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Constructing Organizational LifeHow Social-Symbolic Work Shapes Selves, Organizations, and Institutions$

Thomas B. Lawrence and Nelson Phillips

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780198840022

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: August 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198840022.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 16 April 2021

The Social-Symbolic Work Perspective

The Social-Symbolic Work Perspective

(p.14) 2 The Social-Symbolic Work Perspective
Constructing Organizational Life

Thomas B. Lawrence

Nelson Phillips

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter develops the arguments that underpin the rest of the book and introduces the three forms of social-symbolic work explored in greater detail in subsequent chapters. It begins by exploring how the possibility of social-symbolic work is rooted in the historical changes associated with the transitions to modernity and postmodernity. It then develops the concept of social-symbolic work, explaining its roots in studies of social structure and agency, identifying its three key dimensions—discursive, relational, and material—and introducing three key forms of social-symbolic work (self work, organization work, institutional work). Finally, it presents a process model of social-symbolic work that guides the analysis of the different forms of social-symbolic work.

Keywords:   social-symbolic work, social-symbolic objects, agency, modernity, postmodernity, social structure, discourse, relationality, materiality

In this chapter we:

  1. 1. Discuss the cultural shifts that have made social-symbolic work increasingly common and important.

  2. 2. Define and explain the concept of social-symbolic work.

  3. 3. Present a process model of social-symbolic work useful in analyzing instances of work.

  4. 4. Summarize the forms of social-symbolic work on which the book will focus.


In March 2010, the United States Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), a far-reaching and controversial overhaul of its national healthcare system. Obamacare, as it came to be known, was intended to address the profound problems in American healthcare at the time: individuals paid higher out-of-pocket healthcare costs than in any other country in the world, while 18 percent of the non-elderly population had no health insurance, and another 22 percent were underinsured, despite the fact that the US spent more than 17 percent of the country’s GDP on healthcare (while no other country spent more than 12 percent).

To make Obamacare a reality, the Obama administration had to create complex change on multiple levels and in the face of intense opposition. Just drafting and passing the ACA itself was a monumental task. Its 900 pages reflect the complexity of the issues, as well as the host of compromises and accommodations that accompany any major piece of legislation. Passing the ACA, however, marked only the beginning of the efforts to create change. Reducing the number of uninsured involved passing new laws requiring all (p.15) Americans to obtain insurance on their own or through their employers, which meant a dramatic expansion of the private insurance market in the US. This expansion demanded a huge legislative effort, as well as negotiations with state governments and industry groups to agree on changes to long-established practices in the health care system, including the creation of state-level “health insurance exchanges” intended to ensure understandable, comprehensive coverage at reasonable prices (Davidson, 2013).

The changes associated with Obamacare extended well beyond new laws and negotiating new agreements. There was also a great deal of work at the organizational level, including changes to hospitals, government agencies, and other health care organizations. It involved the creation of completely new organizational forms, including the “accountable care organization,” an innovative new form of medical practice where doctors are rewarded financially when patients avoid hospital stays and other medical interventions, the opposite of traditional systems (Keller, 2013). Another new organizational form was the “patient-centered medical home” in which patients are cared for as a whole person through collaboration and teamwork, again a radical departure from traditional medical organizations (Sommers and Bindman, 2012). Developing these new kinds of organizations not only required new strategies for controlling health care costs through prevention and early intervention, but also investments in information technologies to more rapidly identify at-risk patients, and the formation of new relationships among doctors, nurses, care coordinators, and nurse practitioners.

Transforming a country’s healthcare system turned out to also require important work at the individual level, as pharmacists, doctors, and nurses had to respond to legislative and organizational changes that brought new demands in terms of their practices and relationships. Pharmacists, for example, had to begin carrying out routine procedures such as blood pressure checks. Doctors faced significant challenges to their professional identities, as they were encouraged, and even required, to interact with other professionals in more collaborative, less hierarchical relationships, and focus on maintaining health rather than curing illness. Nursing was similarly transformed, with nurses taking on dramatically expanded roles, as seen in the expansion of nurse-managed health centers. These changes (and other parallel changes in other related professions) created real and ongoing challenges to the identities, relationships, and skill sets of healthcare professionals that required significant work on their part to make sense of and implement.

The efforts that went into making Obamacare a reality represent an extraordinary example of the phenomenon that motivates this book. Obama and the other elected politicians, civil servants, managers in hospitals and other healthcare organizations, doctors, nurses, and pharmacists all engaged in purposeful, reflexive efforts to change social arrangements—what we (p.16) refer to as social-symbolic work. They did so to remedy what they saw as the worst ills of American healthcare by reshaping regulations, norms, beliefs, values, social boundaries, and identities—the social-symbolic objects that populate the American healthcare system. Understanding how this was accomplished is a daunting task. The scale, complexity, and practical importance of Obamacare make it a social change effort that deserves careful study, but it is not clear that our current toolkits for analyzing social phenomena provide an adequate foundation for understanding this broad, multi-level change.

As we discussed in Chapter 1, this book is devoted to exploring a new way of understanding and analyzing the social world. Our focus is on the efforts of interested actors working to affect the social and symbolic world around them. Rather than examining social structures and processes, as has come to dominate much of social science, we believe in the value of a perspective that highlights the actors and actions that shape those structures and processes, transforming them as well as holding them in place. We will argue that by focusing on the intentional efforts of people and groups to shape the social world, we can come to a richer understanding of the social world, how it came to be the way that it is, how it is held in place, how it changes, and perhaps most importantly, who makes all these things happen in the first place.

When we began writing this book, the story of Obamacare did not yet include the efforts of the Trump administration to undo the changes accomplished by Obama and the previous administration. These more recent efforts, though, reveal an important aspect of this story of social-symbolic work. The social-symbolic objects that were the focus of Obamacare are, like many social-symbolic objects, highly contested. Thus, the successful outcomes of the Obama administration’s efforts provoked a counter-response by President Trump and his supporters. Not only was Trump motivated by belief in the superiority of an alternative healthcare system, but also, and perhaps especially, by a desire to undo these changes because they were the work of Obama and his supporters. Thus, the Trump administration’s counter-efforts highlight the political nature of social-symbolic objects and social-symbolic work. They are important as they constitute social reality and limit and structure action.

The second important element added by Trump’s efforts concerns the status of social-symbolic objects. Despite the extensive work done and the complex cultural, legal, and economic arrangements that constituted Obamacare, these arrangements, like all social-symbolic objects, are ultimately fragile—dependent not just on being left alone but on being actively supported and maintained. Thus, our interest in social-symbolic work includes efforts to change social reality, but just as importantly to maintain it.

(p.17) In this chapter, we further develop the ideas that we outlined in Chapter 1 and that form the foundation for the rest of the book. We do so in four parts. First, we explore the historical changes that have made possible the vast amount of social-symbolic work we now observe. Then, we develop the concept of social-symbolic work in more detail, explaining its roots in studies of social structure and agency, and building up the conceptualization of it that animates our approach to understanding organizational life. In the third section, we present a process model of social-symbolic work. In the chapter’s last major section, we describe three forms of social-symbolic work, each of which provides the basis for subsequent chapters. We end the chapter (as we do the subsequent chapters) with a list of resources for those who wish to further explore the ideas we have discussed.

The Possibility of Social-Symbolic Work

A key idea that underpins this book is that social-symbolic work depends on an understanding of social-symbolic objects as being subject to the influence of actors’ intentional efforts to shape them. While the fact that social-symbolic objects can be purposefully shaped by actors may seem obvious from a modern, Western perspective, such an understanding was not always the case. The possibility of social-symbolic work is embedded in a set of historical shifts that transformed how people understood the social world that began in the seventeenth century and then dramatically accelerated in the latter half of the twentieth century.1 At the core of these shifts was the idea that a social world that was once understood as fixed—rooted in nature or ordained by God—is not immutable, but can be improved (or at least changed) by agents acting purposefully. As this shift proceeded, it came to encompass much of the social world, including social categories like class and gender, as well as aspects of “human nature” such as emotions. One result of this shift has been the emergence of various technologies of change: social movements demanding change at the societal level, a huge range of ideas and approaches to organizational change and development, and a multitude of practices aimed at the reinvention and improvement of the self. In this section we review these shifts, focusing on the historical transitions to modernity and postmodernity, and the changes in social-symbolic objects that accompanied those transitions.

(p.18) Modernity and the Possibility of Social-Symbolic Work

The possibility of social-symbolic work as we understand it today is tied to a number of profound changes that began in Europe in the 1600s and evolved over the next three centuries. These changes are a part of the long arc from premodernity to modernity, and then to postmodernity. According to Giddens, modernity is: “a shorthand term for modern society,” and is associated with “(1) a certain set of attitudes towards the world, the idea of the world as open to transformation, by human intervention; (2) a complex of economic institutions, especially industrial production and a market economy; (3) a certain range of political institutions, including the nation-state and mass democracy” (Tucker, 1998: 94).

Together, these characteristics create a form of society that is distinct from any previous form in that we live oriented toward the future rather than the past. This statement requires some unpacking. Whereas premodernity was characterized by a focus on the past and on tradition—things were as they should be—with modernity came an understanding of the world as manageable, and even perfectible, with the application of rational means and technologies. Looking back from the twenty-first century, it is easy to underestimate the degree of change involved in the transition from premodernity to modernity.

In Western Europe, where the move to modernity was first observed and was perhaps the most abrupt, there had been a 600-year period of relative cultural and social stability leading up to the seismic shifts entailed by the arrival of modernity. During this long period, there were, of course, important social changes, including the emergence of the first universities and the development of various technologies, but the everyday lives of most people changed little from generation to generation. People were born peasants, vassals, or lords, and lived out their lives as members of the same social category according to the dictates of religion and tradition. For many generations, the lives of grandchildren were indistinguishable from the lives of their grandparents. Stability was the defining characteristic of the patterned social arrangements that defined the lives of Europeans during this period.

