Mediating the Global: Expatria’s Forms and Consequences in Kathmandu

Work is at the center of life for the expatriate professionals that inform Hindman’s ethnography.  Similarly, and appropriately, the core of Mediating the Global is an analysis of the character and dynamics of international labor and its impact on workers.  The book is, on the one hand, embedded within a set of new scholarship that focuses on international aid workers themselves.  On the other hand, it brings new sensitivity to this scholarship by subtly shifting the (still relatively new) object of analysis from the international aid worker’s or development professional’s motivations, relationships, or expertise to the labor frameworks and practices that influence a worker’s deployment and social landscape.  Thinking about transnational elites as workers, Hindman argues, allows anthropologists to see how those who work and live within the structures of international labor are “globalization’s middlemen – in the sense of being neoliberalism’s advocates and its object” (p. 16).

One of the many strengths of the book is its attention to the transformations within the expatriate social world, especially when Hindman traces those catalysts of change back to neoliberal employment practices.  She details how, for example, the regulations put into practice by international human resources offices manage and discipline family life through a battery of metrics ranging from cross-cultural psychology examinations and evaluations to cost-of-living allowances.  The difficulties of achieving a human resource defined success have led to changing ideas of the ideal worker with a more flexible relationship between employer and employee which neatly avoids the problem of culture.  Hindman takes on the problematic of culture, balancing and explaining how the idea of culture comes alive in human resources management and expatriate families through trainings on cultural difference and national cultural stereotypes and performances.  This culture trope of understanding difference (at the expense of other forms of presumed or actual difference and similarity) has structured expatriate life, but is increasingly seen as expensive, inefficient, and problematic. Thus, she argues that there has been a rhetorical move (although she also traces its nascent forms in practice) away from the “expatriate package” to short-term employment and workers who are understood to be international rather than home-based: the flexpatriate.  Hindman argues that these changing practices in the international labor structure that lead toward more precarious employment have had negative implications for gender and racial equity.  In addition, the labor practices have perversely led to workers having a decreased involvement and interaction with the host-country.  Furthermore, these workers who are at the forefront of the boundary-less career are more connected to their “homes,” for, as she argues, more of their lives were left behind [at home].

The first chapter explores the historical relationship between colonialism, employers, and employees, taking on the often made, but superficial, criticism that today’s elite workers are colonialism in a new guise. She argues that it is necessary to look at the history of those accusations in order to investigate more tangible historical and structural connections between colonists and expatriates.  Although Nepal was never colonized, the influence of British colonialism across the border is an reference point for Nepalis and expatriates alike.  The chapter uses an exploration of Shell Oil’s employment management practices in order to demonstrate the changing configurations of bureaucracy, geopolitical coincidences, and epistemologies of difference that have historically structured expatriate life in Nepal.

 

The book’s main chapters are framed around the description of policies of employment and how they intercede in everyday life.   This sets up the book as imminently readable as readers encounter particular workers and families as they negotiate life in Nepal through the policies of their employers. For example, in her chapter, Families that Fail, she describes the HR thinking that goes in to ensuring successful expatriate, much of which is centered on regulating, assessing, and structuring what HR defines as family.  Potential employees and their spouses are given psychological examinations during the selection process in order to find personnel who will be most apt for cross-cultural postings.  Hindman traces a variety of family situations that lead to what is perceived as expatriate failure, and how families and human resource managers attempt to minimize that conditionality, from creating houses that are “just like home” from the appliances to the spatial distributions, as well as paying for (and requiring) home leave visits.

In another chapter, Market Basket Economics: Paperwork and Shopping like an Expatriate, Hindman shows how expatriate consumption is shaped by employer regulations and subsequent cost-of-living allowances.  The market basket framework attempts to minimize the presumed disruption of a family’s daily life by giving them the financial opportunity to buy what the agencies view as normal goods.  The chapter nicely demonstrates the labor of the family and its feedback into expatriate identification and boundary making via consumption habits.  It also demonstrates how the politics of difference and ideologies of culture structure the expatriate life and community

Chapters like these highlight what she terms “enclavic cosmopolitanism.”  While expatriate life might appear cosmopolitan due to its hypermobility or its celebration of diversity, Hindman argues that the infrastructure of expatriate employment provides familiarity, coherence, and continuity to its employees and insulates from many encounters with the Other (despite, in many cases, the intentions of the families or employers).  She skillfully elucidates the mechanisms which create and maintain Expatria, a further strength of the book.

In order to develop her arguments, Hindman coins the term Expatria.  I remain uneasy with the term. Yes, she means for the term to be a destabilizer, and she aptly demonstrates its fragility and dynamism.  Yet its naming can too easily be at odds with her attempts to get out of the bounded culture categorization regime.  At various points she names it as a community, the nature of the expatriate community, a network of associations, a world of moving-without-moving where geographical displacement is trumped by social coherency, as a product of the package expatriate labor, and as a polity.  This analytic nebulousness works against her otherwise excellent description of the dynamics of international labor regimes on employees and their families and how neoliberal mandates like efficiency impact on employer-employee relationships.

Kimberly Coles, University of Redlands

Hindman, Heather. Mediating the Global: Expatria’s Forms and Consequences in Kathmandu. Stanford University Press, 2013. Read More at Stanford University Press.

 

 

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