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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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Self Work in Management and Organizational Research

Self Work in Management and Organizational Research

(p.82) 4 Self Work in Management and Organizational Research
Constructing Organizational Life

Thomas B. Lawrence

Nelson Phillips

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The study of self work is one of the oldest and most developed areas of management and organizational research that focuses on social-symbolic work. This chapter reviews three literatures on self work in management and organization research. For each, it introduces the type of self work, reviews its development in management and organizational research, and explores the implications of studying it as a type of self work. First, the chapter explores how the concept of self work can help organize an extensive and well-developed literature through a discussion of emotion work. Second, it explores how the concept of self work can extend an existing research area by using the example of identity work. Third, it explores how a social-symbolic work perspective can motivate a new stream of literature by examining career work as a form of self work that remains largely unresearched.

Keywords:   self work, emotion work, emotional labor, identities, identity work, careers, career work, social construction, agency

In this chapter we:

  1. 1. Review the study of emotion work in management and organizational research and explore how conceptualizing emotion work as a type of self work can extend this well-developed literature.

  2. 2. Review the study of identity work in management and organizational research and explore how conceptualizing emotion work as a type of self work can contribute to the continued development of this rapidly growing literature.

  3. 3. Review the study of career work in management and organizational research and discuss how conceptualizing career work as a type of self work can aid the development of this newly emerging stream of research.


Although the self has been a core concept in the social sciences for at least a century, the systematic study of how actors intentionally shape selves only began to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s. Led by scholars such as Goffman (1959a), the idea that we shape our own and others’ selves as a normal part of everyday life was a groundbreaking idea that now informs a range of scholarly communities across a broad swathe of social science including fields as diverse as social psychology, nursing, and education.

In management and organizational research, interest in the social construction of selves sits primarily within more “micro” traditions and we focus in this chapter on three streams of research that represent well-established and emerging topics within this literature. First, we examine emotion work as one of the more long-standing, well-developed areas of self work research in (p.83) management and organizational research. Second, we discuss the large and growing body of research on identity work that has developed somewhat more recently. The study of both emotion work and identity work began outside of management and organizational research, but have been associated with productive streams of research exploring these types of self work in and around organizations. In contrast, we examine career work as a nascent topic in management and organizational research; the idea that careers might be understood as social-symbolic objects, and thus the focus of career work, is only beginning to emerge and represents an area with tremendous potential as a site of self work research. For each literature, we review their evolution as research domains, and then explore how understanding them as forms of self work might influence future scholarship.

Emotion Work

Arlie Hochschild (1979: 561) coined the term “emotion work” to describe “the act of trying to change in degree or quality an emotion or feeling.” Emotion work is an active, reflexive set of activities, as illustrated by Hochschild’s respondents’ descriptions: “I psyched myself up…I squashed my anger down…I tried hard not to feel disappointed…I made myself have a good time…I tried to feel grateful…I killed the hope I had burning” (1979: 561, emphasis and ellipses in original).

The concept of emotion work is consistent with our the idea of self work in that it “refers to the effort—the act of trying—and not to the outcome, which may or may not be successful” (Hochschild, 1979: 561). Moreover, the concept of emotion work highlights the degree to which people can manage their emotions and do so in response to social norms and pressures, thus standing in contrast to long-held conceptions of emotion that suggest it is “unbidden and uncontrollable,…not governed by social rules” (1979: 551).

Three qualities of emotion work are important to highlight in relation to self work. The first is its temporality: as we argued in relation to self work, emotion work often occurs as programs of action, over extended periods of time as people engage in ongoing attempts to manage their emotions. As one of Hochschild’s (1979: 561) respondents described her efforts in the context of a romantic relationship: “Anyway, I started to try and make myself like him. I made myself focus on the way he talked, certain things he’d done in the past.…When I was with him I did like him, but I would go home and write in my journal how much I couldn’t stand him.”

The second is the sets of practices through which it is accomplished, which include cognitive strategies intended to shift beliefs or thoughts and in so doing affect associated emotions; bodily strategies, such as slowing one’s (p.84) breathing, in order to manage the physical symptoms of an emotion; and expressive strategies engaged in to affect an inner feeling. All of these strategies, like other forms of self work, can be “done by the self upon the self, by the self upon others, and by others upon oneself” (Hochschild, 1979: 562).

Third are the contexts in which it occurs: emotion work is motivated, shaped, and constrained by the social contexts in which it occurs and the social-symbolic resources available to those involved. Hochschild focuses on two features of the social context: social structure, particularly as it is constituted in the form of economic exchange, class, and child rearing; and feeling rules, which describe socially prescribed expectations for emotional display and experience in particular circumstances.

