A Case of Double Socialisation in the Social Sciences: The Experience of Chinese Researchers Trained in France

Guiheux, Gilles; Simeng, Wang and Hall, Jonathan*. A case of double socialisation in the social sciences: The experience of Chinese researchers trained in France [online].China Perspectives, No. 4, Dec 2018: 21-30.



Professor Gilles Guiheux, Université de Paris, France

Simeng Wang

Dr Simeng Wang, The French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), France

ABSTRACT: This article discusses the epistemological issues raised by the internationalisation of the social sciences as they affect the case of students from the People’s Republic of China who are trained in social sciences in France and return to pursue their career in higher education and research in China. The aim is to assess whether the epistemological differences between the two academic worlds may give rise to any professional difficulties in this many-sided scientific socialisation. However, although our qualitative enquiry has revealed a number of differences, the problem of the availability of professional opportunities does not seem to have a distinctively epistemological dimension.

KEYWORDS: internationalisation, social sciences, Chinese students, France, China, epistemology, higher education, research.


SUMMARY: This article discusses the epistemological issues in the internationalisation of the social sciences as attested by the case of students from the People’s Republic of China who undergo their training in social sciences in France and return to pursue their career in higher education and research in China. The question of the epistemological differences between Chinese and French social sciences is posed when one considers the paths taken by Chinese students coming to gain their PhD in France and then returning to take up a university position in China. What is at issue here is the double scientific socialization undergone by individuals who have been trained according to the norms of French and Chinese institutions or, as Alain Coulon (1997) put it, who have acquired a double “affiliation”. The paper deals with the conditions of appropriation and re-appropriation of knowledge and new scientific practices, that is, in the apprenticeship modalities specific to France on the one hand, and the conditions for entry into the Chinese scientific labour market on the other. Its aim is to investigate the gaps between the two academic worlds and the existence or non-existence of difficulties caused by this multiple form of scientific socialization: to what extent does a young researcher trained in France find himself on returning to China in a state of tension due to a scientific environment different from his previously acquired knowledge, commitments or skills?

Following some exploratory interviews, an open questionnaire was sent to 29 PhD students and graduates, half of whom have since gone on to take up a university position in China. They spent an average of seven years in France, a large number of them having come to France for a Master’s degree. These residential study periods all took place after the year 2000; and 40 per cent after 2010. A large majority, 22 out of 29, received financial support for their doctoral studies. The questionnaires were circulated through our acquaintanceship network, which explains that nearly half (13 out of 29) are sociologists, but all the human and social science disciplines are nonetheless represented.

Relying on the data from this enquiry, the first part of our article sets out in detail the specific gains from their university training in France. The questions put to our interviewees allow us to identify the specific gains from university training in France, in terms of learning about methods and concepts, the demand for intellectual freedom, and for the assimilation of new categories of thought. The answers reveal the epistemological differences produced by their stay in France in comparison with what they had already learnt in China. The enquiry shows a number of differences due to the academic training abroad and resocialization in migration, in terms of both the place of training and epistemological issues. In France, the interviewees experienced scientific practices quite different from those which they had known in China, opening a lot of room for individual autonomy, and for a fuller acquaintance with intellectual traditions, while at the same time assimilating concepts forged in the European context which for some of them were not directly applicable to the Chinese context. From that point of view, international mobility between the different areas of science is a salutary experience, since it ensures the defamiliarisation of the categories of thought and reminds us that all intellectual production must be seen in its context.

The second section goes back to consider the question of “value” in terms of the Chinese academic job market. Our enquiry has provided us with some aspects of the conditions faced by our interviewees on returning to China and their professional integration. This may well be considered the moment when the value of their abilities acquired in France was put to the test. It throws light on the advantages and the disadvantages of their French university training. The testing demands which these interviewees faced in their professional integration do not seem to have had any specifically epistemological dimension. What they showed was their greater or lesser mastery of the requisite know-how and professional strategies. In sum, the major Chinese universities – although there is no doubt more to be said on the diversity of appointments in relation to the establishments concerned – have aligned their patterns for recruitment, assessment, and promotions with those of the English-speaking world, which gave rise to considerable debate in the early 2000s.

