Local and global ‘possible selves’: differentiated strategies for positional competition among Chinese university students

Year: 2021

Author: Mulvey, Benjamin

Type of paper: Individual Paper

Recently, the term ‘neijuan’ has gained immense popularity on Chinese social media platforms. It has become shorthand for the intense pressure that many young people in China feel to compete in various facets of their lives, including in higher education. In this article, we seek to explore the pressing issue of neijuan in Chinese higher education, using a novel theoretical framework which draws on cognate ideas from both Phillip Brown's positional conflict theory and the psychological concept of 'possible selves'. We suggest that the combination of these two concepts has utility in enabling a focus on how thought processes and resultant preparations for post-study life may diverge along lines of social privilege and disadvantage. The study draws on interviews undertaken with 100 undergraduate students in one elite (n=50) and one less prestigious (n=50) university in a major metropolitan city in Guangdong province. Interviewees were purposefully sampled based on a preliminary screening questionnaire. They were roughly equally split among three social class fractions, and in terms of gender. This approach allowed an examination of how social class influences university experiences independent of the prestige of the university attended. We argue that while students across social fractions expressed anxiety about being locked into a fierce competition for graduate jobs, there were clear socially-classed differences in the way students responded to these pressures. Members of the social elite employed strategies involving overseas study in order to avoid the undesirable outcome of being 'stuck' in the national positional competition. These generally imagined global careers as both probable and desirable (or 'like-to-be' possible selves), and thus developed clear and achievable plans, often involving multiple overseas activities such as internships, exchange programmes and postgraduate study, in order to realise these imaginings. Students from less affluent backgrounds, on the other hand, as a result of previous experiences and current financial circumstances, imagined themselves as 'locked' into the national competition, and thus had a more limited range of 'probable selves', as well as having less clear plans around how to realise desirable possible selves. Overall our study reveals how the ability to gain positional advantage and secure prestigious positions in the graduate labour market is not only a function of one’s ability to actually draw on socially classed social, cultural and economic resources, but also of the nature and clarity of one’s vision with regard to this possible outcome.