Mika Launikari

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Working in an international environment – First impressions based on interviews of EU experts

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The globe www.norden.org

In February-March 2015, I conducted altogether 20 individual interviews with staff members of three European Union agencies (Cedefop, ETF, Eurofound) for my PhD research. The interviewees represented a truly mixed group of people in terms of age, gender, nationality, juniority-seniority, number of years spent abroad, educational attainment and professional background, marital status and family situation, etc. Four thematic areas were touched upon in the interviews: motivation to work at an international level, professional development, life outside of work, and multicultural aspects of working in the EU environment. At the time of writing this blog text, the interviews recorded have not yet been transcribed. Therefore, the in-depth analysis of the data has not yet properly begun, and thus only some first impressions emerging from these thematic interviews will be highlighted here.

Motivation to work abroad – For this theme the respondents can roughly be divided into two main categories, when we simplify the complex and versatile reality a little bit. The first group of informants was emphasizing that working at an international level had always been a goal for them and finding an interesting career opportunity abroad had been their highest, grandest dream from an early age. The rest of the informants, to a large degree, were saying that working abroad had become a natural step in their career progression after several years of professional life within the national context, where many of them had already been involved in internationally oriented duties. There were some interviewees, who said that they somewhat unexpectedly had come across with a job opportunity in their own professional field in another country, had decided to apply for the job and finally got selected for it.

Professional development – Generally speaking, for all informants starting to work in an international environment meant stepping out of their own comfort zone and facing numerous new challenges in their professional life. At the same time, many stated that they were guided by their curiosity and eagerness to broaden their professional and personal horizons, and had they not taken the chance to work for the European Union, they would have missed out a tremendous opportunity for career advancement, continuous learning and self-exploration. Especially the multinational working environment has taught them, among other things, cultural sensitivity, respect for different perspectives and worldviews, as well as contributed to the development of their language skills, but it has also strengthened their ability to interact and network smoothly with people from diverse backgrounds. In most cases, but not for everybody, the work itself has been professionally rewarding and challenging, and without comparison to jobs at the national level. Some of the respondents mentioned that after so many years abroad there is no way of going back to the national level anymore or at least returning would be difficult for them.

Life outside of work – Most interviewees did not focus so much on establishing (close) relationships with the locals in their country of destination. There were several reasons for this, for example, family-related obligations (incl. schooling of children) that had to be prioritized; regular travelling for work in different parts of Europe and beyond that did not support keeping contacts alive easily with many (new) people; not knowing well enough the language of the country was an issue as without fluency in the national language it was quite difficult to get to know local people outside of work (specifically applicable to Greece and Italy; not so much to Ireland); and some other constraints were mentioned such as after work having little energy left for socializing, or pursuing a team sport (e.g. football) does not automatically materialize in becoming friends with the locals. All this often resulted in more superficial contacts with local people, who were rather considered as acquaintances (e.g. one’s neighbour) instead of a circle of close friends. In contrast to the above, few respondents said that they had systematically worked towards breaking into the circles of the locals and had luckily succeeded in getting to know at least some locals better. Finally, some respondents also pointed out that maintaining close relationships with one’s own family and friends back home was taking quite some effort and time.

Multicultural dimension in life – Even if many of the respondents said that it has not always been easy or pure joy to be working with people from different corners of Europe and beyond, still this multicultural dimension in life was highly appreciated. Some interviewees also emphasized that there is no way for them to go back to the national working environment as they would not be able to survive in such a “monocultural” and “monolinguistic” reality anymore. Cultural or national stereotypes do exist, many admitted that, but in their opinion, they do not have a negative impact on the professional performance and cooperation inside or outside of the office. Respondents reported that they act as professionals in a diverse working environment, where all colleagues are seen as experts no matter what their country of origin, mother tongue, ethnic background, skin colour etc. are. Some of the interviewees said that of course sometimes jokes are made about “the (nationality) are like this”, but that it does not affect the way people work together or the way another colleague is being perceived.

The question about what “feeling European” means to the interviewees, was often addressed by mentioning values such as democracy and democratic developments, freedom of speech, and free mobility across the country borders. Some even reflected on the historical developments of Europe or referred to the common currency (€). For some Europe was a geographical region to which they felt belonging (instead of Asia or America), and some indicated that they are more Europeans (or even global citizens) than representatives of their own country after so many years abroad surrounded by people from all over. The European Union was regarded by some informants as an important project with which peace can be maintained in Europe.

See also: Short article by Mika Launikari (Euroguidance Insights Newsletter Nov 2015)

For background information about my PhD research go to www.launikari.eu/phd/

Photo: Johannes Jansson, www.norden.org

A few thoughts on intercultural interaction

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Human interaction (www.norden.org)

Among academics and scholars there is currently a critical discourse going on about what is meant by concepts such as intercultural, multicultural, cross-cultural or even international and global-minded. These terms are being strongly debated and some experts in the fields of interculturalism and multicultural education have started questioning the essence of them. Do they mean anything anymore? Does each one of them mean different things or are some of them to be regarded as synonyms? Or have they simply become old and obsolete in the sense that they do not manage to reflect and describe today’s world well enough anymore?

