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Being a young and highly educated woman: My positionality in doing qualitative educational research in China

Jingyun Zhang, PhD Student at University of Cambridge

This blog post provides two examples of how my researcher positionality intersects with those of participants, and challenges traditional stereotyped expectations of power relations in Chinese early years education (ECE). In China, the researcher–participant power relations are not much reflected on by Chinese researchers in education – all the more interesting seeing that the country is traditionally perceived as highly hierarchical (Xu, 2019). This blog shows how participant-dominated power relations in education research can be neutralised by certain factors, such as professional work experience, research topics and academic qualifications.

My first example is from a public kindergarten serving low social economic status (SES) families in a disadvantaged Chinese area. In traditional Chinese Confucianism, older women with experiences of childbirth and nurturing have a say in ECE’s affairs (Fei, 1948). This is particularly obvious in disadvantaged areas, the ‘rural society’ (Fei), where social networks are maintained by guanxi relationships – where respecting and obeying elders is a requirement (Fei, 1948). However, as a young and non-local woman with neither experiences of childbirth nor nurturing, and thanks to my professional working experiences, I was able to have equal conversations with the older women of the kindergarten (the headteacher and deputy headteacher were both in their 50s). When I first met them, I worked as a trainer at a Chinese nationally renowned ECE research centre, to conduct teacher training workshops in their kindergarten. They felt that my workshops could help them to solve difficulties they encountered in daily ECE practices.

‘There may be an opportunity to challenge existing stereotypes of power relations in Chinese society, rather than only repeating or even reinforcing them.’

After participating in my workshops, these older women grew to trust me and invited me to visit the kindergarten again to provide professional training for teachers. It is rare to see older people relating to younger people in this way in Chinese sociocultural contexts which are dominated by Confucian philosophy. This example illustrates how traditional hierarchies marked by participants’ ages can be challenged by younger researchers’ professional work experiences. Some of these women even established personal connections with me, for example by asking me for advice on some ‘big issues’ such as how to choose a major for their children in the university. This method of gaining participants’ trust by providing professional information was also used in Reynolds’ (2002) qualitative research. The establishment of this trust relationship may help participants to express their confusion and challenges in practice to me without fear that I, as a young researcher, would not understand.

My second example occurred when I collected data at a private kindergarten serving high SES families in a Chinese developed area. In the market economy context, this kindergarten would have preferred to collaborate with wealthy families who are able to pay a lot for the ECE of their children or organisations (such as companies) who willingly invest in this kindergarten. The research team I worked with could not bring such profits to this kindergarten. When I asked participants why they took part in this research, one said she was interested in the research topic about children’s perspectives on their teachers who identify as men or women. Her thesis was also gender-related – she considered such research, currently rare in Chinese ECE, to be valuable. Another said she trusted our research team’s academic qualifications (all team members are professors and PhD students from world-renowned universities). She saw the collaboration with us as a testament to the high quality of this kindergarten. This example illustrates how highly educated researchers and a valuable research topic can neutralise participant-dominated power relations, so that profit-driven staff voluntarily participate in a non-profit research project.

Such interactions between age, work experiences, SES, research topics and academic qualifications suggest that power relations between researchers and participants is not a fixed, one-way structure (Reynolds, 2002). In highly hierarchical Chinese contexts, critical reflection allows researchers to become more sensitive to his or her own positionality and those of participants (Xu, 2019). Thus, there may be an opportunity to challenge existing stereotypes of power relations in Chinese society, rather than only repeating or even reinforcing them.


Fei, X. (1948). From the soil (Xiangtu Zhongguo). [In Chinese]. Guancha.

Reynolds, T. (2002). On relations between black female researchers and participants. In T. May (Ed.), Qualitative research in action. SAGE Publications.

Xu, Y. (2019). From theories to practicalities: Doing cross-cultural research fieldwork in early childhood education & care (ECEC). In K. K. Tsang, Liu, D., & Hong, Y. (Eds.), Challenges and opportunities in qualitative research. Springer Nature.


I would like to thank the CPT global research team, especially Dr Yuwei Xu, Dr Minyi Li and Dr Yan Zhu for supporting me in completing this blog. I would also like to thank Dr Juliet Alderton and Miss Zeyi Liu for their insightful comments.