Becoming citizens in the socialist market economy: Urban schooling, identities and the urban-rural experiences of migrant youth in China
This dissertation examines the urban schooling and the urban-rural experiences of poor migrant youth in China in an attempt to explore this student group's subjective understandings of the value of education, academic and career aspirations, the urban-rural dichotomy and their own social locations. Two questions guide this investigation. This research first asks: How do migrant youth, teachers and parents narrate and enact the migrant lives and educational experiences of these students both within and outside of urban schools? Second, this asks: How do migrant youth negotiate and construct their individual and collective identities? Guided by Levinson and Holland's theory of "the cultural production of the educated person," this study views schools as host sites, engaging in the task of cultivating future citizens. This study traces school and social processes through which active agents, including school staff, teachers, students and parents, define the meanings of the educated person, and explicates how these meanings shape students' everyday experiences. Data were collected in two iconic types of schools that serve the children of migrant workers in Beijing, China. Participants included 40 eighth graders, 21 teachers and staff, and ten parents in a private migrant school and a working-class, public school. Intense ethnographic research was engaged in over a six-month period, and included participant observation, interviews (formal and informal), essay writing, online chatting and content analysis of documents and student artifacts. Findings reveal that school practices express dominant discourses under the context of the socialist market economy to exclude students from the nation's citizen-building scheme—nurturing high quality ( suzhi ) citizens. Many students distrust the usefulness of a school diploma and develop a sense of possibility in China's vibrant market economy instead. Only few academically-oriented students trust the value of schooling in changing their fate. Further, both schools overestimate the effect of individual effort in enabling ones' mobility in meritocratic systems (schooling and market). As a result, migrant youth are educated to be the urban underclass. Most strikingly, all students articulate their strong aspirations to get ahead by indefinitely residing and working in Beijing, rather than returning to their rural hometowns as expected by state policies. This fierce collision between individual agency and harsh reality exhibits the possibilities of migrant youth's collective action in pursuit of fundamental citizenship in Chinese cities. Transcending the existing studies on Chinese migrant youth, this dissertation resorts to Western theories to trace the unique meanings of the "educated person" and "resistance" in the Chinese context, and estimates the explanatory power of these Western theories regarding the emergence of new social facts under ongoing global economic realignment. Through intensive fieldwork, this dissertation contributes to the field by tracing how the social structure is produced through day-to-day school practices and social discourses by outlining poor migrant youth's educational and occupational trajectories. This study also offers a space to begin larger conversation on China's citizen-building scheme and the sustainability of its labor-intensive economy, as well as their potential impacts on the global economy.