EASA2014: Collaboration, Intimacy & Revolution


Child migrants or 'third culture kids'? Approaches to children and privileged mobility (ANTHROMOB)

Location A-121
Date and Start Time 02 August, 2014 at 09:00


Mari Korpela (University of Tampere) email
Anne-Meike Fechter (University of Sussex) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

This panel broadens the analytical framework of 'child migration' to include those economically and socially privileged and critically considers the theoretical framework of 'third culture kids'. The papers present ethnographic studies and theoretical reflections on privileged child migrants.

Long Abstract

The relationship between children and transnational mobility is often conceptualised in two rather disparate frameworks. The first focuses on comparatively disenfranchised or disadvantaged children -independent child migrants, those who move with their migrant families or children 'left behind'- and debates tend to focus on how their welfare, education or livelihoods are affected by mobility. At the same time, a rather different paradigm is invoked in relation to comparatively affluent and privileged children: the notion of 'third culture kids' (Pollock and van Reken 2001) is perhaps the most influential one in this respect. For anthropologists, however, this is a problematic term as it seems to assume static cultures. Moreover, despite a wealth of educational literature on this topic, studies are rarely underpinned by in-depth ethnographic research that extends beyond international schools to include family, peers, or host societies. The aim of this panel is to broaden the analytical framework of 'child migration' to include those economically and socially privileged and to critically consider the theoretical framework of 'third culture kids' and its applications. We also want to address, both analytically and empirically, the presumed privilege of expatriate children. We welcome ethnographic studies of privileged child migrants leading to theoretical reflections on these issues.

Discussant: Vered Amit (Concordia University)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


TCKs: privileged but not migrants

Author: Ann Baker Cottrell (San Diego State University)  email

Short Abstract

Privileged, globally mobile TCKs share much with other child expats & migrants; sponsorship creates differences which are explored. Discussion of Third Culture to understand TCKs. Increasing global mobility blurs but doesn’t erase distinctions including categorizations based on privilege & mobility

Long Abstract

Panel description contrasts disadvantaged and privileged migrants. We must also distinguish:

Migrants: move once, assimilation (eventually), expected.

Expatriates live outside "home" country temporarily, possibly long term, in one or many countries, and are not expected to assimilate.

Literature suggests migrants are disadvantaged and expatriates privileged, although people of all SES and nationality participate in both kinds of global mobility.

This paper concerns Third Culture Kids (TCKs). For many, any child accompanying migrant or expat parents transnationally is a TCK; some reserve TCK for privileged migrants. TCKs are privileged but not migrants. Having much in common with other internationally mobile children, they differ from migrants and even from other privileged expat children.

Understanding "Third Culture" helps explain TCKs' distinctiveness. Third Cultures are created and shared by "men" representing different societies relating their societies or sections there of to each other. Third cultures and their communities are linking, not blended. While Third Culture communities are all privileged, third cultures can be differentiated based on: historical context, sponsor, participants' nationalities.

TCKs are children raised in a third culture and move within the Third Culture, especially if attending international schools. A TCKs' primary culture and identity is Third Culture not a national culture. Relating to many cultures, they are not blended, bicultural, or hybrid. Regardless of sponsor, passport, or countries of residence TCKs recognize a common cultural upbringing.

In the contemporary world, global mobility patterns blur categories and individuals may be cross-national in several ways or be citizens of multiple countries, complicating research.

Troubling the construct: liberating TCK identity through desire

Author: Jean Swindle (The University of Alabama)  email

Short Abstract

This paper embarks upon questioning the fundamental construction of what Pollock and Van Reken (2003) termed the Third Culture Kid, or TCK, or those children who have spent their formative educational years outside of their passport country.