Then modernity swept across the continent. With it came rational science, new technologies, new political systems, and a general belief in progress. Society began, as Giddens describes it, to live in the future, rather than the past. And with this new belief in the future, people began to improve and reinvent every aspect of society using the tools of rationality and innovation. The great migration to cities began in earnest. People began to believe that they could better themselves through education and hard work. In art, architecture, and music, innovation became the watchword, leading to new forms of artistic expression such as the novel and the modern play. The lives (p.19) of everyday people were flooded with new technologies invented by the scientists and engineers who had appeared on the scene, and produced in the factories that had recently been invented. For the first time in 600 years, grandchildren’s lives were fundamentally different than their grandparents as modernity roared into the future.

Our concern for the general change in social conditions associated with modernity is tied to our interest in the more specific changes in the status and understanding of social-symbolic objects that allowed people to engage in work to shape those objects in ways not previously understood as possible. In the transition to modernity, an array of social-symbolic objects were transformed in ways that allowed them to become targets of efforts to shape them. This included the institutions of the state, the organizations of the military, church, and industry, and individuals’ senses of self and family.

If we look back at the story of Obamacare, for instance, we can see it depended on a host of social-symbolic objects which emerged in this period. Social-symbolic work focused on reshaping government health policy and regulation depended fundamentally on the idea of the nation state, a social-symbolic object that emerged with modernity. While this may seem like ancient history in relation to modern debates around governmental regulation of healthcare, those debates are inextricably tied to the social-symbolic work of early modernity that established the basic formulation of a nation state as an object, the ability of states to intervene in citizens’ lives, and the legitimacy of citizens’ participation in determining state policies. Similarly, the social-symbolic work in relation to organizational forms and professional identities associated with Obamacare depended on the emergence of formal organizations as social-symbolic objects with qualities such as hierarchy, rationality, and bureaucracy, as well as the emergence of professions as social-symbolic objects imbued with expertise and autonomy.

Of equal importance to our discussions here, the changes in society associated with modernity were accompanied by similarly profound changes in social science. With modernity came modernism. Driven by ideas about rationality, and inventions such as the printing press and the experimental method, modern science appeared on the scene. At the heart of this new endeavor were the natural sciences, but a range of applied sciences also appeared, including modern engineering, scientific medicine, and agricultural science. While these new sciences differed in focus and method, they shared an assumption that the application of rationality and rigorous methods could provide insight into the natural world, and that this insight would drive progress and move the world forward. The results were spectacular, producing a historically unprecedented accumulation of knowledge: from Darwinism and the structure of DNA, to understandings of the causes of illness and the invention of the computer, society was rapidly transformed by scientific progress.

(p.20) But this new belief in rationality and perfectibility also brought with it an understanding of society as separate from the natural world. Combined with a general decline in the importance of religion, this led to the belief that human behavior and relationships required their own fields of study. This recognition led to the development of a science of society (sociology) and a science of the individual (psychology) that focused the tools of rationality on the social world. The social sciences were born, and their explicit purpose was to develop grand narratives that explained how society worked, what individuals were, and how both could be perfected. Modernism was the wellspring of the social sciences as the idea took hold that we could both understand and manage the social world if only we had the correct grand theories.

Postmodernity and the Fragmentation of the Modern Project

But the story does not end there. Beginning just before World War I, and then accelerating and broadening after World War II, another major historical shift swept across Western society. This societal shift had significant implications for the development of social-symbolic work as the belief in the possibility of change in social-symbolic objects began to lose the accompanying belief in their perfectibility. In this next era—postmodernity—people began to seriously question the idea that progress could be tied to the fulfillment of some “natural” order; instead, what progress might mean became a matter of politics or aesthetics. Social-symbolic objects in postmodernity thus remained the targets of efforts to shape them, but without the assumptions of manageability and perfectibility through rational means that had characterized modernity. Instead, social-symbolic objects became understood as somewhat arbitrary constructions created and held in place by social conventions and political power, rather than their closeness to some ideal. In the identity and social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, the meaning and status of gender, racial, and sexual preference were deeply contested, with similar dynamics in play in student movements that challenged the legitimacy of academic traditions and canons, and especially the privilege that accompanied them.

Although the contours of postmodernity may be less clear than those associated with modernity (perhaps because of the former’s relative proximity to contemporary life), there are many instances of social-symbolic objects transformed in ways that clearly illustrate postmodernity’s divergence from the perfectibility and rationality associated with modernity. The pop art movement, for example, disrupted taken-for-granted distinctions between pop culture and high culture. Roy Lichtenstein, a key proponent of pop art, produced paintings that used old-fashioned comic strips as inspiration, taking elements of comic strips and producing close copies in much larger sizes, (p.21) emphasizing the Ben-Day dots and thick lines associated with the printing process of pulp comics from the 1950s and 1960s. In creating pop art—an art that spanned the previously impermeable boundary between pop culture and high art—Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton, and many others contributed to and drew on the broad current of postmodernity that was sweeping through Western culture.

In the music world, a powerful echo of the social movements marching in the streets was heard in the sounds of the Sex Pistols, whose single “Anarchy in the UK” distilled the sentiments of activists into an angry snarl and launched punk as a musical force. Although the life of the Sex Pistols as a performing band was short, the impact of their music, and especially its translation into the sounds of countless other bands, was enduring. In Lipstick traces, Marcus (1990) describes its essence:

What remains irreducible about this music is its desire to change the world.…The desire begins with the demand to live not as an object but as a subject of history—to live as if something actually depended on one’s actions…Damning God and the state, work and leisure, home and family, sex and play, the audience and itself, the music briefly made it possible to experience all those things as if they were not natural facts but ideological constructs: things that had been made and therefore could be altered, or done away with altogether. It became possible to see those things as bad jokes, and for the music to come forth as a better joke.

(Marcus, 1990: 5)

Crucial to this description is the last sentence. The music does not provide the truth, in opposition to the falsity of what it criticizes, but instead provides another, and perhaps better (amusing, insightful, energizing), story that itself is immediately understood as equally made up. As Marcus (1990: 22) goes on to argue, “Real mysteries cannot be solved, but they can be turned into better mysteries,” so jokes are answered by better jokes, and mysteries by better mysteries.

The transformations associated with pop art and punk music may represent the extreme end of a move away from perfectibility through rational means, but they also symbolize a much broader shift in the conception of social-symbolic objects and the work done to create and manage them. Across a wide swathe of society, there emerged a new understanding of how social-symbolic objects could be produced and shaped, not just among elites and large organizations, but by everyone and involving the objects of everyday experience of life as well as broader social structures. The belief that such objects could be perfected through rational means began to disappear, or at least fracture, as the focus shifted to change for its own sake.

Just as had occurred with the shift to modernity, the changes associated with postmodernity dramatically affected academe. The humanities were the (p.22) first to feel this effect, where ideas in philosophy and art about truth and beauty became highly contested in the early decades of the twentieth century. In the social sciences, modernism largely held fast until the 1960s, when the social upheaval on university campuses in Western Europe and North America spilled into the theoretical work of social scientists. Their confidence in the possibility of understanding and improving the social world on a large scale began to fracture as did their single-minded focus on quantitative empirical methods. Social science began to look less like a science in the grand sense imagined by its founders and more like a set of competing narratives with no privileged position from which to adjudicate among them (Lyotard, 1984). The breakdown of grand narratives led social scientists to seek local solutions to local challenges and especially local politics (around issues of gender, race, policing, community decision making, etc.) and solutions intended to transform the meaning of those issues through forms of what we call social-symbolic work.

An example of this dynamic can be seen in urban planning (see Harvey, 1989 for an extended discussion) in which the city as a social-symbolic object underwent a significant transformation. Modernist architects and planners had, since the early twentieth century, worked on a grand scale, designing whole neighborhoods and even whole cities to be perfect places for living. But the building of cities based on those grand plans resulted in rather imperfect “machines for living,” filled with deprivation, crime, and failed neighborhoods where people refused to live. In the 1970s, as these neighborhoods began to be torn down, the failed grand narrative of urban planning and modernist architecture was replaced with approaches that conceived of more modest, more tractable urban communities as the focal objects (Jacobs, 1961). The construction of these objects came to shift from one rooted in planning and development that aimed for perfection, to an eclecticism of style that worked to integrate idiosyncratic urban histories and geographies.

Parallel trajectories occurred in many disciplines in the social sciences in which the social-symbolic objects on which they focused were reconstructed in pluralistic terms. In psychology, a postmodern alternative emerged that abandoned the search for a singular, comprehensive understanding of the mind to explore a plurality of stories through which people collectively constitute a network of selves (Gergen, 1977, 2009b). In organization theory, the search for the “ideal” organization—the perfect bureaucracy—was abandoned, first as it became clear that what worked best was contingent on the situation, and then even more profoundly with the recognition that both the situation and the organization were socially constructed (Hatch, 1997). In geography, there was an experiential turn that moved away from the search for idealized understandings of “space” toward a more localized and particularized approach that emphasized particular “places” (Tuan, 1975, 1977). (p.23) Thus, the search for complete understandings of essential social objects based on rational methods was replaced by an appreciation of the plurality of objects and a diversity of ways to explore and explain the social world.

This is perhaps easiest to see in the theories that were developed (or not as the case may be) to explain the new postmodern society. Scholars struggled to develop narratives to explain the direction society and social science had gone without being “totalizing” or claiming some sort of independent access to a universal truth. One of the proponents of postmodern social theory explained it this way:

It is hard to discuss “postmodernism theory” in any general way without having recourse to the matter of historical deafness, an exasperating condition (providing you are aware of it) that determines a series of spasmodic and intermittent, but desperate attempts at recuperation. Postmodernism theory is one of those attempts: the effort to take the temperature of the age without instruments and in a situation which we are not even sure there is so coherent a thing as the “age,” or zeitgeist or “system” or “current situation” any longer.

(Jameson, 1991: xi)

The story we have told about societies and the social sciences is, of course, an idealized one. While the transformations we have described—from premodernity through modernity to postmodernity—have occurred and have had profound effects, that transformation and those effects are not evenly distributed or uniformly welcomed, and they are told from the rather particular perspective of Western Europe and North America. The world we live in, including our selves, our organizations, our societal rules and beliefs, and the social sciences that explore them, comprise a mix of the premodern, modern, and postmodern, and the story is a quite different one in other parts of the world.

