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Nomadic identities and workplace diversity: implications for theory and practice
Article Type: Guest editorial From: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, Volume 34, Issue 4.
Social identity and critical diversity studies
Whenever interacting with each other, individuals develop a sense of self in relation to others, a so called “social identity”. Perceived social identity markers might be linked to ethnicity, gender, age, body characteristics and many more. Workplace diversity concerns matters of difference, inclusion and exclusion amongst and across different social identity groups (Prasad et al., 2006).
Developing a sense of self (an identity) means finding answers to the question “who am I?” It can be assumed that the answers to this question change over time. From a social constructivist perspective, individuals need to find their sense of self in relation to and in interaction with the social world (based on Berger and Luckmann, 1966; Lawler, 2008). This means giving answers to the questions: ‘Who am I in relation to others? To which social group do I belong? Hence, individuals engage in a process of identification with larger social categories (Lawler, 2008, pp. 2-5), such as ethnicity, nationality, culture, gender, race et cetera. These processes of identification involve questions such as (for a French citizen): “Am I French? What does it mean to be French?” Inevitably, identifying with a certain social category means to dis-identify with another. For example, the social category: “being female” implies “being non-male” (even though critical diversity research has pointed out that more options might exist for the individual). When engaging in processes of self-referencing and finding a sense of self, individuals do so within certain boundary conditions. For example, an Afro-American male need to define himself in relation to dominant societal perceptions of how “an Afro-American male should be”. A transgendered individual still needs to acknowledge dominant gender roles when wishing to move beyond them.
In recent years, critical diversity studies have tried to uncover when and how individuals might be restricted by dominant diversity markers such as ethnicity, gender, race and culture. They have studied previously disadvantaged groups, asked the question of historical imbalances of power and applied a postcolonial lens to international HRM (overview in Prasad et al., 2006). To overcome structural limitations to individual agency, new streams of research have emerged. For example, the career paths of migrant employees have become an HRM issue (e.g. Al Ariss et al., 2014). New multi-level approaches to workplace diversity which go beyond mere “managerialism” (Delbridge and Keenoy, 2010), such as relational HRM (e.g. Syed, 2008), have gained support.
Moving beyond dichotomist and large-scale diversity markers
In recent years, increased mobility and migration has complicated matters of social identity, and identity has become multi-facetted and even de-localized. This concerns, for example, those born to parents of different ethnicities, those who do not wish to fulfil gender expectations, and those who relocate and move frequently. Often, they might feel forced to identify with dominant social identity categories due to dominant ascriptions made by others, even though they themselves might not even define themselves in terms of (in the case of mixed ethnicity) as “white” and “non-white”.
This is a radically different starting point for understanding workplace diversity than the life-experiences of those who find their sense of self within larger social categories/diversity markers and at a specific location: They come to define themselves as “French” or “English”, “male” or “female”, “white” or “coloured”. Those who “fit” sufficiently into dominant categories are also seldom challenged in their self-image by others. It is only those who move beyond established categories that might be restricted in developing a coherent sense of self. For example, Barack Obama is most frequently referred to as the “first Afro-American president of the United States”. In reality, however, his ethnic identity is mixed. Still, even though potentially inhabiting a space of the “ethnic in-between”, he is categorized into the dominant social identity category “Afro-American” (as opposed to other ethnic categories). On the other hand, Barack Obama himself might even have adopted this label strategically, in order to utilize it to his advantage.
This special issue links increasing migration and mobility to the question of how nomadic identities are constructed, enacted, resisted and enabled. The focus points of this special issue are, for example, individuals who relocate frequently or who live their lives in bi-cultural or even multi-cultural contexts. It is based on the assumption that dominant and dichotomist diversity markers and their prevalence in theory and practice neglect the life experience of those individuals who might wish to find their sense of self in the “in-between” and who inhabit this space permanently. For example, dichotomist categories such as ethnic majority – minority belonging are often taken for granted, even in critical diversity research, the implicit assumption being that a clear demarcation line between majority and minority employees exists (e.g. Al Ariss et al., 2013). Yet, the life experience of bi-cultural or racially-mixed individuals on the move might go beyond these categories. For example, what is the cultural/social identity of a female German manager with Turkish-Polish ancestors who travels for work purposes across the globe? How is her sense of self linked to established categories of social identity and ascriptions made towards her by others? Which are the categories of sameness/difference into which she categorizes her life experience? How will others perceive her and what exclusive practices (e.g. Millar, 2007) might she face?
