The Experiences Of Left-Behind Children In Rural China
: A Qualitative Study

  • Lina Xiao

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


This study aims to capture how left-behind children in China experience their life with their parents’ migration and how they exercise agency to negotiate with structural and cultural contexts when living under these circumstances. The fieldwork was conducted in a middle school in a rural region of the inland province Hunan, with the data mainly being obtained from in-depth interviews with 16 focal left-behind children. An integrative theoretical framework is proposed to explain the dynamic process of living with parents’ migration by explicating the interaction between structure, culture, and agency.The research findings indicate that the left-behind children’s experiences can be conceptualised as “ambivalence” in that they incorporate simultaneous existence of opposing emotions towards their parents’ migration. Such experiences are grounded in the structural and cultural contexts associated with migration on the one hand, and on the other, provide the driving impetus for children to reproduce and/or transform their structural and cultural contexts by adopting agentic strategies either more engaged with the present or more directed towards the future. An integrated theoretical framework has been developed to capture a dynamic understanding of left-behind children, wherein ambivalence is proposed to act as a bridging concept to link agency with structure and culture. This framework challenges the univalent orientations in conceptualising agency as rational choice or resistance and emphasises the mutual sustaining relationships between culture and structure, which could contribute to the debates in the sociology of childhood field by advancing theoretical integration so as to transcend the agency/structure dichotomy. By highlighting left-behind children’s ambivalent experiences, this research further contributes to the literature that challenges the image of passive victims attributed to them, and adds to the knowledge on how to address their needs as well as to facilitate their exercising of agency, which can inform related policy and service provision.
Date of Award17 May 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorIan Butler (Supervisor)


  • left-behind children
  • agency
  • ambivalence

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