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The role of intergroup permeability on Chinese migrant children's social integration.

Since the 1980s, the open-door economic reforms and relaxation of migrant restrictions by the Chinese government have led to an increasing rural-to-urban migrant population in Chinese cities (Wen & Lin, 2012). Among the migration population are rural children who were brought into the city by their parents or born in urban centers, who we termed migrant children in this study. These children can be differentiated from urban children because migrant workers' children are subject to the restrictions of the Chinese "hukou" or domicile system. As such, they are not given the same rights to education or welfare that children born in the city are. Further, migrant children living in the city mostly associate with other children with rural backgrounds, and have little contact with urban children. In the 2013 National Survey on Left-Behind Children and Migrant Children, Zhuang (2013) indicated that there are 35,810,000 migrant children in China and that the number continues to grow rapidly. Compared with their migrant parents, children showed the following distinct group features due to growing up in an urban environment: long-term residency in the city, better economic conditions, better adaptability, less knowledge of rural society, and more eagerness to integrate into the city.

However, China's household registration system (hukou), which is assigned at birth and designed to control rural-urban mobility, has restricted migrant children's economic, social, and psychological integration into the host city. The ages of 6 and 15 years are vital to individual socialization, and during this time, migrant children's marginal status leads not only to inferiority in living circumstances and material conditions, but also to psychological problems, such as increased incidence of negative emotions, stronger perceptions of discrimination, a greater likelihood of identity crisis, and greater social-integration dysfunction (Song & Luo, 2014). The Survey on Charity Needs of Chinese Children was released by the China Children and Teenager Fund in October 2012 (Zhuang, 2013), and indicates that 30% of migrant children have experienced depression and being discriminated against. If social integration problems are not sufficiently resolved, unhealthy emotions might evolve into new social problems, threatening the future of the whole society when the children grow up (Liu & Fang, 2011). In conclusion, the social integration of migrant children is a vital issue not only for the personal development of this significant group, but also for the future of all cities with large populations of migrant children.

The Social Integration of Migrant Children in China

In a report by the National Health and Family Planning Commission of People's Republic of China (Zhou, 2014), it was indicated that over 92% of the migrant population is willing to integrate into the host city. Zhu (2006) stated that the social integration of the migrant population has three progressive levels, comprising economic, social, and psychological, among which psychological adaptation is the highest level and also the indication of real integration into the city. Zhang and Lei (2008) and Yang (2009) studied the following four aspects of integration: economic combination, cultural acceptance, behavioral adaptation, and identity fusion, and categorized the social integration of migrant population into five types, as follows: isolation, diversification, integration, selection, and fusion. According to social identity theory (SIT), individual behaviors are driven by in-group membership, which is the prerequisite for individual behaviors (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). For migrant groups, real integration into the new environment is based on gaining new group membership and identity. In migration studies, identity fusion is a key index of social integration, which means that the individual fully integrates into a group and gains a sense of identity along with the group membership (Bai & Xu, 2009). Further, the rise of positive psychology has led to a gradual realization that healthy psychological development means that just addressing psychological adaptation problems is insufficient, and there is also a need to develop positive psychological conditions (Liu, Zhao, & Shen, 2013). Among the indices of individual positive development, life satisfaction is a key index to measure the condition of psychological health and the level of positive psychological development. According to SIT, and from the perspective of positive developmental psychology, we chose to measure the indices of life satisfaction degree and identity fusion in this study.

