[part of the launch week for the book: Bourdieu, Habitus and Social Research: The art of application (published this week by Palgrave). My chapter is called: Moving to the City: Educational Trajectories of Rural Chinese Students in an Elite University]

This chapter discusses the way the notion of habitus is critically and reflexively engaged in the Chinese context. The following issues will be addressed when using this thinking tool to investigate the educational trajectories of rural students in an elite university: Firstly, considering the ambiguity in Bourdieu’s work in defining the concept, how is habitus translated and presented empirically? Secondly, Bourdieu’s emphasis on actor’s attunement to their circumstances and acceptance of their lot attracts arguable criticism of determinism and lack of reflexivity. How is the notion adapted in analyzing class defectors? Thirdly, how is the researcher’s own habitus handled in the process of knowledge production?

This chapter argues that theoretical ambiguity may conversely allow an elastic and creative application. This chapter, empirically grounded, reveals habitus in all its complexity and ambivalence. It is multi-faceted, durable but also mutable, subject to new experience in new fields; it is constraining and reproducing, but also enabling and transforming, with reflexive awareness occurring in “crisis” or in daily life. To be specific, through tracing the educational history of these academic successes, the article showcases these wonder children’s changing positions and evolving habitus across fields. As the relatively advantaged in the disadvantaged rural society, these children develop transformative dispositions acquired at home and in rural schools since early childhood. Their scholastic habitus, expressed as diligence and perseverance, orient them to achieve high in the school field. However, when in the elite, urban university field, they find themselves out of place and thus experience very difficult transformations. As internalized objective conditions and social classifications, their rural habitus, illustrated by their sense of inferiority, self-exclusion from participation, and pragmatic practices and choices in their university careers, is limiting. That is to say, it still retains a residual power over those who used to struggle and still struggling to defy it.

The chapter further argues for integrating psychic dimensions such as shame, resentment, envy, contempt (Sayer 2005) and a ‘complex, contradictory reflexivity’ with habitus. Such a conceptualization may allow us to capture the complexity of subjectivities, suggesting ‘how social categorizations can be reproduced but also challenged, overturned in uneven, “piecemeal” ways”(Adams 2003:521). What is often neglected methodologically but important to discuss is the self-assessment of the researcher’s own habitus when habitually applying the concept of habitus in social research.