Long Abstract

Third Cultures Kids are lauded for their international travel, ability to speak multiple languages, and global perspective but have also been identified as plagued by a sense of cultural homelessness, difficulty upon repatriations, and a lack of positive affect (Pollock & Van Reken, 2003; Dewaele & van Oudenhoven, 2009; Peterson & Plamondon. 2009). Research on TCKs has unquestionably used the Pollock and Van Reken definition of a TCK and relied on the characteristics noted in the seminal text to formulate a list TCKs characteristics. This paper challenges these assumptions and use Derridean deconstructionist and Deleuzian lenses to interrogate the way in which the denominated TCK has been socially- and scholarly-constructed. Deconstruction "results in a destabilizing of that which we have unproblematically come to accept" (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012, p. 17), and it would appear as if the definition of a Third Culture Kid has fallen into the error of de-constructing then re-constructing (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012). There is the potential for a broader reading of how international experiences constitute a child's identity. Using data from an ethnographic pilot study, the life stories and descriptive narratives of five TCKs between the ages of 18-35 are used to explore the TCK identity through the aforementioned theoretical lenses. The findings present titillating possibilities for different sorts of knowledge production on TCK research and lead to asking different sets of questions that expand the TCK dialogue beyond merely understanding context and causality to adding to the growing discourse of identity constitution and multidimensionality.

How helpful Is the concept 'third culture kids'? School affinities and new geographies with four 'sort-of' Dominicans

Authors: Edmund Hamann (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)  email
Aprille Phillips (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)  email

Short Abstract

This longitudinal study of 4 students with shared experience at an ‘American’ school in the Dominican Republic considers their rejection of hybrid identities despite Korean, Dominican, and American transnational biographies and complexities that affirm and challenge the frame of third culture kid.

Long Abstract

This longitudinal study of four former students first encountered at a self-described American school in the Dominican Republic allows us to go beyond the experience of transnational students at schools (none of the former students are still at that school) and to consider the pertinence and relevance of the category 'third culture kids' when that would not have been a label that fit each of them when they were at the same school. These former students, two now in Korea, one in the US, and one in the Dominican Republic, match Pollock and Van Reken's (2009) criteria as youngsters of relative privilege and ultimate transnational mobility, but not necessarily Useem's criteria (quoted in Pollock and Van Reken [2009: 16]) as "from one culture and in the process of relating to another." Based on fieldwork pursued in three countries, our paper (1) traces the four students coming of age including their rejection of hybrid identities like 'Dominican American' or 'Dominican Korean', (2) examines the role of a school in creating affinity across geographic differences, (3) considers how the very orientation of the school (in this case referencing one country while existing in another) shapes a 'third culture' disposition, even among those whose experience is mononational, and (4) explores how these complexities alternately affirm and challenge the lens of third culture kid as a way of understanding those who come of age with life experience in and/or with overt reference to multiple countries, ultimately allowing us to amend/update the TCK model.

Becoming 'Asian': hidden diversity among 'third culture kids' at an international school in Indonesia

Author: Danau Tanu (University of Western Australia)  email

Short Abstract

This paper critiques the concept of ‘Third Culture Kids’ by analysing the diverse articulations of cosmopolitan identity among internationally mobile children at an international school in Indonesia. It focuses on Asian teenagers and their experience of mobility and socio-cultural hierarchies.

Long Abstract

Due to its methodological limitations, the literature on 'Third Culture Kids (TCKs)' hitherto focused on the impact of transnational mobility on children as individuals, and assumed a singular, Eurocentric understanding of cosmopolitan identities. Moving beyond binary categorizations of who is or is not a TCK, this paper uses methodological cosmopolitanism and postcolonial theory to contextualize individual experiences of mobility within transnational socio-cultural hierarchies. This yearlong ethnographic research of high school students at an international school in Indonesia brings into relief the diversity of cosmopolitan identities among TCKs.

At the international school, only certain student peer groups were recognized by the teachers (and some students) as practicing cosmopolitan engagement with the Other, and thus being 'real TCKs'. Students in these groups were of different national and 'racial' backgrounds but predominantly spoke English among themselves. Groups that used languages other than English were assumed to be homogeneous—and the students ethnocentric—due to the absence of 'racial' differences within these groups. On the contrary, many Asian students in the latter groups labeled the English-speaking groups as simply 'white' or 'western' based on their cultural practices. Likewise, the non-English speaking groups proved to be more heterogeneous than they appeared. In fact, many Asian students articulated their transnationality as 'being Asian', thus deviating from the traditional TCK discourse. This paper explores the social dynamics behind these diverse perceptions. By analysing the 'hidden diversity' among internationally mobile young people, it offers an anthropological critique of the assumptions underpinning the concept 'Third Culture Kids'.