Perceived Discrimination of Migrant Children

Perceived discrimination is a subjective experience relative to objective discrimination, which means that the individual perceives being treated differently or unfairly due to his or her in-group membership (e.g., gender, race, birthplace; Pascoe & Smart Richman, 2009). In their theory on stress management, Lazarus and Folkman (1984) stated that perceived discrimination is a key source of stress for members of subordinate groups, keeping individuals in a stressed state that may lead to chain stress reactions, such as depression or anxiety, and that it also has a negative impact on individuals' life satisfaction and aggressive behavior. "Children of migrant workers" and "migrant teens," terms given to Chinese migrant children, have evolved into identity labels that are associated with stigmatized features such as "impoverished," "unhygienic," and "having problem behaviors." In Chinese society, where urban residence registration is strict and the administrative systems of urban and rural areas are distinct, the sense of stigmatized identity can easily provoke strong perceived discrimination in migrant children (Lin, Fang, Liu, & Lan, 2009), which is a risk factor hindering their social integration. Previous researchers have indicated that perceived discrimination yields negative effects on Chinese migrant children's sense of happiness and self-esteem, as well as their adaptation to city life (Liu, Fang, Dai, & Wang, 2012; Liu & Shen, 2009; Liu et al., 2013). We, thus, proposed the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis 1: Perceived discrimination as a risk factor in the social integration of migrant children will have a negative effect on their life satisfaction and identity fusion.

Moderating Mediation Effect of Intergroup Permeability

Research on perceived discrimination has gradually been extended from its negative effects to the mediator and moderator effect of some individual or group factors, such as self-esteem, group identity, and intergroup status, in the mechanism of children's perceived discrimination. For example, Diaz, Ayala, Bein, Henne, and Marin (2001), and Corning (2002) stated that perceived discrimination indirectly affects an individual's degree of depression via self-esteem. The research participants in previous studies (Brody et al., 2006) on perceived discrimination were from vulnerable groups who could not change their own in-group membership. However, membership variability is a distinct characteristic of Chinese migrant children (Liu, Zhao, & Shi, 2011), in that they can change their in-group membership, for example, through their own efforts (enroll in university, obtain residency in the city) or through going back to their hometown. Previous researchers have shown that due to the variability of membership in the group, members' perceived discrimination and its effect may vary (Garstka, Schmitt, Branscombe, & Hummert 2004; Liu & Shen, 2009).

Group structural variables are emphasized in SIT, and intergroup permeability is devised to indicate to what extent group members can transition into another group. Previous researchers have shown that intergroup permeability may affect members' social identity and choice of social integration strategies. For example, Wright, Taylor, and Moghaddam (1990) indicated that intergroup permeability has a significant influence on the strategy choice of people searching for a more positive social identity. Under the intergroup permeable condition, people prefer individual strategies; under the intergroup impermeable condition, they may consider collective action. On the other hand, group members' perceived openness regarding intergroup boundaries is affected by personal abilities, perceived discriminations, intergroup stability, and intergroup legitimacy. For example, in a study of Russian migrants in Finland, Mahonen and Jasinskaja-Lahti (2012) found that anticipated discrimination affects migrants' perceived permeability of group boundaries and group status legitimacy, and is indirectly associated with national identification in the postmigration stage via perceived discrimination. Researchers in China began to notice the role that structural variables of intergroup relations may play when interpreting the social integration of Chinese migrant children. Wang and Shi (2010) showed that when intergroup permeability is relatively closed and beliefs systems are diverse, migrant children may pursue high self-esteem and gain positive identity. This occurs through strategies such as changing social comparison direction and exaggerating urban-rural disparity. Liu et al. (2013) analyzed the mediating effect of the in-group status and in-group identity of migrant children in the correlation between perceived discrimination and subjective well-being, and further pointed out that this effect is moderated by the need for belonging. However, in most of the studies there are only theoretical discussions and not empirical research (Liu & Fang, 2011; Liu & Shen, 2009). Based on SIT, we proposed the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis 2: Intergroup permeability will have a mediating effect in the relationship between perceived discrimination and social integration.