While many people in many societies believe strongly in a world with, for instance, a plurality of sexual identities, many others believe in premodern notions of God-given sexes and sexual attractions, while still others subscribe to more modern conceptions of a moral (or other) hierarchy within the diversity of gender identities. The organizations through which we accomplish so much reflect a great deal of modern thinking, as well as both premodern and postmodern thinking: large corporations, government agencies, and non-profit organizations are structured significantly as traditional bureaucracies, with modern, rationalist thinking at the core of their layers of authority and spans of control.

At the same time, the social sciences mirror the confused situation in the social world. While postmodernism has been an important and powerful force in social science, and there has been a breakdown of grand narratives across many of the social sciences, these changes have not been uniform or uncontested. A great many, and perhaps even the majority, of social scientists (p.24) believe in the potential for social science to achieve progress on a grand scale. For some, and we include ourselves in this group, the concepts associated with postmodernism represent a source of insight and a potential basis for new freedoms. But for others, and we include many colleagues and friends in this latter group, these concepts undermine the nobility and even the possibility of” with “purpose, and even perhaps the possibility, and even the possibility of social science. Grand narratives in areas as diverse as economics and positive psychology continue to be developed and promulgated by social scientists whose belief in rationality and progress remains undimmed. Perhaps ironically, postmodernism in social science is as fractured as the world the concept was coined to describe.

Thus, our aim in this section has not been to recount a comprehensive history, but rather to highlight the profound changes that occurred in societal understandings of social-symbolic objects during the transitions to modernity and to postmodernity as the first step in understanding the possibility of social-symbolic work. Social-symbolic work as a concept grows out of the complex interplay of the modern and postmodern that characterizes contemporary society. We turn now to developing an integrated understanding of the many forms of social-symbolic work that have emerged in the transitions to modernity and postmodernity.

The Concept of Social-Symbolic Work

In this section, we develop the concept of social-symbolic work. We begin by defining social-symbolic objects—the targets of social-symbolic work. We then develop a conceptualization of social-symbolic work rooted in writing on heterogeneous forms of agency, extended programs of human action, and repertoires of practice. Finally, we introduce three dimensions of social-symbolic work that we find helpful in understanding the wide variety of forms of social-symbolic work that have been identified in the literature.

Social-Symbolic Objects

We define the concept of a social-symbolic object as a combination of discursive, relational, and material elements that constitute a meaningful pattern in a social system. Unpacking this definition begins with the notion of a pattern, by which we mean a socially constructed, interpretable entity that describes some perceived consistency across space and/or time. Such patterns can be primarily ideational, such as sets of concepts and subject positions. Using the case of institutions as social-symbolic objects, we previously argued (Phillips et al., 2004: 635) that although there has been a “tendency (p.25) among institutional theorists…to define the concept of institution in terms of patterns of action…institutions are constituted through discourse and that it is not action per se that provides the basis for institutionalization but, rather, the texts that describe and communicate those actions.”

This argument, we suggest, applies not only to institutions but to other social-symbolic objects as well. If we think of organizational strategies and values, for instance, strategy has been defined as “a pattern in a stream of decisions” (Mintzberg and Waters, 1985: 257). Many social-symbolic objects also have significant material dimensions, including everyday physical objects such as furniture and tools, “natural” objects such as flowers and food, and social-symbolic objects tied to the human body. What makes these things social-symbolic objects is that they are meaningfully situated in social systems—they are social and symbolic objects, with meaning and (sometimes) functionality that are core to how we relate to them. Conceiving of emotions as social-symbolic objects, for example, focuses on their existence as culturally legitimate patterns of feeling and expression that include important bodily elements (Hochschild, 1979; Turner and Stets, 2006).

Two qualities of social-symbolic objects are key to understanding their role in generating social-symbolic work. The first involves the relationship between social-symbolic objects and day-to-day living. Social-symbolic objects are largely pragmatic and taken for granted. As Giddens argues, the “vast bulk of the ‘stocks of knowledge’…is not directly accessible to the consciousness of actors,” but rather is “inherent in the capability to ‘go on’ within the routines of social life” (Giddens, 1984: 4). The embeddedness of social-symbolic objects in everyday life means that efforts to shape them may require a degree of reflexivity that is often lacking. In order to have a hope of shaping the social-symbolic objects that populate social systems, people need first to have some conscious understanding of the workings of the social systems in which they live and the arbitrary nature of social-symbolic objects.

The second important quality of social-symbolic objects potentially motivates social-symbolic work: social-symbolic objects significantly affect the distribution of opportunities, benefits, and advantages within social systems. Social-symbolic objects, even if largely pragmatic, are not usually equally beneficial to all participants. They support unequal distributions of rewards and life chances, celebrating and compensating some positions while demonizing and penalizing others. Thus, to the extent that actors are aware of the impact of social-symbolic objects on their own situations and the dependency of social-symbolic objects on human action, these objects provide both the motivation and means for their potential transformation. When actors come to understand that their life chances and those of others are fundamentally shaped by social-symbolic objects, they may seek to change or maintain them depending on the benefits they are accruing. These two qualities—the (p.26) embeddedness and taken-for-grantedness of social-symbolic objects and their impacts on the distribution of resources and opportunities in social systems—lead to an understanding of social-symbolic work as something that demands effort, reflexivity, and skill, and will sometimes involve significant contestation.

Consider as an example of a social-symbolic object the idea of a “refugee.” Although now taken for granted, this social-symbolic object came into being in the modern, legal sense in 1951 when the United Nations passed the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. As a social-symbolic object, the idea of a refugee represents a meaningful pattern. It establishes as comparable the experiences of a vast number of people fleeing persecution or deprivation, as well as the experiences of those dealing with their needs, and the local and national responses to the demands that refugees place on communities. The idea of a refugee organizes these experiences, without which they would remain disparate.

The idea of a refugee is consistent with our description of social-symbolic objects as largely practical phenomena: the UN convention identified who qualified as a refugee and who did not (such as war criminals), and defined their rights. Ratified by more than 145 countries, the convention provides a set of practical resources for identifying and dealing with refugees, and specifying the responsibilities of host nations. And, perhaps more than many social-symbolic objects, the idea of a refugee and the UN convention in which it is embedded has been profoundly influential and highly contested. It has directly affected many hundreds of millions of people who have been determined to be refugees and are therefore legally entitled to protection and assistance from the nations that have signed the convention. The effects go well beyond those deemed to be refugees, of course, with the international politics of refugee settlement sparking tremendous conflict in many countries at the time of this writing, as “local” citizens embrace or reject the significantly increased numbers of people seeking refugee status.

Social-symbolic objects, such as an individual determined to be a refugee or the UN definition of a refugee, are the conceptual anchor for the perspective we are developing. Seeing social reality as composed significantly of meaningful patterns that act as practical resources and political triggers leads us directly to questions regarding how they are created, shaped, disrupted, maintained, and transformed. It is to these questions—questions of social-symbolic work—to which we turn in the next section.

Social-Symbolic Work

The concept of social-symbolic work connects social-symbolic objects to the potential for people to engage in purposeful, reflexive efforts to shape those (p.27) objects. We develop our conceptualization of social-symbolic work by rooting it in broader social science concepts. More specifically, we suggest that the concept of social-symbolic work rests on three ideas: heterogeneous forms of agency, extended programs of human action, and repertoires of practice.

Heterogeneous Forms of Agency

We begin with agency as it represents the foundational idea upon which any discussion of work needs to build. The relationship between agency and structure has posed a core dilemma in social science since its earliest beginnings, generating intense conflict among scholars for decades. The two most extreme positions are often referred to as structural determinism and voluntarism. Structural determinists argue that the actions, beliefs, and experiences of individuals are determined by the environments in which they find themselves. This view of the world leads to research that focuses on “the structural properties of the context within which action unfolds, and on structural constraints that shape individual or organizational behavior and provide organizational life with overall stability and control” (Battilana and D’Aunno, 2009: 33). In contrast, voluntarists emphasize the free will and autonomy of actors, such that individuals and collective actors represent “the basic unit of analysis and source of change in social life” (Battilana and D’Aunno, 2009: 33). The struggle between determinists and voluntarists was a central defining struggle in social science2 for almost a hundred years, beginning with the early work of Weber and Durkheim at the end of the nineteenth century.

Happily, social science (or at least much of social science) has moved beyond these extreme positions to focus on understanding the simultaneous effects of structure and agency, and to develop conceptions of both that resonate with, rather than exclude, the possibility of the other. This shift has been facilitated by a reconceptualization of agency from one that was individualistic and unitary to relational and heterogeneous. The extreme positions of determinism and voluntarism asked the relatively simple question of whether individuals in a particular situation exhibited agency—did they engage in behaviors or hold beliefs that were matters of choice rather than conditioning? Such a conception of agency was bound to lead to polarized debates. In contrast, a relational, heterogeneous conception of agency looks at situations differently and asks different questions, focusing more on how agency is enacted in relationships, and what forms it might take at different times under different conditions and with what effect. The question is not whether people do or do not have agency, but what forms of agency manifest through what kinds of social relationships in what situations.

(p.28) In what has become a canonical treatment of agency as relational agency, Emirbayer and Mische (1998) argue for an understanding of agency that is heterogeneous and responsive to the situations in which people find themselves. They focus in particular on “temporal-relational contexts of action,” the variations of which correspond to different forms of agency that they describe in explicitly temporal terms. Building on Giddens and Bourdieu, who emphasized the connection between human action and the past through habits and routines, Emirbayer and Mische (1998: 963) extend their conception of agency to include temporally diverse forms, including agency that is “informed by the past (in its habitual aspect), but also oriented toward the future (as a capacity to imagine alternative possibilities) and toward the present (as a capacity to contextualize past habits and future projects within the contingencies of the moment).” This “chordal triad of agency” is more succinctly composed of “habit, imagination, and judgment” (Emirbayer and Mische, 1998: 970).

