Adviser on the Edge

careers in island communities: research, theory and practice


Aquapelagos and Island Careers: a case study of Orkney and Shetland

This week I published a paper in Shima: the International Journal of Research into Island Cultures titled “Career Decision making in Island Communities: applying the concept of the Aquapelago to the Shetland and Orkney Islands”.

Shima front cover

Front Cover of Shima: love the puffins! It reminds me of some great puffin-watching at Sumburgh Head a couple of years ago.

In this paper I take Hayward’s concept of the Aquapelago (which I have previously blogged about) and examine how useful it can be as a conceptual frame for thinking about island career pathways.

Hayward originally introduced the term ‘aquapelago’ as a way of redefining the ‘archipelago’, a term he felt had become too land-focused (focusing on the land spaces of an island group, rather than the integrated marine and land environment). His full definition of the aquapelago is:

a social unit existing in a location in which the aquatic spaces between and around a group of islands are utilised and navigated in a manner that is fundamentally interconnected with and essential to the social group’s habitation of land and their senses of identity and belonging.

(Hayward, 2012: 5)

My main argument in the paper is that the concept potentially offers a strong interpretive value when considering island careers for several reasons:

  • It refocuses and expands the concept of the island labour market so that it includes employment that may take place on and around sea spaces as well as land spaces.
  • Alongside conceptualising the labour market, it also focuses on the experiences of migration off, on and between islands. This allows for an integrated perspective on career pathways which considers migration issues alongside labour market issues.
  • It highlights the social and cultural context of island communities, and the role of space in the creation of ‘identity’. This allows for an understanding of the way the social and cultural context of islands may influence career decisions.

I then go on to discuss Orkney and Shetland using the lens of the aquapelago to pick out some themes about island career trajectories.

I would be really interested to know your thoughts on the paper!

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“People are happiest living in an area that matches their personality, claim researchers”

Earlier this week I came across a news report about a piece of research conducted in London. The researchers used responses from 56,000 Londoners to create maps showing personality types across the districts of the city. Conscientiousness, agreeableness and extraversion are just some of the traits they mapped. Alongside mapping personality traits the researchers mapped life satisfaction and concluded that “these findings demonstrate how individuals with different personality dispositions derive life satisfaction from different aspects of their social and physical environments” (quoted from the abstract to their paper: ‘Geographically varying associations between personality and life satisfaction in the London metropolitan area’.)

Albeit that this research is based on personality traits within an urban residential area, the article reminded me of my earlier blog post on ‘place and identity’ which considered the different attractions of different places within the UK, and speculated a link to identity. Personally I think I prefer the notion of a link between place and identity rather than between place and personality per se. This is because I think focusing on a discrete individual ‘personality’ might tend to overlook the role of social and cultural construction of our self-concept. So, for example, one of the things I am interested in is how we might become socialised into our environments – with, say, potentially rural young people having quite a different experience of place to more urban young people. So, how does where we are brought up, and our experiences in other environments (for example places we moved to, schools, university) influence our ideas about ourselves and our environments and therefore our future choices of places to live that would suit ‘someone like me’? I guess this is one of the major themes of my PhD, and something I’m hoping to get an insight into when I start interviewing participants later this year!

Reference: Jokela, Bleidorn, Lamb, Gosling, Rentfrow (2015) ‘Geographically varying associations between personality and life satisfaction in the London metropolitan area’ PNAS January 12, 2015


Place and identity

I have just returned from a tour of the South of England – travelling to Cornwall, Brighton and central London visiting family and friends. As I travelled I was struck by the differences between these places, socially and culturally, and how my family and friends had made choices to move to, and live in, these places.

This got me thinking about the way we might identify with places, as being ‘for us’ or ‘not for us’. So, for instance one of my gay friends once said that they only wanted to live in London, Manchester or Brighton where he would find ‘his people’: reflecting the vibrant gay scenes in these cities. In much migration literature, the economic view is dominant – this is the idea that where we move to will be predominantly stimulated by economic choices (such as the availability of work). In perspectives on migration that focus on economic values the importance of place in relation to identity may be overshadowed.


Back in 1992, Fielding argued that ‘migration tends to expose one’s personality, it expresses one’s loyalties and reveals one’s values and attachments (often previously hidden). It is a statement of an individual’s world-view, and is, therefore, an extremely cultural event’ (Fielding, 1992: 201). Speaking to other friends in London, I was struck by the way they casually discussed what ‘type’ of person would be found in Brixton or Hoxton and how far different places were associated with clothing styles, values, and other aspects of identity. In London, where good public transport means that you don’t have to live and work in the same community, the choice of where to live for these friends was absolutely a question of identity rather than anything else (as long as they were in reasonable walking distance of a tube station!).

