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Life Transition in Social Transformation: University Students' Experiences, Aspirations and Achievements in China




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This dissertation investigates issues of social inequality, structure, and agency in life transition process in a society under dramatic transformation. For many young people in China, entering university and job market are two major life transitions. Meanwhile, China’s society is itself in a major transformation process. Profound restructuration is occurring in both the higher education system and labour market, resulting in significant structural disjunction between them. The structural changes have had tremendous impacts on Chinese university students’ life transition. Based on a mixed method of using secondary quantitative and first-hand qualitative interview data both collected at two key-point universities, Xi’an Jiaotong University and Lanzhou University, this study explores how and to what extent university students’ strategic agency is constrained and enabled in the socioeconomic structures under dramatic transformation. Theoretically, this study constructs an integrated analytical framework of university students’ postgraduate transition in China based on Bourdieu’s framework and conception of field, capitals, and habitus, incorporating Schutz’s “common sense lifeworld” and Merton’s typology of modes of adaptation. Empirically, the literature review and data analysis reveal a common sense lifeworld which presents the cultural goal as higher socioeconomic status and the institutional means as university education, and has profoundly influenced the university students’ practices and aspirations before post-university transition. The analysis also reveals a complex relationship between structural constraints and these students’ perception of their agency in the anomic situation during their post-university transition, which is caused by the imbalance between the cultural goal and institutional goal. Their responses can be categorized into five types with Merton’s typological tool, including conformity, semi-conformity, retreatism, ritualism, and reformism. Most participants can be identified as conformist or semi-conformist agency. The ability to successfully practice these two types of agency is limited by their possession of capitals, socioeconomic background and past experiences. Failure to practice these two types of agency may result in retreatist or ritualist agency. Although the dominant pattern of interactions between structures and agency shows a reproductive process of social inequality, the existence of reformist agency may inspire a reflexive agency of self-empowerment under the constraint of structures and suggest an empowerment-oriented educational reform in transforming China.



school-to-work transition, social transformation, social inequality, university student, Chinese society



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)







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