Governing through ambiguity in the normalizing society: The lesson from Chinese transnational higher education regulation

Research highlighted

Han, X. (2023). Governing through ambiguity in the normalizing society: The lesson from Chinese transnational higher education regulation.  Journal of Education Policy, Online First. DOI:

The traditional technocratic model in policy analysis features in three dimensions: first, it takes language as the transparent vehicle to facilitate communications between writers and various readers; second, it follows the problem-solving route, considering policy documents as the political responses empirically based upon factual data to existing social problems; third, it considers the participants as disinterested individuals immunizing from the policy impact. Following this empiricist-idealist view of language, scholars are expected to provide neutral data/information for policy-makers to develop/revise solutions to the pre-identified problems, seek authorial intentions hidden behind the policy texts, and proffer interpretations which could generate commensurable meaning among readers. In other words, it equalizes language to a static set of perfect signifiers about the externally constituted world of things, and by so doing sidesteps the contingencies, intricacies, and indeterminacies of policies.

The progress in socio-linguistics directs scholars’ attention to the discourse property of language, and also, policy documents. Discourse, especially for Foucault-inspired critical policy analysts, does more than designate things: it delimits what can be said and thought; it constitutes, produces, and creates, rather than enumerating and describing subjects, objects, and places; it sets the norms to fabricate individuals into the social order, elicits their self-governance as an act of free will, and thus yields human beings into made subjects.

While existing critical studies on making politics visible are cornucopian in demonstrating how power penetrates into every aspect of social life, to institute disciplinary technologies and thus conduct individuals’ conduct, Foucault’s own slide from the terminal stage of discourse—the linguistic elements, may whittle the theory’s potency in explaining the reality, especially when referring to policy research in the broader social science fields including public administration, politics and international relations: if policy discourse functions to convey norms in shaping desirable subjects, its expression should be as precise as possible to be followed. Why could policymakers endure and even encourage equivocalness in policy texts instead of trying to reduce it?

Empirically based upon China’s regulation over transnational higher education (TNHE),  this article draws interdisciplinary prism to highlight the persistent existence of ambiguity in policy documents and its impact on the enacting process. For instance, in authoritarian China, linguistic ambiguity could demonstrate its positive effects: within the context of severe discursive conflict, the equivocal expressions not only mask the incompatible norms setting but also leave negotiation room for creative policy enactment. Specifically, Chinese national policies about TNHE embodies the “curious hybrid of command and market”: on one hand, the introduction of neoliberalism permits the penetration of market logic into the previously state-controlled domain of education when China decides to modernize itself by internationalizing its higher education (HE) system. As a vital and integral part of HE internationalization, TNHE thus gains permission (and encouragement) to develop within Chinese territory; on the other hand, although TNHE itself instantiates the imposition of neoliberal discourse, the authoritarian concern of China to take “the total administration of life”, and its ideological reliance on socialism for moral legitimacy prevent its full embrace of market logic. To ensure the state’s interference into every social aspect, the local officials are  expected to simultaneously facilitate and prevent the penetration of market forces into the TNHE.

It is within this context that clarification in policy documents is considered “managerially sound” but “politically irrational”. The deliberate adoption of ambiguous expressions could not only help to convince readers but also leave negotiating room for policy practitioners to achieve contradictory ends. This is the “positive effect of ambiguity” highlighted by Matland (1995, 158). For example, to mask the market -based inequality in China’s socialist society, the national policies adopt rather ambiguous expressions in regulating the tuition fee setting, which is required to consider the affordability of the students” and to achieve the balance between the charges in public and private universities. So while the tuition fee is calculated and decided by the universities, it must gain approval from local governments before coming into effect.

However, the criteria is riddled with ambiguity, clarifying neither the authoritarian/socialist nor neoliberal norm: the difficulty (or more precisely, impossibility) of quantifying the “affordability” of potential students; the fuzzy measurement of “balancing between public and private universities”—especially when considering what the Deputy Director from Y Provincial Government frankly states: “TNHE in China is legally regulated by the Non-state (private) Education Promotion Law, so it is unclear how to balance the charge…”; and the obscuring gauge in calculating the cultivating cost of students, “there is no simple criteria in deciding the faculty salaries in TNHE (compared with Chinese public universities)…most of the time they have to make a better offer (based on the qualification and the faculty’s former pay level) for introducing talents” (2017). These ambiguous statements, on the other hand, permit flexibility for local officials when enacting national policies. As he continues to say candidly: “The tuition fee set by the TNHE (especially Sino-foreign cooperation universities) is relatively autonomous, and we always permit their application for the charge”. Such support and permission are based on the local officials’ understanding of market logic, as he explains: “They are running the TNHE in the market… students have a lot of choices—studying physically abroad, applying to other programs/colleges/universities, or enrolling in other Chinese universities…the setting of charge has already been monitored and modified by the market” (2019).