Authors Bio

Professor Gilles Guiheux is Professor at the Université de Paris since 2006. He specializes in economic sociology of contemporary China. He has recently published La République populaire de Chine (Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2018) and co-edited a special issue of the Asian journal of German and European Studies on ‘Labor market formation during high-growth period in China and Japan’ (https://www.springeropen.com/collections/Laborgrowthchinajapan). He has also published numerous articles and contributions in French and English on enterprises and entrepreneurs. He received his Ph.D. from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris).

Dr Simeng Wang is a permanent Research Fellow at The French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). She specializes in Chinese immigration in France and earned her PhD from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. She has recently published Illusions et souffrances. Les migrants chinois à Paris (Paris, Éditions rue d’Ulm, 2017) and co-edited two special issues “Participating in the Chinese world: a youth connected” (in Participations, 2017) and “Chinese Migrations and Generations” (in Hommes & Migrations, 2016). She is co-leading a granted research program “Chinese of France: identifications and identities in transition” (2018-20). She is also an elected member of the executive committee of the French Sociology Association since 2017. For more publications of Simeng, please refer here. Couverture_IllusionsetSouffrances



Mobile Study, Mobile Selves: A 5-year study of female Chinese international students in Australia

A/Prof Fran Martin (Reader in Cultural Studies at The University of Melbourne) is working on a 5-year study of female Chinese international students in Australia, funded by the Australian Research Council as a Future Fellowship (FT 140100222, 2015 – 2020). Mobile Study Mobile Selves

 Australia is among the world’s top destinations for international students, with around 1 in 5 undergraduate students enrolling in Australian universities now being international. China is by far Australia’s largest source of international students, and over half of these students are women.

 A/Prof Martin is conducting in-depth ethnographic research with a core group of 50 female students from China who are studying or have studied in universities in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney. From before their departure from China through to their postgraduate destinations, the study is building a picture of how these young women’s time in Australia affects both their gendered and their national-cultural identity.

 Who are these women when they arrive in Australia – and who do they become?

 The current wave of female educational migration from China reflects both young Chinese women’s mobile, transnational orientation and the increased individualization of their life projects: a sense of “living for oneself” as much as living for others. Motivated by much more than just the pursuit of degrees, these young women are engaged in projects of individualized self-making through their educational journeys. Full of hopes for personal autonomy and cosmopolitan experience, they are as yet unconstrained by the gendered demands of married life while also geographically removed from everyday obligations to natal family. The hypothesis that this project seeks to test through in-depth, longitudinal research is that young Chinese women’s experiences while studying abroad significantly affect their negotiation of the tensions between familial versus individual and national versus transnational identity: two sets of contradictions that centrally define the current generation of Chinese urban women’s sense of identity.

Read, watch and listen to more about A/Prof Martin’s research and publications here: https://mobileselves.org/publications/


Author Bio

Fran Martin

Associate Professor Fran Martin is Reader in Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Fran’s best known research focuses on television, film, literature and other forms of cultural production in contemporary transnational China (The People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong), with a specialization in transnational flows and representations and cultures of gender and sexuality. She is currently working on a 5-year ARC Future Fellowship project that uses longitudinal ethnography to research the social and subjective experiences of young women from China studying and living in Australia (http://www.mobileselves.org). Fran received both her BA (hons) and her PhD from Melbourne University.

Fran is fluent in Mandarin, having begun learning the language in primary school in Australia. She later spent two years studying Chinese language and literature at Beijing Second Foreign Languages Institute and East China Normal University (1989 – 1991). She then spent a further two years researching in Taiwan, including at National Taiwan Central University’s Center for the Study of Sexualities. Prior to joining Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne, Fran lectured in the Cinema Studies program at La Trobe University (2000-2003).