An important development in the study of emotion work was the recognition of its potential commoditization, captured in the concept of “emotional labor.” The concept of emotional labor is differentiated from the more general concept of emotion work by its association with paid employment. Interest in commodified emotion work is rooted in Hochschild’s (1983) study of Delta flight attendants—individuals working in a context where feeling rules intersect with the supply of and demand for emotional expression, and with the authority structures and practices of a large corporation. The world of Delta flight attendants provided a striking example of commodified emotion work, and particularly its relationship to how individuals relate to their own emotions. Hochschild (1983: 89) argues that, “[w]hen rules about how to feel and how to express feeling are set by management, [and]…workers have weaker rights to courtesy than customers do,” there is the potential created for an uncomfortable tension between employees’ feelings and their expressions of feeling. But, since corporate demands for emotional expression are unlikely to yield to that discomfort, individuals will instead work to bring their own feelings in line with the obligatory emotional display. This process is what makes the commercialization of feeling possible, and its difficulty is what makes it so potentially valuable: “Even when people are paid to be nice, it is hard for them to be nice at all times, and when their efforts succeed, it is a remarkable accomplishment” (Hochschild, 1983: 118).

Emotion Work in Management and Organizational Research

The earliest research on emotion work in management and organizational research focused on emotional displays associated with specific organizational roles, such as front-line service personnel (Ashforth and Humphrey, 1993; Grandey et al., 2010; Rafaeli and Sutton, 1990). This work examined the impact of emotional display rules on the behavior of employees (Rafaeli and Sutton, 1990; Sutton and Rafaeli, 1988), organizational performance (Sutton (p.85) and Rafaeli, 1988; Van Kleef et al., 2010), and employee well-being (Brotheridge and Grandey, 2002; Grandey, 2003).

In an early example of this research Sutton and Rafaeli (1988) explored the impact of positive emotional displays on sales performance in convenience stores. The motivation for this study was the assumption, widely held at the time, that positive displays of emotion would be associated with more satisfied customers and better organizational performance. The surprising finding was that this was not the case. Instead, there was a negative association between positive emotional displays and store sales. This surprising association was explained by the specific display rules of this chain of stores, in which speed and convenience were the dominant customer service values: as described by store clerks, “our customers just want to get in and out quickly [and]…don’t care if the clerk is perky” (Sutton and Rafaeli, 1988: 474).

Although early studies of emotion work tended to portray it as emanating from individuals responding to organizational display rules, research has moved toward a more relational understanding of the phenomenon in which emotional display can be understood as a coordinated, collective accomplishment (Boje, 1995). In a study of criminal investigators and bill collectors, for instance, Rafaeli and Sutton (1991) found that emotion work involved collective effort on the part of two individuals, each of whom played a definite and sustained role for the duration of an interaction with the target. Study participants described these strategies as central to their role effectiveness, and included sequential and simultaneous good cop/bad cop variations, as well as one person playing both roles. As one investigator described,

I just finished an interrogation that I did with a younger guy who would yell and scream at people 20 years older than him. Of course, they would ignore him. I’d always let this guy go before me because he really annoyed the suspects and when I walked into the room and spoke like a civilized person, they were ready to talk.

(Rafaeli and Sutton, 1991: 761)

All of these strategies rely on the ways in which the salience and meaning of emotional displays change in relation to other such displays, and the ability of investigators and bill collectors to effect convincing positive or negative emotional displays.

Although most research on emotion work in paid employment has focused on emotional display, some research has investigated how people manage both felt and expressed emotion. In a study of “emotional boundary work,” for example, Allan and Barber (2005) describe how changes to the role of fertility treatment nurses led to emotion work that was less about appropriate emotional display than about establishing sustainable, effective relationships between nurses and patients. The rule changes heightened the physical intimacy of nurses and patients, as nurses were directed to take on medical care (p.86) previously administered by doctors, such as ovarian ultrasound scanning, egg collection, and embryo transfer. The vulnerability and uncertainty associated with these procedures led patients to bond with nurses, who had to respond with emotion work that aimed to “maintain a position between emotional closeness and distance as a defense against the anxiety of [patient] emotions.” Nurses engaged in what is described in the nursing literature as the “therapeutic use of self,” in which a nurse “employ[s] her/his entire person…as a tool for promoting health and limiting disease” (Uys, 1980: 175).

Emotion Work as Self Work

We were initially motivated to write this book by our recognition that many kinds of social-symbolic work were being examined in management and organizational research without any seeming awareness that they belonged to a broader theoretical family. Thus, for each of the streams of management and organizational research we review in this book, we explore how they might be influenced by recognizing their relationship to other forms of social-symbolic work. To guide this exploration, we draw on the process model introduced in Chapter 2 (reproduced here in a simplified version as Figure 4.1), and explore its implications for each type of self work. So, for emotion work, we review the treatment of each element of the process model (e.g., motivations, practices) in the emotion work literature, and explore the implications of reframing emotion work explicitly as a type of self work.

Self Work in Management and Organizational Research

Figure 4.1. A process model of self work

(p.87) Motivations for Emotion Work

Starting from the left side of Figure 4.1, the process model begins with the motivations that drive social-symbolic work: put simply, why are people engaging in this work? The concept of social-symbolic work is premised on the idea that people are able to (at least at times) intentionally and reflexively engage in efforts to shape social-symbolic objects, and thus understanding the roots of those intentions is a core problem for the perspective we are developing.

