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Boundary work: An interpretive ethnographic perspective on negotiating and leveraging cross-cultural identity

Abstract

The complexity of global organizations highlights the importance of members’ ability to span diverse boundaries that may be defined by organization structures, national borders, and/or a variety of cultures associated with organization, nation-based societal and work cultures, industries, and/or professions. Based on ethnographic research in a Japan–US binational firm, the paper describes and analyzes the boundary role performance of the firm's Japanese members. It contributes toward theory on boundary spanning by introducing a “cultural identity negotiation” conceptual framework. We show boundary spanning as a process shaped through the interplay of the contextual issues that make a boundary problematic; an individual's multiple repertoires of cultural knowledge; and the individual boundary spanner's “negotiation”, through interaction with others, of his/her cultural identities – the sense of “who I am” as a cultural being that is fundamental to an individual's self-concept. At the same time, we make transparent the epistemological and methodological foundations of an interpretive ethnographic approach, demonstrating its value for understanding complex organizational processes. Research findings have practical implications for the selection and training of an organization's employees, particularly of persons who may be considered “bicultural”.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Professors Elaine Hollensbe and David Thomas as well as the JIBS reviewers for their invaluable comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. An initial version was presented at the 25th European Group of Organization Studies (EGOS) Colloquium in Barcelona, 2009.

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Correspondence to Noriko Yagi.

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Accepted by Mary Yoko Brannen, Guest Editor, 19 November 2010. This paper has been with the authors for two revisions.

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Yagi, N., Kleinberg, J. Boundary work: An interpretive ethnographic perspective on negotiating and leveraging cross-cultural identity. J Int Bus Stud 42, 629–653 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1057/jibs.2011.10

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Keywords

  • cross-cultural management
  • cultural impact of MNEs
  • emic vs etic
  • ethnography
  • boundary spanning
  • cultural identity