Study of Rural Migrant School Children in Urban Chinese Schools Gives Insight to Fostering Inclusion in the Workplace | Pollack Peacebuilding Systems

December 22, 2020by Anupriya Kukreja

Summary of:

Zhang, D. (2018). The rural-urban divide, intergroup relations, and social identity formation of rural migrant children in a Chinese urban school, International Studies in Sociology of Education, 27:1, 60-77, DOI: 10.1080/09620214.2017.1394204

Background & Theory

With its foundation in social identity theory, this paper investigates identity formation amongst school children from a rural region in China amidst the Hukou-based social policy, which is the traditional household registration system in China. Rural migrant children are a prominent social minority in China’s big cities and retain the rural Hukou status of their parents’ original location of registration, despite having moved to an urban location. The authors have tried to understand the effect of this policy on the identity of migrant school children: the various class, economic and social issues they face in their learning trajectories hence. 

Research Question(s)

The authors tried to answer the following question:

    1. How do rural migrant children in China negotiate and construct their identity vis-à-vis the school’s local children?


The researchers conducted a qualitative, ethnographic study at the Dongsheng Primary School (pseudonym) from 2009 to 2011. As part of the observation process, they sat at the back of their classes to take notes. They participated in school activities as well, such as parents’/teachers’ meetings and holiday celebrations in order to get familiarized with the school’s daily routine, workflow, and norms.

Sponsored by the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences of the Chinese Ministry of Education, fourth-graders were selected to be the subjects of the study.  Amongst them, 10 (5 girls and 5 boys) were specifically chosen for an in-depth case study. With the informed consent of their parents, they sat close to the children in their classes, talked to them about their coursework, helped them when needed, and observed how they formed small groups.

To confirm if their observations and children’s’ self-reports were accurate, they also validated the data from the children’s teachers and classmates.


The authors found that the children were subjected to two main social categories- Waidiren (meaning ‘non-local’) and Nongmingong (meaning ‘peasant workers’). This affected their status majorly because it determined their access to housing, education, health, and even car ownership policies. Therefore, the migrant children included in this category developed a common group identity, based on the common fate they faced in urban society.

These terms are used in a derogatory way, but the migrant children still choose to use them to address themselves. They reconstructed the meaning of the former and elevated their social status hence. One strategy they used was to portray the local Beijing population as lazy, undeserving, and privileged, simply because of their inherited Hukou. They emphasized positive qualities like hard-working, diligent, and thrifty, self-made, etc. that are associated with the term Waidiren and hence created a positive image of themselves.

The researchers’ key conclusion was that these Hukou-based social policies and occupation-based social hierarchies heightened group boundaries, thereby hindering social integration. They then made recommendations to Educational policy-makers and school practitioners to work on weakening these group boundaries, promote more structural reform in education policy, and finally create more channels for social mobility and harmony.

How This Translates for the Workplace

  • Reduce structural inequalities and create systems for amalgamation: Audit existing systems to check that you a) have values that reflect a commitment to diversity and inclusion b) have an organizational culture that actually reflects those values. The school mentioned in the study had different logistical systems that ended up discriminating between children belonging to different communities.  Subtly discriminating company policies can hence act as sludge against active inclusion. Audit all policies, especially hiring ones. For example, ensure that you mean it when you say you’re an equal opportunity employer: by doing a demographic survey of your employees. There can be regular campaigns and training to make sure that more privileged employees acknowledge their privilege and don’t use it to put others down. Actively help employees from diverse cultures feel welcome and included. Create more channels for social mobility and harmony, as the researchers recommended. 
  • Language matters: Minority communities throughout history have reclaimed derogatory terms as a way to fight back injustice- Black people using the n-word, South Asians using “curry”, those from the LGBTQ community using “queer”, and how in this study, migrant children used the term “Waidiren” proudly. Observe the linguistic culture at your workplace and how employees from different backgrounds address themselves, as well as employees who are from privileged backgrounds (elite schools, big cities, etc.) address those who aren’t. This culture may reflect subtle social dynamics that may not be obvious to the management’s eye and can offer great room for inclusion initiatives. Once identified, get creative, and gamify the process of inclusion, and amalgamation!

Anupriya Kukreja

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