Is it a privilege to be mobile? Multi-local family life approached from children's perspective

Authors: Pihla Siim (University of Tartu)  email
Laura Assmuth (University of Eastern Finland)  email

Short Abstract

The paper explores the relativity of privileged mobility from the children’s point of view, through the case of transnational families in the Estonian-Finnish context. Is it a privilege to be mobile, and for what reasons? Also the methodological challenges in studying children’s mobility will be discussed.

Long Abstract

The paper critically discusses the relativity of privileged mobility, through the case of families with children within the Estonian-Finnish transnational space. Estonians often move to neighbouring Finland in search for better work, with a greater income. The circular migration between Finland and Estonia is also intensive. Relocation is often planned to be short-term at the beginning, but the stay is later prolonged. Sometimes family members move together, but more typically the spouse and/or children join the migrant later on.

Drawing on fieldwork material in Estonia and Finland, the paper discusses the ways migration is narrated in different contexts, and by whom. Migrants themselves often prefer not to talk about unsuccessful migration, failures or unhappiness. We might ask then, are the migration stories told mainly to justify migration decisions already made? The paper explores the ways mobility is understood by different family members, also by those staying behind. The main aim is to look at the phenomena from the point of view of children - the ways they narrate, construct and value mobility. From the children's perspective, is it a privilege to be mobile, or rather to have one stable location, and perhaps parent(s) bringing home commodities? To what extend are their discourses reflecting the opinions of adults? Children might describe themselves as privileged for other reasons, for example for having two home countries. Finally we ask, to which extend can children's migration be regarded as voluntary? Where to draw the line between disadvantaged and privileged children in our case?

A culture of their own? Lifestyle migrant children in Goa, India

Author: Mari Korpela (University of Tampere)  email

Short Abstract

This paper illustrates that lifestyle migrant children in Goa, India, create a culture of their own. The paper argues that in order to develop the concept of TCKs, one should pay careful ethnographic attention to children's agency and everyday practices.

Long Abstract

Increasing numbers of "Western" families are involved in a lifestyle where they spend several months a year in Goa, India, and the rest of the time in the parents' native countries and possibly also in some other places. The lifestyle choice is motivated by a search for "a better quality of life" and a wish to embrace certain countercultural values. This paper focuses on the children's experiences. First of all, I argue that we should extend empirical studies on TCKs to include expatriate families that are not as clearly elite as those in diplomatic service or working in other well-paid professions. Secondly, I argue that the "Goa kids" are creating cultural practices of their own. Their parents allow them much agency in Goa and consequently, the children create a cultural and social space and practices that are distinct from those of the lifestyle migrant adults as well as from those of local Indians. I claim that in order to develop the concept of TCKs, it is important to pay ethnographic attention to children's agency and everyday practices. I also point out that we should question the assumption that the parents of TCKs feel an unproblematic belonging to their native cultures. Paying attention to the children's ethnic origins may not be a useful framework and one should take into account other cultural aspects that may be much more significant for the children and their parents. The paper is based on an extensive ethnographic study on "Goa kids".

Re-visiting Tanzania: from gated community to living with the Maasai

Author: Jessika Nilsson (University of Leuven)  email

Short Abstract

An auto-ethnographic account of moving back to a host nation as a grown up. The paper scrutinizes the conflicting paths shaping 3rd culture identities and questions the need for a child to affiliate itself culturally with a nation state or region

Long Abstract

Being a self-proclaimed 3rd culture kid, the paper is an auto-ethnographic account of moving back to one of my childhood host countries as an adult. Reflections here include the imaginaries of ones' history and its' shaping of identity. By confronting the past, the concept of "truth" is put under scrutiny as imagination clashes with reality. The divergence between, as a child, observing a culture from behind the privileged bars of a gated community to immersing into it as an adult, questions the extent to which 3rd culture kids are influenced by their host culture vs the bubble of international schooling, country clubs and plane rides. Also highlighted here are the often conflicted emotions and strongly felt ties 3rd culture kids produce to (some) of their host nations. Despite the "shallowness" that is often there due to the aforementioned "bubble", many informants (including myself) view their ties to host nations as far more profound than ties to parents' homelands. The un-rootedness of (extreme) 3rd culture life (children of diplomats for instance) is often under scrutiny in parenting debates, yet these debates do not reflect that in shaping of identity and ones' culture one does not need the nation-state or nationalistic/regional affiliations. A third culture kid transitioning to a grown up cosmopolitan can chose his or her culture based on interests and affinities and the internet plays a powerful tool in the up-rooting of traditional cultural formations.

