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Who am I? Bourdieu, cleft habitus and student identity construction

Published in Research Students, Self and Identity by Cora Lingling Xu on June 10, 2013

(c) Sam Davis

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.

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About the author /

Cora Lingling Xu is a PhD student at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. She is an assistant editor of the Journal of Trainee Teacher Educational Research. She also serves as a peer reviewer for Educate: The Journal of Doctoral Research in Education. Her research interests include education inequalities and identity construction, especially in higher education in the greater China area. Her Personal Research Blog can be found at:

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  1. Yiota Gkofa

    Dear Cora,
    I find your approach very interesting and useful for me as I employ the same theoretical framework. Thank you for mentioning the Sketch for a Self-analysis, which I should read.
    I am looking forward to your BERA presentation!
    Best wishes

    • Cora Lingling Xu

      Dear Yiota,
      I am glad that you find it useful. See you at the BERA conference!

      Best wishes,

  2. Flora Liu

    Hi Cora~
    Thanks for sharing this post with me! I don’t know much about Bourdieu’s theory, but I do find your research topic interesting and meaningful from the perspective of a overseas student~ I also started to think about “who I am” when I left my hometown in north China and went to a university in south China 5 years ago, and my desire to figure out my identity became even stronger when I came to UK last year.I accept the new idea, but at the same time preserve the previous myself to some extent. This is a process of making choices, both consciously and unconsciously.The result is that I become frustrated sometimes because I find myself do not belong to or totally same with any social group.This is kind of losing previous typical identity, but also being more inclusive with other cultures. Anyway, it’s really an interesting topic that makes people reflect on their own experiences!
    Looking forward to seeing more of your findings in the future:-)
    All the best,

  3. Cora Lingling Xu

    Hi Flora,
    Thank you so much for your reflective sharing. Indeed, I think the issue of not ‘belonging’ seems typical among international students and hence my constant quest of ‘who am I?’ may indeed be central to the lives of many other students like you and me.

    As some other readers of this post have pointed out to me (and I am incredibly thankful to them), however, the phenomena of our perpetual sense of ambivalence should not be viewed as a given and should not be normalised. Rather, I agree that such ambivalence has to be critically examined and problematised. To me, it is never meant to be a tool for proffering explanations but rather, it is a point of focused interests whence nuances and complexities of identity construction of international students can be teased out.

    At a different level, as an educational researcher wrestling with such ambivalence while trying to research on participants of similar backgrounds, I remain acutely aware of the dangers of my once an ‘insider’ and now an ‘outsider’ stances and the impacts my ambivalence has on my research processes. I find Diane Reay’s article “Insider Perspectives or Stealing the Words out of Women’s Mouths: Interpretation in the
    Research Process” incredibly insightful in this regard.

    Best wishes,

  4. Jean Boucher

    Nice! You may also want to see:

    Out with the Old, In with the
    New? Habitus and Social
    Mobility at Selective Colleges by
    Elizabeth M. Lee and Rory Kramer

    and Lubrano’s book: Limbo!


  5. Cora Lingling Xu

    Hi Jean,
    Thanks a lot for your suggestion!
    I will definitely have a read. Hope your research goes well.

    Best wishes,

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