When the imposition of law in population regulation has been gradually replaced by its calculated practice of directing categories of social agents, the individuals are seemingly permitted to act “freely and proactively”. However, the Chinese local officials’ creativity and innovation in flexibly enacting national policies have never been “in a position of exteriority to power”, but ending up enforcing and intensifying the existing power relations—the authoritarian control in China as they boost the development of TNHE and thus prove the “rightness” of China’s political control. This strategic and invisible operation of power deserves scholarly attention for how it objectifies and subjectifies human beings.

Authors’ Bio

Dr. Xiao Han,
Tianjin University

Dr Xiao HAN earned her B.A. (Economics) from Jilin University and Ph.D (Education) from the Education University of Hong Kong. She worked for two years as a postdoctoral fellow at Lingnan University and then took the position of Beiyang associate professor at the School of Education, Tianjin University. She will take the position of assistant professor at the Department of International Education, Education University of Hong Kong soon. Her research is trans-disciplinary-based, focusing on critical policy analysis, international/transnational higher education, and Foucault/Bourdieu studies. Her works have been published in international journals such as Journal of Education Policy, Higher Education, and Policy and Society. She can be contacted at:

Managing editor: Xin Fan

Mobility Repertoires: How Chinese Overseas Students Overcame Pandemic-Induced Immobility

Liu, Jiaqi M., and Rui Jie Peng. 2023. “Mobility Repertoires: How Chinese Overseas Students Overcame Pandemic-Induced Immobility.” International Migration Review, Online First.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a near standstill. The burgeoning field of immobility studies provides a fitting framework to account for this mode of involuntary immobility caused by diminished migration capabilities. But we found that immobility studies often focus on a given (im)mobility status, paying insufficient attention to how people traverse different (im)mobility categories. Moreover, the empirical scope of immobility studies is often confined within sending societies, overlooking migrants who have finished initial emigration but face dwindling capabilities of staying in host countries or returning to their home countries. In this recently published article at International Migration Review, we adopt the immobility lens to systematically analyze how international student mobility (ISM) may be compromised or restored.

Under the influence of the “mobilities paradigm”, ISM studies tend to highlight elements of flux and fluidity that stimulate mobility in global education, including the commercialization of Western universities, the diffusion of neoliberal labor policies, and the brokerage by commercial intermediaries. Yet this mobility-focused ISM literature risks losing sight of international students’ recurrent conditions of immobility, whether desired or involuntary. In this article, we address this deep-seated “mobility bias” in the ISM literature by examining how Chinese students in the United States became immobile during the COVID-19 pandemic and how they utilized varied repertoires to retrieve mobility.

This article pushes pushes ISM studies beyond the prevailing “mobilities paradigm” and refocuses on structural constraints that shape student immobility, especially the oft-neglected role of homeland state policies. ISM policies, as we show, are not only characterized by neoliberalism and de-regulation but can also exert far-reaching immobilizing impacts on international students and guard nation-states’ membership and sovereignty boundaries.


We conducted a case study of Chinese students in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. First, we examine migration policies and public discourses in both China and the United States to highlight the immobilizing mechanisms that shaped student migrants’ perceptions of diminished mobility. Specifically, we extracted and examined over thirty pandemic-related policies and public statements made between January 2020 and May 2022 from eight Chinese and US government agencies, including the Civil Aviation Administration of China, the Chinese Embassy in the United States, the US State Department, and the White House.

Second, we conducted semi-structured interviews between January and February 2022 to further analyze how Chinese students abroad made sense of and responded to mobility transitions. Interviewees were Chinese overseas students who pursued bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D. degrees during 2020-2021 in seven public and private universities across the United States. We combined purposive sampling and snowball sampling to recruit in total 20 interviewees distributed relatively evenly across gender, degree levels, and fields of study, and socio-economic statuses.

In data analysis, we used abductive coding methods and developed three levels of codes, including sources of immobility, students’ experiences, and their specific feelings and actions. We found that interviewees tried to overcome immobility by returning to China or staying put in the United States.


