Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Producing Migrant Encounter: Learning to Be a British Expatriate in Singapore through the Global Mobility Industry

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Producing Migrant Encounter: Learning to Be a British Expatriate in Singapore through the Global Mobility Industry

Article excerpt


Culture shock is when the experience of difference is seen to emotionally overwhelm a migrant. In this paper, I look at how the Global Mobility Industry, an industry that acts as an outsourcer for international human resource management processes, seeks to treat culture shock in the corporate expatriate. Through arguing that different cultures become medicalised as a risk to the expatriate, the paper makes two key points. First, there is a need to understand the way in which migration industries play a role in producing how migrants experience migration, with the paper illustrating a way through which we can conceptually engage with how the Global Mobility Industry manages encounter. Second, through this I argue that there are spaces out with the 'contact zone' through which encounter is learnt, highlighting a need and providing a theoretical basis for how research on migrant identities can explore different sites through which migrant subjectivities are produced as part of their journey's abroad.


Expatriates, culture shock, migration industry, Global Mobility Industry, encounter


At a talk given to the American Wives Club in Rio de Janeiro in 1954, anthropologist Kalvero Oberg reported on 'a common syndrome, a sequence of behaviour and attitude' that he observed when he, as a government official, was explaining Brazilian culture to newly arrived Americans (McComb and Foster, 1974: 358). Published later in an anthropological journal, Oberg theorised adjustment to a new culture as a transitory experience, a four-stage process in becoming an 'expatriate', (1) adjusting to the new cultural environment. The first stage is the honeymoon stage where the expatriate is 'fascinated by the new'. This is a 'pleasant' but 'superficial experience' of the country abroad (Oberg, 1960: 178). These feelings are seen to subside, due to 'the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse' (McComb and Foster, 1974; Oberg, 1960), resulting in the second phase: culture shock. Here the expatriate is assumed to experience a range of negative emotions: hostility, aggression, frustration and anxiety with the country that they are in. The third phase of adjustment indicates the overcoming of culture shock, where the expatriate is 'beginning to open the way into the new cultural environment' (Oberg, 1960: 178). This leads to the fourth stage of adjustment where the expatriate 'operate[s] within the new milieu without a feeling of anxiety' (Oberg, 1960: 178). Oberg then describes culture shock as a 'disease', where the symptoms of culture shock are both physical and emotional manifestations of frustration:

   Some of the symptoms of culture shock are: excessive washing of the
   hands ... a feeling of helplessness ... fits of anger over delays
   and other minor frustrations ... excessive fear of being cheated,
   robbed, or injured; great concern over minor pains and irruptions
   of the skin; and final, that terrible longing to be back home ...
   to talk to people who really make sense. (1960: 177-187)

Culture shock as framed by Oberg becomes seen as a psychological disorder, the normal emotional experience of expatriates to encounter. As a so-called disorder, it is normative within management and popular accounts of expatriates, 'part of our everyday vocabulary' (Marx, 1999: 5), the assumed normal experience of the expatriate to difference. With the failure to adjust to the new cultural environment being the most commonly cited reason for the failure of an expatriate assignment (Black et al., 1999), the experience of culture shock becomes something that organisations seek to control, especially as a failed expatriation is disastrous to the organisation with the direct cost estimated at 1-3.5 million dollars for a four-year assignment (Black et al., 1999: 15). In this paper, I explore how the Global Mobility Industry, hereafter the GMI, works to try and 'cure' culture shock. …

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