This chordal triad of agency provides an inspiring starting point for social-symbolic work because it provides room for the sort of activity that Lawrence et al. (2011: 53) describe in relation to institutions as the “efforts of individuals and collective actors to cope with, keep up with, shore up, tear down, tinker with, transform, or create anew the institutional structures within which they live, work, and play, and which give them their roles, relationships, resources, and routines.”

Programs of Action

An important issue that we feel is underexamined in the sociological literature on agency is the ability of people to move between temporal forms of action, and especially from habitual action rooted in the past to present-focused practical action (i.e., action focused on solving a current problem) or future-oriented projective action (i.e., action undertaken to accomplish a future goal). Understanding such shifts is central to the psychology of judgment and decision making, both as developed in the Nobel Prize-winning work of Kahneman and Tversky (see the summary in Kahneman, 2011) and in the more recent work described as the new synthesis in moral psychology (Haidt, 2001, 2007, 2012).

Cognitive psychologists have for decades proposed a “dual-process” account of human action. Stanovich and West (2000: 658) describe the dual processes as “System 1” and “System 2,” where System 1 thinking is “automatic, largely unconscious, and relatively undemanding of computational capacity,” in contrast to System 2 thinking which “encompasses the processes of analytic intelligence.” System 1 thinking includes both innate skills, such as recognizing objects and orienting attention, and others that become automatic through practice, including reading, interpreting social situations, and (p.29) for some people advanced skills including diagnosing illness and making advanced chess moves. In contrast, System 2 thinking requires attention and is disrupted when attention is drawn away (Kahneman, 2011). Key to this distinction is the effort involved in System 2 thinking: it’s not so much that System 1 thinking is necessarily faster than System 2, but rather that the latter requires effort and concentration, making appropriate the idea of “paying attention,” as we only possess a “limited budget of attention” and so exceeding this budget leads to failure (Kahneman, 2011).

The psychological study of morality extends the basic dual-process idea in ways useful to our interest in purposeful, reflexive social action. Whereas traditional approaches to morality emphasized careful deliberation, contemporary research has connected morality to more basic emotional and cognitive processes (Haidt, 2007). Key to this new understanding of morality is the notion of “moral intuition,” which involves “the sudden appearance in consciousness of a moral judgment, including an affective valence (good–bad, like–dislike), without any conscious awareness of having gone through steps of searching, weighing evidence, or inferring a conclusion” (Haidt, 2001: 818). This understanding of moral judgment is important for us because so much of what we think of as social-symbolic work involves a moral dimension—efforts to shape identities, emotions, social boundaries, practices, and categories are often motivated by moral concerns, while the outcomes of those efforts may be similarly affected by the moral judgments of others.

The dual-process account of human cognition, and the new moral psychology, complement the idea that agency exists in heterogeneous temporal forms (Emirbayer and Mische, 1998). Together, they move us toward a more realistic image of how people act and think, which is crucial, especially as prior attempts to infuse agency into sociological images of organizational life, such as institutional entrepreneurship (Hardy and Maguire, 2008), have been accused of creating profoundly unrealistic images of ultra-rational, hyper-muscular agents.

We draw on the relational notion of agency to support the possibility of social-symbolic work existing as purposeful, reflexive effort, but recognize, in line with the dual-process model of human action, the impossibility of continuously sustaining such action. At the same time, our image of social-symbolic work is not dependent on actors capable of continuously suspending habits and intuitions; rather, it depends on actors who are capable of moving back and forth between these modes of action and thinking, and most importantly connecting individual decisions, judgments, behaviors, and utterances so that over longer periods of time (days, weeks, and months), they can create programs of action that constitute social-symbolic work. Those actors are not only able to engage in moments of projective action, but are able to envision such actions in the future and reach back to previous such actions as resources and guides.

(p.30) Repertoires of Practice

Our conception of social-symbolic work also relies heavily on the concept of practice. People’s purposeful, reflexive efforts to shape social-symbolic objects seldom occur as random or idiosyncratic actions, but are generally instances of practices that are legitimate within specific communities (Whittington, 2006). If we conceive of social-symbolic work as occurring in programs of action over extended periods of time, these programs of action are built up out of practices that actors learn, reproduce, and extend. Thus we draw on the sociology of practice (Bourdieu, 1977; de Certeau, 2011; Giddens, 1984; Schatzki et al., 2001) to inform our understanding of the repertoires and resources out of which social-symbolic work is composed.

In this tradition, practices represent “embodied, materially mediated arrays of human activity centrally organized around shared practical understanding” (Schatzki, 2001: 2). The sociology of practice is particularly interested in situated action that is in response to the demands of everyday life (de Certeau, 2011) and builds on an interest in social processes by examining the “internal life of process” (Brown and Duguid, 2000: 95). Practice-theoretic approaches to social life bring with them a specific ontology within which “phenomena of various complexities are not made of transcendental elements such as forces, logics, or mental models: instead, ‘it is practicing all the way down’” (Nicolini and Monteiro, 2017: 111). Practices represent “the substructure beneath the busy surface of events” (Vaara and Whittington, 2012: 288). They define shared routines that guide behavior according to a situation (Goffman, 1959a; Pentland and Rueter, 1994) and belong to the social collective rather than to individuals (Barnes, 2001). A simple way of understanding practices and how they are distinct from simple behavior is that one can do practices “wrong,” or at least wrong given a particular time, place, and social situation.

In the context of social-symbolic work, practices represent repertoires of available, legitimate routines from which actors draw strategies for shaping and maintaining social-symbolic objects. The key concepts when exploring social-symbolic practices are community, roles, resources, and learning: practices are specific to particular communities (Jarzabkowski, 2005), available to members dependent on their roles within those communities (Zietsma and Lawrence, 2010), dependent on access to specific material and social resources (Nicolini and Monteiro, 2017), and must be learned by the individuals and groups using those resources and taking on those roles (Brown and Duguid, 1991). The concept of social-symbolic work employs the concept of practice as a bridge between people’s purposeful, reflexive efforts and the social-symbolic objects at which those efforts are aimed: concrete instances of social-symbolic work represent the combination of practices organized around social-symbolic objects and the intentions of people to shape those objects.

(p.31) A Definition of Social-Symbolic Work

We have defined social-symbolic work as the purposeful, reflexive efforts of individuals, collective actors, and networks of actors to shape social-symbolic objects. Drawing on the literatures on agency, action, and practice allows us to elaborate this definition in specific ways. Social-symbolic work involves heterogeneous forms of agency that can be oriented toward the past, present, and future. It is bundled into programs of action that, while not continuous, are coherent in their aims and the actors involved. Finally, social-symbolic work involves the enactment of repertoires of practices available within a social system, and thus depends on the awareness, ability, and resources demanded of those practices.

Three Dimensions of Social-Symbolic Work

While our conceptualization of social-symbolic work in terms of heterogeneous forms of agency, programs of action, and repertoires of practice provides a foundational understanding of its core properties, reflecting on the empirical literature that inspired this book shows the variety in forms that such work takes on. Thus, to help unpack this variety, we extend our conceptualization by examining three key dimensions of social-symbolic work: discursive, relational, and material. Each of these three dimensions is present in all instances of social-symbolic work, though their importance may vary depending on the kind of work and the social-symbolic objects in question.

The Discursive Dimension of Social-Symbolic Work

In general terms, the discursive dimension of social-symbolic work describes those aspects of efforts to shape social-symbolic objects that rely on text and talk. While this is a reasonable place to start, we draw on a more specific understanding of “discursive” linked to writing on discourse analysis in the social sciences that conceives of discourse as constitutive of the social world, rather than simply reflective of it (Parker, 2014; Phillips and Hardy, 2002). By constitutive, we mean that in speaking and writing about the social world, we produce that world, and thus, “[w]ithout discourse, there is no social reality, and without understanding discourse, we cannot understand our reality, our experiences, or ourselves” (Phillips and Hardy, 2002: 2).

Central to our understanding of the discursive dimension of social-symbolic work are the relationships among texts, discourses, and social-symbolic objects. For our purposes, a good working definition of a discourse is “a system of statements which constructs an object” (Parker, 2014: 5). Unpacking this definition, systems of statements are “structured collections of meaningful texts” (Phillips et al., 2004: 636) where texts from this perspective include not only written documents, but “any kind of symbolic expression requiring a (p.32) physical medium” (Taylor and Every, 1993: 109) including audio recordings, photographs, and other visual material, as well as less obviously textual material such as clothing, flags, decorations, and home furnishings. Any of these can be associated with symbolic expression that is made enduring by the physical medium to which it is attached.

Discourses are more than collections of texts, however. They include the relationships among texts (that are often entrenched in other texts), along with the systems of production and consumption through which those texts come into being and are circulated. As illustrated by our example of endangered species in Chapter 1, these structured collections of texts and systems of production and consumption constitute a discourse when they bring an object or objects into being. Thus, the concept of an endangered species emerged out of the broader discourse of environmental conservation.

This conception of texts and discourses suggests that the discursive dimension of social-symbolic work shapes social-symbolic objects through a range of potential routes. Most simply, the discursive dimension of social-symbolic work involves creating texts intended to combine with other texts to construct or shape the social-symbolic objects associated with a discourse. The discursive dimension of social-symbolic work also focuses on shaping systems of production and consumption associated with a discourse in ways that affect the standing of a social-symbolic object, perhaps diffusing it more broadly through expanded systems of production and consumption, or limiting its availability by interrupting those systems. Moreover, the discursive dimension of social-symbolic work involves efforts to shape the interpretation of particular texts within specific communities.

The Relational Dimension of Social-Symbolic Work

As with its discursive dimension, the relational dimension of social-symbolic work is anchored in the intuitive idea that since all social-symbolic objects exist as parts of social systems, working on these objects will necessarily involve relying on and negotiating social relationships. As a simple example, imagine a person trying to change how a rule is interpreted in the organization in which they work: this will necessarily involve leveraging existing relationships with other organizational actors or establishing new ones. All social-symbolic objects are suspended in social networks and thus working on them will always involve engaging with those networks in some way.