Intimate attitudes, practices and knowledges: Chinese-speaking international students in Australia

In May 2019, The Burnet Institute  and the University of Melbourne in Australia published this report based on their recent survey. The authors of this report are Fran Martin, Can Qin, Caitlin Douglass, Megan Lim and Carol El-Hayek.
An Executive Summary (pp. 4-5) of this report can be found below. To access the report, please click here.

In 2018, University of Melbourne and Burnet Institute conducted the survey Intimate attitudes, practices and knowledges: Chinese-speaking international students in Australia. This study aimed to generate data on Chinese international students’ sexual experiences in order to inform sexual health service provision in Australia. We provide this summary report as a resource and reference for future work in this area.
The survey was open for nine weeks and completed by 723 Chinese-speaking international students. Participants were aged 16 years and over, self-identified as Chinese-speaking international students, and were studying across Australia in high schools, universities, language schools, foundation studies courses, and the Vocational Education and Training (VET) and Technical and Further Education (TAFE) sectors. The majority (96%) of participants were from the mainland of the People’s Republic of China, and almost half (47%) had been in Australia for less than a year. The median age of participants was 22 years and most identified as female (69%).
Sexual attitudes
• Respondents had broadly liberal sexual attitudes, with high acceptance of premarital sex and living together outside marriage.
• Most male participants hold females to a more conservative sexual standard than themselves, especially in relation to multiple sexual partners and casual sex.
• A majority of respondents perceived that males and females bringing condoms on dates was acceptable (74% for women bringing condoms and 72% for women bringing condoms%).
Sexual experiences and behaviours
• Over half of respondents had engaged in genital touching and/or other forms of sexual activity in their lifetime (56%).
• On average, participants were 19 years old the first time they had vaginal or anal intercourse.
• The largest proportion of sexually active respondents reported one sexual partner in their lifetime (50% for vaginal intercourse).
• A majority of respondents reported no sexual partners in Australia (74%).
• Of those who did have sexual partners in Australia, a majority were of the same ethnicity and nationality as the respondents themselves (74%).
• A large minority of respondents reported a change in their sexual and dating behaviours since arriving in Australia (20%), especially increases in sexual activity and engaging in sexual behaviours for the first time.
• Rates of consistent condom use with regular and casual partners were high (59% reported always using condoms with a regular partner, and and 58% with casual partners).
• During participants’ most recent experience of vaginal intercourse, the most common forms of contraception were condoms (79%) and withdrawal (23%).
• 8% of females and 3% of males reported experiencing forced or pressured sexual activity.
• A small percentage of males reported they had paid for sexual services in Australia (9%).
Sex education, knowledge, and health
• Approximately one in three respondents had not received any sex education in high school (31%).
• Content of sex education varied based on location. Human reproduction and HIV/ AIDS were emphasised more in sex education participants had received overseas; while how to use a condom, preventing sexually transmissible infections (STIs), sexual consent and sexual harrassment were emphasised more in Australia.
• On average, participants obtained low scores on our STI knowledge quiz; for example, only 6% knew that many STIs can be easily treated with antibiotics.
• Almost half of participants had visited a doctor or other health service in Australia (47%); however, very few of these had discussed sexual health with an Australian health professional (21%).
• The majority of participants stated that they would use Chinese-language internet sources for general information on sex and relationships (81%); however, over 75% would seek information from an Australian health provider if they thought they had contracted an STI or experienced an unplanned pregnancy.
• Among participants who had ever had penetrative sex, most reported they had never had an STI test in Australia (13%).
• Half of particpants thought they would benefit from more tailored information for international students about sexual health, and 61% thought they would benefit from more tailored information about the Australian healthcare system.
Attitudes toward gender and sexual violence
• In general, respondents disagreed with sexist statements; however, there was a gendered divide in opinions.
• A greater proportion of female than male respondents disagreeed with sexist statements in most instances.
Internet and online pornography use
• Chinese-language online platforms were used far more frequently than English-language platforms.
• A majority of respondents had viewed online pornography, though a higher proportion of males (84%) than females (66%) had done so.
• Participants first saw online pornography by accident at a median age of 13 years and intentionally at 15 years.
• Males first saw online pornography at a younger age than females (12 years compared to 14 years), and viewed it more regularly and frequently.
• Participants most commonly preferred pornography featuring Japanese porn actors (54%).
• Most participants had never sent or received a sexually explicit image of themselves or another person (77%).