This special issue seeks to understand identity from this perspective, namely as something that is in a constant flux, that moves beyond and across single locations and that poses new challenges for researchers and practitioners of workplace diversity. Nomadic identities are understood as the sense of self of those moving individuals who inhabit the “in-between” permanently and might not even conceive themselves in majority-perspective dichotomies such as “bi-national” or “bi-cultural”. The term “nomadic” is used broadly as referring to all who are born, placed or place themselves into a state of expatriation, migration or transculturality. “Movement” is understood either literally, as spatial movement of the individual studied, or figuratively, as the fluidity and multi-spatial character of those categories of social identity with which an individual choses to identify.
The papers in this special issue explore the intersections between nomadic individuals’ sense of self and wider social discourses, categories of thought, structures, practices and institutions, focusing on related inequalities (Healy, 2009). For example, the above mentioned travelling German manager with a mixed-ethnic background will be confronted with stereotypes and dominant pictures in mind about “how the Turkish are” when in Germany and about “how the Germans are” when travelling abroad. She will need to define herself in relation to those dominant perspectives.
The papers in this special issue
The papers in this special issue originate from different disciplines and different national/cultural contexts and focus upon different types of nomadic identities. This in itself is an example of how diverse the study of EDI is in today’s globalized and mobile world.
First, Claude-Hélène Mayer traces the changing identity construct of a single South African male over a decade. This individual is nomadic in the immediate sense that he relocates frequently but also in the wider sense of re-defining his identity on the move. The study contributes to the understanding of nomadic identities by highlighting how an individual (re-)defines himself over time. This process on individual micro-level is subject to frequent changes. This implies that the study and practice of workplace diversity needs to concern itself with the temporality of established diversity markers. Furthermore, this study shows that individuals use a variety of available resources and options to define themselves within a specific context. These options go beyond established categories of difference such as race, gender and profession.
In the second paper of this special issue, Maria Psoinos explores how highly educated refugees in the UK perceive the relation between post-migration experiences and psychosocial wellbeing. This group develops nomadic identities in a sense that their sense of self is split into multiple and politicized “subject positions” (Mouffe, 1994), in contrast to unitary and homogenous subject positions. She argues that such contingent and precarious processes of (dis-)identification can only be understood in context, of which the researcher is a part of. Any analysis of these processes involves dynamics of power, and hegemonic structures and discourses. Hence, researchers need to be aware of their identity in relation to those studied. Particularly, they are required to go beyond a simple awareness of power relations between different agents and groups when studying nomadic identities. Ultimately, they need to reflect critically on dynamic discourses of power on multiple levels.
In the third paper of this special issue, Hélène Langinier and Deniz Gyger-Gaspoz highlight the identity-making processes of expatriates and itinerant teenagers in different cultural contexts. Both groups are nomadic in a sense that they frequently change location and cultural context. This study contributes to the understanding of nomadic identities by highlighting the hierarchies of countries of origin and destination and their intersections with the identity strategies of those on the move. It shows the power implications of how and why different individuals choose to identify with certain cultural contexts and groups and to dis-identify with others, and how these individual decisions are linked to wider discourses, imbalances of power and hierarchical cultural assumptions.
Finally, Jasmin Mahadevan and Jana Zeh study the transition to the German labor market as experienced by non-European Union (EU) graduates from German universities. These so called “third country graduates” (TCGs) are an increasingly relevant, yet underexplored group of highly qualified employees in many EU countries. They can be considered “nomadic” in the immediate sense as they move between their home country and the country in which they have graduated and seek employment. Yet, they are also nomadic in the figurative sense, as they develop a sense of self by using clues and resources from different locations that go beyond a mere home country – receiving country dichotomy. This study contributes to the multi-level understanding of nomadic identities by highlighting the multi-level intersections between individual agency, inclusive or exclusive organizational practices and limiting or enabling policies and regulations.