The international school community and TCK mobility: a case study from Germany

Author: Heather Meyer (University of Southampton)  email

Short Abstract

This paper uses an international school in Germany as an ethnographic case study to address the extent to which Third Culture Kids attending international schools experience mobility within their new host country of residence.

Long Abstract

The global network of international schools is set up to offer a support system to internationally-mobile families as they transition from one national context to the next. Third Culture Kids in attendance at such institutions are oftentimes branded as young 'Global Nomads' - suggesting an acquired chameleon-like ability to navigate foreign environments with relative ease and flexibility.

I examine the extent to which expatriate families within international school communities experience mobility within their new (host) country of residence. I argue that tensions emerge between the global orientation of the international school and its practice within its community of TCKs. Similar to other expatriate enclaves located across the globe, international schools tend to operate in relative isolation- establishing boundaries which are produced and reproduced to regulate the cultural influences stemming from the local environment of the host nation. While international schools have been known to generate cultures of their own, to which TCKs are encouraged to adjust post-relocation, it is worth questioning the extent to which these students have opportunities to establish social and emotional connections to the local environment outside of the institution and its community.

This paper uses an international school in Germany as an ethnographic case study to address these questions. The school facilitates a number of institutionalized intercultural excursions designed to expose its internationally-mobile community members to their host culture and society. However, the cultivation of dependency on the international school network for such exchanges can lead to hypomobility within the elite migratory experience.

Between privilege and poverty: children of international aid workers

Author: Anne-Meike Fechter (University of Sussex)  email

Short Abstract

Based on research among aid workers in Cambodia, the paper asks how parents and children make sense of the contrasts between their own living standards and the local population’s, a situation complicated by the fact that their parents’ work is aimed at, ultimately, addressing injustice and poverty.

Long Abstract

Like children whose parents are posted by multinational corporations to developing countries, the children of those who work in overseas aid are often confronted by stark contrasts in living standards between those of a large part of the local population, and their own. Their situation takes on particular significance insofar as the reason for their parents' and thus their own residence in the country is, ultimately, to help address such injustice and poverty. Based on ethnographic fieldwork among international aid workers in Cambodia, the paper explores how parents and children make sense of, and negotiate these particular constellations. Among other issues, it asks how parents conceptualise and communicate these differences to their children; how children understand their situation, and those of members of the host society; and what difference, if any, being an 'aid worker child' makes.

Does it matter where am I from? Opportunity structure of different categories of third culture kids

Author: Agnieszka Trąbka (Pontifical University of John Paul II)  email

Short Abstract

This paper aims at analyzing the role of structure (country of origin, host countries, socio-economic background, schools attended) and agency in life trajectories of different categories of Third Culture Kids. It is based on narrative interviews with adult TCKs of different nationality.

Long Abstract

In most debates the category "Third Culture Kids" is treated as homogenous. Accepting the assumption that due to certain amount of similar experiences they all identify with the concept, I would like to focus in this paper on the different categories of TCKs. I believe that this perspective will shed a new light on the analytical use of the concept Third Culture Kids. Basing on 53 narrative biographical interviews with adult TCKs of different nationality (Polish, American, German, Chinese…) I would like to analyze the role of structure and agency in their biographies. By the influence of structure I mean macro- and microsocial factors such as the country of origin and host country, socio-economic background, policy of parent's employer, parents' educational strategy, schools attended etc. Due to these factors the experience of mobility may be different for TCKs coming from the United States, Central-Eastern Europe or India. Very often my interview partners in early adulthood noticed that these factors influenced their life trajectories and their opportunity structure. One of the most challenging parts of their biographical work (Schütze 2008) was therefore to gain or re-gain the sense of agency and control over their lives.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.