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The role of humour in the creation of island graduate identities

What I love about research is the way that interesting ideas come at you sideways. So, a couple of weeks ago I met a friend who is based at the Centre for Nordic Studies in Orkney and has been researching the relationship between language and identity focussing on the community of Stromness from the 1960s to the present. She leant me her masters dissertation into the dialogical negotiation of cultural identity in Orkney and it was fascinating!

I particularly loved the discussion of Bakhtin’s work and the lens it can give to examining the construction of Orcadian identity. This reminded me of how much I loved studying Bakhtin in my first degree and got me thinking about how I could use my background in literature and literary theory in my current studies.

One of the statements that stood out from Becky’s research was:

“Bakhtin’s identification of carnival laughter offers a useful framework to describe how humour in Orkney acts not only against bigsy-ness [an Orcadian word that roughly translates as ‘arrogance’] and towards inclusiveness but at the same time is characterised by ambivalence, allowing things to be said publicly which can then be disclaimed by appealing to the fact that ‘everybody kens its only said in fun’” (Rebecca Ford, 2013, unpublished)

And this reminded me of how in my masters studies one of the key findings was that graduates looking for work in Orkney described avoiding talking about their degree because they didn’t want to seem ‘too big for their boots’ – that is they avoided being ‘bigsy’. And yet, at the same time they did need to show their skills / abilities in the workplace, and to be able to talk about their degree in contexts where it was relevant. I guess in this respect, there seems to be a high demand on graduates in a small community to maintain different identities, that are constructed in different ways in different settings, and yet, their identities must still remain consistent enough so that their identities don’t contradict each other. It is quite possible that carnival laughter plays a part in this, I suggested in my dissertation that in order to be successful, graduates commonly adopted a strategy that involved ‘downplaying’ their abilities directly (in speech) but making sure that they demonstrated their skills practically (through voluntary and community work particularly). Thinking about this in the light of Becky’s work, I wonder if the added advantage to this strategy is that it allows a particular form of self-deprecating humour – with graduates (humorously) downplaying their skills in a way that may actually ironically improve their reputation because the people they are talking to know that the graduate is really very capable indeed (they can see it from the work they’ve done).

One of the examples of humour in Becky's dissertation was a story about a library assistant who thought someone wanted a book about 'Thomas O'Quoyness' when actually they wanted a book about Thomas Aquinas (with 'Aquinas' and 'O'Quoyness'  being pronounced very similarly in an Orcadian accent).

Quoyness chambered tomb in Sanday. One of the examples of humour in Becky’s dissertation was a story about a library assistant who thought someone wanted a book about ‘Thomas O’Quoyness’ when actually they wanted a book about Thomas Aquinas (as ‘Aquinas’ and ‘O’Quoyness’ can sound very similar in an Orcadian accent).

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“What we have is an attitude shortage not a skills shortage”

Yesterday morning on the plane to Inverness I had one of those ‘plane conversations’ with the man on the seat next to me. He was telling me about his role in recruitment for a large company in the North of Scotland. And, being a careers adviser, I was asking him about what he looks for in applicants.

Now, in the careers world, there is a great deal of talk about skills – employability skills, transferrable skills, and technical skills. And then there are things like ‘skills gaps’ and ‘skills shortages’ that help to explain why we can have relatively high unemployment but employers can still struggle to fill jobs.

So, my companion and I were talking about this, and he told me that in his opinion “what we have is an attitude shortage, not a skills shortage”. His phrase really struck me, and got me wondering, although in my work as a careers adviser I talk a great deal about skills acquisition and articulation how much attention do I pay to attitude?

Perhaps it is the case that “skills” are easier to talk about – we tend to assume skills are ‘things’ that we can develop or collect (like clothes or books or other objects), but attitude is normally assumed to be more fundamental to a person. Indeed this is one of the things that my employer-friend was saying – that you can train someone in a skill, but personality is something that is more essential, more fixed. And where this assumption of personality as an essential thing makes it very desirable for an employer, it also makes it much harder to talk about as a careers adviser – after all how far can we or should we get involved in development of personality?

However, thinking about this I remembered reading Holmes’ (2001) critique of the skills agenda – he says, basically, that skills are not ‘things’ that we can collect, ‘skills’ are constructed through our social interaction and when we talk about skills, there is always some kind of reference back to the person behind them, to their identity. So, I was thinking, that this might work the other way around too – what if personality attributes aren’t ‘fixed’ and aren’t distinct from our activities? And then I remembered Susan Jeffers’ highly influential self-development book Feel the Fear and do it Anyway in which she emphasises that confidence can be built through actions – by ‘feeling the fear and doing it anyway’.

So, coming back to my companion on the plane… His comment about the attitude shortage rather than a skills shortage may have been a witty and acute criticism of the skills agenda; it may be a warning against a temptation in education and guidance to treat skills as ‘things’ that can be developed through a ‘check list’ approach. But on the other hand treating skills and attitude as separate things may overlook the fact that more often than not these are communicative concepts that are used to talk about the same kind of area – identity and self-development.