Social Change and Social Identities

Since the start of the reforms in the late 1970s, the PRC has witnessed dramatic social changes which have impacted on the making of social identities at individual, family, community and regional scales.
Most significantly, China has progressively opened its doors to the global world, with profound consequences on the social, political and cultural landscape. Not only Chinese citizens increasingly able to travel the world for education, business and leisure, encountering different cultures and regimes, but more foreign visitors are coming to China for both lifestyle and economic purposes and China is rapidly becoming an important destination for international migration.
The new international residents join internal rural to urban migrants in changing the constitution of local communities, posing new questions about community cohesion and belonging as well as social protection. Further, the ‘return’ to China of the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, each with different heritages, cultures, languages and senses of national identity present additional complexities to the making of social identities.
Alongside these changes, new forms of ‘identity politics’ are emerging: understandings of gender and sexuality are changing rapidly, as well as approaches to climate change and consumption.

Theme Leads


Prof Pauline Leonard

Professor Pauline Leonard is Professor of Sociology at the University of Southampton, where she is also Director of the ESRC Doctoral Training Centre and Co-Director of the Work Futures Research Centre. She has longstanding research interests in skilled migration and the impact that relocation has on identities, working and social relations and organizational life. She has researched these issues extensively in Hong Kong and is currently working with Dr Angela Lehmann of Xiamen University investigating the impact of international migration on urban and community life. She is also undertaking research on English Language Teachers in China.

Professor Pauline Leonard is also a member of the ESRC LLAKES Research Centre, Institute of Education, University College London, wherein she is researching youth labour markets in regional contexts. She is also on the Editorial Board for Sociology.


1. Destination China: Immigration to the PRC in the Post-Reform Era (Professor Pauline Leonard, University of Southampton; Dr Angela Lehmann, University of Xiamen, China)

The project is not only distinctive in that this is the first study of its kind, but it is also timely and beneficial, in that it will take the opportunity to explore the position of international immigrants in the context of the opening up of China, its rapidly developing urban landscape as well as ongoing economic volatility in the West. It explores how a very diverse range of immigrants: from traders and professionally skilled expatriates to unskilled labour migrants and students, are increasingly attracted to China’s new opportunities and growth, particularly at a time of relative stagnation in the developed West and a lack of opportunities in the South.

2. ‘No Experience Required’: Young Migrants’ Experiences of Teaching English in China (Professor Pauline Leonard, University of Southampton)
This project, funded by the University of Southampton’s Strategic Research Development Fund, aims to investigate the growing trend of young native English speakers who are migrating to China to teach English, either as a ‘gap year’ or as a longer term strategy to respond to the lack of career opportunities for young people in the West, augmented by the recent financial recession. As demand for competent levels of spoken and written English grow apace in China, keen for its workers to be enabled to operate effectively on the global stage, more young people may be attracted by the opportunities to teach in China. However, this development begs important questions on both sides. For the young people from the West, the fact that this work is currently unregulated, with no standard guidelines in place, means that it is important to establish examples of good and bad practice in order to inform policy and guidance in this area. For the children and adults in the classroom, faced with an unqualified and perhaps unknowledgeable teacher, albeit a ‘native’ English speaker, expensive lessons may be of poor quality and contribute little to effective language acquisition.

3. Maternity Protection in China (Dr Yuxia Zhuang, Academy of Social Sciences, Shanghai)
Dr Yuxia Zhuang is currently a Visiting Scholar at the University of Southampton and is working with Professor Pauline Leonard on a comparative review of maternity protection and the implications this has for the working lives of mothers.



Lehmann Angela and Leonard, Pauline (forthcoming) Immigration to the PRC in the Post-Reform Era: Destination China (Shanghai: Palgrave China)

Leonard, Pauline (2010) Expatriate identities in postcolonial organizations: working whiteness, Aldershot, GB, Ashgate, 174pp. (Studies in Migration and Diaspora).

Leonard, Pauline (2010) Organizing whiteness: gender, nationality and subjectivity in post-colonial Hong Kong. [in special issue: Gender & Ethnicity] Gender, Work & Organization, 17, (3), 340-358. (doi:10.1111/j.1468-0432.2008.00407.x).

Leonard, Pauline (2010) Old Colonial or New Cosmopolitan? Changing white identities in the Hong Kong police. Social Politics, 17, (4), 507-535. (doi:10.1093/sp/jxq018).

Leonard, Pauline (2010) Work, identity and change? Post/colonial encounters in Hong Kong. [in special issue: Examining Expatriate Continuities: Postcolonial Approaches to Mobile Professionals] Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 36, (6), 1247-1263. (doi:10.1080/13691831003687691).

Leonard, Pauline (2008) Migrating identities: gender, whiteness and Britishness in post-colonial Hong Kong. Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 15, (1), 45-60. (doi:10.1080/09663690701817519).

Harper, Douglas, Knowles, Caroline and Leonard, Pauline (2005) Visually narrating post‐colonial lives: ghosts of war and empire. Visual Studies, 20, (1), 4-15. (doi:10.1080/14725860500064862).


Tyers, Roger (2016) Can green norms cross borders? The durability of environmental social norms among international students in the UK and China. Political Studies Association Conference March
Tyers, Roger (2016) Can green norms cross borders? The durability of environmental social norms among international students in the UK and China. British Sociological Association Conference April


Information Coming Soon

Staff & PHD Students

  • Professor Pauline Leonard

Professor Pauline Leonard is Head of the Department of Sociology, Social Policy, Criminology & Anthropology within Social Sciences: Sociology, Social Policy & Criminology at the University of Southampton.

She studied Sociology at the University of Reading before qualifying as a teacher at the Institute of Education, University of London. After teaching at further and higher educational levels in both the UK and Hong Kong, she came to the University of Southampton in 1990 to take a Masters (Education) and then progressed to study for a PhD (1991-5, ESRC funded). Her principle research interests are in diversity and work, with particular interests in gender and organisations, race and professional migration, and age and careers.

She is currently Head of Teaching Programmes in the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology which runs undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in Sociology and Criminology, combined with Social Policy and Anthropology. She is also Director of the University of Southampton’s ESRC Doctoral Training Centre.

University webpage:

  • Ian Forbes (PhD student)

Ian Forbes is a postgraduate research student within Social Sciences department at the University of Southampton. His research focusses on international students from mainland China coming to the UK for higher education purposes. He is looking at the trends, motivations, aspirations and experiences of these Chinese students in the UK.

Ian studied his undergraduate degree in Statistics at the University of Reading.  During that time, he spent a year working for the Office for National Statistics, where he developed an interest in social statistics.  After graduating, he then worked with international students in Southampton for a year, where is interest in East Asia began to grow.  After doing an MSc in Social Statistics, Ian began studying international student migration, with a particular focus on East Asia. Given the size, importance and rapid change of China on the world stage, Ian’s research became increasing focussed on students in the UK from China.  For his research, he is using a mixed methods methodology, combining his quantitative background with qualitative methods.

University webpage:

  • Margarida Cheung (PhD student)

Margarida is studying the changing Macanese identities in the Post-Handover Era.

University webpage: