job market. Graduates with an international degree are less likely than before to find a decent job that meets their income expectations, which means that the direct conversion of cultural capital from an overseas education degree into economic capital is more difficult than ever (Tholen and Brown, 2017). In this context, how can international degree-holders transfer their cultural capital to other types of capital? And how can they justify an international degree with declining economic returns?

Indeed, while much research has been dedicated to examining the direct benefits of an international higher education degree, less attention has been devoted to understanding the cultural schemas that graduates acquire through foreign higher education, especially among those with non-elite university degrees whose economic returns begin to falter. Addressing this lacuna, this article inquires into the meaning-making in international student migration and the perceived value of an international education degree when its ability to convert into economic capital is disrupted. 

The study focuses on the case of international degree holders in Hong Kong and draws upon Bourdieu’s theory of practice to interrogate the cultural schemas that valorize international degrees when their conversion pathways to economic capital are subjectively perceived to weaken. 

When the ability of international degrees as cultural capital to convert into economic capital is undermined, how do international degree graduates perceive the indirect or implicit benefits of their degrees(the perceived value) and why they still choose to pay more for an overseas university (meaning-making in education)?

Using semi-structured interviews with non-elite international degree graduates based in Hong Kong, this study examines how cultural schemas resist change and symbolic violence is enacted among graduates against other degree holders in the wake of diminishing economic returns. 

Traditionally, a Western legacy of cultural colonization in Hong Kong has allowed international degree holders to remain more competitive in some sectors, but this is fading over time. 

Holders of international degrees admit that the economic returns of an international degree are declining, but they are found to justify their purchase of an international degree by recasting it as a decision motivated by values, vision, and taste. On that score, they emphasize the uniqueness of the opportunity to study abroad and vindicate the cultural riches of an international degree by pitting themselves against local degree holders, who are viewed as inferior. 

The findings suggest that social networks play a significant role in embedding cultural schemas and their effects on relations within the field. When faced with diminishing economic returns, international degree holders hold fast to their schemas in view of fellow international graduates and reconceptualize their degrees as symbolic capital to cope with the loss by enacting symbolic violence against domestic degree holders.

These schemas entrench class boundaries because it makes manifest an interstitial homology, where international degree holders occupy different positions in different fields, namely, a dominant position in the cultural field but a dominated position in the economic field. Put simply, international degree holders are led by their schemas to ignore the structure of the economy as an explanation for why they or local degree holders struggle in the workforce, ignore the costs of an international degree, and ultimately ignore the fact that they are in the same economic boat as their local counterparts.

The conclusion is that the study highlights the importance of understanding the cultural schemas that graduates possess and use to respond to disruptions of capital conversion processes. The study also shows how social networks play a significant role in embedding cultural schemas and their effects on relations within the field. The findings have implications for understanding the dynamics of class boundaries and the role of cultural capital in shaping graduates’ responses to economic capital losses.


Lareau A and Weininger E (2003) Cultural capital in educational research: A critical assessment. Theory and Society 32(5): 567–606.

Tholen G and Brown P (2017) Higher education and the myths of graduate employability. In: Waller R, Ingram N and Ward M (eds) Higher Education and Social Inequalities. London: Routledge, 152–166.

Author’s Bio

Dr Anson Au,
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Dr Anson AU is Assistant Professor of Economic Sociology in the Department of Applied Social Sciences at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He presently serves as an Executive Council Member on the Board of the Hong Kong Sociological Association and on the Editorial Board of Sociology, ​the flagship journal of the British Sociological Association. Applying mixed methods, his research examines digitalization, networks, economic sociology, and professions and organizations, with a regional focus on East Asia. Email:

Managing Editor: Lisa (Zhiyun Bian)

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