Following these definitional issues, we would now like to enter the discussion of the value of international or cosmopolitan capital. Our basic hypothesis here: there is no intrinsic value in internationality as such. International capital has different values according to the national context, depends on the logics of a specific field and on what we really mean when we say “international”. To illustrate this hypothesis we would like to draw on a series of empirical studies on Swiss elites and relate these to other national cases.
Are Foreign Citizens Per Se Endowed with International Capital?
When studying national elite fields and how cosmopolitan capital is used in these fields, one of the most easily available information is the number of foreign top-managers, professors or administrators. However, just to have a foreign citizenship does not mean that somebody automatically possesses international capital. Also, not all elite members coming from the same country necessarily possess the same amount and/or the same form of international capital. Like for all forms of capital, we have to analyze its dynamics of inheritance, acquisition and accumulation. That being a “foreign citizen” is hardly ever a good proxy for the endowment with cosmopolitan capital became evident when we studied the group of foreign managers in the direction and the boards of large Swiss firms (David et al. 2012). Even though their number has increased strongly from 1980 to 2010, the (career) paths on which they arrived at the top Swiss firms – their processes of acquisition and accumulation of international capital – varies widely. A first group of international managers were major share-holders of a firm. Often these managers moved their family firms to Switzerland for fiscal reasons or invested heavily in Swiss firms. Their capital is economic in the first place – coming from another country is not an asset that they bring into the Swiss field. Other managers can best be described as internal climbers in Swiss multi-national firms. These top-managers, moved to a Swiss firm relatively early in their career and then climbed the internal ladders of these organizations. When they arrive at the top of these Swiss firms, it is not necessarily because of their international experiences and networks, but rather because of their internal, firm-specific networks and knowledge. A third type of international managers can be called “merger & acquisition climbers”. These managers pursued internal careers in firms which by processes of merger and acquisition became Swiss firms or merged with a firm residing in Switzerland. Also in these cases it is not necessarily their international assets but their local knowledge of the firm and the local firm specific networks which made possible their move to the top management. Only one last category of top managers seems to owe its success to what we usually define as international capital: the – growing – group of international managers who are recruited externally. These managers often possess very international educational credentials and had a career that led them across several firms in several countries. Their education and career has truly been an accumulation process of international networks and of international cultural capital and we can presume that this international capital was important for their recruitment. This closer examination of the accumulation process of (international) capital across careers shows that often the relevance of international capital is overestimated. Behind what we sometimes too quickly identify as “international” are often more prosaic mechanisms which are not based on the import of international capital.
Country Size and International Capital
Even though globalization has been identified as a trend which has seized the whole world and is palpable in the daily life of almost everyone, we can posit that international or cosmopolitan capital has more value in certain contexts than in others. Heilbron (2001), for instance, shows that the size of a country is important for its implication in (cultural) international exchanges: while large countries have comparatively few exchanges with other nations, smaller countries tend to have more transaction with other countries. At least when it comes to economic exchanges the size of the domestic market is an important explanatory factor to understand the amount and density of exchanges with other countries. Generally speaking, the smaller a group is, the more exchanges with other groups matter (Blau 1977). Applied to elite research, Heilbron posits that elites of smaller countries tend to define themselves with respect to the elites of larger countries. Elites of small countries cannot protect themselves and must adapt themselves constantly to the international developments. Reformulating these reflections in terms of international or cosmopolitan capital, we can make the hypothesis that in smaller countries international capital has a comparatively higher value. As international exchanges in the academic or economic field are dense, in these small countries, it is important to speak other languages, to know the habits and orientation of foreign clients or to possess a degree from a foreign university. In a comparative study on four national fields of top management, we found that while France and Germany’s business elite is still rather nationally oriented, the Swiss business elite was much more internationalized (Bühlmann et al. 2018). Swiss firms, at least in recent years, are apparently more open to promote managers to top positions who have no title from a Swiss university or who have any hardly linkages to the Swiss political field. The high value given to international capital also means that top managers of Swiss firms (including those with a Swiss citizenship) have a more international education and more international careers than their colleagues in France or Germany. That Switzerland’s business managers possess a particularly high amount of international capital can be explained – to a certain extent at least – by the countries small size and the very international orientation certain sectors of its economy have had since the late nineteenth century. We also know that other small countries, such as Belgium or the Netherlands, have relatively important shares of international managers (Timans and Heilbron 2017). We can therefore make the hypothesis that international capital has different value according to the country and that the size of the country – and therefore the size of the field – is important for the value of international capital.
