This is the latest in a series of BERA2013 related blog posts – the title of the conference paper is: 

‘Who am I? Identity construction of mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong universities’.

As a novice educational researcher struggling to grapple with Bourdieu’s theoretical tools in my empirical research, I find it necessary to briefly introduce my personal encounter with his theories. My initial encounter was somewhat compromised by his challenging writing style and his arguable reluctance in offering explicit definitions of his conceptual tools. Indeed, it was not until I read his Sketch for a Self-analysis, in which he employs his theories to analyse his own lived experience, that I started to identify strongly with him as an individual. Such identification brought me to view his theories and the application of his theories in a new light. The following is what I wrote after I finished reading the book:

My eyes went moist when I read this book – a rare occasion for me. Although not strictly an academic book, it is much more powerful and touching than any other academic books I have read. I guess I identify with his profound sense of ambivalence caught between the academic institutions which require a sense of submission and an eagerness to please and to be recognized, and his innermost thirst to revolt and refuse the rule(s) of the game. Such tensions and contradictions seem to be presupposed and constitute his ‘cleft habitus’ which is marked by a strong discrepancy between his academic excellence and low social origin.

I came to understand Bourdieu’s constant struggle to reconcile the disjuncture between his original habitus and the new field he was to excel in. Such a mismatch between habitus and the field, I argue, principally led to his ‘cleft habitus’. His experience reminds me of my long-lasting quest to answer the question ‘who am I?’ ever since I started my cross-border higher education pursuit in Hong Kong, which, since its reversion to China in 1997, has become an attractive higher education destination for mainland Chinese students. Nevertheless, the linguistic, cultural and ideological differences between Hong Kong and mainland China present an alienating field for mainland Chinese students like myself to adapt to. Indeed, throughout these years, no matter where I went, whenever I was asked who I am or where I am from, I got tongue-tied. Am I from HK or am I from mainland China? Am I a hybrid of both entities? It seems that neither being a Mainlander Chinese nor a Hong Konger can adequately represent who I am or what I have been through. The ways I perceive myself and the stories I tell about myself have shifted along these years, as I get more and more acquainted with Hong Kong and the rest of the world while farther and farther away from mainland China, both psychologically and physically. No matter what, common to all the stories I tell about myself is a sense of perpetual ambivalence. I began to make better sense of my own experience, or indeed, the experience of other students like me, when I employed the concept of a ‘cleft habitus’.

Bourdieu’s application of theories in his self-analysis thus serves as a crucial starting point for me to conceptualise my own research context. Research has shown that the difficulties mainland Chinese students face in their cross-border higher education pursuits are less to do with the problems of insufficient cultural sensitivity, discrimination and homesickness that are commonly faced by international sojourning students (Ward, Bochner, & Furnham, 2001). Rather, such difficulties seem to be more to do with their self-identity as outsiders from a different culture and a different socioeconomic and academic group (Lam, 2006). Indeed, having been brought up and educated in mainland China, these students are likely to possess a ‘cleft habitus’ that is different from their Hong Kong counterparts (Li & Bray, 2007; Xie, 2009). Being placed in a field that is not only different from home but also distinct from other popular overseas destinations such as the UK and the US, these students are facing unprecedented and unique ‘disjunctures’ which can well mar their sojourning experience. In this sense, Bourdieu’s theoretical tools (i.e. field, habitus and capital) seem relevant in my attempt to grapple with the disjuncture caused by such a mismatch between the habitus and the new field in which these students’ identities can be constructed, reformed, ‘transformed’ or reconfigured.

In my BERA presentation (Tuesday 3rd September 2013, ECR Parallel Session 2), I will discuss how Bourdieu’s field, habitus and capital are operationalised through my analysis of participants’ weblog entries and auto-biographical accounts. I shall also offer an initial analysis of pilot interview data in which participants’ salient sense of urgency, contested openness and self and other categorisations are in full play – Cora Lingling Xu


Bourdieu, P. (2007 [2004]). Sketch for a self analysis (R. Nice, Trans.). Cambridge: Polity.

Lam, C. M. (2006). Reciprocal adjustment by host and sojourning groups: Mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong. In M. Byram & A. Feng (Eds.), Living and studying abroad: research and practice (pp. 91-107). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Li, M., & Bray, M. (2007). Cross-border flows of students for higher education: Push-pull factors and motivations of mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong and Macau. Higher Education, 53, 791-818.

Ward, C. A., Bochner, S., & Furnham, A. (2001). The psychology of culture shock (2nd ed.). Hove: Routledge.

Xie, C. X. (2009). Mainland Chinese students’ adjustment to studying and living in Hong Kong. PhD, University of Leicester.