The JGM BitBlog: Expatriate bubbles and their boundaries - An empirical study of Finnish expatriates

Journal of Global Mobility

Tuomo Peltonen, Aalto University, Finland

Sirkka-Liisa Huhtinen, University of Helsinki, Finland

There is a growing widespread awareness of "expatriate bubbles" among researchers. In this research, the metaphor of a "bubble" captures expatriate communities' dual nature as insulated and fragile enclaves. The boundaries separating the community are not externally set but can be seen as the consequences of active boundary work; expatriates themselves are involved in the creation of the "bubble". We have undertaken an ethnographic study of a community of Finnish expatriates in Southeast Asia empirically to describe how symbolic boundaries are constructed. 

Three different modalities of symbolic boundary processes were distinguished for the descriptive framework: cultural, moral, and spatial. The difference between 'them and us' in cross-cultural encounters leads to the construction and negotiation of delimiting symbolic boundaries on cultural modality between expatriates and locals. Finnish national ceremonies require inside knowledge of culture and society, and the peculiarity of the Finnish language create a symbolic boundary to other foreigners and locals. The moral modality of symbolic definitions is based on moral judgments, a new topic that emerged inductively from our empirical material. Morally shamed behavior of tourists, judged by expatriates and younger expatriates, avoid 'bubble life' as morally harmful. The third modality of boundary work is related to spatial boundaries. Junior Finnish expatriates avoid attending places like 'expatriate restaurants'. The differences between in and out-groups are often intertwined with the spatial identifications of different communities and have been identified as a critical area in forming expatriate identity and relationships.

The study revealed three levels of boundary formation: expatriate community, national expatriate community, and expatriate subgroup communities. The bubble of Western expatriates took shape in relation to other foreigners (non-expatriates) and locals. Finnish expatriates' bubble boundary formation worked in relation to other national expatriates and locals. These boundaries give rise to the national communities of expatriates. The third level of boundaries appeared inside national expatriate communities with internal border struggles along different lines, potentially dividing the expatriate community into distinct subgroups. Among Finnish expatriates, this embodied forming bubbles of seasoned and junior expatriates.

This article contributes to the conceptualization of expatriate bubbles by utilizing the symbolic boundary approach, which adds perspective to the embryonic theory of the subjective boundaries of expatriate communities. The concepts of subjective and symbolic boundary lead to an interesting discussion of boundary processes of bubbles in the making in different expatriate communities. We hope the theoretical framework developed in this paper could serve as a conceptual or analytical guideline for further empirical studies of boundaries on expatriate community bubbles. The theoretical ground of this study and examples of data are thoroughly introduced in the article itself.

To read the full article, please see the Journal of Global Mobility publication:
Peltonen, T. and Huhtinen, S.-L. (2023), "A bubble in the making: symbolic boundaries in a Finnish expatriate community", Journal of Global Mobility, Vol. 11 No. 1, pp. 75-91.