Developing a Career Through Corporate Expatriation: A Study Using Semi-Structured Interviews in the Chinese Context


Based on a qualitative study of 31 Chinese corporate expatriates, this case study examines a range of methodological issues including the research design, conducting semi-structured interviews, and the analytical process using NVivo. Underpinned by the phenomenological paradigm, a qualitative methodology is presented as the appropriate approach to interpret narratives of human experience in intercultural contexts consistent with the research question. Associated research objectives are articulated and implementation of the chosen research methods and research design are discussed. Through interpretation of the rich description of Chinese corporate expatriates’ narrative accounts of their experiences, this case study aims to provide an insight into how to conduct a qualitative research to gain rich data that can help to understand the complexity of social interactions. Furthermore, in this case study, I share my experience of researching expatriation in the Chinese context and challenges that I have encountered during the process, as well as lessons that I have learned. Institutional, cultural, and personal factors are acknowledged as part of the important research design with an aim to gain trust with research participants.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this case, students should be able to

  • Critically evaluate the purposes of semi-structured interviews in expatriation research
  • Identify the potential challenges of conducting a Chinese research and methods to address them
  • Recognize the role of building trust with participants during an interview
  • Demonstrate the understanding of reflexivity in the data analysis

Case Study

By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is bitterest. (Confucius, 480 BC–350 BC)

Study Background

Corporate expatriation is at the center of this study. This research interest was triggered by my own experiences as a Chinese who is working and living in New Zealand. These experiences, which have been a range of good, and sometimes frustrating, memories, are often the result of differences and challenges between cultures. China is the country where I grew up and received fundamental lessons on cultural values, and as my family members remain in China, I retain strong social ties and connections with my cultural roots. However, New Zealand is the place where I opened my mind and received my academic education and where I have spent much of my adult life. From time to time, I seemed to struggle to find my “belongingness” and social identity. These experiences sparked my curiosity about whether international experiences add value to personal satisfaction and growth and therefore motivated me to explore the notion of international experience from the perspectives of corporate expatriates.

Most literature concerning corporate expatriates focuses on expatriates from Western countries (McNulty & Brewster, 2017). By comparison, corporate expatriates from emerging economies such as China remain an under-researched group despite a rapid growth of multinational companies from these newly emerging economies. Moreover, much of the research often takes a unilateral perspective (such as either motivation, experience, or career) lacking theoretical integration and failing to investigate the complexity of international assignments. To address this gap, this study adopts an integrated, multi-dimensional theoretical framework incorporating motivation, experience, and career capital using a qualitative research methodology based on in-depth interviews and is located within an interpretive paradigm in which individual meaning, action, social relationships, and interactions are paramount. This exploratory study aims to learn personal and career stories so a qualitative method sought to be appropriate.

Research Design

The extensive search and review of corporate expatriation studies have established that surveys are the most commonly used method in expatriation studies (De Cieri, 2005). Much of this research attempts to investigate causal relationships between variables based on existing theoretical frameworks such as career capital or motivational models. There is however, now a call for more qualitative methods such as interviews, not least because of the relevance of personal perspectives (Baruch, Altman, & Tung, 2016). In a review article on the topic of global managers, Tarique and Schuler (2010) suggest that because the field of global careers is relatively young, qualitative methodologies may be used along with non-qualitative methods such as surveys, to facilitate theory building. Hence, semi-structured interviews were selected as the appropriate method in this study. More specifically, a list of conversational style interview questions was developed focusing on the main themes emerged from the literature review. These questions were asked in the same order to ensure a good comparison between transcripts. Numerous open-ended questions were added to allow new themes to emerge from the interviewees’ responses. The overall research design was determined by the following factors.

Research Philosophy

Research philosophy underlines “how we understand social reality, and what are the most appropriate ways of studying it” (Blaxter, Hughes, & Tight, 2001, p. 59). For example, the research objectives for this study of Chinese corporate expatriates focus on perceptions and experience. They seek to discover participants’ interpretations of their time living and working in a foreign country. As such, the research fits with that of scholars who argue a need for subjective appreciation of social phenomenon encouraging researchers to “put mind back in the picture” based on an ontology of truth and a subjectivist epistemology in which meaning is personally or socially constructed (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). In the phenomenological paradigm, or, more broadly, a range of approaches labeled interpretive (Gill & Johnson, 1997) or as interpretivism (Mason, 1996), reality is socially constructed; people interpret their social roles according to the meaning they give to these roles and interpret the social roles of others in accordance with the same set of meanings.