At a conceptual level, understanding the relational dimension of social-symbolic work is aided by the idea of “relational work” from economic sociology (Zelizer, 2000, 2012). This concept describes “the creative effort people make establishing, maintaining, negotiating, transforming, and terminating interpersonal relations” (Zelizer, 2012: 149). Writing on relational work emerged as a way of conceptualizing economic activity that went beyond (p.33) the idea that economic transactions were “embedded” in social structures, since the embeddedness argument left economic activity nested within the social, and thus itself fundamentally asocial. In contrast to this approach, Zelizer argues for an understanding of economic activity as occurring in what she refers to as “relational packages” that combine interpersonal ties, economic transactions (which might include purchases but also gifts or bribes), media through which those transactions are enacted (such as money, but also IOUs, food stamps, or casino chips), and the shared meaning of these combinations. A key point made by Zelizer is that relational work is in no way restricted to economic activity. So, if we generalize these combinations, we can substitute any value-creating process (such as love, cooperation, or competition) for economic transactions, and imagine appropriate combinations of interpersonal ties, media, and meanings that would accompany those processes.

These ideas—relational work and relational packages—provide a useful foundation for exploring the relational dimension of social-symbolic work, especially highlighting three issues. First, the concept of relational work suggests that the relational dimension of social-symbolic work will involve efforts to shape relationships among people, including establishing, maintaining, negotiating, transforming, and terminating those relationships. Second, it suggests that this kind of work will be found in all spheres of social life, even domains in which the study of interpersonal relationships have traditionally been marginalized, such as the market, and what might be intensely private domains, such as death. Third, the notion of relational packages points out important facets of relationships, the shaping of which might be the focus of actors’ efforts, including the definition of the relationship, the value produced by it for those involved as well as those otherwise affected, the media through which the relationship is negotiated, and the meaning of the relationship in terms of the individuals directly involved and the broader social system.

To these ideas, our conceptualization of the relational dimension of social-symbolic work adds some important nuance. Most fundamentally, it shifts our understanding away from efforts to shape relationships as standalone forms of work to seeing such work as integrated with the discursive and material dimensions (discussed below) of social-symbolic work, and thus focused on multidimensional social-symbolic objects rather than relationships qua relationships.

This has three important implications. First, we see the relational dimension as an important dimension of all social-symbolic work, targeting all kinds of social-symbolic objects. Although the relational dimension of social-symbolic work describes work done through the shaping of relationships, it does not necessarily mean that those relationships are the target of the social-symbolic work—they may only be a means of shaping some more (p.34) distal social-symbolic object, just as creating a text may not in and of itself represent the aim associated with the discursive dimension of social-symbolic work.

Second, relationships themselves can be the targets of social-symbolic work that includes discursive and material dimensions, as well as the relational dimension. This does not mean we think relationships are unimportant, but that they are important as one kind of social-symbolic object, with discursive, relational, and material dimensions, and thus the target of social-symbolic work that includes all of those dimensions.

Third, in conceptualizing the relational dimension of social-symbolic work we move away from an exclusive focus on people working on their own relationships: social-symbolic work is defined by the object rather than by the actors engaged in that work, and so the relational dimension of social-symbolic work may involve actors working on their own relationships, but is just as likely to involve actors, including collective actors such as organizations and communities, working to shape the relationships of others.

The Material Dimension of Social-Symbolic Work

Finally, we introduce the material dimension of social-symbolic work. As with the discursive and relational dimensions, we think of this dimension as a part of all instances of social-symbolic work, rather than occurring separately or occasionally. There are aspects of the discursive and relational dimensions of social-symbolic work that imply a material dimension: discourse depends on the materiality of texts and the systems through which they are produced and consumed; relationships depend on media through which they are negotiated and enacted, whether face to face or in some kind of virtual environment. More than that, though, management and organizational research has shown how the efforts of individual and collective actors to shape social-symbolic objects draw ubiquitously on aspects of the material world, including the natural environment (Bansal and Knox-Hayes, 2013; Kisfalvi and Maguire, 2011), manufactured tools and other objects (Gunn and Williams, 2007; Spee and Jarzabkowski, 2009), the built environment (Lawrence and Dover, 2015), and the human body (Dyer et al., 2008; Frank, 1997).

An important issue when considering the material dimension of social-symbolic work is the relationship between materiality and determinism/voluntarism as views of human action. As we discussed previously, determinism suggests that human behavior results from external forces beyond our control, whereas voluntarism suggests the opposite, that people have free will and thus shape their environments. An emphasis on materiality is often linked to a determinist position, but this is not a necessary connection, and indeed our interest in the material dimension of social-symbolic work depends on an understanding of humanity that allows for voluntary action.

(p.35) Leonardi and Barley (2008: 161) provide the useful example of ergonomics as a discipline, which rests on the idea that technologies shape human behavior, but since “technologies are designed and because designs can be altered, humans can both intend and change the social effects of a technology by redesigning it or, failing that, by refusing to use it.” These responses to technology—redesigning or refusing it—illustrate for us the material dimension of social-symbolic work. If we think, for instance, of organizations as incorporating technology-dependent routines, then redesigning those technologies exemplifies the material dimension of social-symbolic work—altering the material properties of some artifact or how those material properties are employed in practice in order to shape an organizational routine (a meaningful pattern in an organization and thus a social-symbolic object).

Along with the emergence of a general interest in materiality in management and organizational research, streams of research have emerged focusing on particular forms of materiality and social-symbolic work. In fact, attention to space in management and organizational research generally, and in relation to forms of social-symbolic work, has flourished since the early 2000s. There have been multiple theoretical reviews of the relationship between space and organizations (Clegg and Kornberger, 2006; Hernes, 2004; Taylor and Spicer, 2007) and also a growing number of empirical studies (Marrewijk and Yanow, 2010; Yanow, 1998) that have explored issues of gender performativity (Tyler and Cohen, 2010), creativity (Haner, 2005), and power (Dale and Burrell, 2008; Fleming and Spicer, 2004). Particularly important from our perspective have been the examinations of the roles that different kinds of spaces play in relation to individual and collective agency, such as Kellogg’s (2009) important work on the role of “relational spaces” in facilitating institutional change.

Similarly, writing on organizations has begun to incorporate the body as a site of social-symbolic work, showing the range of ways that the body can be involved in social-symbolic work. Bodies can be sites of subjectivity, when actors “use” their own bodies to accomplish social-symbolic work (Dyer et al., 2008). Bodies can be the objects on which actors work, shaping their form and meaning (Gimlin, 2002). Bodies can also be integral to social interactions that are crucial to establishing the meaning and boundaries around social-symbolic objects, such as the boundary maintained by elder-care workers between “violence” and the acceptable “aggression” of patients toward staff that might include slaps and punches (Åkerström, 2002).

Incorporating materiality as a dimension of all social-symbolic work is consistent with the move in the broader social sciences toward sociomateriality as an anchoring concept in understanding the relationship between the physical and the social. This concept suggests that the social and material cannot be separated because they are mutually constitutive of each other. This duality of social and material provides a useful extension to the duality of (p.36) agency and social structure that is at the heart of the social-symbolic work perspective. It forces us to consider the material whenever we are trying to understand agency and structure, and hence whenever we are discussing social-symbolic work.


Our aim in this section has been to develop a conceptualization of social-symbolic work that can provide a foundation for the rest of the book. We began by defining social-symbolic objects as meaningful patterns in social systems, and described them as largely pragmatic but often associated with political contests over their meaning and evaluation. We then defined social-symbolic work as the purposeful, reflexive efforts of individuals, collective actors, and networks of actors to shape social-symbolic objects. These efforts, we argued, occur through heterogeneous forms of agency bundled into programs of action that constitute the enactment of practices. Finally, we argued that all instances of social-symbolic work have discursive, relational, and material dimensions, the salience of which will depend on the intentions of actors, the practices in which they engage, and the social-symbolic objects in question.

A Process Model of Social-Symbolic Work

We have discussed the historical shifts that have made possible the kinds of social-symbolic work that actors perform today, and developed the concept of social-symbolic work in terms of its core elements and dimensions. We now turn to developing a model of social-symbolic work as a process. This model represents an important foundation for the rest of the book as it provides a more nuanced understanding of how the conceptual elements discussed above relate to each other in concrete instances of social-symbolic work and a means of exploring how different streams of management and organizational research have approached specific forms of social-symbolic work (e.g., identity work and emotion work, discussed in Chapter 3).

Our model connects the motivations, practices, and effects (including unintended effects) of social-symbolic work, and locates those in the context of sets of resources drawn on by actors to enact those practices, and the situations that affect each of the elements and how they are linked (see Figure 2.1). We propose this idealized process model as a platform for research and debate, rather than a representation of how we think social-symbolic work proceeds in the real world. Thus, what is important is that it highlights important facets of social-symbolic work, integrates our conception of social-symbolic work in an (p.37) interpretable process, and points to potential connections that might motivate empirical research.

The Social-Symbolic Work Perspective

Figure 2.1. Integrated model of social-symbolic work


The study of social-symbolic work depends on an important and potentially contentious assumption that when we study the social world, we need to pay attention to actors’ intentions, and that intentions and the motivations that underpin them are available for examination and interpretation. This assumption is tied to our conception of social-symbolic work as involving heterogeneous forms of agency (Emirbayer and Mische, 1998) that draw on practices (Nicolini and Monteiro, 2017) enacted in programs of action (Kahneman, 2011). Social-symbolic work rarely occurs as a single isolated action, the intentions behind which might be difficult to assess both for the actors involved and for a scholar observing that action.

Instead, social-symbolic work tends to involve complex programs of action over time, which are far more likely to be associated with markers of intentionality that make the motivations of social-symbolic work potentially available for study. Paying attention to intention is important because the concept of work depends on purposefulness—work is the purposeful expenditure of effort toward a goal. Although actions that produce, reproduce, and transform social-symbolic objects can happen thoughtlessly or accidentally, these are not the actions that fit into the category of social-symbolic work. Our (p.38) emphasis on intention highlights the ways in which actors draw on their social context in creative and innovative ways to create change or maintain the status quo.