Or is the problem rather that there is such a plethora of different context-bound definitions of these concepts and that we actually lack a one-for-all definition that could be applied universally to practically everything? Or should we simply take it as a fact that our societies have become so international, multicultural and global-oriented by now that these dimensions are actually such an integral part of our everyday life already that therefore there is no need to put a special emphasis on them anymore? Have we not almost all become hybrids by now; hybrids who have blended and merged diverse cultural influences from all over the world into our daily existence?

Sometimes the terms international, multicultural, intercultural, etc. seem to be empty and not meaning anything real. The emptiness can be demonstrated, if we have a look at how educational institutions usually promote themselves these days, for example, by stating: “For our home and foreign students we offer an internationally spirited curriculum and a truly multicultural learning environment”. What does that mean? What if we get a little provocative and say in a science-fiction style as follows: ”For our interstellar students we offer a wonderfully cross-planetary curriculum and a truly intergalactic learning environment.” Hmm … is there any proper content or serious meaning behind such promotional phrases?

Anyway, inter-national and inter-cultural refer to exchanges and interaction between nations and cultures, although the real interactions always take place between individual human beings no matter which country they originate or which walk of life they come from. Nations and cultures do not interact on their own as we well know. Rather we should put the focus on better understanding human-to-human interaction that – as much as possible – should build upon similarities across people instead of pointing out how different we may be from one another. This still means of course that different values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours between humans are to be honoured as long as they do not threaten or insult anybody.

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Reflexive research practice to reduce power imbalances

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Background photo: Karin Beate Nøsterud (www.norden.org)

Earlier this week I got inspired by an article of Wanda Pillow, in which she discusses the four trends that are prevailing in reflexive qualitative research today, namely reflexivity as recognition of self, reflexivity as recognition of other, reflexivity as truth, and reflexivity as transcendence. Pillow is specifically interested in the power imbalance between the researcher and participant subjectivities. She points out that narrowing the thinking of power down only to the interactional context (between researcher and participant) does not allow us to consider the full extent to which power may affect qualitative research. Therefore, the reflexive research practice will have to be further reinforced in line with these four trends.
  
TREND 1: Reflexivity as recognition of self is about our subjectivity as researchers related to people, events, occurrences, etc. that we encounter in the field. Reflexivity is expected to improve the quality of research by means of extending our understanding of how our own self-awareness, social position and life interests as researchers influence the entire research process from initiation to completion (i.e. from situating the study to telling the story). The issue here is to come to know oneself as this is the key to knowing and understanding the other as well.

TREND 2: Reflexivity as recognition of the other requires one’s conscious awareness of and ability to deal with differences between oneself as a researcher and the participant. Without properly acknowledging these differences, the other may easily remain an object or a projection of the researcher’s self. In the worst case the researcher’s lack of identifying and correctly interpreting differences can result in misrecognition of the other, and this can make the researcher rely on false assumptions and misguided perceptions of social phenomena.

TREND 3: Reflexivity as truth draws the attention to the notion of voice as well as to whose voice exactly is to be heard and whose is eventually going to be silenced. As there is no single truth in our social world, the researcher should make every attempt possible to guarantee that the voice in the research is given to the community being studied. The duty of the researcher is to communicate his participants’ own interpretations and perceptions of the researched phenomenon as this way a reflexive research practice can better reflect the reality of those who are living it on an everyday basis.

TREND 4: Reflexivity as transcendence means that the researcher will be able to go beyond the self, the other and the truth, and rise above all the biases he may have brought with him into the research field. This relates, among other things, to one’s own subjectivity, situated positionality (e.g. professional identity) and cultural context (incl. values, beliefs, norms, traditions). The question that remains is whether or not a researcher by means of self-reflexivity will ever be able to release himself from subjective biases and cultural assumptions, and that way transcend them and see the objective truth about them.

Finally, Pillow also brings into discussion the uncomfortable reflexive practices that aim at knowing while at the same time situating this knowing as tenuous. These reflexivities of discomfort deal with what is unfamiliar, difficult and challenging. In her article, Pillow illustrates how these reflexivities can be practiced as well as gives examples of problematizing dominant discourses of acceptable research practices. Pillow suggests that researchers who are practising reflexivities of discomfort do not question the importance of studying issues of power and ethics, but they recognise that reflexivity is tightly linked to power and privilege; dimensions that cannot be easily abolished from social/ethnographic research.

Source: Pillow, Wanda (2003): Confession, catharsis, or cure? Rethinking the uses of reflexivity as method-logical power in qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16:2.

Photo: Karin Beate Nøsterud (www.norden.org)