Our findings are twofold. First, during the pandemic, China imposed restrictive travel policies, while the public discourses unfavorably generalized returning overseas students as ungrateful, spoiled, and even contaminated. These dynamics made it extremely difficult for Chinese overseas students to return. Furthermore, US travel and visa policies, especially those targeted at Chinese students suspected of the so-called “espionage activities”, also elevated uncertainties regarding reentering and staying in the United States. The political crossfire amid Sino-US tension, coupled with rising sinophobic violence in the United States, also made Chinese overseas students feel unwelcome in the host society and heightened their immobility restrictions. They experience the dilemma of being unable to return to the homeland and simultaneously stranded in a hostile host society, which pushed this previously highly mobile population into immobility.

Second, drawing on in-depth interviews, we discover that Chinese overseas students deployed four sets of tools – online crowdsourcing, virtual intermediary, temporal adaptation, and institutional cushioning – to reclaim mobility.  They deployed the first two mobility repertoires to navigate China’s opaque, burdensome return procedures by leveraging online social media to crowdsource knowledge and expand social networks to achieve a successful return. The latter two mobility repertoires focused on making cognitive adaptations for career and life plans and using university resources to transform immobility into active staying aimed at gaining legal status to transition into the US labor market and society and achieving long-term mobility in the host society. We thus proposed the concept of “mobility repertoires” to capture student migrants’ agential power in navigating unfavorable (im)mobility shifts and carving out new mobility tactics by mobilizing a plethora of resources, techniques, instruments, and infrastructures.

Author’s bio

Rui Jie Peng, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Lafayette College

Rui Jie Peng is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Lafayette College, Pennsylvania. Her research interests include migration, labor, gender, race and ethnicity, and political and transnational sociology. Rui Jie’s current book project is an ethnography of the understudied ethnic Qiang women and their labor practices in a migrant-sending community in Sichuan Province, China. This work offers a new perspective on how China’s pursuit of modernization and global competitiveness capitalizes on ethnic women’s gendered labor in marginalized communities, creates and reinforces gendered and ethnicized differences, and entrenches precarity for ethnic migrants in urban labor markets.

Jiaqi Liu, Ph.D. candidate at the University of California San Diego

Jiaqi Liu is an incoming Assistant Professor of Sociology at Singapore Management University and Postdoctoral Associate at Princeton University. His research lies at the intersection of political sociology, international migration, law, human rights, digital technologies, and Global China. With a focus on China and Chinese diasporas, Liu examines how global migration reshapes the state’s political power over its territory and population. His work has received five Best Article Awards or Honorable Mentions from the American Sociological Association sections on International Migration (twice), Political Sociology, and Human Rights. Liu also holds a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Arizona and Master of International Affairs degree from Sciences Po Paris.

Managing Editor: Tong Meng

Coping Strategies of Failing International Medical Students in Two Chinese Universities: A Qualitative Study

Jiang, Q., Yuen, M., & Horta, H. (2023). Coping Strategies of Failing International Medical Students in Two Chinese Universities: A Qualitative Study. Teaching and learning in medicine, 1–11.


A large number of international medical students are enrolled in Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) programmes in China. The overwhelming majority of these students are from low-income countries in Asia and Africa and are self-supported. These students expend substantial personal and financial effort to come to China to become medical doctors and to contribute to the healthcare workforce in their home countries. However, little is known about their educational success as international students attending Chinese universities. Even less is known about how international medical students who initially fail courses in Chinese medical universities manage to subsequently achieve academic success. Therefore, we explored the coping strategies adopted by international medical students after they fail exams during MBBS training. 

Research methods

This qualitative study was set in two Chinese medical universities in Jiangsu province, China. We adopted a purposive sampling method and interviewed international medical students who had a record of failing courses but successfully passing make-up exams and re-sits. A total of 21 international students from developing countries in Asia and Africa were recruited. Semi-structured face-to-face and virtual (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) interviews were conducted with these students. During the interviews, we encouraged the participants to describe the difficulties they experienced in their courses, the academic challenges they faced, and how they coped with and then overcame the experience of failing initial exams. A thematic analysis approach was adopted to analyse the interview data. 


After failing initial exams, the international medical students in the sample adopted seven coping strategies to help them pass future examinations and recover their academic success: (i) increased help-seeking behaviours; (ii) improved learning motivation and attitudes; (iii) improved learning strategies; (iv) improved exam preparation; (v) utilised library resources; (vi) enhanced time management; and (vii) enhanced English language skills. Of these seven strategies, seeking the help of friends, peers, seniors, and teachers was the strategy reported most frequently. 


