Revisiting my journey to a critical sociology of Chinese education through Bourdieu’s bequest

Michael Picture

Dr Guanglun Michael Mu 

The transmission and transformation of dispositions and capitals across generations and geographies is an enigmatic problem. Concomitant with this problem are challenges of disparity and diversity, of distinction and discrimination, of parity and partiality, and of prerogatives and pejoratives. In an educational context, these challenges are indeed real and persistent. To take up the challenges, I often have recourse to Bourdieu’s relational, reflexive sociology to ponder over power, politics, and participation in education and socialisation. To realise the full value of the epistemic tools bequeathed by Bourdieu, I employ ‘field analysis’ and ‘participant objectivation’ to sociologise myself. Over the years, I have studied and worked, transnationally, in different sociocultural and geopolitical contexts of China, Canada, and Australia. My dispositions and positions have changed, but one thing remains constant: I am Chinese by birth. Such a biological fact and a cultural heritage, and sometimes a political stance, consciously or unconsciously, come to shape my academic habitus – a habitus that manoeuvres my scholastic and social engagement with Chinese young people struggling to survive and thrive in transborder or/and transcultural contexts. Diasporic Chinese constitute one group of these young people and floating children and left-behind children constitute another. In this essay, I introduce to the reader my books about these young people. I also take advantage of this introduction to revisit my journey to a critical sociology of Chinese education through Bourdieu’s bequest.

Twelve years ago, a Chinese Australian young fellow allowed me a unique opportunity to approach his inside world – a secret, subtle microcosmos that has never ever been touched before: “I am Australian but I look Chinese; I look Chinese but I can’t speak Chinese”. His very predicament prompted me to mull over the tensions around language and identity of Chinese diaspora. Such tensions later became the empirical foundations of my first book (Mu, 2016). Working with over 200 Chinese Australian young people, I grappled with the complex entanglement of their habitus of Chineseness and linguistic dispositions within the immediate fields of family, school, community, and workplace. My affective and academic engagement with Chinese diaspora and Pierre Bourdieu urged me to write another book (Mu & Pang, 2019). This work involves hundreds of Chinese Australian and Chinese Canadian young people and comes to grips with their racialised and gendered body, limitations and liberations around their socialisation and education, as well as their resilience process in the face of structural constraints. The book is a valorous attempt, however polemical and rudimentary, to develop a critical sociology of Chinese diaspora. The intention is to spark questions of cultural, racial, and social identification and affiliation, of lineage and identity, of story and memory, and of participation, representation, and socialisation in multicultural societies challenged by complex and difficult issues of diversity, inclusivity, and citizenship.

Parallel to my work on Chinese diaspora in the global, multicultural contexts is my interest in floating children and left behind children in the internal migration context in China. My first book in this regard (Mu & Hu, 2016) reports on the potholes and distractions within the living and schooling of these children. Yet the book shifts from the deficit model and ‘do-gooder’ approach to a transformative and strength-based perspective that recasts vulnerabilities into opportunities. It invites a recognition of the qualities of left-behind children and floating children, and proposes to reshape the taken-for-granted social structures within dominant institutions that often arbitrarily misrecognise the rural dispositions of these children. This ushers in my development of a sociology of resilience to structural constraints and my recent book on a Bourdieusian analysis of the resilience process of floating children and left-behind children (Mu, 2018). Working across policy documents, ethnographic interviews, and a large-scale quantitative dataset, I propose that resilience is a process of socialisation that reshapes a particular social arena (field) where young people are enculturated into a system of dispositions (habitus) and endowed with a set of resources (capital) required for rebounding from adversities and performing well across multiple domains – physical, psychological, social, and educational.