Internationalised School Teachers’ Experiences of Precarity as Part of the Global Middle Class in China: Towards Resilience Capital

Poole, A. (2019). Internationalised School Teachers’ Experiences of Precarity as Part of the Global Middle Class in China: Towards Resilience Capital. The Asia-Pacific Education Researcher.

Watch a presentation video based on this paper.

A read-only version of the paper can be accessed here; An earlier draft of the paper can also be accessed via ResearchGate.

Adam Poole

Dr Adam Poole, University of Nottingham, China


The purpose of this study was to explore three International School Teachers’ experiences as part of the Global Middle Class (GMC) in China. This group is worthy of study, as their numbers are increasingly growing, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. However, little has been written about the negative aspects of sustained global mobility or how individuals, as opposed to families, accrue and deploy cosmopolitan capital for social advantage. In-depth interviewing was employed in order to bring into focus the participants’ experiences of prolonged mobility. In addition to highlighting the precarious aspects of being part of the GMC, the study also identified and illustrated a new form of capital that emerged during data collection and analysis, which was labelled ‘resilience capital’. Resilience capital is produced when teachers take a more positive attitude towards negative or precarious experiences, utilising them in order to develop skills, dispositions and endurance which also can be converted into more traditional economic and cultural forms of capital.

Background to the paper

Google the term ‘international teachers’ or ‘international teachers in international schools’ and you will find a plethora of recruitment websites offering the intrepid educator a chance to broaden their horizons whilst being more than adequately remunerated for their tenacity. You are also bound to see images of smiling expatriate teachers, surrounded by smiling students. For many, this remains the popular image of international school teaching. Whilst it cannot be denied that teaching in international schools is an emotionally, spiritually and, it has to be admitted, materially rewarding experience, the popular discourse of international school teaching as an adventure or a process of discovery belies the many struggles that teachers must negotiate during an international sojourn. These struggles include culture shock, a failure to integrate into the host culture, unfair dismissal due to the largely unregulated nature of international schooling, and short-term contracts, usually 2-3 years in length (Poole, 2019a).

These problematic aspects of teaching in international schools contribute to what could be called international school precarity (a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare) and the emergence of a global educational precariat (Bunnell, 2016). The term precariat was initially proposed by Guy Standing (2011) to denote an emerging class of individuals whose working lives are characterised by a lack of security. The precariat is a class of individuals who, due to the consequences of neo-liberal practices such as market flexibility and de-regulation, find themselves without an ‘anchor of stability’ (Standing, 2011).

Recently, Bunnell (2016) has extended Standing’s thesis beyond the temporary or seasonal worker who typically characterises the precariat by proposing that the growing numbers of teachers who choose to teach internationally are increasingly forming a sub-grouping of the precariat. Bunnell’s paper was one of those ‘light bulb’ moments we all experience from time to time when we stumble upon a paper that just ‘clicks’ with us. It put into words something that I had experienced and felt myself as an International School Teacher (IST) but could never quite put into words. Engaging with the paper led to the writing of a previous effort of mine entitled International Education Teachers’ Experiences as an Educational Precariat in China (2019b) which sought to give credence to the notion of International School Teachers as forming an international educational precariat.

However, between writing, revising and publishing the paper, my thinking on the subject had developed considerably. Rather than being completely structural in nature (something out there in the world), precarity is also jointly co-constructed by individuals’ experiences of it which in turn is mediated by frames of reference that encompass lived experiences, identities, emotions, and explicit and tacit beliefs about teaching, politics and the world. Moreover, the notion of International School Teachers forming a sub-group of the precariat can be critiqued for assuming that all teachers who work in international schools are part of the same group. Given that international schools take on various guises (see chapter 1 in Bunnell, 2019 for an overview of these different types), it follows that teachers’ experiences of precarity are also likely to be different. Based on this, I hypothesised that expatriate teachers in more traditional international schools were likely to experience less precarity than teachers in what I have come to call Chinese Internationalised Schools. In contrast to more traditional international schools which tend to privilege western ways of knowing and teaching (Lai, Li & Gong, 2016), Chinese Internationalised Schools are characterised by a confluence of national and international orientations that are often in tension, thereby engendering precarity. For example, expatriate faculty members in Chinese internationalised schools often face barriers in expressing their knowledge and can feel that their teacher identities are marginalised by institutional structures (Poole, in press).