We found that failing international medical students are not necessarily passive or lazy learners (as they may commonly be perceived); in fact, they demonstrated resilience and agency to cope with failure. The coping strategies applied by the participants in our study were consistent with the findings of others studies: effective learning strategies and exam preparation (Bin Abdulrahman et al., 2021), social support (Todres et al., 2012), intrinsic learning motivation (Hayat et al., 2018; Wu et al., 2020), the utilisation of campus resources (Banjong, 2015), efficient time management (Foong et al., 2022), and adequate English skills (Su & Harrison, 2016). 

However, unlike other studies that found that failing medical students often fail to seek help from their institutions or peers, the participants in our study reported proactively initiating help-seeking behaviours after failing exams. There are several possible reasons for these different findings. First, the university staff in the establishments in this study may be approachable and willing to help the students. The participants did not mention institutional efforts to proactively support relationship formation and mentorship or institutional support to overcome exam failure, but some mentioned that a few teachers tried to help them as much as possible. Another explanation for the students’ proactive help-seeking behaviour may be the international students’ own cultures. Many South Asian, Southeast Asian, and African cultures are strongly rooted in close social mutual support and interaction (Rabbi & Canagorajah, 2021), and this may have played a positive role in promoting proactive help-seeking behaviours and positive responses from peers, teachers, and seniors. The help-seeking behaviours may also be due in part to the fact that in China, international students in MBBS programmes live and study together in collective learning communities for up to 6 years. Daily interactions with peers, seniors, teachers, and student administrators may foster trust and support among them, making students more willing to seek support and help from these sources. This setup may create a strong sense of community, where teachers, seniors, students perceived as academically successful, and others may serve as role models and mentors for international students, advising and actively supporting them in overcoming exam failure (Arthur, 2017). Another possible reason is that intense academic or career competition may not occur among these students, as they will ultimately leave China and return to their home countries to take local licensing exams or even migrate to a third country.

Social support, particularly seeking help from immediate friends, was stressed by the participants as an aspect of all seven of the coping strategies identified in this study. This highlights the vital role that social support plays in helping international medical students (and likely other international students) with their academic performance (Sandars et al., 2014). A supportive environment that fosters students’ relationships with their peers and teachers can be a positive ‘hidden curriculum’ that is conducive to learning (Sandars et al., 2014). An important finding is the medical students’ use of peer-assisted learning in the form of group study, along with occasional individual tutoring, which has been recognised in the literature as a useful method adopted by students to overcome academic problems (Brierley et al. 2022).


Chinese medical institutions may wish to recognise the resilience and agency of failing international medical students and make positive changes to help them achieve academic success. Institutional efforts could be made to develop contextualised intervention plans that stimulate students’ learning motivation and encourage them to adopt self-help strategies by making useful resources (e.g., help from peers, seniors, and teachers) available. To pre-empt the problem, enrolment could become more selective and could integrate specific English language proficiency criteria, interviews, and entrance exams. Although many international medical students demonstrate resilience and agency, some failing students may require academic remediation.


Arthur, N. (2017). Supporting international students through strengthening their social resources. Studies in Higher Education42(5), 887–894.

Banjong, D. N. (2015). International students’ enhanced academic performance: Effects of campus resources. Journal of International Students5(2), 132–142.

Bin Abdulrahman, K. A., Khalaf, A. M., Bin Abbas, F. B., & Alanazi, O. T. (2021). Study habits of highly effective medical students. Advances in Medical Education and Practice12, 627–633.

Brierley, C., Ellis, L., & Reid, E. R. (2022). Peer-assisted learning in medical education: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Medical Education56(4), 365–373.

Foong, C. C., Bashir Ghouse, N. L., Lye, A. J., Pallath, V., Hong, W.-H., & Vadivelu, J. (2022). Differences between high- and low-achieving pre-clinical medical students: a qualitative instrumental case study from a theory of action perspective. Annals of Medicine54(1), 195–210.

Hayat, A. A., Salehi, A., & Kojuri, J. (2018). Medical student’s academic performance: The role of academic emotions and motivation. Journal of Advances in Medical Education & Professionalism6(4), 168–175.

Rabbi, S., & Canagarajah, S. (2021). Cosmopolitanism and plurilingual traditions: Learning from South Asian and Southern African practices of intercultural communication. In The Routledge Handbook of Plurilingual Language Education (pp. 82-95). Taylor and Francis.