At the end of the essay, I provide a brief introduction to my edited book “Bourdieu and Chinese Education” (Mu, Dooley, & Luke, 2019). In this volume, a group of scholars in China, Australia, Canada, and the USA dialogue with Bourdieu and raise persistent questions not only about issues of equity, competition, and change in Chinese educational policy and practice, but also about the value, venture, and violence in using established Western intellectual frameworks for analysing Chinese education. The book makes a collective call for a ‘reflexive reappropriation’ of Bourdieu’s sociology in the study of Chinese education. Drawing on this collective wisdom, I conclude the essay with a research agenda that may spark debates on:

  • the attractions and contradictions of using Western social scientific models, frameworks, and worldviews for studying Chinese education;
  • the germinating development of contemporary Chinese habituses in response to academic capitalism and edubusiness;
  • the everyday lived experience, resilience, and conundrum of Chinese students, parents, and educational professionals in the ordinary and extraordinary fields of home, school, and community; and,
  • the status and education of non-Han, ethnic minorities in the context of increasingly visible multicultural politics and growing doxic urgency for social cohesion and nation-state building in rising China.



Mu, G. M. (2016). Learning Chinese as a Heritage Language: An Australian perspective. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Mu, G. M. (2018). Building resilience of floating children and left-behind children in China: Power, politics, participation, and education. London: Routledge.

Mu, G. M., Dooley, K., & Luke, A. (Eds.). (2019). Bourdieu and Chinese education: Inequality, competition, and change. New York: Routledge.

Mu, G. M., & Hu, Y. (2016). Living with vulnerabilities and opportunities in a migration context: Floating children and left-behind children in China. Rotterdam: Sense.

Mu, G. M., & Pang, B. (2019). Interpreting the Chinese diaspora: Identity, scialisation, and resilience according to Pierre Bourdieu. London & New York: Routledge.




Author Biography

Guanglun Michael Mu is Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology. His current project on culture, class, and resilience is funded by the Australian Research Council ($418,489.94). Michael draws on theories from sociology of education (e.g., Bourdieu’s reflexive sociology) as well as mixed methods and quantitative approaches (e.g., meta-analysis, factor analysis, path analysis, process analysis, structural equation modelling, and social network analysis) to probe and prod research problems evolving from three areas: negotiating Chineseness in a diasporic context; building resilience in (im)migration and multicultural contexts; and developing teacher professionalism in an inclusive education context. Michael’s publications include five scholarly books and over 40 scholarly papers.

Trends in educational mobility: How does China compare to Europe and the United States?

Gruijters, R. J., Chan, T. W., & Ermisch, J. (2019). Trends in educational mobility: How does China compare to Europe and the United States? Chinese Journal of Sociology


Dr Rob Gruijters  Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge


Despite an impressive rise in school enrolment rates over the past few decades, there are concerns about growing inequality of educational opportunity in China. In this article, we examine the level and trend of educational mobility in China, and compare them to the situation in Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA. Educational mobility is defined as the association between parents’ and children’s educational attainment. We show that China’s economic boom has been accompanied by a large decline in relative educational mobility chances, as measured by odds ratios. To elaborate, relative rates of educational mobility in China were, by international standards, quite high for those who grew up under state socialism. For the most recent cohorts, however, educational mobility rates have dropped to levels that are comparable to those of European countries, although they are still higher than the US level.

While we observed stable mobility rates in Europe and the USA (e.g. persistent inequality), in the Chinese case, we observe a sustained increase in inequality of education outcomes. In the comparative literature on educational inequality, which now covers most of the industrialised world, such a finding is highly unusual, particularly during periods of robust economic growth and educational expansion (e.g. Blossfeld et al., 2016; Pfeffer, 2008). The reason for this finding should be sought in China’s recent history, that is, the transformation from a relatively egalitarian socialist system (1949–1978) to a highly unequal market system (1978–present). Previous studies confirm that advantaged groups have benefited disproportionately from the educational reforms and expansion that followed the market transition (Deng and Treiman, 1997; Zhou et al., 1998). We show that inequality increases even further for the ‘second market generation’, who came of age during the early 1990s, mirroring broader increases in socioeconomic inequality during this period (Xie and Zhou, 2014).