To make this clearer, imagine you are walking through Soho, in London, on a Friday evening. Walking down Old Compton Street, you find yourself immersed in one of the most open and liberal gay neighborhoods in the world. All around you are young men (and some not so young men) who have worked hard to craft a gay identity drawing on carefully chosen hairstyles, items of clothing, and many hours in the gym. This identity work is not accidental or driven by abstract social structures. It is the work of individuals seeking to craft an acceptable and liberating identity before they head out for the evening. At the same time, of course, the intentionality associated with crafting our public identities is not simply a matter of making complex choices. A critically important feature of identity work (as we discuss in detail in Chapter 3) is the discontinuous patterns of intentionality. We go through times in our lives when we struggle with our identities in highly aware, deeply reflexive ways—pursuing questions of who we are, who we want to be, and who we ought to be—while at other times, we experience our identies as natural, inevitable, and taken for granted.

When we are exploring the motivations and intentions associated with social-symbolic work, it is important to keep in mind the potential importance of chains of intentionality. While some intentions might be understood as “direct” most intentionality exists in relation to multiple other intentions, such that some essential intentionality may be difficult to unpack. For example, a chain of intentionality occurs when intentions result from paid employment, so that social-symbolic work becomes a form of labor. In fact, the ubiquity of paid social-symbolic work is an interesting aspect of modern society that deserves special attention. We live in a time where there are many workers and organizations who are skilled at social-symbolic work and who are paid to carry it out. Lobbyists and trade associations, for example, represent rapidly growing categories of social-symbolic workers that, for better or worse, play an increasingly important role in modern democracies.


Once an actor is motivated to perform social-symbolic work, they draw on available practices to actually engage in social-symbolic work. This might include organizing a demonstration, setting up a website or Facebook page, or any of the range of practices that are available in a social setting. Some practices are highly standardized and routinized, others are more creative and improvisational. Although we might imagine a great deal of creativity associated with how people shape their social-symbolic contexts—including, (p.39) for instance, their identities and emotions, as well as social categories and organizational boundaries—many forms of social-symbolic work involve practices that are well understood, and may even be taught in formalized educational programs. Think, for instance, of the myriad courses available on managing one’s emotions, and especially “negative” emotions such as anger, or the growing number of university courses on social innovation and social enterprise.

But routinized and formalized practices only get actors so far. Much of the activity associated with social-symbolic work is necessarily improvised and creative. The importance of creativity is perhaps especially obvious when considering social-symbolic work focused on the construction and management of complex, individual identities. Essers and Benschop (2009), for instance, explore how women entrepreneurs of Moroccan and Turkish origin in the Netherlands construct their ethnic, gender, and entrepreneurial identities in relation to their Muslim identity. They argue (2009: 402) that these entrepreneurs engage in highly creative boundary work, such that “Islam is employed as a boundary…to make space for individualism, honour and entrepreneurship,” while at the same time religious identities “are crafted to stretch the boundaries of what is allowed for female entrepreneurs in order to resist traditional, dogmatic interpretations of Islam.” Thus, the very nature of social-symbolic work can make creativity and innovation central to success.

The rapid changes occurring in the social world also means that the roles of improvisational and routine forms of social-symbolic work are themselves often changing, with the most significant impacts potentially occurring when improvisational approaches to social-symbolic work become routinized and widely adopted by others. The example of microfinance, where an initial innovation in routines for lending money and supporting development in one social context became widely adopted and created widespread change, is a good illustration of the power of the combination of creativity and routinization. This process can often be most clearly seen when new forms of social-symbolic work, such as those associated with social innovation and social enterprise, are integrated into established educational enterprises and curricula.


Although social-symbolic work is defined by its intentions, rather than its outcomes, it is still important to integrate the effects of social-symbolic work into this process model. We imagine at least three important categories of effects for scholars examining social-symbolic work. The first category involves the social-symbolic objects that are the targets of the social-symbolic work under consideration. If an actor is sufficiently skilled, has access to the (p.40) required resources, and engages in appropriate practices in a conducive situation, they might succeed in shaping the social-symbolic object that is the focus of their efforts. This might involve, for instance, maintaining the status quo in the face of pressures for change (e.g., protestors working to stop same sex marriage), adapting a social-symbolic object to fit with changing circumstances (e.g., the extension of “maternity leave” to create “paternity leave”), or completely disassembling one (e.g., campaigning to repeal sodomy laws).

The concept of a refugee discussed earlier illustrates this process. The concept of a refugee came into being due to a concerted effort by many working through the League of Nations and then the newly founded United Nations. Their motivations were largely driven by moral outrage over the Holocaust and the lack of a coordinated response to the plight of the Jewish people in Europe, along with a general feeling that a more integrated and fairer system was needed to determine who is a refugee and what should be done for them. The United Nations provided both a forum for taking the issue forward and legitimate sets of practices that could be drawn on to make decisions about refugees, to enshrine them in conventions, and then to gain the agreement of member states. The result is a convention on refugees, a UN agency tasked with managing refugee issues, and a global agreement establishing “refugee” as a legitimate identity and the principle that refugees should be given support and protection. While there are still significant and ongoing disagreements about who is a refugee and what rights they should have, the UN Convention on Refugees continues to have significant moral, legal, and practical effects in the world.

There are at least two other kinds of effects of social-symbolic work. First, there are the more distal effects that follow on from its first-order effects on targeted social-symbolic objects. We argued that one of the reasons that studying social-symbolic work is important stems from the effect of social-symbolic objects on the creation and distribution of resources in society: social-symbolic objects, including identities, rules, careers, social boundaries, and technologies, have profound effects on people’s relationships, experiences, and opportunities. Thus, examining these second-order effects represents an important part of studying social-symbolic work.

Finally, although social-symbolic work is defined by its intentions—shaping social-symbolic objects—its status as social-symbolic work does not depend on achieving these aims. The complex combination of intentions, situations, tools and skills, and creativity and routines, creates a great deal of uncertainty in the causal paths through which actors work to shape social-symbolic objects. Indeed, social-symbolic work often fails. And, even when it does not fail completely, it often results in unintended effects. For example, Khan et al. (2007) describe how an initiative to stop child labor in the soccer ball industry in Pakistan had exactly the opposite result of the intentions of the actors who (p.41) worked to stop it. Their intervention and the resulting changes to laws and practices resulted in more deprivation and a worse situation for the very children they were trying to help. Social-symbolic work is difficult and the social world it is intended to change is often more complex than the actors involved realize. Thus, failure and unintended effects are a common outcome.

These unintended effects are an important part of the process model we propose. The uncertain relationship between social-symbolic work and its effects suggests that focusing only on successful instances or on the parts of the work that are successful would be a serious error of omission. Instead of bracketing those unintended effects, we believe that their frequency and significance makes investigating them a critical part of studying social-symbolic work. Doing so will lead to a better understanding of the relationships between forms of social-symbolic work, the situations in which that work happens, and the outcomes to which it leads.


Although intentionality and practices are essential to social-symbolic work, they are not enough. All forms of work, including social-symbolic work, depend on resources, including skills, abilities, and tools (Jarzabkowski, 2004; Kaplan, 2010; Schatzki, 2001). The criticality of tools and resources for social-symbolic work in organizational life has been most clearly recognized in studies of organizational technologies (Bijker et al., 2012; Garud and Karnøe, 2003) and in the strategy-as-practice literature (Jarzabkowski, 2004; Kaplan, 1997). These literatures both highlight the degree to which material technologies, organizational practices, and the forms of work in which they are used are all intertwined, with the meaning of technologies, the viability of practices, and the intentions that underpin forms of work often difficult to unpack.

As an example, consider the importance of resources in the “Arab Spring.” When, in 2011, citizens in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya rose up in defiance of their rulers, demanding “personal dignity and responsive government” (Anderson, 2011: 2), the use of social media as an enabling technology was distinctively important. Critically, it provided a quick and interactive way to mobilize that was lacking in traditional ways of organizing such as leaflets, posters, and faxes (Eltantawy and Wiest, 2011). In Egypt, for instance, “activists created Facebook groups, personal blogs, and Twitter accounts to engage supporters and followers,” including a Facebook group called “We are all Khalid Said,” which was created following the outcry over the death of a young man at the hands of Egyptian police (Eltantawy and Wiest, 2011: 1213). These tools allowed the organization of large demonstrations by individuals and groups who had little access to official channels of communication. The availability of social media facilitated the social-symbolic work that these actors were (p.42) conducting and allowed them to have an impact in ways that would not have been possible before.


The final component of our model could easily have been its first. All social-symbolic work is situated, with all that the concept implies. Perhaps most importantly, the concept of situatedness highlights that although social-symbolic work depends on intentionality, we are not arguing for unconditioned free will. While we argue that social-symbolic work is fundamentally intentional, those intentions are also clearly shaped by the social world in which they are embedded. The connections among intentions, action, and social structure involve a complex array of recursive relationships, and we believe that the social-symbolic work perspective may be useful in unpacking this dynamic.

A great deal of virtual ink has been spilled exploring the “paradox of embedded agency” (Battilana and D’Aunno, 2009). Embedded agency is, of course, a critically important concept for understanding how people engage in forms of social-symbolic work that are aimed at shaping social-symbolic objects at the same time as those objects shape understandings of what is right, proper, or even possible, and provide the resources necessary for any kind of social action and interaction.

That agency exists and that it is embedded does not, however, seem to us to present a paradox, or even a problem. Agency is not complete, in the sense of being unbounded, unconstrained, and inevitable. But neither is it absent. And the situatedness of agency in social contexts challenges neither of these statements. Agency is heterogeneous in degree and form, and relational rather than individual. To foreshadow an example that we examine in depth in Chapter 3, the ability of people to control their identities differs significantly across contemporary cultures, and has changed even more significantly over history. Identities can be crafted, but the extent to which they can be crafted and in what ways is shaped by the social context in which the crafting occurs.