Sandars, J., Patel, R., Steele, H., McAreavey, M., & Association for Medical Education Europe. (2014). Developmental student support in undergraduate medical education: AMEE Guide No. 92. Medical Teacher36(12), 1015–1026.

Su, M., & Harrison, L. M. (2016). Being wholesaled: An investigation of Chinese international students’ higher education experiences. Journal of International Students6(4), 905–919.

Todres, M., Tsimtsiou, Z., Sidhu, K., Stephenson, A., & Jones, R. (2012). Medical students’ perceptions of the factors influencing their academic performance: an exploratory interview study with high-achieving and re-sitting medical students. Medical Teacher34(5), e325-31.

Wu, H., Li, S., Zheng, J., & Guo, J. (2020). Medical students’ motivation and academic performance: the mediating roles of self-efficacy and learning engagement. Medical Education Online, 25(1), 1742964.

Authors’ bio

Dr Qinxu Jiang holds a doctoral degree from the Faculty of Education, the University of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on academic success, life satisfaction, student mobility of international medical students, and medical faculty development. E-mail:

Dr Hugo Horta is an Associate Professor, Director of the Consortium for Higher Education Research in Asia (CHERA), and Director of the MeD programme at the Faculty of Education of the University of Hong Kong. He is also the Chairperson of the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER) and Coordinating-editor of the journal Higher Education. His main topics of interest are academic research processes, outputs and outcomes (including strategic research agendas), academic mobility and academic inbreeding, and career trajectories of PhD holders. E-mail:

Managing editor: Lisa (Zhiyun Bian)

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)

The role of social networks in academic discourse socialization: insights from degree-seeking multilingual international students in China

Li, W., & Gong, Y. (2023). The role of social networks in academic discourse socialization: insights from degree-seeking multilingual international students in China. Multilingua.

Research background

The development of internationalization of higher education has led to numerous studies on the educational experiences of internationally mobile students. However, the study abroad (SA) scholarship predominantly reflects Western voices and over-represents the experiences of white Anglophone students with relatively higher levels of economic privilege, who undertake SA more as “vacations” than for academic purposes (Diao, 2021). This perspective largely neglects the experiences of international students from underprivileged contexts, who pursue a degree abroad due to socioeconomic reasons or a lack of higher education opportunities in their home country. Moreover, the media often depicts international students’ multilingualism with a deficit framing that stigmatizes their linguistic and cultural resources and renders them invisible in their academic pursuits. To address these gaps, our study examined the academic trajectories of degree-seeking multilingual international students from less advantaged backgrounds in China.

What we did

In our study, we conceptualized international students’ academic experience as a process of academic discourse socialization (ADS), where newcomers to an educational context acquire the competence to participate appropriately in the academic discourse and practice in the community (Duff, 2010). For international students, socialization demands more than just mastery of academic skills, it also involves navigating different educational norms and discursive practices, negotiating access to academic expertise, and developing multicompetence for academic interaction (de León and García-Sánchez, 2021; Duff, 2010; Friedman, 2021). To investigate these processes, we adopted a social network perspective and analyzed how the students accessed and mobilized resources within their situated contexts to appropriate certain discursive practices in their quest for community participation and acceptance. We analyzed the compositional and structural characteristics of the international students’ networks as outcomes and generated rich information about their socializing patterns. Additionally, we categorized the students’ networks based on compositional and structural features to interpret and compare the role of different social connections in academic discourse socialization.

What we found

The study resulted in a typology of five networks, which include heterogeneous-sparse network, heterogeneous-dense network, homogeneous-sparse network, homogeneous-dense network, and balanced network. These networks were found to have differential impacts on students’ socialization trajectories, in terms of their capacities to access and negotiate academic norms, channels to academic expertise, and space for multicompetence development. Our findings also reveal that networks with similar characteristics may have divergent impacts. Similar socializing patterns do not necessarily guarantee similarly successful academic discourse socialization for individuals with varying agency and learning needs (Carhill-Poza & Kurata, 2021). The participants’ experiences highlight that their social networks were mediated by a range of individual and sociocultural factors, including personal histories and agency (learning trajectories, mobility experiences), program accommodation, online networking access, and more. While we agree that a balanced network can lead to “more successful integration” and provide individuals with richer opportunities for social and academic development (Gautier, 2019), expecting all students to develop such a sociable profile might seem an unattainable goal, considering the complex interplay of various sociocultural factors and individual efforts to establish, maintain, and expand social connections in students’ academic experiences

Theoretical contributions

Our study, conducted through a social network lens, went beyond linguistic and cultural challenges faced by international students in previous SA research to expose the structural tensions underlying students’ academic trajectories. These include deficient framings of international students, group segregation, unequal distribution of resources, denigration of linguistic and cultural resources, and more.

