National and global positional competitions: Social class and ‘future selves’ in China

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In China, higher education participation has risen rapidly. However, socially-classed inequalities are still maintained in terms not only of access but also of graduate labour market outcomes. This has resulted in a pervasive sense of intense competition and anxiety amongst Chinese university students. The widely discussed neologism ‘neijuan’ (内卷) that refers to a sense of perpetual competition captures this zeitgeist. In this paper, we draw upon a reading of the term neijuan through the lenses of positional conflict theory (Brown, 2000) and ‘self-concept’ (Markus & Nurius, 1986). We examine how inequalities in graduate employment prospects are maintained through participation in extra-credential activities (e.g., student associations, internships, study abroad programmes) at national and global scales. We draw on interviews (n=100) with final-year undergraduate students from three social class factions – rural, urban non-elite, and urban elite – at two universities in southern China. Our findings reveal substantial differences in students’ aspirations and envisaged ‘future selves’. Rural students tended to have less clarity about their futures, and were strongly ‘nationally-oriented’ in their aspirations and strategies for positional competition. Urban non-elites had more awareness of how to ‘get ahead’ in a national positional competition but perceived barriers to accumulating extra-credential experiences at the global level. Elites tended to have greater clarity around aspirations, which often involved transnational migration, and generally had developed long-term strategies to enter a global competition. Overall, we argue that elite students are best placed to escape the sense of entrapment and perpetual competition felt by Chinese university students. Copyright © 2022 British Sociological Association.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2022
EventBritish Sociological Association Annual Conference 2022 - , United Kingdom
Duration: 20 Apr 202222 Apr 2022


ConferenceBritish Sociological Association Annual Conference 2022
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


Mulvey, B., & Wright, E. (2022, April). National and global positional competitions: Social class and ‘future selves’ in China. Paper presented at British Sociological Association Annual Conference 2022, United Kingdom.


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