Spring 2019 > IAS Scholar

IAS Junior Fellow and Research Assistant Professor of Social Science

XU Duoduo

Born and raised in China, Dr. XU Duoduo received her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Shangdong University. It came naturally to her, having excelled in her undergraduate studies, to pursue MPhil and PhD degrees in Social Science. At HKUST, Xu currently works with Prof. WU Xiaogang, Chair Professor of Social Science and Director of the Center for Applied Social and Economic Research, on migration and educational inequality in Chinese societies, including Hong Kong, Mainland China, Macau, and Taiwan.

As a Research Assistant Professor in the Division of Social Science and an IAS Junior Fellow, Xu tells us about the challenges she has embraced and how she has adapted to her new role.

Why did you choose sociology as your undergraduate major?

My first choice was in fact economics, but I was offered a place in the sociology program instead. As it turned out, I liked sociology a lot, as it offered me a range of perspectives on social issues. Economics studies how people make choices, while sociology shows how people are constrained by social structures and don’t always have choices to make. I am particularly interested in education because it allows people to overcome their disadvantaged social origins to achieve upward social mobility, ultimately reducing inequality at the societal level. This is why sociologists often call education the “great equalizer.”

What inspired you to come to HKUST?

The decision to pursue postgraduate studies at HKUST was definitely a key turning point in my life. Before graduating from Shandong University, I realized that many roads lay ahead of me, and I had no idea which to take. One of my teachers, Prof. WU Yuxiao, now Professor of Sociology at Nanjing University, recommended me to my current mentor, Prof. WU Xiaogang. Coming to HKUST, as suggested by Prof. WU Yuxiao, was definitely the right decision.

Some say that doing a PhD is a lonely journey. I disagree. Just as Dr. Carl Gustav JUNG, Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, once said, “Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself.” My seven years at HKUST have been extremely exciting and joyful; I am fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to work with and learn from some of the most talented people in our field.

In 2015, on Prof. Wu Xiaogang’s recommendation, I spent six months in the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan, with generous sponsorship from Prof. Yu XIE, Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Sociology at Princeton University. This was followed by another six months in the Department of Sociology at the University of Oxford as a Visiting Scholar, with support from HKUST’s Overseas Research Award. These overseas experiences opened the door to a whole new world for me. I had many opportunities to learn from some of the best researchers in the field and experience a different kind of life.

Last December, I was involved in the 2018 Asian Conference of the International Chinese Sociological Association. The conference, held in Hong Kong for the first time, was organized by the Center for Applied Social and Economic Research and co-sponsored by HKUST’s School of Humanities and Social Science and the IAS. Its theme was “Forty Years of China’s Reform and Social Change,” and speakers addressed a wide range of related topics, such as education, gender, marriage and family, migration, urbanization and development, stratification and inequality, and cultural and value changes. The conference was a huge success, with over 130 participants from 60 higher education institutions around the world. The IAS is an intellectual hub and a platform for interdisciplinary interaction that not only benefits the local community but also exerts a global impact. I believe this is why the IAS attracts the best researchers and scholars. I feel proud to be part of this big family!

What motivated you to study inequality in Hong Kong? How are you approaching this in your research?

Important social issues such as poverty, inequality, and social mobility are treated by many people in Hong Kong as merely media buzzwords. They are topics of small talk rather than serious conversation. I want to do something to bring these issues back into focus.

For instance, we know that Hong Kong is a typical immigrant society, with a significant proportion of its population from Mainland China. Prejudices against mainland Chinese immigrants and ethnic minority groups are still pervasive in Hong Kong. Yet many immigrants, particularly members of the second generation, are highly resilient. Our research has shown that despite their disadvantaged family socio-economic status, immigrants’ children are performing unexpectedly well at school. Indeed, when we compare children from similar family backgrounds, immigrants’ children even outperform their native counterparts in terms of standardized test scores. Their academic success is explained largely by their strong motivation and drive to attain a better life. I thus believe that providing immigrant children with equal access to educational opportunities is a wise investment promising high yields, not an extra burden on society. Such an investment not only facilitates these children’s assimilation into local society, but also creates valuable human capital that is essential to the growth of Hong Kong.

Why are you so concerned about social issues? What has been the best experience of your research career so far?

A unique feature of sociology is its close relationship with people’s daily lives. One of the most important parts of my training is learning to be a good observer. On observing interesting social phenomena or social problems, I have always been curious, asking, “Why did it happen?  How did it affect people? What measures can we take to solve the problem or improve the situation?” Ultimately, this curiosity inside me has been channeled into academic inquiry.

I once received a thank-you letter from a migrant worker in Shanghai. He was frustrated by the inability to enroll his 7-year-old daughter in a local public school in Shanghai due to his lack of local hukou (China’s household registration system). He had read one of our papers on hukou-based school segregation, and thanked us for conducting such thorough research on the discrimination and exclusion faced by migrant children in urban China. This was one of the most satisfying and fulfilling experiences of my academic career because it showed me that our research does matter to real people out there.  

What are your future plans?

As an IAS Junior Fellow and a Research Assistant Professor of Social Science, I have the opportunity to not only teach but also apply for research funding as an independent Principal Investigator (PI). I am currently the PI of a General Research Fund (GRF) project entitled “Socioeconomic Segregation, School Choice, and Geography of Educational Inequality in Hong Kong.” This year, I also applied for funding from the GRF to conduct the first city-wide early childhood longitudinal study in Hong Kong, which will follow approximately 2,000 kindergarten children for two consecutive years to monitor the development of their cognitive and non-cognitive skills.

The transition from a doctoral student to an independent researcher is not easy, and my life is full of grant proposals, papers, projects, courses, and conferences. Notwithstanding these challenging tasks, I am immensely grateful for the opportunities given to me by my professors and HKUST!

Participants of the 2018 Asian Conference of the International Chinese Sociological Association