Due Distinction: Elite Student Status Hierarchies In China
How do students sort each other into different status groups in school? Research primarily conducted in the United States conceptualizes student status hierarchies as multidimensional systems. Scholars portray multidimensional status systems as exclusionary, constructed by and in the best interests of high status students, and disconnected from adult society. However, these theories are less useful for understanding a unidimensional status hierarchy that determines student status based on a single dimension. This study challenges several assumptions based on multidimensional status hierarchies about status hierarchies by providing insights into how unidimensional status hierarchies are constructed, maintained, and justified. Data for this study come from 15 months of ethnography and interviews with 36 socioeconomically elite students, parents, and teachers at six top performing high schools in Beijing. First, I found that Chinese high school students established a unidimensional status hierarchy based solely on test scores, with the students who achieved the highest test scores on daily practice tests having the highest status. Students sorted each other into four status groups: Intellectuals (Xueshen), Studyholics (Xueba), Underachievers (Xuezha), and Losers (Xueruo). This status hierarchy dominated the school. All of the students recognized it as a legitimate basis for according status. Rather than the status hierarchy serving exclusionary purposes by restricting friendships between students from different status groups, students formed inclusive social associations without attention to status because associations did not threaten the status quo. Second, while literature emphasizes the motivation of high status students to maintain the status hierarchy, I observed that both high and low status Chinese students upheld the hierarchy. Finally, scholars imply that the status hierarchies that govern adolescent society are disconnected from adult society, yet in this study, I observed that teachers and parents supported the student status hierarchy and students believed that school status predicted adult status. The findings from this study underscore the need to improve current conceptual models of the nature of status hierarchies and the factors that facilitate the allocation of people into different status groups. While I use the example of elite Chinese adolescents, the findings carry implications for unidimensional status hierarchies among other social groups.