Previous researchers of the mechanisms of perceived discrimination have usually focused on the mediator group and individual variables separately, without including discussion on their correlations (Lin et al., 2009). Filip and Norbert (2000) indicated that in interactions between intergroup permeability and individuals' personal characteristics, when the intergroup boundary was open or partly open, only the individuals who thought themselves to have ample ability were willing to try to join the superior group. Therefore, we believe that the mediation effect of intergroup permeability does not work alone and will be affected by personal characteristics of the Chinese migrant children. Regarding the choice of personal characteristics, self-esteem as a core factor of self-schemata formation has already been found in many studies (see e.g., Liu & Shen, 2009; Zeng, 2009) to be a key factor affecting psychological and social adjustment. We, thus, proposed the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis 3: Self-esteem will act as a moderator in the relationship between intergroup permeability and social integration; thus, intergroup permeability will moderate the mediation effect.



Using stratified sampling, we selected four schools in Shanghai, in which Chinese migrant children were enrolled. Three are urban public schools, and one is a specialized migrant children's school. We surveyed 500 students, from Grade 5 to Grade 8, and received 437 valid questionnaires. Among these 437 students, 196 were boys, 220 were girls, and 21 did not provide gender information. The average age was 13.4 years (range = 11-16 years), and the average length of time living in the city was 8.76 years.


The participants completed the self-report survey independently in classrooms during a scheduled class time. The proctor explained the purpose and general instructions of the study. Survey completion took approximately 15 to 20 minutes. Then we used SPSS version 13.0 and AMOS version 7.0 to analyze the data.


Perceived discrimination of Chinese migrant children. We designed this survey to assess six types of subjective feelings Chinese migrant children may experience when being discriminated in urban life. An example item is "Urban children look down upon migrant workers' children." We used a 7-point Likert type scale, with response options ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). The questionnaire had good reliability, with Cronbach's alpha being .93.

Life satisfaction. We assessed life satisfaction using a 10-item survey taken from Diener, Suh, Lucas, and Smith (1999), with responses rated on a 7-point Likert scale, ranging from 1 = strongly disagree to 7 = strongly agree. Its wide usage in research in China supported the scale's acceptable reliability, with a Cronbach's alpha of .84.

Identity fusion. The identity fusion measure we used was modified from the pictorial scale developed by Swann, Gomez, Seyle, Morales, and Huici (2009). In our scale, which contained a small circle representing "Self" and a larger circle representing the "Group of urban children," the participants rated their own identification with the urban children group on the basis of five degrees of overlap (0%, 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100%).

Self-esteem. To measure self-esteem, we used the 10-item Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1965, cited in Liu & Shen, 2009). This scale is rated on a 7-point Likert scale, ranging from 1 = strongly disagree to 7 = strongly agree, is widely used in China, and has good reliability, with a Cronbach's alpha of .75.

Intergroup permeability. We assessed intergroup permeability using a three-item survey modified from Mummendey, Klink, Mielke, Wenzel, and Blanz (1999). According to the characteristics of Chinese migrant children, we revised the original scale and changed some of the items. For example, we changed the item "No matter what effort s/he makes, an East German will never become a West German," into "No matter what effort s/he makes, a migrant child will never become an urban child." Items are rated on a 7-point scale, ranging from 1 = strongly disagree to 7 = strongly agree. The questionnaire has good reliability, with a Cronbach's alpha of .68.


Preliminary Analyses

The results of intercorrelations among variables are shown in Table 1. As can be seen in this table, perceived discrimination has a significant negative correlation with self-esteem, intergroup permeability, life satisfaction, and identity fusion; self-esteem has a significant positive correlation with intergroup permeability, life satisfaction, and identity fusion; and life satisfaction has a significant positive correlation with identity fusion.