The literature on emotion work in organizations highlights three main motivations. First, emotion work is performed in response to organizational demands concerning the sorts of emotions that are appropriate or required in specific workplace situations. Consider, for example, the Delta flight attendants originally studied by Hochschild (1983): these individuals worked in the context of socialization and control processes meant to ensure that their emotional responses remained polite and positive even on long flights with difficult passengers.

A second motivation for emotion work is rooted in the desire to produce better organizational outcomes, such as more effective service encounters. For example, Van Kleef et al. (2010) showed that leaders who worked to be “happier” generally had higher-performing teams. In other words, leaders who do the necessary emotion work to appear happy (despite whatever they are actually feeling) have a positive effect on the performance of their team.

A third motivation for emotion work found in management and organizational research is rooted in people’s efforts to navigate difficult organizational situations where unmanaged emotional responses might result in ineffective or unpleasant dynamics. This motivation is illustrated by studies of nurses who engage in careful emotion work to avoid unpleasant, difficult to control situations with patients who are sick and frustrated (Hunter, 2005). By working to manage their emotional reactions, nurses working in this environment can avoid escalating unpleasant situations.

Together, these three motivations provide an important foundation for understanding the “why” of emotion work in organizations, particularly highlighting the embeddedness of motivations for emotion work in specific jobs and organizational roles. At the same time, when we shift to an understanding of emotion work as a type of self work, we begin to see a broader set of triggers and motivations than have been explored in the emotion work literature. It is not just instrumental organizational requirements that lead to the performance of emotion work. Instead, there are many other reasons for doing emotion work that deserve discussion and investigation.

One such motivation would involve the everyday efforts of people to maintain appropriate levels of distance and intimacy with organizational colleagues through both the expression and suppression of emotion. While much of the (p.88) emotion work literature has been focused on practical outcomes such as happy customers or motivated staff, there are areas of interaction between colleagues that underpin friendships and other complex relationships between organizational members (Crary, 1987). Understanding and managing appropriate organizational relationships is a challenging area of self work that deserves much more attention as a research area.

Another motivation is associated with the work of organizational members to establish and maintain their images as “healthy” individuals, free from depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. While this may seem an esoteric motivation for emotion work, the prevalence of depression and anxiety in organizations, and the stigma associated with such conditions (Ahmedani, 2011), makes this kind of emotion work a widespread, important, and underexamined form of self work.

Finally, conceptualizing emotion work as self work highlights the important and underemphasized fact that it is not just individuals doing emotion work for themselves. Reflecting on our discussion of the range of actors engaged in self work, we begin to see that extensive emotion work is done by actors trying to manage others’ expression and experience of emotions. One context in which such dynamics are commonplace is in organizations where managers provide guidelines for the emotional displays of employees. Consider this example from the employee handbook of a gourmet deli (Steinberg and Figart, 1999: 9):

Under no circumstances should a customer ever wonder if you are having a bad day. Your troubles should be masked with a smile. Tension can be seen and received negatively resulting in an un-happy dining experience, or what is called frustrated food … Once an un-happy or dissatisfied customer walks out the door, they are gone forever!

In addition, managers and other employees commonly work to shape the responses of individuals to stress, frustration, or disappointment by suggesting narratives that contextualize the problematic experience, by providing techniques for dealing with stress, or by providing examples where a particular kind of situation was responded to in a more effective emotional way. Despite their importance and intuitive ubiquity, relatively little research has focused on the emotion work of actors in relation to the emotions of others.

Practices of Emotion Work

If we move to the middle of our process model, we come to the practices—shared routines that conform to a group’s social expectations—through which people engage in self work. In the case of research on emotion work, the most central practices, first identified by Hochschild (1983), have been “deep acting” and “surface acting.” In surface acting, an actor works to modify the (p.89) external display of emotion, whereas in deep acting, the actor works not only to shape the display of emotions, but also the feelings that are experienced. These practices draw on a dramaturgical understanding of social life and the role of emotion in it; deep acting, rooted in the idea of “method acting,” has become a central, though contested, focus for the study of emotion work.

Although the importance of deep and surface acting in organizations has been amply demonstrated, their dominance in the literature has stifled recognition of other emotion work practices. The reaction of some nursing scholars to these practices is informative in this regard. Although notions of deep and surface acting have become important features of nursing research (Mann and Cowburn, 2005; McQueen, 2004), some nursing scholars have railed against the image of nurses as engaged in any form of acting. They argue that although nurses engaging in emotion work may at times be responding to employers’ demands, focusing strictly on acting as a metaphor provides:

too limited an account…for it fails to allow for the sense of moral concern and justice that may drive such efforts. Nurses are not serving customers as flight attendants do, they are responding to the needs of vulnerable, often frightened and suffering people who are partially, or totally, dependent on their help.

(de Raeve, 2002: 469)

This argument is not rejecting emotion work as a possibility, but the implication that such work will always be inauthentic in some way.

Even if we don’t think of deep and surface acting as necessarily inauthentic, they do rely on an understanding of emotions and the self, and consequently emotion work and self work, as separate (or at least separable) from each other. Any kind of acting as a basis for emotional experience and expression seems to suggest that emotions might be managed against the backdrop of a stable self that either manipulates emotional expression or forms the foundation for it. If instead, we think of emotions as a part of the self, then acting may be an unhelpful metaphor.