Social-Symbolic Work in Management and Organizational Research

While the concept of social-symbolic work is novel, research on this kind of activity in management and organizational research is not. In fact, the origins of this book lie in our observation that research on different kinds of “work” in management and organizational research was rapidly increasing, yet fragmented. To gain a better understanding of this trend as we began to work (p.43) out what became the social-symbolic work perspective, we sought to identify as many streams of management and organizational research on this form of work as we could. We began by reviewing the literature looking for forms of work, and then posted a request on the Academy of Management Organization and Management Theory Division listserv for anyone who was researching a new form of work to contact us.3 We received more than thirty responses which, when combined with our review of the literature, allowed us to identify twenty distinct forms of social-symbolic work being examined in management and organizational research. We summarize the results in Table 2.1.4

Table 2.1. “New” forms of work in management and organizational research

Type of work


Exemplary citations


Aesthetic work

“the employment of workers with certain embodied capacities and attributes that favourably appeal to customers and which are then organizationally mobilized, developed and commodified” (Warhurst and Nickson, 2009: 104)

Warhurst and Nickson, 2009


Age work

“the institutional work of organizational actors to pursue their particular interests and to (de)legitimize age inequalities” (Collien et al., 2016)

Collien et al., 2016


Authenticity work

“work involved in claiming authenticity” (Peterson, 2005: 1083)

Peterson, 2005; Svejenova, 2005


Boundary work

“‘strategic practical action’ for the purpose of establishing…boundaries…[through] expulsion, expansion, and protection of autonomy” (Lamont and Molnár, 2002: 179)

Kreiner et al., 2009


Contextualization work

The institutional work that sustains responsible investment “glocalization,” including filtering, repurposing, and coupling

Gond and Boxenbaum, 2013


Cultural work

Action by actors to align themselves with prevailing societal preferences or attempts to shape cultural tastes and preferences

Glynn, 2000; Lounsbury and Glynn, 2001


Discursive work

Discursive activity carried out to influence processes of social construction (Hardy and Phillips, 1999)

Lawrence et al., 1999


Emotion work

“making a conscious, intended try at altering feeling” (Hochschild, 1979: 560)

Hochschild, 1979; Rafaeli and Sutton, 1987


Idea work

“activities concerned with generating, selecting, realizing, nurturing, sharing, materializing, pitching and communicating ideas in organizations” (Carlsen et al., 2012: 1)

Carlsen et al., 2012


Identity work

“forming, repairing, maintaining, strengthening or revising the constructions that are productive of a sense of coherence and distinctiveness” (Sveningsson and Alvesson, 2003: 1165)

Watson, 2008


Institutional work

“purposive action…aimed at creating, maintaining and disrupting institutions” (Lawrence and Suddaby, 2006: 215)

Lawrence and Suddaby, 2006


Interaction work

“the construction of recognizable social scenes or events” (Idrissou et al., 2016: 1989)

Idrissou et al., 2016


Intersectional identity work

“constructing an understanding of a mutually constituted self that is coherent, distinct and positively valued” (Atewologun et al., 2016: 4)

Atewologun et al., 2016


Meaning work

“struggle over the production of mobilizing and countermobilizing ideas and meanings” (Benford and Snow, 2000: 613)

Benford and Snow, 2000


Narrative identity work

“social efforts to craft self-narratives that meet a person’s identity aims” (Ibarra and Barbulescu, 2010: 137)

Ibarra and Barbulescu, 2010


Practice work

“efforts to affect the recognition and acceptance of sets of routines” (Zietsma and Lawrence, 2010: 190)

Zietsma and Lawrence, 2010


Race work

Efforts to reconstruct the meaning, power, and privileges associated with race

Whitaker, 2005


Strategy work

Purposeful activities carried out in the production of strategies

Whittington et al., 2006

(p.45) 19

Temporal work

“negotiating and resolving tensions among different understandings of what has happened in the past, what is at stake in the present, and what might emerge in the future” (Kaplan and Orlikowski, 2013: 965)

Granqvist and Gustafsson, 2016; McGivern et al., 2018


Values work

“the work that is going on at any moment as values practices emerge and are performed” (Gehman et al., 2013: 2012)

Gehman et al., 2013

In reviewing these disparate forms of work, three observations emerged. First, all of the forms of work involved actors engaged in a purposeful effort—a “conscious, intended try” as Hochschild (1979) put it—to manipulate some aspect of their social context. The aspect of the social context on which the actors focus is the “X” in “X work.” What is notable about these “Xs” is that they are all social-symbolic in nature. Identity, emotion, institutions, ideas, aesthetics, values—they are all social in that they constitute and are constituted by sets of social relations, and symbolic in that they are constituted through language and other forms of symbolic expression. Moreover, common across these areas of research was a conception of agency as embedded, and particularly embedded in the very sets of social-symbolic structures they were aiming to affect (Battilana and D’Aunno, 2009). Watson’s (2008: 129) discussion of identity work, for instance, describes it as a set of “mutually constitutive processes” that involve people both “striv[ing] to shape a relatively coherent…personal self-identity” and “com[ing] to terms with…the various social-identities which pertain to them.”

Second, studies of these forms of work generally adopt a social constructionist epistemology that highlights the role of actors in socially constructing elements of organizations or their context previously understood as either “natural” or beyond the control of individual actors. Emotion, for instance, is traditionally understood in psychology (where research on emotion is most prevalent) as either emanating from cognitive interpretations of situations or directly from events themselves (Elfenbein, 2007), but not being the object of work done by interested actors. At most, such emotions might be understood as “expressed” and distinct from “felt” emotions, whereas a powerful aspect of Hochschild’s writing on emotion work is that it is people’s “real,” felt emotions that they were working on. Similarly, a part of the interest in institutional work (p.44) is that it captures the intuition of a set of scholars that actors engage in a wide range of efforts to affect the institutions around them; such an approach contrasts with more structural approaches to institutions that emphasize stability based on automatic social controls (Jepperson, 1991) and change based on exogenous shocks (Kondra and Hinings, 1998).

The third observation concerned the differences among these forms of work as much as their commonalties. Although each form of work specifies a particular social-symbolic object as the target, it is clear that they also connect to each other around broader classes of social-symbolic objects, in particular around the self, organization, and institutions. Building on this observation, we will now introduce three forms of social-symbolic work—self work, organization work, and institutional work—which we explore in depth in Chapters 3 through 8.

Self Work

Self work describes the efforts of individuals, collective actors, and networks of actors to shape the social-symbolic dimensions of a self, both their own selves and those of others. In Chapters 3 and 4, we explore self work, both as it exists in contemporary society and how it has emerged historically. Drawing on a diverse set of writings, we argue that self work describes the efforts of actors to construct a self, and examine the discursive, relational, and material dimensions of those efforts. In management and organizational research, self work has been the subject of sociologically and psychologically informed research since the 1970s. We review three literatures from management and organizational research that represent different degrees of development in the study of self work: emotion work, which is perhaps the longest standing area of research on self work; identity work, the study of which emerged more recently; and career work, which scholars are only beginning to examine as a form of self work.

Scholarly interest in emotion work traces primarily to Hochschild’s (1979, 1983) explorations of how people engage in efforts to shape not only the expression of emotion in social settings, but their feelings. Hochschild documented the ways in which organizational members engage in emotion work, which she describes as “the act of trying to change in degree or quality an (p.46) emotion or feeling.” Importantly for our discussion, Hochschild (1979: 561) also notes that “‘emotion work’ refers to the effort—the act of trying—and not to the outcome, which may or may not be successful,” and argues that “[f]ailed acts of management still indicate what ideal formulations guide the effort, and on that account are no less interesting than emotion management that works.”

A second closely connected research stream focuses on identity work. The concept of identity describes the “various meanings attached to an individual by the self and by others” (Ibarra and Barbulescu, 2010: 137), and thus identity work refers to the purposeful ways through which individuals craft those meanings, through such strategies as humor, dress, personal style, and office decor (Elsbach, 2003; Ibarra, 1999; Kreiner et al., 2006; Pratt and Rafaeli, 1997; Pratt et al., 2006).

The third literature we examine in relation to the concept of self work focuses on careers as social-symbolic objects. The study of careers exemplifies research that has not traditionally been linked to other forms of social-symbolic work, but which could significantly benefit from more explicitly examining the social-symbolic work involved in constructing and shaping careers. This potential stems in part from the profound changes that have been occurring in the employment relationship, where we moved from organizational to boundaryless careers (Arthur and Rousseau, 2001) and now the gig economy in which careers involve sequences of tasks rather than jobs (Barley et al., 2017; Davis, 2016; Demetry, 2017).

Organization Work

We move to a discussion of organization work—efforts to construct and shape an organization—in Chapters 5 and 6. More precisely, it involves the work of individuals, collective actors, and networks of actors to construct the social-symbolic dimensions of an organization. Management and organizational research has long been concerned with the role of social-symbolic objects in organizational life, highlighting the importance of organizational culture (Barney, 1986), organizational symbolism (Pondy et al., 1983), and, somewhat more recently, stories, narratives, and other forms of discourse (Barry and Elmes, 1997; Boje, 1995). The emphasis in earlier work, however, was primarily on the impacts of these important social-symbolic objects on organizational life, rather than on the efforts of organizational actors to shape these objects.

More recently, three significant streams of research have emerged that emphasize the ways in which organizations as social-symbolic objects are constructed by actors. First, the strategy-as-practice literature reconceptualizes the notion of strategy from something an organization “has” to something its members “do” (Jarzabkowski, 2005; Maitlis and Lawrence, 2003; Vaara and (p.47) Whittington, 2012; Whittington, 2006). The idea of “strategy work”—the efforts of organizational actors to shape the strategies of their organizations (Vaara and Whittington, 2012)—is core to this perspective and is, from our perspective, a type of organization work. Whereas traditional views of strategy describe it as either “a pattern in a stream of decisions” (Mintzberg and Waters, 1985: 257) or an intended course of action (Schendel and Hofer, 1979), the notion of strategy work emphasizes strategy as a social-symbolic object.