Testing the Mediating Effect of Intergroup Permeability

We first compared the hypothesized model (mediator model) with the competing model (nonmediator model), with the purpose of choosing a model that would better fit the data and be comparatively simple and straightforward. Our comparison was based on the [DELTA][chi square] and [DELTA]df ([chi square] and df discrepancy) between the two models. If the discrepancy was insignificant then it is appropriate to choose the model with simpler paths, but if the discrepancy is significant, which indicates a significant difference in the goodness of fit, and the more complicated model with more paths is better than the simpler model with fewer paths, then it is appropriate to choose the more complicated, better-fitting model (Wen, Hau, & Marsh, 2004). Through comparing the nested models (see Table 2), we noted a significant discrepancy between the hypothesized model and the competing model. Thus, we chose the mediator model, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 reveals that when the mediator factor of intergroup permeability is added, the path coefficient of perceived discrimination to life satisfaction is significant ([gamma] = -.19, SE = .02, p < .01), as are those to identity fusion ([gamma] = -.18, SE = .019,p < .01), and intergroup permeability ([gamma] = -.21, SE = .014,p < .01). The path coefficient of intergroup permeability to life satisfaction is also significant ([gamma] = .19, SE = .10, p < .01), as is that to identity fusion ([gamma] = .20, SE = .10, p < .001). We believe that it is obvious that intergroup permeability plays the role of a partial mediator in the relationship between perceived discrimination and social integration.

The Moderating Effect of Self-Esteem on the Mediation Effect of Intergroup Permeability

Muller, Judd, and Yzerbyt (2005) stated that moderating mediation means that the effect of the mediating variable on both the predict variable and the dependent variable depends on the moderator variable. We first mean-centered (subtracted the respective mean) the independent variable (intergroup permeability) and the moderator variable (self-esteem) to avoid the influence of multicollinearity. Next, we calculated if the interaction between intergroup permeability and self-esteem was a significant predictor of the relationship between life satisfaction and identity fusion. The fit indices of the analysis were as follows: [chi square]/d/ = 3.11, RMSEA = .070, GFI = .975, TLI = .943, CFI = .965. The path coefficient of the interaction term on life satisfaction was significant ([gamma] = .19, SE = .03, p < .001), which indicates that self-esteem has a moderating effect on the degree to which intergroup permeability can be used to predict life satisfaction. The path coefficient of the interaction term on identity fusion, however, was insignificant, which indicates that self-esteem does not have a moderating effect on the interaction between intergroup permeability and identity fusion. We then used a simple slopes test to analyze the moderating effect of self-esteem. We categorized the moderating variables into two groups (high level and low level) by adding or subtracting one standard deviation from the mean. The simple slopes test showed (see Figure 2) that self-esteem level yielded a significant moderating effect on the interaction between intergroup permeability and life satisfaction, and that high-level self-esteem can increase the life satisfaction of migrant children with low perceived intergroup permeability.

The results above show that migrant children's intergroup permeability has a partial mediating effect in the relationship between perceived discrimination and social integration, and that self-esteem has a moderating effect on the interaction between intergroup permeability and life satisfaction. This indicates that intergroup permeability is a moderating mediator variable. To further test this, we performed an integrated model test. The fit indices were [chi square]/d/ = 2.11, RMSEA = .051; GFI = .961, TLI = .950, CFI = .963, indicating a good model fit. The path coefficients were all significant, comprising those between perceived discrimination and intergroup permeability ([gamma] = -.23, SE = .011, p < .001), perceived discrimination and life satisfaction ([gamma] = -.27, SE = .014, p < .001), perceived discrimination and identity fusion ([gamma] = -.22, SE = .015, p < .001), intergroup permeability and life satisfaction ([gamma] = .14, SE = .084, p < .05), intergroup permeability and identity fusion ([gamma] = .20, SE = .092, p < .001), and life satisfaction with the interaction of intergroup permeability with self-esteem ([gamma] = .19, SE = .003, p < .001). The results indicate that intergroup permeability has a moderating mediation effect on the life satisfaction of migrant children.