Research Questions

The chosen approach needs to be closely linked to the research objectives and the questions that the study intends to answer. For example, if the research questions are related to numerical enquiries (e.g., what is the turnover rate of Chinese corporate expatriates?) or interrelationships between variables (e.g., does money motivate Chinese corporate expatriates to accept an international assignment?), then a quantitative method such as survey is suitable. The focus of this study is however to answer the research question of “how an international assignment is perceived by Chinese corporate expatriates.” To this end, the research objective is to investigate the complex contemporary phenomenon within some real-life context and therefore semi-structured interview is chosen.

Researcher Value

How we interpret the world surrounding us also affects our choice of research method. Traditionally, social researchers have tended to emphasize the importance of objectivity in social studies (Patton, 2005). From an objectivist stance, validity and reliability are achieved by the researchers operating independently of their personal preferences. Without denying the advantages associated with such objectivity, in accordance with other social researchers today, I recognize the benefits to be gained by immersing myself in the points of view of the participants. I also recognize the fact that researchers bring their own implicit and explicit values to a study is gaining increasing recognition (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005) and the benefits to be gained from a researcher’s own, “insider” knowledge. Indeed, Lofland, Snow, Anderson, and Lofland (2006) stress the importance of “selective competence” or “insider knowledge, skill, or understanding” which enables researchers to be part of the process of appreciating and understanding the phenomenon. Osland (1995) comments that her own experience of international assignments was an important source of insight throughout her study. My own experience living and working in a different culture also helped me in this study in terms of generating the research topic, framing the interview questions, and setting research objectives. Importantly, the fact that I am a native speaker of Mandarin helped to ensure that participants identified with the researcher and also enabled the opportunity for participants to speak freely in their native tongue.

Practical Lessons Learned

Having a clear structure when designing a research process is useful, especially for inexperienced researchers. This would ensure that practical issues are identified and the validity during the research is maintained. There are a number of steps (Figure 1) involved in the development of question themes, the identification of practical issues through piloting, setting the strategy to gain access to the research population, selecting the appropriate sampling technique, and the final conduction of the interview. The following subsections discuss the range of issues that I have learned from conducting this research.

Figure 1. The research process.
The Pilot Study

Conducting a pilot study was to gain feedback on how the interviews might be conducted. This was conducted using both face-to-face and telephone interviews. The focus of these interviews was on practical issues, such as clarity of questions and the approximate time taken per interview, as well as appropriate content. Although the pilot study was time-consuming to set up and conduct, involving multiple visits to the human resource manager and a total of 4 hr formal telephone interviews with assignees, it provided several benefits to the research. First, the original intention was to use English as the language for interviews, and English is usually a prerequisite for the international assignees. However, the pilot study participants often reverted to Mandarin to explain themselves, suggesting that Mandarin was the more appropriate medium to explain their perceptions and feelings in depth.

The Sample

A total of 31 Chinese international assignees from seven Chinese MNCs were used as the sample in this study. Gaining access to participants proved a challenging task, as I faced similar difficulties of building trust and gaining personal information from Chinese people that have been documented in other studies (e.g., Fang, 2011; Zheng & Lamond, 2009). The initial plan was to use a top-down approach in which research invitations would be sent to human resource managers from around 30 Chinese MNCs to bring the study to the attention of the company and help identifying potential participants. Two organizations rejected invitations and there was no response from the others. Informal approaches utilizing supervisors’ networks ended with polite responses but did not materialize into anything substantive. Similar situations have occurred with other research, with low response rates (Peng, Lu, Shenkar, & Wang, 2001) and obstructive gatekeepers (Cooke, 2009). The importance of strong connections and guanxi, as highlighted by other researchers (e.g., Zheng & Lamond, 2009) was more than evident.

It was at this later point that, following discussions with other researchers, a point-to-point strategy was adopted, utilizing personal networks to create initial contacts and then expanding the sample from there. Snowball sampling was thus used as an appropriate approach acknowledging the importance of guanxi in the Chinese context (Cooke, 2009). As one type of non-probability sampling technique, snowball sampling is frequently used in social studies in which a high level of representation is challenging and the emphasis is on conceptual development and initial empirical contribution to a specific field (Bryman, 2001). Snowballing is especially useful to reach members of a special population who are difficult to locate, such as international assignees. Also, the choice of snowball sampling was culturally driven, recognizing the importance of gaining personal connections and building trust to conduct research with Chinese individuals who are often reluctant to share personal information with strangers.

Initial connections were generated through my Chinese school networks in which four of my former classmates were working on international assignments in large MNCs. After initial interviews of personal contacts, they were then asked to introduce others from the target population and to help place an advertisement including the research purpose and content. A total of 31 international assignees from seven Chinese MNCs were located using this sampling technique.