This finding, which is consistent with other recent research (Wu, 2010; Yeung, 2013), is probably due to a combination of factors. First, market-based educational reforms, such as the introduction of tuition fees for senior high school and college in the 1990s, increased the importance of parental resources for children’s educational success. In addition, increasing economic returns to education strengthened the correlation between parental education and other aspects of social origin (especially income) over time. Second, the decentralisation of educational funding in the 1980s increased regional disparities in the availability and quality of schools. As a result, children from rural and poorer backgrounds tended to leave the education system before they reached the more advanced educational stages. In addition, there has been long-standing discrimination against people with rural hukou. All these factors have led to a situation in which educational expansion at the tertiary level mainly benefits already privileged urban residents (Tam and Jiang, 2015). Any effort to counter the trend of rising educational inequality in China should, therefore, focus on reducing attrition and improving access to quality education in rural and less developed areas.

Bio: Rob Gruijters

I am a University Lecturer affiliated with the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Prior to joining Cambridge in September 2018, I worked as a postdoctoral researcher in Oxford and Berlin. I am a sociologist by training and have worked with the German Development Cooperation (GIZ) in Ghana before starting my Phd. My current research engages with the causes and consequences of the ‘global learning crisis’, with a focus on Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. I am also interested in the effect of China’s market transition on educational and economic inequality.

For more information and publications see:

Scholarship Opportunity: For residents of mainland China and Hong Kong–Warwick MA Global Education and International Development

There is an exciting opportunity for China and Hong Kong residents to apply for a scholarship to enrol on MA Global Education and International Development in the Centre for Education Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. 

Scholarship applicants should be passionate about education and global issues and we are looking for high quality students who can justify and give evidence for their interest and ambition regarding global education.

The scholarships are worth £10,000 each and the deadline is 1st June 2019 and the entry point for the course is Sept/Oct 2019. The course is 1 year. Scholarship applicants also need to submit an application for the MA course.

Information on the exciting MA course is here.

Information on the scholarships is here.

The application form is here.

What previous Chinese students have said about this MA:

  • “I loved the core module; the module taught me many related theories and the basic background, which was useful for the further study of the global education. The placement module covered many interesting topics and useful skills, and was very good experience for further work.”
  • “The best aspect of MA GEID was the placement. I have improved my communication skills and it was beneficial for me to work with colleagues and managers. I recommend this course because it is not only about learning academic knowledge but also accessing work experience.”


If interested, please contact Dr Emily F. HendersonAssistant Professor of International Education and Development, Centre for Education Studies, University of Warwick

How internationalised school teachers construct cross-cultural identities in an internationalised school in Shanghai, China

Poole, A. (2019). How internationalised school teachers construct cross-cultural identities in an internationalised school in Shanghai, China. Unpublished thesis: University of Nottingham, Ningbo.

Adam Poole

Dr Adam Poole, University of Nottingham, Ningbo



My doctoral thesis (Poole, 2019) explored how four internationalised school teachers constructed cross-cultural teacher identities in an internationalised school in Shanghai, China. The topic of international teacher identity is of significance to practitioners, researchers and school leaders alike as there is growing consensus that teacher identity and its construction is not only a vital part of developing a professional self, but is a complex, open-ended life-long project, involving cognitive, affective and, increasingly in a globalising world, intercultural dimensions. However, the international education literature continues to position the international teacher as certified (qualified) and Anglo-Western in nature. However, whilst most of the participants in my study were from the ‘West’, they were generally not certified teachers, nor was English their first language. Yet they identified themselves as international educators. One of the aims of the study, therefore, was to problematise the typologies of international schools and international teachers as types by offering a reconceptualisation of both in the form of the ‘internationalised school’ and the ‘internationalised school teacher’ respectively. A number of papers of mine, such as Interpreting and implementing the IB Learner Profile in an internationalised school in China (2018), I am a mercenary now (2018), and I am an internationalising teacher (2019) elaborate on these constructs in more detail.


In order to address the issue above and to bring into focus the complexity of internationalised teachers’ lives, the concept of teacher identity was explored from postmodern, modernist, and cross-cultural traditions, leading to an integrative framework that conceptualised identity construction as experiential and discursive in nature, arising out of personal, professional and cross-cultural domains of experience, and articulated in the form of Gee’s (2014) notion of Discourse (narratives) and discourse (language features). Commensurate with identity as discursive in nature, narrative inquiry was employed as a guiding methodology, with semi-structured interviews utilised as the main instrument for data collection.  Data for the study were collected over a two-year period, with interview data being collected in the first year, and follow-up interviews and supplemental data collected in the second year. An enhanced form of member-checking was employed that ensured that data collection, transcription, analysis, and the writing up of findings proceeded in a semi-grounded and recursive manner, with participants being given opportunities to expand or excise data or interpretations that did not resonate with their lived experiences.