The Consequences of Perceived Discrimination Among Migrant Children

Consistent with Hypothesis 1, we found a significantly negative correlation between perceived discrimination and integration indices. Perceived discrimination was also a negative predictor of the life satisfaction and identity integration of migrant children. This result is in accordance with those of previous researchers indicating that perceived discrimination yields negative effects on the physical and mental health of migrant children (Liu & Shen, 2009). Branscombe, Schmitt, and Harvey (1999) proposed in the rejection-identification model that perceived discrimination could directly reduce an individual's sense of happiness. This further indicates that among all the risk factors that influence the social integration of migrant children, experiences of perceived discrimination resulting from the migrant population's identity are a prominent factor that reduces migrant children's life satisfaction and impedes their process of identity fusion.

The Mechanism of Intergroup Permeability in the Social Integration of Migrant Children: A Moderating Mediation Effect

Consistent with Hypothesis 2, the results show that intergroup permeability is a mediator of social integration; that is, perceived discrimination causes poor social integration of migrant children by exerting a negative influence on intergroup permeability. Perceived discrimination inflicted by the predominant out-group and experienced by migrant children in daily life will weaken the latter's perception of the possibility of improving their group status. This exaggerates the disparity between groups and reduces migrant children's perception of the openness of intergroup channels, which in turn limits their strategy selection to improve their group status (Filip & Norbert, 2000) and thereby influences their social integration.

Consistent with Hypothesis 3, we discovered that self-esteem, as a positive psychological character, regulates the mediating effect of intergroup permeability. Therefore, only the life satisfaction of individuals who have a high level of self-esteem will increase as their perceived intergroup permeability improves. This is in accordance with the findings of Xi, Sang, and Zuo (2008), indicating that as an important positive psychological character, self-esteem could protect people's mental health and their social adaptation in adverse situations. In this research, migrant children under low intergroup permeability conditions have a low level of life satisfaction individually, however high the level of their self-esteem may be. This indicates that individual positive mentalities cannot take effect independent of social structure context.


There are several limitations in this study that should be addressed by future researchers. First, we used self-report surveys to assess the relationships among variables, making it impossible to deduce the causal relationships with precision. Our findings can be verified in future through the use of longitudinal or experimental designs. Moreover, we explored and discussed deeply only intergroup permeability in relation to the intergroup relationship structure variables. More comprehensive research into other intergroup relationship structure variables, such as the stability and legitimacy of intergroup relationships, could be conducted in the future.



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Zhen Hao

East China Normal University and Shanghai International Studies University

Lijuan Cui

East China Normal University

Zhen Hao, The School of Psychology and Cognitive Science, East China Normal University, and School of English Studies, Shanghai International Studies University; Lijuan Cui, The School of Psychology and Cognitive Science, East China Normal University.

This research was supported by a discovery grant from the Program for New Century Talents in University, China (No. NCET-10-0382), and Shanghai Research on Education (No. B13011). Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Lijuan Cui, The School of Psychology and Cognitive Science, East China Normal University, 3663 North Zhongshan Road, PuTuo District, Shanghai 200062, People's Republic of China. Email:

Table 1. Intercorrelations Among Variables

Variable                     Perceived      Self-esteem

Perceived discrimination         -
Self-esteem                   -.13 **            -
Intergroup permeability       -.19 **          .39 **
Life satisfaction             -.25 **          .37 **
Identity fusion               -.24 **          .30 **

Variable                     Intergroup         Life       Identity
                            permeability    satisfaction    fusion

Perceived discrimination
Intergroup permeability          -
Life satisfaction              .20 **            -
Identity fusion                .21 **          .23 **         -

Note. ** p < .01.

Table 2. SEM Comparison

Model               [chi square]   df   [chi square]/df   GFI

Mediator model         68.76       39        1.76         .96
Nonmediator model      95.74       42        2.28         .95

Model               IFI   CFI   TLI   RMSEA     [DELTA]
                                              [chi square]

Mediator model      .97   .97   .96   .048
Nonmediator model   .95   .95   .94   .062     26.98(3) *

Note. N = 437. * p < .01.
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Author:Hao, Zhen; Cui, Lijuan
Publication:Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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