Implications for theory and practice
What the papers in this special issue have in common is that they move beyond established categories of social identity. The sense of self as held by those studied is more complex than simple and “large” diversity markers such as ethnicity, race, gender or culture might suggest. For example, as the paper by Claude-Hélène Mayer in this special issue shows, categories such as “white” and “non-white” are much more complex from an individual nomad’s perspective. A nominally non-white individual might even choose to (dis-) identify with categories such as “white” and “non-white” in the changing context of South Africa.
All papers suggest that social identity categories with regard to nomadic individuals are never power-free. Rather, those moving across cultures and national contexts are limited or empowered by cultural and national hierarchies (Hélène Langinier and Deniz Gyger-Gaspoz in this special issue).
To study nomadic identities, researchers need to consciously reflect upon their own identities in relation to those studied (Maria Psoinos in this special issue). Furthermore, they need to be aware of the institutional and national contexts and implicit hierarchies which shape the development of nomadic identity concepts, as the study by Hélène Langinier and Deniz Gyger-Gaspoz in this special issue suggests. This involves analyzing the critical interrelations between individual agency, and limiting or enabling structural boundary conditions, for example from a postcolonial lens (e.g. Prasad, 2006). Some individuals might have the agency to re-define their identity beyond dominant categories; others might fail in the process. At the same time, individual decisions and actions can only be understood in their wider social context and within their structural boundary conditions. For example, as the paper by Jasmin Mahadevan and Jana Zeh in this special issue implies, Russian graduates from German universities might have better employment opportunities on the German labour market if they “play the Russian” as expected by their future German employees.
All papers are based on a social constructivist perspective (Berger and Luckmann, 1966). Their interpretative scope ranges from micro- to macro-level. The micro-individual level is linked to subjective concepts of self and identity as held by nomadic individuals (Claude-Hélène Mayer in this special issue). The meso-organizational level acknowledges the influence of intermediate forms of social organization, such as workplaces and career paths. The paper by Hélène Langinier and Deniz Gyger-Gaspoz includes this perspective. The macro-societal level refers to all boundary conditions that influence and might change micro- and meso-level interaction, such as diversity or immigration policies. The papers by Maria Psoinos, and Jasmin Mahadevan and Jana Zeh move across these levels. Together, these papers provide examples of how macro-, meso- and micro-levels intersect to form unique configurations of nomadic identities which emerge through the interplay between individual agency and structural boundary conditions.
By reconfiguring the field of EDI from its “identity margins” in such a manner, the papers in this special issue deliver new insights on how to manage an increasingly diverse and mobile workforce while at the same time paying attention to imbalances of power and preventing exclusive practices. They provide answers to questions such as: How can nomadic identities be studied and conceptualized? Which methods and theoretical perspectives are suitable? (Maria Psoinos). Are there similarities and differences with regard to the career choices of nomadic individuals? How do organizational policies and state policy intervention influence the career paths of nomadic individuals? What explains the difference between those individuals who explore and live their nomadic identities successfully and those who fail in the process? (Jasmin Mahadevan and Jana Zeh). Are there similarities and difference with regard to ethnicity, culture, country of origin or other factors? Are there privileged and underprivileged nomadic identities? (Hélène Langinier and Deniz Gyger-Gaspoz). Together, these papers give answers to questions such as: How is the concept of the nomadic self as held by nomadic individuals linked to ascriptions made by others? Do the inside (emic) and outside (etic) perspective clash? When and how do nomadic individuals suffer exclusion?
Collectively, the papers in this special issue provide vivid examples of nomadic individuals’ sense of self, of dominant ascriptions made towards them, and of related inequalities and intersections in the context of work. They highlight the importance of research on understanding the complexities of nomadic identities and raise a wide range of theoretical and managerial questions. They intend to bring forward further debates and empirical research. You are now welcomed to read on and be stimulated to move the discussion forward, in a constructive, controversial and diverse manner.
Professor Jasmin Mahadevan
Pforzheim University, Pforzheim, Germany
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About the author
Professor Jasmin Mahadevan is a Professor of International Management with a special focus on cross-cultural management at Pforzheim University, Germany. Professor Jasmin Mahadevan is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org