Flourishing in Rural Chinese Adolescents: How Social Capital and Self-determination Contribute


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date27 May 2020


Adolescence, a crucial development period, has attracted practices and research from manifold disciplines. As such, a burgeoning body of studies has suggested the importance of flourishing of adolescents. However, few studies focused on the flourishing of rural adolescents who are affected profoundly by economic reform. The empirical studies have shown that adolescents in rural China, especially left-behind children, suffered more emotional issues and experienced lower personal functioning than did other children in China. However, equivocal findings on the flourishing of rural adolescents have appeared in recent years. In addition, such studies neglected and unexplored the theoretical grounds between social context and personal inborn psychosocial development. Herein, this study aims to examine the flourishing of both left-behind children and other adolescents in rural China through constructing an integrated framework based on capital and humanist perspectives.

With an integrated theoretical framework, this study mainly examined the effects of social capital and self-determination. First, numerous studies found that social capital is essential for fostering personal flourishing, particularly for adolescents, although some studies found reverse results in terms of effects of social capital on personal flourishing. Considering the ambiguity and controversial effects between social capital and flourishing, this study aims to dig into the relationship between social capital and flourishing and therein strengthen social capital theory. Likewise, self-determination is another valuable contributor to the individual’s flourishing, while it commonly prevails in Western cultural contexts. Therefore, this study aims to examine how self-determination influence Chinese rural adolescents who grow up in Confucian culture and hence strengthen self-determination theory. In the same vein, cultural context is essential, as the values and norms of culture can influence the individual’s perception and functioning. In rural China, traditional Chinese culture is still prevalent and predominant. This means the values and beliefs can influence rural adolescents’ perceptions of flourishing. Moreover, adolescence is a specific developmental period that consists of the missions of identity formation and individuation, which in turn affects adolescents’ psychosocial development. Herein, this study is going to investigate the effects of traditional Chinese culture during the crisis period of adolescence on flourishing as well.

This study adopted a mixed approach that included three stages of data collection from late 2016 to late 2018. For the qualitative study in Stage 1 (September to November 2016), five participants who were left-behind children before recruited via snowball sampling recalled their memories of flourishing and explored potential protective factors regarding their flourishing. Stage 1 yielded four major themes, which comprised of parental migration information, social capital, self-determination, and flourishing. Furthermore, social capital had two subthemes, structural and substantive social capital, and self-determination had three subthemes, autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Moreover, flourishing had four subthemes, covering emotional symptoms, practical issues and the effects of social capital and self-determination. Resulting from some exploration, responses from interviewees were helpful in constructing the survey questionnaires used in Stage 2.

In the quantitative study conducted in Stage 2 (November to December 2017), 995 rural adolescents were recruited through convenience sampling to respond to a questionnaire to examine their flourishing and its relationships between other variables. The findings revealed that traditional Chinese culture, ego identity exploration, social capital and self-determination had effects on flourishing. They also showed that the interactions between traditional Chinese culture and individuation, between traditional Chinese culture and ego identity exploration, between traditional Chinese culture and self-determination had negative effects on personal functioning.

For the qualitative study conducted in Stage 3 (September to October 2018), 14 participants who were caretakers, teachers, NGOs organizers, and officers in government separately were invited via purposive sampling approach to join semi-structured interviews. They provided invaluable insights into how social capital and self-determination had positive effects on the flourishing of rural adolescents.

The current thesis has several contributions and implications. Theoretically, it proposes an achievement model in comprehending and optimizing adolescents’ flourishing. On one hand, adolescence is a vital period that has a specific life crisis requiring adolescents to form identities and separate from their parents. In the same vein, the adolescent, as an individual, initiates to explore self-interest and self-growth, and then actualize his or her life goals and flourishing. On the other hand, adolescents, as social members, are susceptive to surrounding societal and cultural contexts. Particularly, the achievement model mainly integrates the perspectives of capital and humanism, namely, social capital and self-determination theories. The theoretical integration with quantitative and qualitative studies indicates that adolescents can flourish when they have favorable social contexts and experience well-balanced psychosocial development. In other words, regarding adolescents’ development and flourishing, both social supports from adolescents’ networks and inherent initiatives are necessary. Briefly, the achievement model integrates individual, societal, and cultural perspectives to investigate adolescents’ flourishing. Furthermore, this study implies that both traditional Chinese culture and Western culture exist in rural China, and they yield negative effects on the personal functioning of rural adolescents. The current study further has practical implications on how to enhance rural adolescents’ social capital, self-determination, and flourishing in rural adolescents.