The JGM BitBlog: Constructing the “Self”? Constructing the “Place”?  SIEs as Norm?

Journal of Global Mobility

Xueting Jiang, New York Institute of Technology, Old Westbury, New York, USA

Marta B. Calas, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Massachusetts, USA

Alexander Scott English, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, China

Expatriates are known as individuals who live and work in a foreign country, but previous research has simply focused on how expatriates can achieve psychological and sociocultural adjustment. Concurrently, this literature conventionally assumes expatriation as a temporary status in the relationship to a home country to which expatriates will return, thus often addressing issues of re-entry and needed re-adjustment upon returning home. Where do these ideas come from? And what could be missing in this picture when thinking about self-initiated expatriation?

First, the phenomenon of business expatriation was traditionally understood as driven by assigned expatriates (AEs), functioning to enhance the economic and other internationalization interest of their organizations. As such, expatriation was a temporary activity, and returning to a place of origin would have been the norm. Implicitly, similar assumptions have been extended to include needs-driven self-initiated expatriates (SIEs) and other individuals whose interests move them to engage in various ongoing international experiences and no “home” to return to. Thus, understanding self-expatriation today may require reconsidering the notion of “expatriate” portrayed in early literature, as well as the notion of “place” from-to where expatriation occurs, not as stable entities but as processes produced and experienced as constantly mutable events.

How to understand expatriation under such different circumstances? What would change conceptually and empirically if the sense of self in self-initiated expatriation fosters mobility rather than permanence, intersecting with less fixed notions of the world? What kind of world would this “self” embrace and contribute to constitute? What kind of “self” would be constituted by this world?

To search for a better understanding of expats today, we followed an interpretive critical perspective to formulate our arguments. We chose Self-Q interview technique to study twenty-four SIEs business practitioners from fourteen countries who were working in China at the time. Analyzing the interview data, we developed cognitive maps of their expatriation experiences revealing enactments of continuous cycles creating and recreating “self” (subjectivities) and “place” (mobility environments). Based on these exploratory findings, we suggest that considering expatriation as processes of self and place enactment may reflect better how contemporary business practitioners engage in transnational activities. From our perspective, recognizing mobility as the norm rather than the exception, and the notion of “home” as less definitive may infuse more realism to expatriation scholarship.

We further suggest that organizations should look beyond predominant modes of managing workforce based on “knowledge” produced and published in literatures from certain countries and then presented as universally applicable. Accepting mobility and hybridization as part of the globalization landscapes produces another way of appreciating “knowledge from everywhere” carried around but also acquiring specific local accents from time to time, for histories and futures mutate as part of globalization processes. Thinking from these perspectives would produce organizations more sensitive to transformation processes occurring in global workplaces and would build and maintain meaningful support networks benefitting all their workforces (mobile or otherwise).

To read the full article, please see the Journal of Global Mobility publication:

Jiang, X., Calas, M. and English, A.S. (2022), "Constructing the “self”? Constructing the “place”? A critical exploration of self-initiated expatriation in China", Journal of Global Mobility, Vol. 10 No. 3, pp. 416-439.