The JGM BitBlog: (Re)constructing work identities behind the scenes - the case of expatriate engineers

Journal of Global Mobility

Vanda Papafilippou, University of West of England, Bristol, UK
Christina Efthymiadou, University of West of England, Bristol, UK

For at least two decades, the UK government and industry have expressed concerns about the skills shortage in engineering. As a result, many engineers, especially from South Europe, were attracted to the UK. Although there is a vast literature on expatriates, we still know very little about how Self-Initiated Expatriates (SIEs) adjust to their new working environments and job demands and even less about how expatriate work identities change. How are we to explore their identity work and where is it really taking place?
There is extant evidence showing that internationally mobile workers tend to form what is known as ‘expatriate bubbles’ based on shared national identities, language, and experience to create a ‘safe space’ and feel at home. These ‘bubbles’, to offer social defences against new and possibly upsetting experiences, made us wonder If they can also function in a supportive way for SIEs who try to adjust in new workplaces and might face identity conflicts. Our study focused on the role of the bubbles in expatriates' professional life. These identity workspaces tend not to be visible to everyone as they take place, in Goffmanian terms, in the back regions of performance.
In order to explore the identity work participants do in the expatriate bubbles, ‘behind the scenes’, we conducted in-depth semi-structured interviews with 37 SIE engineers from Greece, Italy and Spain. Our analysis of SIE’s narratives indicates that expatriate bubbles can be a powerful mechanism for coping with foreignness through strengthening SIE’s sense of belonging. Furthermore, they also seem to act as identity workspaces for SIEs to navigate identity conflicts in the workplace relating to their acceptance from others and their competency at work, as compatriots -and other SIEs- acted as a bridge between the home and the host culture. What is more, expatriate bubbles in the workplace appeared to be a valuable source of informational, instrumental, and emotional/ psychosocial support and offered a space not only for reflecting on their experience of working abroad, but also for emergent identity work, as through these bubbles SIEs appeared to expand their initial role boundaries as engineers and embrace elements from both home and host cultures.

To read the full article, please see the Journal of Global Mobility publication:
Papafilippou, V. and Efthymiadou, C. (2023), "Identity work in the backstage: exploring the role of expatriate bubbles in identity work of self-initiated expatriate engineers through a Goffmanian lens", Journal of Global Mobility, Vol. 11 No. 1, pp. 92-109.