The final step in the paper’s development came in the discovery of a recent study entitled ‘Anglo-Western international school teachers as global middle class: portraits of three families’ by Tarc, Tarc and Wu (2019). This paper was instrumental in enabling me to overcome some of the limitations in my previous paper. Whereas previously I had focused almost exclusively on the negative aspects of international school teaching, Tarc et al.’s paper made me aware that even though teaching in international schools is fraught with precarity, International School Teachers are nevertheless in an advantageous position to accrue cosmopolitan, cultural and social capital with which to strengthen their position as part of the GMC (or in the case of the some of the participants in my work, to become a part of the Global Middle Class). The GMC construct, therefore, has utility in terms of highlighting the strategic and advantageous aspects of teaching in international school. However, a capitals approach tends to preclude the exploration of the more problematic aspects of working in international schools, which the notion of precarity and the precariat brings into focus. Hence the need to mobilise and synthesise these two constructs in order to capture the complexity and ambivalence of teachers’ lived experiences in international schools.

The paper

This leads to my current paper, Internationalised School Teachers’ Experiences of Precarity as Part of the Global Middle Class in China: Towards Resilience Capital (2019c) which draws upon both GMC and precariat constructs. Because the experience of living and working in international schools is inherently ambivalent and complex, it requires a number of lenses in which to bring into focus the complex relationship between the material advantages of internationally teaching and the positive and negative psychological transformations that occur as a result of an extended sojourn abroad.

The advantages of being an Internationalised School Teacher (such as capital accrual and conversion) are generally consistent with findings on other groups who are part of the GMC. However, the disadvantages of Internationalised School Teachers are somewhat different from other studies on the GMC. In addition to short-term contracts and a lack of employment opportunities in the participants’ home countries in common with studies by Poole (2019) and Bunnell (2016), my findings also shed light on the psychological and emotional side-effects of global mobility. The symbolic capital available to Internationalised School Teachers, as well as its exchange potential, are considerably different to that available in more traditional international schools. This suggests that the GMC is itself stratified, and can be broken down further into sub-classes, corresponding to Bunnell’s (2016) notion of International School Teachers as ‘middling’ actors.

In addition to exploring the positive and negative aspects of working in international schools, the paper also proposes the notion of ‘resilience capital’. This concept emerged during data collection, and was completely unexpected. What I began to notice, or perhaps what the data wanted me to notice, was how despite being mired in precarity, the participants not only remained optimistic, but drew upon their negative experiences in order to develop dispositions, skills and competencies that would make them more employable. Resilience capital unites the notions of cosmopolitan capital and precarity, which, as the findings show, are not simply two sides of the same globally mobile coin, but overlap on the level of lived experience. This is captured in the oxymoronic phrase ‘advantageous exile’, which was part of the paper’s working title. Resilience capital is produced when teachers take a more positive attitude towards negative or precarious experiences, utilising them in order to develop skills, dispositions and endurance which also can be converted into more traditional economic and cultural forms of capital.

Future research

As the findings are currently more suggestive than conclusive due to the limited sample size – three participants from two internationalised schools in Shanghai, future research would need to increase the sample size by researching other groups of international teacher from other international/internationalised schools in China and beyond. Future research would also need to ascertain whether resilience capital is a feature specific to members who cruise on the margins of the GMC or whether it is a more general byproduct of global mobility. Finally, research would also need to develop the notion of resilience capital in more detail by exploring other groups of expatriates in educational and non-educational contexts.