Field Specific Hierarchies of Countries – What Does “International” Mean
Besides the size of a country, also the international hierarchy of countries determines the value of international capital.Footnote 1 The dominance of the USA in several spheres in the second half of the twentieth century has slightly buried the fact, that each field – the economic field, the cultural field or the scientific field – has a different international structuration or hierarchy. To possess an international network, to have spent some years in a foreign country or to speak a foreign language has a different value according to the position the country occupies in the international hierarchy of a field. When we speak of the international hierarchies of countries we have to take into account at least two aspects: the steepness of international hierarchy and the actual form that this hierarchy takes. A comparison between economic elites, banking elites and academic elites allows us to understand some of these aspects.
The academic field is a good example to understand the question of the steepness of international hierarchy. A discipline such as “economics” is strongly hierarchized. In economics, most scholars easily agree on what is “good” or “bad” science. Therefore positions as PhD graduates are allocated through a highly standardised, collectively organised and hierarchized process. What is more, the field of publications in economics is strongly concentrated and hierarchized: the hierarchy between journals is clearly established through widely accepted markers of quality. This clear internal hierarchy makes it easy to rank individual scholars, universities and even whole national disciplinary fields. Therefore, the hierarchy also includes an international component which clearly places the US field of economics at the top, followed by countries such as the UK and other European countries. In other scientific disciplines, such as the humanities or law, national or linguistic contexts matter, criteria of quality are disputed and a clear hierarchy between the disciplinary fields of different countries is lacking. When the international hierarchy is clear – such as in economics - the value of international capital is relatively easily identifiable and attributable. When the international hierarchy is flatter in a specific field, the value and meaning of international capital also becomes less easy to decipher and attribute.
In a study of Swiss elite bankers it became apparent that in the field of banking the USA and the UK are placed at the top of the international hierarchy of countries (Araujo 2017). With New York and London these two countries possess the worldwide most important financial centers. Many of the Swiss top bankers have spent a part of their career in New York and London. In fact, it is a career spell in these two cities – and not necessarily the US or the UK as countries – which endows the Swiss bankers with international capital. None of these bankers have studied or spent a part of their career in Latin America or Africa, very few have spent some time in Asia (meaning Hong Kong or Singapore). In other words: what is important here is not just to have spent a year abroad, but to have spent it in the centre of power of a specific field. International capital takes its value only with respect to the hierarchy of countries, which are strongly field specific.
The Historical Evolution of International Capital’s Value
Most of the literature on internationalization, globalization or transnationalization is rather recent, reflecting the importance of globalization in the second half of the twentieth century. However, the very term “recent globalization” reflects that at previous periods in history, transnational relationships and spaces were already important. For instance, the end of the 19th and the beginning of the twentieth century was, in many European countries, a period of relative international openness. Historical data over a longer period thus make it possible to compare different periods of more or less international openness and to compare the relevance, value and functioning of international capital across these periods (Bourdieu 2002).
To illustrate this evolution, we would like to present the historically changing meaning of “being German” or “having a German” degree for the academic elites in Switzerland (Rossier et al. 2015). The Swiss German Universities (Zürich, Basel, Bern) have relied, since their (re-)foundation in the nineteenth century, on the import of knowledge, titles, professors and academic habits from Germany. From the First World War onward, the share of German (and more generally foreign) professors decreased significantly. Only by the 1960s did the second internationalization begin and the number of German professors at Swiss universities began to rise again. In 2010, almost 50% of professors at Swiss universities were non-Swiss citizens, many of them from Germany. The situations at the beginning of the 20th and twenty-first century seem to resemble each other – and also trigger rather similar political reactions.
However, the status, meaning and value of a “PhD from a German university” or a “stay at a German university” differs at the two historical moments. At both moments, German scholars had a specific “local capital” (Wagner 2010) in the German speaking part of Switzerland. Speaking the same language, they could easily adapt to the local situation, communicate with their colleagues or befriend the local elites. The commonalities between the German and the Swiss-German University systems are also structural: in both contexts the “habilitation” is a precondition for recruitment as a professor. While this aspect remains historically more or less constant, the symbolic value of “German experiences” changes in the scientific field. In the late nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, Germany was the leading scientific nation and a PhD from a German university was an indicator of the scientific excellence of a scholar. By the 1940s and 1950s, Germany lost its status as a world leading scientific nation and was overtaken by the USA. This new dominance of the US is conspicuous for disciplines such as the natural sciences or economics. A career spell in Germany or a doctoral degree from a German university no longer necessarily has a high value. Analyses of professors of economics in 2000 showed that a PhD or a scientific stay in the US is clearly the best explanatory factor of scientific reputation – both for professors with Swiss and German nationality. The German experience alone no longer has a particular symbolic value in the field (Rossier et al. 2015).