The JGM BitBlog: Popping the expatriate bubble - a metaphor for integration or separation?

Journal of Global Mobility

Chengcheng Miao, University of Reading, Reading, UK

Hugo Gaggiotti, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK

Chris Brewster, University of Reading, Reading, UK

We all know that many foreigners in any country tend to live in “expatriate bubbles”. But what does the bubble metaphor imply and why is it such a seductive and unquestioned metaphor for the way many expatriates live? It is worth questioning the usefulness of the metaphor.

Metaphors like the "expatriate bubble" displace common vocabulary so that listeners can imagine a phenomenon through a taken-for-granted analogy. However, there are limits to metaphorising, as metaphors only represent a part of the phenomena they describe and can lead us to see similarities while ignoring differences. The example of the "support bubbles" used during the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the complexities and limitations of using taken-for-granted metaphors. The multifaceted nature of the analogy requires an explanation of how the metaphor is being used to avoid misunderstandings and confusion.

The concept of expatriate bubbles can manifest in various ways depending on the context of the expatriate community, so the metaphor has both strengths and limitations. It can be useful in explaining how expatriates retain their home customs while adjusting to their new environment, providing a sense of physical and psychological security. However, the relevance of the bubble metaphor is limited by external context, including home and host countries, the size of the expatriate communities, professional culture, individual characteristics, and individual agency. This metaphor is most relevant in planted communities like state-owned enterprises, where expatriates not just work together but live and socialise together. Here the walls of the bubble may be largely impermeable and perhaps not even transparent. However, in natural communities, such as those formed by private sector organizations and NGOs, which are more involved with the local community, the walls of the bubble are almost fully transparent and often breached. In such cases, the bubble metaphor may be quite misleading.

Similarly, larger expatriate communities in monocultural settings are more likely to form bubbles, while individuals, couples, and small groups may be more inclined to engage with the local community.

By scrutinizing ethnographies produced when conducting fieldwork at various locations, and with different communities, we have proposed a more adaptable and comprehensive approach that takes into account the dynamic contexts and characteristics that influence the porosity and permeability of the expatriate bubble. Rather than perceiving it as an entirely enclosed space, we recognize its potential to change and interact with the local environment. The use of the bubble metaphor to refer to expatriate communities should not imply complete isolation, segregation, encapsulation, reclusiveness, confinement, or solitariness, as the boundaries of the bubble are transparent and those inside are not completely disconnected from the outside world. Instead, the metaphor should be applied to indicate varying degrees of separation and integration between expatriate communities and the local context.

In other words, the bubble metaphor should not be seen as a binary representation of integration or separation. Instead, it should be used in a more nuanced and qualified manner to reflect the changing contexts and characteristics that impact the porosity and permeability of expatriate communities.

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

Miao, C., Gaggiotti, H. and Brewster, C. (2023), "Popping the “bubble” metaphor: separation and integration of expatriate communities", Journal of Global Mobility, Vol. 11 No. 1, pp. 110-124.