Inspiration for alternative metaphors for emotion work practices can be found in the discursive and relational dimensions that we highlighted in our conceptualization of self work. Emotion work might, for instance, be understood in terms of the weaving of emotions into the narratives through which we constitute selves. It might also be more explicitly conceived of as relational, with emotion work practices including empathy, attending, reflecting, and the negotiation of emotional roles and routines through which relationships (and thus selves) are constituted.

Effects of Emotion Work

Moving on to the effects of emotion work, research has tended to focus primarily on two sets of effects: on the person engaged in the emotion work, (p.90) and on the interactions with customers and colleagues. The effects of emotion work on the person engaged in emotion work have been of significant interest throughout the history of the concept, with particular interest in the unintended, and often negative, consequences of emotion work for people’s psychological well-being (Brotheridge and Grandey, 2002; Giardini and Frese, 2006; Zapf, 2002). Emotion work in service industries has been linked to stress and burnout, though with inconsistent results, with some studies finding no relationship, perhaps because of the positive effects of emotion work on relationships between the focal individuals and their clients (Grandey, 2003). The link between emotion work and negative psychological consequences has also been tied to the strain stemming from the “mismatch” between required emotional displays and the emotions that the participants wished they could display (Zapf et al., 1999). Although most studies of the effects of emotion work have highlighted its negative effects on the individuals involved, recent research has also shown its potential positive contributions (Zapf and Holz, 2006): Grant (2013), for instance, shows that engaging in emotion work leads people to speak up constructively in organizations, and in turn to better performance evaluations.

Along with the personal effects of emotion work, management and organizational research has focused on its impacts on immediate organizational relationships such as with clients and colleagues. In an extensive review, Van Kleef and colleagues (2012) show that emotional expression in the workplace affects customer service, group decision making, negotiations, and leadership through a combination of triggering affective reactions and shaping inferences among the people who observe the emotional display. These effects are nicely illustrated by the work of Rafaeli and Sutton (1990, 1991, 1987), who explored the impacts of emotional expression by convenience store clerks, criminal interrogators, and bill collectors.

Reframing emotion work as a form of self work again broadens the focus, this time to sets of effects that go beyond the immediate psychological and organizational impacts of emotion work. Understanding emotions as part of the self, and thus emotion work as partly constitutive of the self, suggests that the ways in which we actively shape our emotions will also shape our selves. As with our discussion of emotion work practices, conceptualizing the self and emotions as integrated rather than as separate parts of an individual problematizes the relationship between emotion work and experiences such as stress and psychological strain, or at least leads to a somewhat different conceptualization of these experiences. We have argued for an understanding of the self as discursive and relational, and thus for a radically plural self with multiple “I”s as well as multiple “Me”s.

This argument has important implications for understanding the effects of emotion work, as it leads to the possibility of stress and strain as potentially (p.91) emanating from the challenges associated with managing multiple selves that are somehow in conflict with each other. There may also be a more general impact of sustained emotion work. In shaping the self on an ongoing basis, emotion work might make salient social or organizational demands for a different self, and thus breed dissatisfaction with the self one has shaped. This could be because one has succumbed to those pressures and constituted a different self for others, or because one has failed to do so and hence has failed in their organizational role. In either case, constructing the self in a particular way, or not doing so, might result in feelings of stress and strain due to the complexity and incompatibility of the demands to be a certain “kind of person.”

Situatedness of Emotion Work

Finally, we consider the context in which emotion work takes place—its situatedness. This situatedness was critically important to Hochschild and has remained so for the scholars who have followed her in investigating empirical instances of emotion work in a variety of contexts. To make the situatedness of emotion work explicit, Hochschild explored the role of social structure and introduced the notion of feeling rules. In addition, research on emotion work has highlighted gender as a central aspect of its situatedness, as in the many studies of flight attendants and nurses where the connection between gender and particular kinds and styles of emotion work has been highlighted. The effect on emotion work of particular occupations, including service work, care professions, and high-conflict work such as bill collection, have also been explored. Recent research has extended this work to explore emotion work in the context of specific organizational cultures, as in Barsade and O’Neill’s (2014) exploration of affection, caring, compassion, and tenderness in cultures of companionate love. Collectively, this research has profoundly shifted our understanding of emotion from something universal, rooted solely in individual psychology, to a phenomenon that is profoundly social, with every aspect of our emotional lives, including emotion work, shaped by the social context in which it occurs.

As with the other aspects of emotion work, how we understand its situatedness is affected by conceptualizing emotion work as a type of self work. At least three issues arise from this move. First, it complicates the relationships among feeling rules, emotion work, and the self. Hochschild’s conception of feeling rules, and the ways in which they have been explored empirically since then, suggest a stable self set against a changing social backdrop: the women who worked as flight attendants for Delta were understood as coping with the job’s requirements by learning to engage in particular forms of emotion work. While such a conception of emotion work and feeling rules powerfully highlights the impact of organizations and organizational roles, it significantly (p.92) overlooks the potential fluidity of the self, the creative agency that people bring to those situations in how they construct their selves, and how those selves can leverage those situations and act as sites of resistance.

