What are we missing about culture when we talk careers?


I’m presently reading scholarly material for a manuscript on career negotiations from a cultural perspective, and it strikes me that I’ve hardly found anything that considers culture outside the white collar, global “knowledge economy.” Of course, that is the main goal of this manuscript — to argue that, look, we’ve got all this great and interesting research about expatriates, so-called “global careers” (like call center workers), and virtual/distributed teams in and from different parts of the world, but we’re still missing some pretty important actors in this setup.

For one, we’re not talking about the people who might be doing “global work” in ways that are different from the supply chains and off-shoring positions we’re so familiar with (think Apple and Foxconn!). They might be the ones working on political or economic immigration, with marginalized or even disenfranchised communities, or they could be employed in sectors that are still largely hidden from prominence (e.g., the anonymous coffee grower somewhere in South America). For another, we’re not talking about the careers of people who are trying their best to climb onto the global, knowledge economy system that rules our present roost — but, for all their effort, lack the networks, social capital, adaptation skills, or technical expertise to break through.

Instead, when we think about careers and cultures together in the public sphere (which isn’t a lot,mind you!), we tend to focus on the “haves” rather than the “have-nots.” Even in the academic literature, this gap is usually explained away by the lapse between institutional structures that characterize a particular job/industry, and the actual actions on the part of individuals that fall short. We think of culture in static, fixed, “essential” terms — culture is a race, an ethnicity, a color of skin, or some other tangible that marks you as foreign — rather than realize that culture is an interpretive schema for how we do things (and don’t do others). Similarly, we often think about career in terms of specific sequences of paid work, rather than appreciate how one’s career includes both life and work, prosperity and poverty both: it includes those stints of paid work, but also the breaks and temporary stints in between, the unpaid internships, and the meaningful trip that allowed me (you?) to understand (finally!) what I wanted to do with my life. Each of these steps, or milestones, or “twists in the road” are shaped through interactions with the broader world “outside” the job, organization, or even industry that employs (and pays) us presently. In other words, how we learn particular work norms and why they are important — that is, the skills and motivations for career development — depends crucially on culture, the broader social interactions that “in-form” these norms and reasons.

Moreover, as we become more attuned to the culture(s) at play, we also become more aware of the underlying tensions, politics, and inequities that characterize our accomplishment of these contemporary careers… Why do we (as researchers and as regular people) pay more attention to the call center worker half-way around the world who will help us through the latest laptop complication, as opposed to the immigrant nurse practitioner who might live only a few blocks down the road? How are we as researchers implicated in these questions about career we ask, and the sites of inquiry we adopt? Thus, thinking about careers from a cultural perspective provides both an analytic (i.e., what is culture, what is career, and how are they interconnected?) and a methodological (i.e., how should I go about studying this intersection?) template for use.


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