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Blog post Part of series: BERA Early Career Researcher Network Symposium Series 2022

How science capital helps to understand the urban–rural divide in Chinese students’ science aspirations

Ye (Catherine) Cao, PhD Candidate at King's College London

Chinese students were reported to have relatively low science aspirations, which contrasts with their outstanding attainment in international student assessment (OECD, 2019). Meanwhile, a bigger gap in educational resources between advantaged and disadvantaged schools was found in China compared with OECD countries (OECD, 2019). However, the connection between Chinese students’ science aspirations and their social background is not clear. Most disadvantaged schools in China are in rural areas. The urban–rural divide in China is a key context widely used in Chinese policies and literature, but it is merely discussed in English literature (Chan & Wei, 2019). The gap between rural China and urban China includes not only economic aspects but also political and societal aspects, which means rural students are more likely to come from a disadvantaged background in comparison with their peers living in urban areas. Hence, understanding what is happening to Chinese rural students is essential in researching the big picture of Chinese education. In this blog post, I will share some preliminary findings from my PhD work, which attempts to understand the urban–rural divide in Chinese students’ science aspirations through science capital.

‘The gap between rural China and urban China includes not only economic aspects but also political and societal aspects, which means rural students are more likely to come from a disadvantaged background in comparison with their peers living in urban areas.’

Science capital is a theoretical framework developed from a longitudinal research project (ASPIRES) on UK students’ science aspirations (Archer et al., 2013). Based on a survey that included over 19,000 UK students and 148 interviews with students and parents, the ASPIRES team found that pupils’ science aspirations had a strong correlation with their families’ cultural capital, especially science-related resources (DeWitt et al., 2013). In order to clarify these resources, Bourdieu’s (1986) social reproduction theory was extended to ‘science capital’ as ‘a conceptual device for collating various types of economic, social and cultural capital that specifically relate to science’ (Archer et al., 2015).

My PhD thesis adopts a mixed-method approach to explore students’ aspirations and engagement with science in the context of mainland China. By analysing data collected from a large-scale survey (n = 992) and semi-structured interviews (n = 23), I attempt to determine the validity of the science capital concept in the Chinese context. My survey participants are 15-year-old students from four schools: one metropolitan private-funded school (most privileged group), one urban public-funded school (mid-income group) and two rural public-funded schools (unprivileged group).

The data collected from my survey shows rural students have lower aspirations than urban students for all types of science-related careers. The gap is most significant in their aspirations to become ‘science workers’, in which only 39 (35 per cent) rural students are interested while 243 (46 per cent) urban students have an interest. The urban–rural divide in students’ science aspirations may result from inequality in distributing science-related resources (for example, relatively poor infrastructures in rural schools and limited access to science centres and museums, which are usually located in cities). Measuring the 14-item science capital index, only 14 per cent of rural students have high science capital while the proportion among urban students is 31 per cent. 40 per cent of rural students are reported to have low science capital, which is more than double the proportion among urban students (18 per cent). The statistical analysis shows that Chinese students’ science capital and their science-related aspirations (willingness to continue science study and aspirations towards science-related careers) are positively associated. The Pearson product-moment correlation test shows that participants’ science aspirations are significantly correlated to their science capital at p < 0.01 level. Additionally, when the correlation happens in all groups, the correlation coefficient is larger for rural students than urban students (.527 vs .507 for further science study and .527 vs .419 for science-related career aspirations). This means the investment in endowing Chinese rural students with more science capital may have more impact on their science aspirations.

Additionally, Pearson correlation tests also show that Chinese rural students’ science-related career aspirations are more likely to correlate with school science (for example, attitude towards school science, relationship with science teachers, and so on) in comparison with urban students. Further interviews with students also reveal that school science is the major source to acquire science capital for unprivileged rural students. Hence, the phenomenon makes me see the potential impact of the science capital teaching approach on seeking social equity for Chinese rural students, which UK teachers have approved as an efficient tool (Godec & Nag Chowdhuri, 2021).

Beyond the urban–rural divide in Chinese students’ science aspirations, my PhD thesis also explores other social inequality dimensions in science education (that is, gender and Covid-19 impact). Additionally, international comparison between the UK and China is fully discussed in my research. This thesis will contribute to the science capital framework from a cross-cultural perception.


Archer, L., Dawson, E., DeWitt, J., Seakins, A., & Wong, B. (2015). ‘Science Capital’: A conceptual, methodological, and empirical argument for extending bourdieusian notions of capital beyond the arts. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(7), 922–948.

Archer, L., DeWitt. J., Osborne, J., Dillion, J., Wong, B., & Will, B. (2013). ASPIRES report: Young people’s science and career aspirations, age 10–14.

Bourdieu, P. (1986). Forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241–258). Greenwood.

Chan, K. W., & Wei, Y. (2019). Two systems in one country: The origin, functions, and mechanisms of the rural-urban dual system in China. Eurasian Geography and Economics, 60(4), 422–454.

DeWitt, J., Archer, L., & Osborne, J. (2013). Nerdy, brainy and normal: Children’s and parents’ constructions of those who are highly engaged with science. Research in Science Education, 43(4), 1455–1476.

Godec, S., & Nag Chowdhuri, M. (2021). Tackling inequality: Why you need this teaching tool. Tes Magazine.

OECD. (2019). PISA 2018: Insights and interpretations.