Image credit: Alex Stoen

Meritocratic Narratives as Cultural Orientations

Explaining Child-Rearing Practices in China

Image credit: Alex Stoen

Meritocratic Narratives as Cultural Orientations

Explaining Child-Rearing Practices in China

The meritocratic principle (Young 1958), which emphasizes the central role of ability and effort for status attainment is losing effectiveness as a collective myth (Lamont 2019). Sociologists argue that meritocratic beliefs, or the narratives that abilities and hard work lead to success, are unfulfilled promises (e.g. Mijs 2016a), as success is not ensured for everyone and societies vary in the strength of the link between education and success in life. The idea that these subjective propositions about the distribution of rewards are legitimations of action and structural conditions for certain groups is becoming common among social scientists (Khan 2011; Mijs 2016a, 2019). Furthermore, the degree to which meritocratic beliefs are accepted and perceived as valid principles of distribution differs between social groups. Privileged families may prefer the meritocratic principle to a larger extent and encourage learning activities (Lareau 2011). According to the findings of Becker and Hadjar (2013), lower social classes (e.g. working classes, lower middle class) are more likely to perceive that success still depends on social origin, social position and family than the upper service class. Specifically, parents affected by negative status-inconsistency, i.e. who have acquired a status below that they would most likely have achieved in light of their educational level, may be assumed to have lost faith in the meritocratic principle.

However, to the best of our knowledge, there not evidence of the role of meritocratic beliefs on social reproduction practices. Substantial efforts have been made to explain the early life course mechanisms of social reproductions since Lareau’s (2011) Concerted Cultivation Theory. Middle- and low-class parents differ in their cultural logic of child-rearing. Middle-class parents engage in children’s life experiences in a way that better equip them for adulthood. Organised extra-curricular activities, language use and relation with institutions are at the core of their parenting style. Critically reflecting on this theory, researchers have pointed out this differential is explained by class differences in material resources, and not by cultural logics (Chin and Phillips 2004; Bennett, Lutz, and Jayaram 2012). However, any conclusion related to this debate would be vulnerable without specific measurements of cultural beliefs. Our research stands out since we include meritocratic belief representing certain aspect of cultural orientation in as the bridge between structural position and child-rearing practice. A robust test of meritocratic worldviews as cultural orientations is the main contribution of this study to theory development. The analysis uses data from the China Educational Panel Survey, the first large-scale school-based longitudinal survey conducted in China. To our knowledge, it is the first quantitative study testing concerted cultivation hypotheses addressing endogeneity issues. The empirical strategy combines inverse-probability weighting (IPW) to estimate the causal effect of meritocratic beliefs on concerted cultivation and a two-stage regression model to assess the heterogeneity of this effect across social classes.

While cultural orientations and their roles in social stratification, educational decisions or parenting styles are widely studied in Western industrialized societies, the role of meritocratic principles in other parts of the world beyond Europe and the US is still under-researched. If meritocratic beliefs legitimize social advantages, they may also affect actions intended to reproduce those advantages as cultural orientations. Weininger, Lareau and Conley (2015) showed that, in the United States, concerted cultivation is not only explained by parents’ objective resources, but also by parents’ cultural orientations. Parenting is a reflection of the parents’ own worldviews and cultural orientations (Bodovski 2010; England and Srivastava 2013). In this study, we aim to determine whether parents’ meritocratic beliefs affect their parenting style with regard to children’s education and learning. We test whether beliefs about hard work and abilities as predictors of scholastic success explain practices of concerted cultivation in China and how they vary across social classes. Accordingly, this study’s central innovative potential of this study is the analysis of meritocratic beliefs and child-rearing practices in China -as an Eastern Asian country- that is believed to be characterised by a low level of intergenerational social reproduction (Xie and Zhang 2019; Zhou and Xie 2019). We contribute to the augmentation of Western theories by applying them in a different context. Although there is no equivalent translation into Mandarin Chinese, Confucian philosophy has promoted longstanding meritocratic principles in Western terms. It bonds educational institutions and exam-based qualifications for highly-valued civil service jobs (Hannum et al. 2019). In addition, and in contrast to developed Western societies, educational success in China is not only seen as an individual achievement but is also associated with family honour (Peng 2019). Thus, China is an ideal case for testing whether parents’ meritocratic narratives play a role in shaping parenting styles in an Eastern Asian society.

Although there is a trend toward increasing social fluidity throughout the world (Ganzeboom, Treiman, and Ultee 1991; Breen 2010), family socioeconomic status remains a fundamental driver of status attainment. Evidence suggests that societies are not beyond class (Becker and Hadjar 2013), but – depending on societal aspects such as the education system – the meritocratic triad of class of origin, education and class of destination is still a valid concept (Hadjar and Becker 2016). However, the mechanisms through which parents transmit advantage from generation to generation is still a subject for debate (e.g. Roksa and Potter 2011; Carolan 2016). For instance, several studies have discussed whether material or non-material family resources affect children’s educational success (Liu and Xie 2015; Mayer 1997). Family income could be directly invested in more and better education, but non-material resources, such as cognitive skills and culture, also explain how parents’ advantages are transferred to their children. Among these factors, parenting styles have been shown to affect children’s short- and long-term outcomes (Chan and Koo 2011; Pong, Hao, and Gardner 2005; Astone and McLanahan 1991).

Coauthor:

Chen Chen, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Email: ciarachensoc@link.cuhk.edu.hk.

Andreas Hadjar, University of Luxembourg. Email: Andreas.Hadjar@uni.lu.

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Francisco Olivos
Research Assistant Professor

My research interests include cultural sociology, social inequality, sociology of education and computational social sciences.