Children’s understandings and experiences of peer friendships in a rural Chinese boarding school
Research is limited on friendships in childhood, particularly that of Chinese rural children. To fill this gap, this research explores Chinese children’s understandings and practices of peer friendships in the context of a rural primary boarding school. Data for this research were collected through intensive 5-month ethnographic fieldwork with Primary Year 5 children in a rural primary boarding school (given the pseudonym “Central Primary School”) in Hubei Province, China in 2016. Given the importance of ethics in childhood studies and the sensitivity of talking about friendship experiences, ethical guidelines have been carefully followed and are reflected throughout the research process. Through analysing children’s talk about and interactions with different peers who were named as “friends”, this research argues that those who are friends, and what friendships mean and look like, are contextualized. Research findings can be summarized in three points. Firstly, children’s friendships can be categorized into different types with different purposes and expectations. In Chinese children’s friendship groups, friendships can be formed on a basis of intimacy between individuals (“intimate friendship”), of friends’ “usefulness” in helping one to improve school experiences (“instrumental friendship”), or of individuals’ shared identity as “in-group members” (zijiren) of the same “collective” (jiti). Secondly, friendships are dynamic, with the levels of intimacy between friends potentially being upgraded or downgraded in friendship practices; therefore, conversion can happen amongst these forms of friendships. Thirdly, gender, power structures amongst children, hierarchical relationships between children and significant adults (teachers and parents), and China’s Confucian and collectivist values significantly shape these Chinese children’s constructions and practices of peer friendships. This research points out that these elements are not isolated but related when shaping children’s friendships. This research has four main contributions. Firstly, it contributes to sociological conceptualizations of friendships through providing rich findings on Chinese children’s various definitions, patterns, and practices of peer friendships in a boarding school context. Secondly, it uses a Chinese case to enhance our understandings of children’s capacities as social actors in the construction of their social relationships in childhood. Thirdly, through discussing difficulties that Chinese children experienced in relationships with others at school, this research contributes a critical reflection on current practices in China’s schools of relationship education, school organization, and student evaluation mechanisms. Fourthly, this research brings knowledge and methodological contributions to the English language literature on Chinese school studies. It offers details about what life in a Chinese rural boarding school is like, how such schools function, and the embedded socio-cultural norms in the Chinese school setting. It provides a reflexive account of the applications and challenges of ethnographic methods and ethics in Chinese school studies (e.g., approaches to gaining access to a Chinese school setting, and to dealing with ethical dilemmas caused by hierarchy in Chinese relationships).