My findings showed that the participants tended to draw upon similar narratives and discursive features in order to construct their identities as international teachers, yet they also mobilised narrative and discourse in an idiosyncratic manner, based on personal, professional and cross-cultural experiences. Another significant finding was that cross-cultural experiences did not necessarily lead to increased intercultural understanding as might be expected after an extended sojourn abroad. Rather, the participants mobilised cross-cultural experiences in order to reinforce existing beliefs that were western-centric in nature or to bid for recognition as ‘western’ teachers in a Chinese school.


Of most relevance to the notion of international teacher (im)mobilities was how the participants narrated their cross-cultural experiences in terms of the accumulation of a range of capitals, including linguistic, cultural and social. Recently, researchers have started to explore international teachers’ experiences as part of the Global Middle Class, a burgeoning construct that is taken to refer to a well-educated, economically and culturally resourced segment of the middle-class population (Yemini, Maxwell & Mizrachi, 2018) who due to operating on a global scale (Ball & Nakita, 2014) have accumulated a range of cosmopolitan sensibilities and, more critically, cultural and social capital (Weenink, 2008). For example, my own research found that international school teachers’ ability to speak English fluently was a flexible form of linguistic capital that facilitated teacher mobility and also increased in value both inside and outside of non-English speaking countries, such as China, where English related programmes such as the International Baccalaureate Programme have become popular (Poole, 2019). However, as my thesis found, the dynamic nature of capital conversation is by no means universal. Whilst certain groups of the GMC (such as Anglo-Western international teachers) may possess such dynamic capital, others, such as non-Anglophone, non-Western international school teachers, possess different forms of capital that are less dynamic, thereby resulting in a paradoxical situation of advantage and precarity. Despite being a part of the global precariat, the participants’ identities as international teachers became a form of cultural capital that increased in value in the cultural, symbolic and physical movement from Global North to the Global South, but not the other way. Within the context of internationalised schools in the Global South, teachers’ identity-capital, which can be depleted or have limited exchange value in the Global North, increases substantially in value.


Future directions


Having completed my doctoral research and successfully defended my thesis, I plan to develop the findings above in the form of two research trajectories.


International school focus


The first, and more specific, strand will continue to develop my research into the lives and experiences of teachers in international schools, with a focus on what I term ‘internationalised’ schools’, but utilise the findings for other educational contexts, such as intercultural schools and local/national schools. Given the effects of globalisation (the spread of culture via the internet, increased employer precarity, increased migration and mobility), the line between national and international is becoming increasingly blurry. Therefore, the experiences of teachers in internationalised schools are not only generalisable to the international school context, but have implications for schools the world over, including intercultural schools and local schools. Within my research focus, these implications are centred of teacher development, particularly in terms of professional development that utilises the construct of teacher professional identity in order to foster greater criticality and interculturality (that is, critical interculturality).


I am currently working on two papers that challenge and develop the concepts currently used in the field of international education. The first seeks to add to the typology of international school teachers by drawing upon data from my doctoral research in order to propose a type of international school teacher who sits somewhere between international teachers as traditionally defined (qualified, native, and Anglophone) and so-called ‘backpacker’ teachers who are taken to be unqualified and are often non-native speakers. This research can be read in the form of a working paper, entitled International Education Teachers’ experiences as an educational precariat in China which explores the ambivalent nature of internationalised school teachers as simultaneously part of the GMC and also in a state of precarity. It can also be heard in the form of a presentation, entitled I am a mercenary now which was delivered as part of the Asian Conference on Education, 2018.


The second paper offers a new construct in the form of the ‘internationalised’ school. The notion of the internationalised school in the Chinese context is similar to what Hayden (2006) calls Type C non-traditional international schools, in that they cater to ‘aspirant indigenous elites’ (Lauder, 2007), but differs in respect to asymmetries of power which, in contrast to local schools and more traditional international schools, are typified by organisational narratives that are hierarchical and local in nature, thereby problematising and marginalising ‘western’ expatriate teachers’ professional identities. This internationalised school construct will then be used to inform the second strand of research.