Works cited

Author’s work

Poole, A. (2019a), How Internationalised School Teachers Construct Cross-cultural Identities in an Internationalised School in Shanghai, China, Doctoral thesis, University of Nottingham, UK.

Poole, A. (2019b). International Education Teachers’ Experiences as an Educational Precariat in China. Journal of Research in International Education18(1), 60-76.

Poole, A. (2019c). Internationalised School Teachers’ Experiences of Precarity as Part of the Global Middle Class in China: Towards Resilience Capital. The Asia-Pacific Education Researcher.

Poole, A. (in press). Negotiating Intercultural Spaces and Teacher Identity in an Internationalised School in Shanghai. Intercultural Communication Education.

Related work

Bunnell, T. (2016), Teachers in International Schools: A Global Educational ‘Precariat’?, Globalisation, Societies and Education, Vol. 14 No. 4, pp. 543-559.

Bunnell, T. (2019). International schooling and education in the ‘new era’: Emerging issues. Bingley, England: Emerald.

Lai, C., Li, Z., & Gong, Y. (2016). Teacher Agency and Professional Learning in Cross-cultural Teaching Contexts: Accounts of Chinese Teachers from International Schools in Hong Kong. Teaching and Teacher Education54, 12-21.

Standing, G. (2011). The Precariat: The new Dangerous Class, Bloomsbury Academic, London.

Tarc, P., Tarc, M. A. and Wu, X. (2019), “Anglo-Western International School Teachers as Global Middle Class: Portraits of Three Families”, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, pp. 1-16.

Author’s bio

Adam Poole (Ed.D, University of Nottingham, China) is a practitioner-researcher currently based in Shanghai, China. He teaches IBDP (International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme) English A and B at an international school in Shanghai, and has just completed and successfully defended his doctoral thesis which was undertaken with the University of Nottingham, Ningbo. Adam has published a number of articles on international education and the funds of knowledge/identity approach in international peer-reviewed journals, including Mind, Culture and Activity, Research Journal of International Education, Culture and Psychology and The Asia-Pacific Education Researcher. His research interests include international teachers’ experiences in international schools, teacher professional identity, and developing the funds of identity concept. Adam can be reached at zx17826@nottingham.edu.cn and via his profile page at Research Gate.

Guanxi and Social Capital, Mianzi and Cultural Capital: Mature students’ experiences in Chinese Adult Higher Education

Guan, S & James, F. (2019) Staying afloat via guanxi: student networks, social capital and inequality in Chinese adult higher education. British Journal of Educational Studies (https://doi.org/10.1080/00071005.2019.1618788)

Guan, S & Ploner, J. (2019)The influence of cultural capital and mianzi (face) on mature students’ orientation towards higher education in China. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education (https://doi.org/10.1080/03057925.2018.1490999)


Dr Shanshan Guan, East China Normal University

In Guan and James (2019), our study illuminates students’ purposive cultivation of guanxi, or social networks based on continuous exchange of resources, in the context of China’s Adult Higher Education (HE) system. Interviews with 30 students reveal the motivations underpinning their creation of informal ties amongst peers, which they consider to procure beneficial resources for the present and long-term. They deem guanxi with peers to compensate for the isolation they experience. Such experiences, taken in the context of a competitive HE and graduate employment landscape, are then related to social capital. The marriage of the concepts guanxi and social capital is also discussed in light of our analysis.

Social, human, economic, symbolic and cultural forms of capital are regularly paired with HE in the Anglophone literature, though social capital remains the most opaque concept. This, according to Adler and Kwon (2002), is due to the intangibility of its embedded notions such as trust that are not amenable to direct measurement, and the potential quality of social capital in the sense that it is stored in anticipation of reciprocated future exchange of resources. Those deploying social capital in empirical studies (for example, Jensen and Jetten, 2015) attest to its mutability, contending it is not the ‘static property of the individual’ (Field, 2015, p. 16). It remains unclear, however, how its processual elements might be captured empirically. Social capital is a purely analytic construct so unlikely to be referred to directly by research participants. Conversely, the social practice of guanxi would be a term adopted since it is firmly embedded in every day parlance. Our study sheds light upon AHE student interviewees’ purposeful cultivation of guanxi in direct relation to the struggles they articulate at university. The article begins by outlining the political and socio-economic context of Chinese HE and its dual nature. The concepts social capital and guanxi are expounded before research literature connecting them to HE contexts is reviewed. An analysis of interview data follows, elucidating interviewees’ deliberate use of guanxi. The marriage of social capital and guanxi to enhance understanding of inequality in HE is then discussed in light of our qualitative findings.