Second, studies of boundary work have become an important stream in management and organizational research. The question of boundaries in and around organizations has long been a concern for organizational scholars, but had until recently been dominated by realist conceptions and functionalist explanations (Santos and Eisenhardt, 2005), rooted in traditions such as transaction cost analysis (Williamson, 1985). In contrast, recent writing on boundaries in management and organizational research treats boundaries as social and symbolic phenomena (Lamont and Molnár, 2002) and incorporates an explicit concern for the work of diverse actors to shape boundaries (Gieryn, 1983). Organizational scholars have also explored boundary work that involves the construction of boundary objects which facilitate cooperation across internal divisions (Carlile, 2002), the role of boundary spanners who negotiate meaning and relationships between organizational insiders and outsiders (Bartel, 2001), and the political contests over organizational and interorganizational decision-making boundaries (Zietsma and Lawrence, 2010).

A third kind of organization work focuses on the social-symbolic properties of technology. While a great deal of research has focused on the physical and functional properties of technology, an important stream of research concentrating on the social construction of technological systems in organizations has also emerged (Dodgson et al., 2008; Garud and Karnøe, 2003; Orlikowski, 1992). This literature has been significantly influenced by research on the “social construction of technology” (Latour, 1990; Pinch, 2008), which investigates how and with what effects technologies are socially constructed, often drawing on colorful examples to illustrate the social nature of even seemingly “hard” physical objects and facts, as in the study of the social construction of “missile accuracy” (MacKenzie, 2012). Research on technology work was initially focused on electronic communications systems (Fulk, 1993; Orlikowski, 1992, 2000), and more recently has broadened to consider the social and symbolic dimensions of the built environment more generally (Dover and Lawrence, 2010a; Leonardi and Barley, 2010; Orlikowski and Scott, 2008).

Institutional Work

We examine institutional work, defined as “the purposive action of individuals and organizations aimed at creating, maintaining and disrupting (p.48) institutions” (Lawrence and Suddaby, 2006: 215) in Chapters 7 and 8. Within the tradition of research on institutional work, institutions are understood as, “rules and shared meanings…that define social relationships, help define who occupies what position in those relationships and guide interaction” (Fligstein, 2001: 108). An important dimension of institutions is the set of social control mechanisms that underpin them and hence ensure their stability and people’s compliance (Jepperson, 1991; Phillips et al., 2000). Scott (2013) famously distinguishes between cognitive, regulative, and normative mechanisms, referring to them as the “three pillars of institutions.” Thus, institutional work can be aimed at affecting rules and shared meanings, the social control mechanisms that support them, or both.

A wide variety of institutional work strategies have been catalogued across a range of contexts, but the literature has been dominated by studies of practice work, which represents the efforts of “actors [to] affect the practices that are legitimate within a domain” (Zietsma and Lawrence, 2010: 194–5). Studies have documented how practices are created and institutionalized through processes of institutional entrepreneurship (Battilana et al., 2009; Maguire et al., 2004) and institutional innovation (Gawer and Phillips, 2013; Hargrave and Van de Ven, 2006). The disruption of practices has also been explored, particularly in the context of social movements (Maguire and Hardy, 2009; Rao et al., 2000). More recently, researchers have begun to focus attention on maintaining the legitimacy of practices, and this form of work has been explored in relationship to centuries old traditions (Dacin et al., 2010), as well as newer sets of practices (Trank and Washington, 2009).

A recent addition to the study of institutional work has been research focused on creating, disrupting, and maintaining categories (Durand and Paolella, 2013; Navis and Glynn, 2010; Vergne and Wry, 2014). This form of institutional work is closely related to boundary work, but focuses exclusively on symbolic boundaries with particular attention to the boundaries between organizational categories and between product categories (Vergne and Wry, 2014). Although much of the organizational research on categories has emphasized their impact on organizations, Vergne and Wry (2014: 78) note the emergence of “a nascent research stream…[that] shows that producer organizations can act strategically to theorize new categories around ‘codes’ and ‘attributes’ which may be discounted within extant categories.”


In this chapter, we have built on the introductory chapter to further explore the nature of social-symbolic objects and the social-symbolic work through which actors seek to shape them. Our intention has been to establish a perspective that (p.49) will be useful in thinking about and researching how organizations, their contexts, and the selves that inhabit them are purposefully constructed, how this happens, and the contribution of this activity to the ongoing construction of the social world. While social construction is not, of course, completely driven by intentional action, we argue that the role of intentional action has been underemphasized and there is much to gain from a more comprehensive account of social-symbolic work in constructing organizational life.

Our review of self work, organization work, and institutional work suggests some important common threads among these streams of research that have thus far remained separate. Most fundamentally, research on all three categories of social-symbolic work has established the ability of individuals, collective actors, and networks of actors to purposefully and reflexively engage with facets of organizational life that were previously treated as influential but often outside the reach of intentional action. Earlier writing on social-symbolic objects, such as institutions, values, emotions, and identities, treated them as having powerful impacts on organizational members, but overlooked or understated the degree to which the causal arrow might be reversed.

Key Resources

The Turn to Work in Society

Social-symbolic work becomes important both theoretically and practically as members of a society begin to believe that they can change the social world through the application of directed effort. The development of this belief, and the resulting rapid change in society that resulted, has been discussed by social scientists and by keen observers of society. Foucault provides a fascinating example of how agents conduct self work, organizational work, and institutional work over time in The birth of the clinic. His book chronicles how doctors worked to change medicine from something done by hacks and barbers to a high-status scientific endeavor. In Lipstick traces, Marcus provides a fascinating and accessible discussion of a related set of social movements, philosophical trends, and musical genres that were influential in changing the social world. The website of the Young Foundation provides a great window onto the activities of a social innovator at work today and the way they think and conduct their activities as they seek to create social change. Finally, And the band played on provides a gripping retelling of the dramatic events that led to the constitution of AIDS as a disease.

Foucault, M. 1973. The birth of the clinic. (A. M. Sheridan, trans.). London: Tavistock.

Marcus, G. 1990. Lipstick traces: A secret history of the twentieth century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shilts, R. 2011. And the band played on: Politics, people and the AIDS epidemic. Souvenir Press.

Spottiswoode, R. 1993. And the band played on. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ua5RrxvfVJU>.

The Young Foundation. <http://youngfoundation.org/>. (p.50)

Epistemology in the Social Sciences

This book is underpinned by the idea that the social world is not pre-existing and external to human activity, but rather is constituted in social interaction. The social construction of reality, by Berger and Luckmann, really started this revolution in thinking about the social world within the social sciences (although this discussion had been going on in philosophy and the humanities for some time prior to its publication) and is worth reading to understand how social construction works. In Philosophy and the mirror of nature, Rorty develops and extends these ideas, using them to challenge the conception of language as a “mirror of nature,” and the associated idea that our goal should be to develop language that is exact and a reflection of the natural and social world. We suggest another book by Foucault here, The history of sexuality, because it builds on this strong form of social constructionism and fundamentally challenges thinking about sexuality and gender as essential categories. Finally, in An invitation to social construction, Gergen provides an accessible and interesting introduction to social construction and its ramifications for social science and our understanding of social life at a practical level.

Berger, P. L., and Luckmann, T. 1966. The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York: Anchor.

Foucault, M. 2012. The history of sexuality: An introduction. New York: Random House.

Gergen, K. J. 2009. An invitation to social construction (2nd ed.). London: Sage.

Rorty, R. 2009. Philosophy and the mirror of nature (30th anniversary edition). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Social Structure and Agency

Social-symbolic work, by definition, requires agents to act purposefully and in their self-interest in a world characterized by social structure. But what, exactly, is agency and how and when is it constrained by social structure? A good place to start in understanding this question is Gidden’s book The constitution of society where he explains the complex interaction of agency and structure; more specifically, how agency is conditioned by structure at a moment in time, but over time how the activity of agents changes structure. Sewell delves deeper into this question of agency and structure, in his article “A theory of structure,” with a focus on how the relationship between the two leads to change in social structures. Finally, in a comprehensive treatment of agency, Emirbayer and Mische’s now foundational piece, “What is agency?,” dives deeply into the discussions of agency in social science and the humanities to provide a highly useful framework for understanding different types of agency.

Emirbayer, M., and Mische, A. 1998. What is agency? American Journal of Sociology, 103(4): 962–1023.

Giddens, A. 1984. The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Sewell, W. H. 1992. A theory of structure: Duality, agency, and transformation. American Journal of Sociology, 98(1): 1–29. (p.51)

Modernism and Postmodernism

The importance of social-symbolic work follows the changes in society that have led people to see their selves, the organizations they inhabit, and the broader societal context as things they can work to influence. This change is, as we have already argued, part of the broader shift from premodernity to modernity and then postmodernity. Cooper and Burrell provide an accessible and concise introduction to this topic that we highly recommend to anyone with little familiarity with these ideas. For a more theoretically challenging discussion of modernism and postmodernism, Harvey’s The condition of postmodernity provides an interesting perspective that highlights the link between postmodernism and cultural change. In two more focused works, Lyotard’s classic The postmodern condition focuses on the doubt about meta-narratives that comes with the move to the postmodern, while Weedon’s Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory focuses on what the advent of postmodernism means for feminism.

Cooper, R., and Burrell, G. 1988. Modernism, postmodernism and organizational analysis: An introduction, Organization Studies, 9(1) 91–112.

Harvey, D. 1989. The condition of postmodernity: An enquiry into the origins of cultural change. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lyotard, J.-F. 1984. The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. University of Minnesota Press.

Weedon, C. 1987. Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory. Oxford: Blackwell. (p.52)


(1) The history on which we focus here is primarily of Western Europe and North America. Although similar transitions to modernity and postmodernity occurred in other places, the dates and specific dynamics of those transitions differ in important ways, with profound implications for the nature of social-symbolic objects and social-symbolic work.

(2) This struggle is often referred to as the agency/structure debate (see Lawrence et al., 2009 for a more complete discussion).

(3) We would like to sincerely thank the members of the Academy of Management OMT Listserv for their willingness to share their ideas on these new forms of work.

(4) We have not included all submissions from the OMT list or all of the times in the OMT literature reference was made to a kind of work. In particular, we restricted our list to forms of work aimed at affecting the social-symbolic context, rather than, for instance, characteristics of work (e.g., “dirty work”) or more traditional types of work (e.g., “professional work”).