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)

Social inequality in a ‘hyper-mobile’ society: intra-national mobilities and formal education in China

Mulvey, B., & Li, B. (2023). Social inequality in a ‘hyper-mobile’society: intra-national mobilities and formal education in ChinaJournal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 1-19.

Background: mobility for education in China

The aim of this paper is to introduce a novel perspective on the relationship between social class, formal education, and mobility to the Chinese context. China is a ‘hyper-mobile’ society with a high level of social inequality, making it a useful case to examine this connection. A notable example of work on this topic is that which explores ‘circuits of schooling’ in various contexts (e.g. Ball et al.,1995). However, except for the limited body of work on circuits of schooling, sociology of education as field has largely overlooked the importance of movements of people for various reasons. In this study we advocate a focus on the socially classed nature of mobility, conceived of as a resource in itself. As such, in this study we seek to highlight how individuals from a range of social class factions have utilised spatial mobility as means achieving social mobility or reproducing social status.

Geographical inequalities in educational resources between different regions, rural and urban areas, and even within areas (Wu et al., 2018; Young & Hannum, 2020) are crucially important factors necessitating educational mobility in China. The relationship between educational mobilities and educational inequalities in China has been explored, albeit indirectly, through two bodies of literature that have thus far remained separate. At one end of the mobility spectrum are families with Urban household registration (hukou) who employ residential relocation as a means of accessing educational resources associated with social reproduction. At the other end of the spectrum, rules around household registration also create difficulties for rural families that have migrated to urban areas which are relatively well documented in existing literature.

We argue that it is necessary to focus explicitly on processes of mobility in themselves, as a means of making sense of inequalities in the higher education system, as well as, more broadly, the mechanisms through which the significant spatial inequalities present in China are maintained.

The research

The data presented are from a larger research project focusing on the relationship between education and mobility in China. We conducted in-depth semi structured interviews (n=40) with final year master’s degree students at prestigious university located in a metropolitan city in southern China. Based on a screening questionnaire, we recruited  students from three class factions, rather than the more common two, in order to capture experiences within the upper-middle-class, which is distinguished within the literature on class and education in China (e.g. Goodman, 2016). The factions were as follows: non-affluent (n=14), lower-middle-class (n=13), and upper-middle-class (n=13).

Key findings

Overall, the paper seeks to emphasise how mobility for education now occupies a central position in the practices of families from a remarkably wide array of backgrounds. But at the same time, the mobility trajectories of the young people interviewed for this study varied markedly along lines of social class. The purpose of this paper is to highlight the importance of ‘motility’, or the field of possibilities relative to movement, and use of them, as a potentially important factor contributing to educational inequalities in China. It explores how non-affluent families tend to have low motility, in the sense that the range of options for mobility were extremely restricted. These families tended to be highly mobile, but had a restricted range of mobility options. These narratives were contrasted with the more strategic relocation of middle-class families. Education related mobility strategies often involved mobility between urban areas, or from peripheries to centres of smaller cities. These movements served as a means of competing in the context of ‘social congestion’ at all levels of the Chinese education system. Upper-middle-class families, in contrast, displayed high levels of motility, which ultimately meant they experienced both mobility and immobility as freedom.

The central argument is not only that the experiences of intra-national mobility outlined here are different. It is also that the decision-making processes of all families take place within the same ‘gyroscope-like’ society. Thus, the familial mobility decisions of families at the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ of the kinetic hierarchy are inevitably bound up in the same logic. Overall, the contribution of this study is to highlight the intertwinement of the ‘politics of mobility’ (Cresswell, 2010) and the politics of education. We propose that vastly different levels of motility as a form of capital between social groups is potentially an important factor, worthy of further exploration, contributing to the growing inequality of educational opportunity in China (Gruijters et al., 2019).


Ball, S. J., Bowe, R., & Gewirtz, S. (1995). Circuits of Schooling: A Sociological Exploration of Parental Choice of School in Social Class Contexts. The Sociological Review, 43(1), 52–78.

Cresswell, T. (2010). Towards a Politics of Mobility. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28(1), 17–31.

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, 5(2), 214–240.

Wu, Q., Edensor, T., & Cheng, J. (2018). Beyond Space: Spatial (Re)Production and Middle-Class Remaking Driven by Jiaoyufication in Nanjing City, China. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 42(1), 1–19.

Young, N.A.E., and Hannum, E. (2020). Childhood Inequality and Schooling in China’s Cities. In Clothey, R., Dilworth, R. (Eds) China’s Urban Future and the Quest for Stability. McGill-Queen’s Press.

Author‘s bio

Dr Benjamin Mulvey, University of Glasgow

Benjamin Mulvey is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Glasgow. He was previously a Research Grants Council Post-doctoral Fellow at the Education University of Hong Kong, and a Visiting Researcher at the University of Sydney and University College London. His work is interdisciplinary, and is broadly related to the sociology of international higher education, with a particular focus on China. It has been published in journals across the fields of education studies, sociology, and geography. These include Higher Education, Sociology, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, and British Journal of Sociology of Education, among others.

Boya Li, Western Sydney University

Boya Li is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University. Her researcher interests lie in migration, transnationalism and Chinese studies. Her PhD project explores national identifications and civic engagement of young PRC-born migrants in Sydney. She has worked as a research assistant on several projects in the field of international higher education in Hong Kong, international student mobility in the UK, and diversity and multiculturalism in cultural institutions in Australia.

Managing editor: Tong Meng