Why do Chinese elite graduates choose to study abroad? How do they construct boundaries of distinction? We first conceptualise distinction-making as a complex social process which connects individual agency and educational processes with organisational intermediaries. We use a case study of Peking University and draw upon original data consisting of 36 individual interviews, one-month documentation of a poster culture and observational data from eleven study-abroad events. We find a pattern of ‘building triple halos’, which encompasses dual processes of educational emulation and (mis-)recognition. By not recognising those from outside their ‘halos’ (i.e., elite schools, PKU and the Ivy League scholarship-holders), these elites signal superiority by gradually narrowing the circle of ‘us’ and excluding aspirational ‘others’. This individual level of distinction-making is coordinated with collective ‘consensus’, and organisational intermediaries in seeking, justifying, and (mis-)recognising studying abroad as a pathway to distinction. We further reveal the complexity of the ‘identities’ of the PKU elites as both possessors and challengers of distinction. During this process, the agents of the study-abroad industry not only consolidate their client base in PKU but also pursue a new business route of accommodating the challengers.
- study abroad