Intercultural school focus


The second broader strand of research seeks to take the findings from the first research strand, and apply it to contexts beyond China and the international education sector. My main focus is to problematise and develop the teacher professional identity concept by showing how cross-cultural mobility is an essential modality of experience for individuals in the twenty-first century that should be analysed in addition to personal and professional experiences, which continues to form the basis of the teacher identity construct (Schutz et al., 2018). My aim is to construct an intercultural teacher identity framework that could be used as the basis for developing greater interculturality in teachers and educational actors broadly conceived. A working paper, entitled Interculturality as a component of teacher professional identity: Implications from the international school context sets out these ideas in more detail.


This research is significant because to date, teacher professional identity continues to be understood in somewhat parochial terms, reflecting an assumption that educational contexts are defined in terms of place rather than space. As researchers have pointed out, increasingly in a globalised world, classrooms are becoming ‘contact zones’ (Pratt, 1991) or ‘transnational spaces’ (Hayden, 2011), in which students and teachers from different nationalities meet and often clash. Therefore, teachers need to develop a sense of (critical) interculturality in relation to their professional identities in order to accommodate the realities of globalisation and, in relation to a social justice agenda, develop sensibilities and strategies for inclusivity.


Selected reading


Author’s work


Poole, A. (2019). I am an internationalising teacher: A Chinese English teacher’s experiences of becoming an international teacher. International Journal of Comparative Education and Development21(1), 31-45.


Poole, A., & Huang, J. (2018). Resituating funds of identity within contemporary interpretations of perezhivanieMind, Culture, and Activity25(2), 125-137.


Poole, A. (2017). Interpreting and implementing the IB Learner Profile in an internationalised school in China: A shift of focus from the ‘Profile as text’ to the ‘lived Profile’.  Journal of Research in International Education16(3), 248-264.



International teachers’ experiences in international schools


Bunnell T (2016) Teachers in international schools: a global educational ‘precariat’? Globalisation, Societies and Education, 14(4), 543-559.


Savva M (2017) The personal struggles of ‘national’ educators working in ‘international’schools: an intercultural perspective. Globalisation, Societies and Education15(5), 576-589.


Tarc, P., Mishra Tarc, A., & Wu, X. (2019). Anglo-Western international school teachers as global middle class: portraits of three families. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 1-16.


Author’s short bio:

Dr 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 Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, Mind, Culture and Activity, Research Journal of International Education, Frontiers of Education in China, and International Journal of Comparative Education and Development. 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

CfP: ISSCO conference – Nov 2019 – Jinan Uni. – Panel on education and research mobility between China and Europe

Dear colleagues,

I am organising a panel on education and research mobility between China and Europe for the upcoming 10th International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas (ISSCO) conference (see attached for the CFP). Depending on the paper abstracts, I may have it focus on one of the following themes:

  1. Chinese student and/or academic mobility to Europe – papers can focus on issues during the study/research period, or afterwards
  2. The role of the Chinese state, institutions and people (staff and students) in the development of Chinese transnational education in Europe – examples including the establishment of Chinese university branch campuses, Confucius Institutes, other Chinese language schools)

If there is sufficient interest, it might also be possible to organise a panel on each of the above.

I hope that some of you would be interested in joining me. Please send me ( a short description of your paper topic by end of next week (15.02.) if you do.

Feel free to forward my call to colleagues you know who might be interested. If you have suggestions regarding whom I can approach, please let me know. Thank you in advance!

There will be no registration fee, but all conference participants will pay for their own transportation and accommodation. More information on the conference can be found here:

Hoping to hear from some of you soon!

Best new year wishes,

Maggi Leung

Dr. Maggi W.H. Leung | Associate Professor & Coordinator of International Development Studies Master (IDSM) Programme | Department of Human Geography and Spatial Panning, Utrecht University | Princetonlaan 8A | Room 6.36 | 3584 CB Utrecht | The Netherlands | Phone: T. (+31) 30 253 4182 |