A second important consideration is the changing context of much emotion work as more and more of our lives are lived online, and how this context can dramatically affect the relationship between emotion work and the self. Most immediately, the question becomes what emotion looks like when social interaction is digitally mediated. How much of the research on deep and surface acting as methods of emotion work is relevant when emotional expression occurs through the production of text, or even emoticons and “likes”?

Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, there is the question of how we think about the self online. As the classic New Yorker cartoon observes, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The unknowability and hence radical instability of identities in virtual contexts makes the question of feeling rules dramatically more complicated. Even if feeling rules exist in virtual spaces, such rules are traditionally applied with an understanding of to whom they are being applied: a person’s gender, age, ethnicity, physical ability, and attractiveness can all play important roles in the interpretation and enforcement of feelings rules (Warhurst and Nickson, 2009). When those cues are unavailable or unreliable, the ability of participants to enforce feeling rules diminishes, just as it increases the ability of people to creatively shape their selves and the range of legitimate emotional expression.

Summing Up

Looking across the different elements, we see that conceptualizing emotion work as a form of self work expands the possibilities for theorizing by embedding efforts to manage emotions in the broader project of constructing a self. As suggested in our review of the history of the self, this project has become increasingly important and widespread, especially over the past century. To date, emotion work has primarily been explored in isolation of other forms of self work, with the focus on emotional labor in particular highlighting its immediate connection to work and organizations. The link between emotion work and self work has largely been ignored from both sides of this relationship. Research and writing on emotion work have tended to situate emotions as separate from the self, unwittingly reinforcing an essentialist view of the self as separate from the emotions that this literature has shown are constructed reflexively and with purpose. A different sin of omission has been committed by writers focusing on self work who either ignore emotions altogether or position them as simply an extension of the self being constructed, rather than an important and distinctive facet of the self.

(p.93) Identity Work

The relation between self and identity, and hence between self work and identity work, is a complex one, with the terms sometimes used interchangeably in the literature. For our purposes, we distinguish the two in a relatively simple way. The concept of self is the more general one, describing the self-knowledge that results from “the human capacity for reflexive thinking—the ability to take oneself as the object of one’s attention and thought” (Leary and Tangney, 2003: 6).

We anchor our use of the concept of identity in social identity theory, in which it depends on one’s relatively stable relationships to others and is based on group identification: “people tend to classify themselves and others into various social categories, such as organizational membership, religious affiliation, gender, and age cohort” (Ashforth and Mael, 1989: 20). Although a range of theoretical approaches to individual identity exist (cf., Roberts and Creary, 2013), we focus on social identity theory because of its dominance in management and organizational research (Ashforth and Mael, 1989).

From a social identity theory perspective, identities describe “the internalized meanings and expectations associated with the positions one holds in social networks and the roles one plays” (Oyserman et al., 2012: 74). It is about who we are in relation to others and is organized around roles like mother, accountant, or customer. This conception of identity emphasizes the social basis of identity, separate from what is sometimes called “personal identities” that reflect “characteristics that may feel separate from one’s social and role identities” (Oyserman et al., 2012: 74) and the broader aspects of the self that we discussed earlier.

Identity work, therefore, refers to the efforts of individuals, collective actors, and networks of actors to shape how individuals are understood in relation to group memberships and related roles. Snow and Anderson (1987) established identity work as a core sociological concept with their study of how individuals who are identified as homeless constructed and communicated their identities. The study examined how people “at the bottom of status systems” establish identities that “provide them with a measure of self-worth and dignity,” and identified a complex set of strategies used by homeless people to “create, present and sustain personal identities” (Snow and Anderson, 1987: 1336).

The identity work strategies identified by Snow and Anderson were multimodal, involving talking about one’s identity, establishing and maintaining associations with other people, and managing physical settings and props, including one’s personal appearance. Although establishing the relationships among role, identity, and self-concept would become the paper’s most significant theoretical contribution, the focus on homeless people set a lasting (p.94) direction for the study of identity work, inspiring a range of scholars to examine situations that challenged people’s legitimacy, status, and value (e.g., Ashforth and Kreiner, 1999; Brewis and Linstead, 2000).

Identity Work in Management and Organizational Research

Research investigating identity work in management and organizational research can be roughly divided into two approaches. The first approach has focused on the identity work that people do in relation to their own identity. This stream of research established the concept of identity work in management and organizational research, documented it in a range of organizational and social contexts, and examined different kinds of identity work. The second approach has focused on how identity work can be done by other individual and collective actors. This research provided important insights into the relationship between institutional work and other concepts, especially power and control. We explore the two approaches in the following subsections.

Identity Work and Individual Social Identity

Early management and organizational research on individual identity work focused on showing that identity work exists across different organizational contexts. Alvesson (1994: 544), for example, explored how advertising executives constructed themselves as professionals, with “special instincts” for how to effectively communicate ideas. A key strategy involved advertising executives disparaging their “rather careless” clients: “They lack stamina, jump from one campaign to another, and their campaigns differ greatly from one another. This means that they can never realize their plans or achieve their goals” (Alvesson, 1994: 548). Through this identity work, advertising professionals positioned themselves as professionals by distancing themselves from their clients, who they associated with an “amateur” understanding of advertising.

