Four seasons in one day? On the fluidity of identity in an era of global mobility

[Guest post by my former PhD student and co-author Ling Eleanor Zhang. In this post Ling highlights the key findings of her exciting work on cultural identity negotiation strategies.]

I have been researching identities of employees for a while now. After publishing a book on expatriate identities with Anne-Wil Harzing and Shea Fan last year, I am happy to announce today that my recent work with Chenchen Li and Anne-Wil Harzing -  a new conceptual framework of cultural identity negotiation strategies -  has been published in Journal of Global Mobility.

  • Li, C.; Zhang, L.E.; Harzing, A.W. (2019) Of Ostriches, Frogs, Birds and Lizards: A Dynamic Framework of Cultural Identity Negotiation Strategies in an Era of Global Mobility, Journal of Global Mobility, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 239-254. Available online... - Publisher's version - Related blog post

Chenchen and I first met in 2013 at a conference in Istanbul, a city where East meets West. The mix of Asian and European cultural elements was evident throughout the city. Both of us have also spent a significant amount of our youth in Hong Kong, another meeting point of Asian and European cultures. In both cities, locals have to navigate their lives within dual cultural frameworks. While we  are perfectly aware of prominent theories in Psychology indicating that individuals formulate their cultural schema before they reach adulthood, our instincts tell us that there must also be some level of fluidity in how adults manage their cultural identities.

The world that we are living in has changed so much in recent decades in terms of global mobility. There are now as many as 258 million international migrants (IOM, 2017), and 164 million of them are migrant workers (ILO, 2018). Admittedly, adults are not likely to absorb their new cultural environment in the same way as children do. However, a long period of working and living abroad is bound to leave some mark on migrant/expatriate workers in terms of their cultural identity. Frustrated that we couldn’t fit our research subjects into the standard boxes “monocultural, bi/multicultural, global, cosmopolitan etc”, we went to discuss this with our mentor Anne-Wil, who immediately responded “Indeed, why all the boxes, I sometimes feel like I change between these categories multiple times a day!”

Rooted in (cross-cultural) psychology theory, our article therefore proposes that - depending on the situation - expatriates may adopt monocultural, multicultural, global or cosmopolitan strategies to meet different needs (see the figure below). Contrary to the recent literature on multicultural employees that has downplayed the notion of choice, we see expatriates as active agents who can choose their cultural identity negotiation strategies based on their own preferences and environmental demands.

We use an animal analogy to illustrate the differences between the four strategies – the focused ostrich (focusing on one culture), the ambidextrous frog (focusing on two cultures), the carefree bird (detaching from all cultures) and the adaptable lizard (embracing all cultures).

By simplifying the complex identity formulation process of how adults relate to new cultures, we hope this framework can help people to see the world in a less categorical way. In my research I have encountered Scandinavian senior expatriates refusing to acknowledge how decades of living in China might have influenced them; successful diplomats not seeing that they cannot help being affected by the places where they have been posted to; migrant workers denying their cultural past. Identity has a profound impact and it can divide people and the world they live in. By taking a cultural identity negotiation perspective, there is less of a need to categorize people into “in-group” versus “out-group”. We can be a focused monocultural in one situation, and a carefree global citizen in another situation.

We’d like to share an encouraging message from Professor Michael Harris Bond on the relevance of our work and his invitation to our academic colleagues to use this model in their teaching.

 “Cultural identity negotiation” is an acutely relevant topic in contemporary Hong Kong. One wonders how this emerging dynamic plays out in HK organizations, like banks and hotels, where HK Cantonese and Mainlanders work together-apart. Love the title of your paper and the substance of it appears just right for teaching my course on Cross-cultural Management.

--- Michael Harris Bond, PhD, Visiting Chair Professor (OB and HRM), Department of Management and Marketing, Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Related blogposts