Inheriting or re-structuring habitus/capital? Chinese rural migrant children in the urban field of cultural reproduction

Year: 2019

Author: Yu, Hui

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Background and aim:

Highlighting the fluid nature of habitus/capital, this paper critiques a ‘rucksack approach’ (Erel, 2010) in the Bourdieusian studies of Chinese migrants’ cultural reproduction and social inclusion, which takes a determinism and fatalism standpoint and assumes that the migrants enter in a new field with their primary habitus and capital unchanged. The paper raises the following questions: do the habitus/capital of the migrants keep unchanged in the new field? Do migrant children inherit their parents’ habitus/capital without making differences? What does this mean for the social inclusion of migrant children?

Research design:

The research project chooses Beijing and Shanghai as fieldwork sites with three months of fieldwork. I followed the purposive sampling and snowball sampling strategies to get in touch with participants. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 62 teachers, migrant and local parents and students. Among the eleven fieldwork state schools, three have 30-40% of migrant children, six have 60-87% migrants, and two have more than 90% migrants.


This paper identifies the re-structuring of habitus and the accumulation of new forms of cultural capital within the urban field, which also produce generational differences. For the parents, the continuation of some aspects of a rural habitus can be identified, for example, not treating themselves as academic educators. Their migrant working-class status also re-structures their habitus, producing a disposition of striving for survival. The intersection of their life conditions as rural, migrant labourers produces their classed child-rearing approach, limiting their motivation to exert their (limited) academic cultural capital to support their children’s study. The habitus of the children is influenced by the urban. This is illustrated by their manner of speaking, ways of behaving, self-presentation, and their appreciation of extra-curricular hobbies. These are valuable and valued forms of cultural capital in the urban field. What can be identified in the migrant majority state school is the well-integrated relationship of migrant and local children.


This paper defines both positive and negative effects of migrant children’s social relationships for their future social inclusion in the city. Unlike their parents, social inclusion in school would reinforce their belongingness to urban society, producing a generation of ‘new urban citizens’. However, like their parents, this generation might be a generation of low-skilled workers owing to their underachievement in academic study.


Erel, U. (2010). Migrating cultural capital: Bourdieu in migration studies. Sociology, 44(4), 642-660.