We demonstrated how social networks can facilitate or constrain the access and use of resources for underprivileged international students, and how they negotiated these social arrangements in their ADS. Our findings challenge deficit framings of international students as incompetent “others” and dismantle divisive discourse that categorizes students based solely on their linguistic and cultural heritage.

Our study enhances the understanding of community and competence in ADS research by highlighting the fluidity, multiplicity, and complexity of academic discourse communities (de León and García-Sánchez, 2021; Friedman, 2021). This complexity is complicated by the inclusion of both real-time relations and online SNS, providing myriad avenues for accessing community belonging and developmental opportunities. Additionally, our study extends the traditional understanding of competence, which involved highly “academic” reading and writing literacies, to incorporate individuals’ strategic use of interactional resources in their network channels, such as multi-national peers, families, and online friends, as they build interpersonal connections and engage with academic interaction.

Practical implications

The academic success of degree-seeking international students is largely dependent on developing in-depth and diverse network connections that provide access to academic resources. To understand the availability of educational resources in students’ situated environments and their engagement with these resources, researchers should direct more attention to the various types of social networks in which international students are embedded, including immediate social networks and virtual networks.

Educational practitioners can encourage and support students to develop concentrated and diversified social relationships during SA by implementing adequately designed follow-up tasks to complement in-class group work and promote sustainable and in-depth student collaboration. Program support could facilitate mingling between students with diverse backgrounds, while inclusive accommodation options and friendly educational policies can help international and local students establish meaningful and reciprocal relationships.

Overall, our study emphasizes the importance of social networks for international students’ academic discourse socialization and highlights the need for more research and practical interventions focused on social networks to promote academic success and social integration for these students.


Carhill-Poza, A., & Kurata, N. (2021). Social Networks in Language Learning and Language Teaching. Bloomsbury Academic.

de León, L., & García-Sánchez, I. M. (2021). Language Socialization at the Intersection of the Local and the Global: The Contested Trajectories of Input and Communicative Competence. Annual Review of Linguistics, 7(1), 421–448.

Diao, W. (2021). Speaking against racism: Stories of successful Chinese L2 learners of color in China. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 18(2), 105–132.

Duff, P. A. (2010). Language Socialization into Academic Discourse Communities. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 30, 169–192.

Friedman, D. A. (2021). Language socialization and academic discourse in English as a Foreign Language contexts: A research agenda. Language Teaching, 1–15.

Gautier, R. (2019). Understanding socialization and integration through social network analysis: American and Chinese students during a stay abroad. In M. Howard (Ed.), Study abroad, second language acquisition and interculturality (pp. 207–236). Multilingual Matters.

Author’s Bio

Wendong (Marco) LI, University of Macau

Wendong (Marco) LI is a doctoral student at the Faculty of Education, University of Macau. His research interests are language and identity, language policy and planning, language socialization, and Chinese as an additional language education. His recent publications appear in journals such as Language, Culture and Curriculum, and Journal of Language, Identity and Education, and Multilingua. He can be reached at

ORCID: 0000-0002-0431-6235

GONG Yang (Frank), University of Macau

GONG Yang (Frank) is an assistant professor and teacher educator for Chinese Education in the University of Macau (Macau SAR, China). Born and raised in Mainland China, he pursued his bachelor’s degree in Chinese Language and Literature and master’s degree in History of Ancient Chinese at Zhengzhou University before attending the University of Hong Kong (Hong Kong SAR, China) to pursue his PhD in Second Language Acquisition and Teacher Education. Frank worked as a language teacher (Chinese, English, & Thai), K-12 education administrator, and Chinese journal editor. His research focuses on how to facilitate international students to promote their language proficiency and optimize their learning experience in learning Chinese as a foreign/second language, with expertise in the areas of sociocultural theory, teacher education and development, learner identity, and student intercultural experiences. He serves on the editorial board of Language, Culture and Curriculum (Taylor & Francis). He was the Faculty’s Outstanding Academic Staff (2020/2021) at the Faculty of Education, University of Macau.


ORCID: 0000-0001-5249-6437.

Managing Editor: Tong Meng