The Role of Interviewer During a Semi-Structured Interview

The essence of the semi-structured interview is the “establishment of a human-to-human relation with the participant and the desire to understand rather than to explain” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005, p. 645). As an interviewer, my role was to “learn” (Wax, 1960) participants’ life stories and to “understand” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005) their viewpoints. Therefore, it was important to gain trust from the interviewees. A common language was seen as an important relationship building tool, so Mandarin was used to avoid any misunderstanding in the translation and develop a homo-cultural atmosphere. The referral technique of snowballing also helped establish trust and support. An informal, conversational style was adopted to lessen the distance between interviewer and interviewees. Although close rapport with participants may create problems such as losing objectivity, its value in opening doors to more informed research overrides this (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). In fact, interviewers are increasingly recognized as active participants in interactions with interviewees, and interviews are seen as negotiated accomplishments of both interviewers and participants that are shaped by the contexts and situations in which they take place (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). For example, I often started the conversation with some casual discussion with an aim to find common interests with the participant. Questions such as “where did you grow up?” “Have you been to New Zealand?” or “What is your favorite city that you have been to?” were used at the start of interviews. I found these starting points were very useful in establishing the needed trust before getting into the open questions and also made the participants to be mentally prepared for the upcoming conversations.

The social interaction between interviewers and participants is also reflected in what Douglas (1985) refers to as “creative interviewing” where the interview becomes a forum of “mutual disclosure.” It was therefore important that each interview began with some brief introduction of the researcher as an international (self-initiated) assignee. This not only provided an opportunity to explain the motives and aims of the study but also showed my willingness to be part of the “interaction.” Connections (guanxi) between the participants and the researcher were identified including travel experiences of their hometowns and familiarity with their companies or international assignment locations and other circumstances. These might be seen as of minor relevance to the research but it was an important part of the essential process of establishing a trusting environment and driving the conversations.

Combining Face-to-Face Interviews and Telephone Interviews

The interviews were performed between June 2010 and December 2011, ranging in length from 40 to 65 min with an average of 45 min. A total of 37 interviews were conducted with six participants interviewed twice as further clarifications were needed after the initial interviews. The language of all interviews was Mandarin.

Chosen methods of engaging with participants were influenced by a number of considerations. Face-to-face interviews are preferable in many social studies as they provide the opportunity for interviewers to interact with interviewees and obtain useful non-verbal information such as body language and facial expression. Telephone-based interviews, which have gained popularity in recent years because it is a low-cost and time-saving strategy, were also considered. In particular, it was noted that some scholars argue that telephone interviews are useful in discussing sensitive topics and gaining more direct and honest answers (Babbie, 2007).

This study involved interviews with international assignees who are located in different countries. With limited financial resources, traveling to all assigned locations was impossible. In addition, the nature of the expatriation made it difficult to arrange a definite interview time in advance. For example, some international assignees in the United Kingdom frequently travel to other European subsidiaries to complete temporary tasks. With considerations of both limited time and funding, the decision was made to combine both face-to-face interviews and telephone interviews.

Making Sense of the Data

All interviews were transcribed before initiating formal analysis. Computer software Express Scribe was used to assist this process. Although it was tempting to save time and transcribe selectively from the content, it was considered important to treat every detail from the conversation as a possible important element. Word-to-word transcription allowed me to develop full immersion in the context and reflect more thoroughly on the nuances of the data.

English or Mandarin

Initially, the plan was to translate transcripts from Mandarin into English so the data were standardized and understandable to supervisors. However, this also raised concerns that linguistic features of the data would be lost in the process. Language is culturally specific, and tone, grammar, and specific words are all meaningful elements of individual expression (Yin, 2009). It was therefore decided to maintain the transcripts in their original form, without the risk of losing meaning through translation and so the analysis used the Mandarin transcripts. For example, “Career” can be translated to different meanings in Mandarin (e.g., zhi ye, zhi chang, or zhi chang sheng ya), these differences would have lost if the transcripts were translated into English before the analysis. Hence, transcripts have only been translated into English to provide quotes. A professional translator has verified this translation validity to ensure meanings were not changed through the process.

Using NVivo

The selection of appropriate software should be highly driven by the research objectives and methods (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). In selecting the appropriate program, several factors were considered. First, this study involved a significant amount of textual data from 37 interviews. This meant it would require a system that can manage several hundred pages of text. Another important factor was that the selected program needed to be capable of handling Mandarin so that original transcripts can be coded and searched directly. Furthermore, the research was exploratory so features such as fast search and retrieval were necessary. This study used “template analysis” (King, 1998) which means that a set of themes was developed from the literature review prior to the data analysis. This required a system which can store relevant articles and link them with the empirical data. It also required the system to have high levels of flexibility in terms of changing, moving, and merging codes. With these factors in mind, NVivo 9.1 was chosen for this study.