Following a related line of research, Fine (1996: 90) examined “occupational rhetorics” in restaurant kitchens, where he focused on the identity work of restaurant cooks who employ “rhetorics of profession, art, business and labor to shape how they think of themselves as workers.” Fine’s study showed that although we tend to use occupational labels implying homogeneity within a category—lawyer, professor, doctor—we know that such categories are internally differentiated in ways that can be important, both symbolically and instrumentally, to members.

As well as documenting its existence, early research work focused on categorizing and labeling different kinds of identity work. Ashforth and Kreiner’s (1999: 413) discussion of “dirty work,” for instance, explored “tasks and (p.95) occupations that are likely to be perceived as disgusting or degrading.” Like the homeless in Snow and Anderson’s original study of identity work, the challenge for those engaged in dirty work is to “construct an esteem-enhancing social identity,” which members accomplish through processes of reframing and selective social comparison. Research on dirty work highlights the flexible, nuanced nature of identity work, showing how it draws on specific social categories for comparison and contrast, and discursive strategies that require detailed occupational and social knowledge. One dirty work strategy, for example, is to “condemn the condemners,” which is “to impugn the motives, character, or authority…of critical outsiders as moral arbiters,” such that members of a dirty work occupation can “dismiss the condemners’ perceptions” (Ashforth and Kreiner, 1999: 424).

Along with the discursive identity work that has been prevalent in the literature, research in this stream has attended to its material dimension, which involves the employment of physical artifacts such as dress (Buckingham and Willett, 2013; Pratt and Rafaeli, 1997; Rafaeli and Pratt, 2013). In their study of a rehabilitation unit of a large hospital, Pratt and Rafaeli (1997: 874) found that disagreements about appropriate dress among nurses reflected a deeper issue: “nurses attempted to answer the abstract and complex question, Who are we as nurses of this unit?, through discussing the question, What should we wear?” In this way, dress was integral to identity work: choices of clothing were nested in a complex web of social identities structured around divisions between rehabilitation and acute care identities, and between manager and floor nurses (with a rehabilitation identity and a manager nurse identity tied to wearing street clothes, rather than scrubs).

Identity Work and Social Control

The second stream of research on identity work we examined focuses on the identity work of others, and its relationship to social structures and processes, including power and control. Studies of the relationship between identity work and power/control have emerged out of a much longer tradition of labor process studies, which were concerned with understanding, criticizing, and influencing the relationship between labor, management, and capital in contemporary work organizations (Burawoy, 1979; Jermier et al., 1994). The introduction of identity and identity work to this area of scholarship was connected to the transformations that were occurring in the world of paid employment, where traditional labor–capital divisions and dynamics were breaking down, but the questions of power and control were enduringly important.

Central to discussions connecting identity work to power has been Knights and Willmott’s (1989: 535) attempt to theorize “the connectedness of power and subjectivity in the organisation of social life,” which extended the labor (p.96) process tradition by integrating an account of power rooted in the work of Foucault (1979). They argue that “the very exercise of power relies upon the constitution of subjects who are tied by their sense of identity to the reproduction of power relations” (Knights and Willmott, 1989: 536–7). The relationship between institutional work and power is tied to the insecurities associated with identity in contemporary capitalism. With the foundations of the self having changed over time, from assigned and hierarchical to those increasingly involving “choice” of some kind, identity work has become more necessary and tied more tightly to circuits of power. For Knights and Willmott (1989: 549), there are both “positive” and “negative” implications of these changes:

Positively, the modern subject is constituted as “independent” and “responsible”, partly as a result of the institutionalisation of “natural” rights and obligations of democratic self-autonomy. Negatively, individuals have been “split” off from one another, and this is experienced as a vulnerability to the judgements of “significant others”.

Thus, their argument is not that identity is only a matter of control and subjugation, but that the relationship between power and identity work is more subtle: although the exercise of power may provoke resistance when it threatens valued identities, it will at least as often enroll its targets by virtue of its enabling, productive qualities (Knights and Willmott, 1989).

A more explicitly critical approach to identity and power is taken by Alvesson and Willmott (2002: 620), who highlight the potentially unobtrusive political effects of identity work, forging chains of control in organizations that are both less visible and more effective than external mechanisms of control. Alvesson and Willmott articulate a wide range of forms of identity work that target different elements of organizational life: identity work that focuses on the employee by defining him or her in reference to some other; identity work that focuses on forms of action, defining how people should be relating to particular fields of activity; and identity work that targets the relationships of organizational members, defining spheres of belongingness and differentiation, and defining identities in terms of how they fit into broader social, organizational, and economic landscapes (Alvesson and Willmott, 2002).

