Working in Cultural Contact Zones: Paradoxes in Expatriate Managers' Knowledge Translation and Identity Construction

Thursday, 14 July 2016
Location: Hörsaal 18 (Juridicum)
Distributed Paper
Anna SPIEGEL, Bielefeld University, Germany
In recent management studies expatriate managers have been addressed as core protagonists of economic globalization, management and knowledge exchange in Multinational Corporations (MNCs). They have been celebrated as ‘global managers’, members of a ‘cosmopolitan business elite’ or as successful ‘boundary spanners’. However, large parts of the related literature argue from a strong normative, ethnocentric perspective and lack a sound empirical foundation. This paper reassesses the image of the expatriate manager being a cosmopolitan boundary spanner by exploring processes of identity construction and knowledge translation taking place at transnational corporate offices of MNCs from an ethnographic perspective.

Drawing on 28 ethnographic case studies of German and American expatriate managers conducted between 2011 and 2014 in China, Germany and the US, the paper argues that corporate offices are cultural contact zones where negotiations on both the cultural identity of the company and of its individual members take place. We suggest connecting the question of knowledge translation with the analysis of identity construction at the local office level, as the ways how knowledge is transformed, negotiated and translated depend very strongly on how the local ‘Other’ is perceived by the mobile expatriate managers. The paper, therefore, examines: 1) expatriate managers’ interactions with local colleagues, 2) their perceptions of and strategies in dealing with local work practices, and 3) the cultural identity they display in the organization of their office space.

Findings indicate a variety of different modes of symbolic management and knowledge translation ranging from attempts to displace host country work and cultural practices from the office space to visions of creating cosmopolitan office spaces that integrate diverse cultural meanings and knowledge repertoires. Our findings suggest that expatriate managers' practices transcend the polarized images of mobile elites as either cosmopolitan ‘global managers’ or parochial anti-cosmopolitans.