NVivo is a powerful program that allows easy access to data and extensive automation of clerical tasks. The software allows users to classify, sort, and arrange information; examine relationships in the data; and combine analysis with linking, shaping, searching, and modeling (Patton, 2005). The ninth version has added several new features which were very useful for this project. PDF files can be now stored and coded, meaning that the literature can be imported into NVivo and analyzed along with the empirical data. The software now recognizes various languages including Mandarin, which means phrase searching can be done directly in Mandarin from the transcripts.

An important message here is to be circumspect about the role that computers can play in the process of analysis and data integration. It is important that the researcher avoids letting the computer (and the software) determine the form and content of interpretive activity (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). They cannot perform the creative and intellectual tasks of devising categories and deciding which categories are relevant or of generating appropriate propositions with which to interrogate the data (Richards, 2009). Hence, “informal” analyses of transcripts (and accompanying field notes and references) was an important part of the process. This research experience suggests that although the computer software was a useful tool for this study, it was by no means a substitute for close reading and immersion in the data and both methods were complementary in developing understanding.


Transcription texts are social facts which are “produced, shared, and used in socially organized ways” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005, p. 640). In a phenomenological paradigm, interview materials are treated as narrative accounts rather than true pictures of reality. They are participants’ reflections on their social interactions at a certain time and in a certain context. The purpose of data analysis in qualitative research is to interpret and understand these reflections. Hence, the NVivo technique is but one tool to integrate and understand narrative data. For example, I maintained a journal with reflections of my perceptions and possible biases in interpreting the meaning of responses and my interaction with individual participants from various backgrounds during data collection. This seemed to meet the term of “scriptive reading” (Monin, Barry, & Monin, 2003):

Scriptive reading is a form of rhetorical analysis that acknowledges the role of dominant (standard) reading in textual interpretation; moves on to a critical reading that explores aspects of performance, perspective and persuasion in the text; and, in a final reflexive reading, considers the potential impacts of a particular reading experience on reading outcomes. (p. 168)

This method emphasizes the importance of reflexive reading that is a careful, critical, and reflective interpretation of the transcripts (Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2000). To achieve the goal of reflexivity, a three-step reading process was followed.

  • First, all transcripts were read thoroughly to gain overall understanding on themes and trends. The goal was to generate possible passages for specific areas of interest for further analysis.
  • Second, each transcript was read line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph. This was the most detailed and extensive phase where previously unrecognized meaning in the text was analyzed. This process aimed to merge and categorize similar themes or topics among transcripts.
  • The final step involved reflexive reading. It was essentially a process of questioning interpretations which brought a level of transparency to the reading and interpretative, and provided an opportunity to revisit the data and the interpretation made. Hence, a more reflective and labor-intensive mechanism of engaging the research material was utilized alongside the coding and thematic technique provided by NVivo.


Designing and conducting a research is a crafting process which requires continuous learning, a resilient attitude, and the abilities of perceiving and dealing with challenges. Research is also context-based so it is important to understand: “what do you try to investigate,” “who are the participants,” and “what is the best way of engaging with your participants effectively.” I have certainly learnt a great deal of knowledge from conducting semi-structured interviews with Chinese corporate expatriates in this study. Some of the lessons that I will always remember when I conduct a cross-cultural research are

  • Have a research plan to guide you through the research process
  • Understand the importance of building trust with your participants before asking interview questions
  • Language is both the barrier and enabler of an interview conversation so make sure to choose the appropriate communication method
  • Pay attention to non-verbal information during the interviews. They could be as valuable as words used by participants
  • Be mindful of both advantages and limitations of using technology (e.g., telephone interviews or NVivo) in your research
  • Make sure that the research method is in line with your philosophical views

I hope this case study will give you some suggestions when conducting Chinese (or any culture-specific) qualitative research. I also sincerely hope your research journey will be an interesting and engaging experience.

Exercises and Discussion Questions

  • How can a researcher’s philosophical views affect the choice of a research method?
  • What is the role of a researcher in the process of a semi-structured interview?
  • Describe some features of the Chinese culture using Hofstede’s cultural dimensions and explain how these may affect design and conduct of a research with Chinese participants.
  • Using your own research as an example, explain the importance of both verbal and non-verbal information emerged from the research.


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