The world of commercial airline pilots provides an example that illustrates the contentious and distributed politics of identity work. As a profession, US commercial pilots are among the worst in terms of gender and racial diversity: 95 percent of pilots are men and 98 percent are white (Ashcraft, 2005). Although being male has been constructed as central to the professional identity of pilots, this has not always been the case. Corn (1979) documents the period in the 1920s and 1930s when women played an important role as (p.97) pilots in US commercial aviation: a role that was ironic in that it was rooted in sexist beliefs regarding the inability of women to engage in heroic or technical tasks, and so their ability to pilot aircraft was intended to demonstrate to the public that flying must indeed be a safe, relatively mundane activity. This need underpinned the hiring of approximately 500 women as commercial pilots in this period. These women not only piloted planes, but raced them, sold them, and worked as “test pilots, flight instructors, aerial photographers and flying chauffeurs” (Corn, 1979: 556–7). Once the public had been convinced of the safety of air travel, however, the role of women as pilots largely disappeared, and women were moved to the back of the plane where, as stewardesses, they could put their nurturing “feminine qualities” to a new use for aviation. In contrast, the pilot’s seat became associated with an “elite, civilized, rational, technical, omniscient, and thoroughly heterosexual and paternal figure” that was the powerful male counterpart to the sexy stewardess (Ashcraft, 2005: 76).

Looking across the research connecting identity work and power, this relationship seems inevitable for at least two reasons. First, identities, and especially organizational and occupational identities, are negotiated in the context of relationships in which power and control are of immediate concern. Employees and managers, but also customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders, are involved in these political games of identity construction. Second, identities themselves are inherently political as they are rooted in social categories and roles that carry with them different levels of legitimacy, status, and privilege. In the case of the commercial airline pilot, for instance, its relationship to a privileged gender category—masculinity—changed over time, first solidifying as flying became accepted as a relatively safe endeavor, and then recently being challenged as new technologies and changes in practices have undermined the paternal role of the pilot in relation to the crew.

Identity Work as Self Work

As we have just done with emotion work, we now discuss the implications of understanding identity work as a type of self work. We again draw on the process model established in Chapter 2 that connects motivations, practices, effects, resources, and situatedness (see Figure 4.1). For each part of the model, we discuss its relevance to identity work and how understanding emotion work as self work might shape theory and empirical research.

Motivations of Identity Work

Beginning with the motivations that lead actors to perform identity work, it is useful to distinguish between identity work undertaken by actors in relation to their own identities, and work done to shape the identities of others. (p.98) Management and organizational research has identified several motivations that drive actors to perform work to shape their own identities. One such motivation is to manage the relationships among group identities, both connecting groups and differentiating between them. This motivation was evident both in Fine’s (1996) study of restaurant kitchens, where cooks engaged in work to connect their work to other professions, and in Alvesson’s (1994) study of advertising agency employees who worked to distinguish their identities from those of clients. A second motivation prominent in management and organizational research is to defend threatened identities (Ashforth and Kreiner, 1999; Brewis and Linstead, 2000; Maitlis, 2009). Actors are understandably motivated to carry out identity work when they feel their identities are threatened in some way or when they face unwanted pressure to change their identities (Snow and Anderson, 1987).

Research on actors working to shape the identities of others has largely focused on identity work as a form of social control in the workplace (e.g., Alvesson and Willmott, 2002), and a way of managing associations between the identities of organizational actors and other facets of the organization (e.g., Ashcraft, 2005). In the first case, identity work is performed primarily by managers to craft identities for others that, if they are accepted, function to shape behavior in ways positively valued by the organization. In the second case, the identity work is carried out by managers or organizational members to make sense of their identities in relation to their organization or workgroup. Tracey and Phillips (2016), for example, discuss how changes to the organizational identity of a social enterprise in response to organizational stigmatization resulted in challenges to the identity of many individual employees who were then motivated to perform identity work to make sense of their identities relative to the new organizational identity.

From a social-symbolic work perspective, our understanding of the motivations driving identity work changes if we think of identity work as a type of self work. In particular, such a move suggests exploring deeper and more distal motivations for identity work. At present, management and organizational research exploring identity work has tended to focus on triggers and motivations that are relatively easily identified in people’s immediate social and organizational contexts. If, instead, we worked from the three basic motivations established by current research—group association and differentiation, defending threatened identities, and social control—but expanded our search for the triggers of such identity work beyond people’s proximal environments, we may well see identity work as part of a wider set of processes through which people work to construct and maintain selves. A need to differentiate, feelings of threat, and the desire for social control might, for instance, be anchored in people’s relationships that are relatively distant from the exercise of those motivations. This is where a relational understanding of the self becomes (p.99) important. If we see the self as a nexus of relationships, then how we work to construct identities—our own and others’—will be significantly influenced by the interplay of those relationships. We are not suggesting a return to an “I” and multiple “me”s, but rather the interplay of “I”s negotiating situational prominence and reaching temporary settlements.

Practices of Identity Work

Moving to the practices associated with identity work, researchers have paid the most attention to linguistic practices, with somewhat less attention to managing physical appearances, manipulating artifacts, and associating with particular groups or individuals. Following the broader interest in linguistic methods that emerged in the 1990s (Phillips and Oswick, 2012), management and organizational scholars have been concerned with how language is used by actors to construct identities. Linguistic methods include a range of approaches, including discourse analysis, narrative analysis, and the study of rhetoric. The tendency in studying linguistic methods has been to examine specific discursive strategies such as contrasting, whereby people use text and talk to juxtapose their own identities with those of others, usually establishing in some way their own superiority (e.g., Alvesson, 1994). There is also an extensive literature on the narrative construction of identity, looking at the stories that actors craft to make sense of their identities and to communicate them to others (e.g., Ibarra and Barbulescu, 2010).