This study elucidates the self-initiated, processual nature of guanxi in the context of China’s AHE and helps articulate the shortest conceptual bridges between guanxi and social capital. Interview data are limited to students’ perceptions, in terms of their expressed motivations for augmenting guanxi with peers. Therefore, it is not possible to discern the longevity of such ties, or realisation of the benefit students anticipate. Nevertheless, pursuing the relational components, subsumed within social capital distinctively, illuminates how the processes of inaugurating social capital fuse with the norms of a culturally embedded social practice, namely guanxi. Further investigation across national contexts, attuned to both structural and micro-social elements, could confirm social capital’s utility and flexibility as a concept integral to investigating HE inequality internationally.

In Guan and Ploner (2019), we write in the wider context of national growth and investment in higher education in China where more mature students seek to gain access to university education. Considering the far-reaching socioeconomic and political shifts in contemporary China and its higher education sector in particular, this study explores the experience of mature university students in this country and poses the seemingly simple question as to why these students did not pursue higher education when they were school-leavers, but chose to study at a mature age. Drawing on biographical interviews with 20 Chinese mature university students, the paper explores their aspirations, motivations and tribulations behind embarking on higher education. Revisiting Bourdieu’s ideas on ‘inherited’ and ‘acquired’ cultural capital and examining the related Chinese cultural notion of mianzi (‘face’), it is argued that family and social networks are decisive factors in mature students’ orientation towards higher education.

From a theoretical perspective, this small yet revealing study highlights both the strengths and limitations of ‘inherited’ and ‘acquired’ cultural capital as flexible concepts, well-suited and applicable to a wide range of social and cultural settings. However, as it is predominantly applied to Western educational milieus, ‘cultural capital’, in Bourdieusian diction, cannot always do justice to the historical, cultural, political and societal complexities that permeate notions of class, kinship and equality of opportunity in non-Western contexts. To this end, the notion of mianzi or ‘face’ has provided a useful conceptual complement in making sense of mature students’ educational experiences in contemporary China. Whilst considering the pitfalls of cultural universalism when comparing and translating different cultural expressions, future research should not shy away from seemingly unfamiliar philosophical concepts and critical cross-cultural dialogue that may help to shed light on educational inequalities worldwide.

Through biographical interviews with mature students in China, this study has produced some insightful findings as to how these individuals negotiate their access to, and participation in, higher education. Students’ narratives clearly show that they tread a fine line between family expectations, social stigmatisation, educational segregation and their personal aspirations as ‘future selves’. Although the biographical method is not without flaws in terms of generalisability, it has generated valid findings that allow for a close reading of individual motivations whilst highlighting a particular set of experiences shared by a wider group of participants. The limitation of the biographical approach, at least in this study, relates to the limited number of participants in two universities in a major city in East China. However, it is hoped that the rich evidence gathered in this study, will stimulate further research into the hitherto much- overlooked area of AHE in China. For example, future studies could envisage how increasing socioeconomic disparities between east and west, urban and rural affect (adult) higher education in the country today, or further explore the role that gender, ethnicity and, indeed, age play in forging educational and career-related aspirations among mature students.


Author Bio

Dr. Shanshan Guan now is working at East China Normal University as a postdoctoral researcher since October 2018. Her current research focuses on Chinese adult students’ study experience in higher education and how the stratification between adult higher education system and regular higher education generates inequality to adult students in China. She was awarded her PhD degree from University of Hull in August 2018. Her doctoral research focused on mature students’ study experience in higher education in both England and China and investigated how different higher education systems affect mature students’ study experience.