Smaller streams of organizational research have attended to the ways in which identity work depends on managing appearance or relationships. People in organizations engage in cosmetic forms of identity work that involve managing one’s appearance in order to shape identity, through different forms of dress (Pratt and Rafaeli, 1997) or body markings such as tattoos or piercings (Phelan and Hunt, 1998). This form of identity work can signal group membership or be an attempt to construct a unique identity. People also work to construct identities through association with physical artifacts or particular groups. The cliché of a middle-aged man buying a sports car, for example, represents identity work performed as part of an effort to construct a new identity during a “mid-life crisis.” Alternatively, membership in an exclusive members club or an activist organization like Greenpeace may be used to signal aspects of identity such as wealth or social awareness.

Shifting to an understanding of identity work as a form of self work expands our attention to a more diverse set of identity work practices. Our conceptualization of self work emphasizes the roles of its relational and material dimensions, providing a useful corrective to the overly discursive focus that has characterized research on identity work research. Injecting the relational dimension more fully into research on identity work asks how people construct their identities in and through others. More fundamentally, it draws on (p.100) the notion of a relational self to suggest that all identity work is relational because our identities are relational, even when we think of them as “personal” rather than “social.” Concretely, we would stop seeing identity work as being accomplished “by an actor,” and instead see it as being accomplished by networks of actors, negotiating the meanings of a self and its connections to others.

A similar effect will occur as we began to emphasize the materiality of identity work as self work. At a minimum this would mean ensuring attention to the body—its place in identity work and its inextricable tie to identity. Inspiration comes from writing on “body work” that has brought together what might seem like disparate activities, including the management of physical appearance, the caring for others’ bodies (both abled and less abled), embodied emotional experience and display, and the body-modifying effects of labor (which are often debilitating) (Gimlin, 2007). All of these activities should be explored as both identity work and self work. Going back to our discussion of the material dimension of self work, it is important we also pay attention to the “cyborg” nature of identity (Haraway, 1985) as we increasingly attach our bodies to technologies at work and create material-social hybrids (Latour, 1999).

Effects of Identity Work

Research on the effects of identity work has tended to focus on its impacts on the person directly associated with the identity in question or on the other actors conducting identity work. Scholars have explored how, for instance, the identity work of homeless people allows them greater autonomy and dignity, and how the identity work of professionals shapes their organizational cultures. Other important effects that have been observed include the effects on organizations (usually employers) that benefit from the control and motivation resulting from individuals taking on particular identities. Identity work also provides access to resources associated with particular social networks or roles. Consequently, identity work that supports the construction of multiple social identities provides both the focal individual and others, including their managers, with access to broader arrays of resources (Creary et al., 2015).

Beginning to think of identity work as a type of self work extends our attention to some less well-understood effects, including the broader spillovers on others of work performed to shape one’s own identity, or the effects of work performed by others on third parties related to the person occupying that identity. The third parties might include work colleagues, friends, or family, who may be positive or negatively affected both by the identity work and the identities in play. If we think, for instance, of the identity work of professionals, and especially new professionals, in consulting, law, or medicine, (p.101) where a key facet of identity is associated with working long hours and being always available to the organization (Seron and Ferris, 1995; Zerubavel, 1981), we can begin to understand the costs to families and friends of such an identity being borne by the individual who gains the occupational prestige. A self work perspective focuses attention on this broader set of identity effects and in doing so opens up new areas for study.

Resources for Identity Work

Turning to the question of resources in the study of identity work, we see that the emphasis on discursive forms of identity work has led to a preoccupation in the literature with related resources such as “discourses” (Watson, 2009), “rhetorics” (Fine, 1996), and “ethics” (Kornberger and Brown, 2007). The assumption underpinning scholarly concern for such resources is that people largely “talk” their way into identities, establishing who they are in relation to others through arguments, conversation, declarations, and questions. Some studies have also highlighted the cognitive resources that underpin discursive identity work: for example, in a study of people who simultaneously hold and identify with multiple jobs over extended periods of time, Caza et al. (2018: 726) show the value of cognitive resources, such as “identity authorship,” which they define as “efficacy in grappling with, developing, and authenticating multiple identities.”

There has also been some attention paid to the sorts of resources used by organizations as they work to shape the identities of employees and associates. These resources include financial resources as well as organizational routines and processes. Early labor process studies that connected identity to social control (Burawoy, 1979), for instance, identified such resources as “targets and bonus schemes, wage differentials and career systems,” which were argued to have deleterious effects “on both workers and management in separating individuals off from one another and turning them back on themselves” (Knights and Willmott, 1989: 547–8).

As we argued in relation to the practices of identity work, moving to a conception of identity work as a form of self work directs attention to more heterogeneous resources, including relational and material resources. We believe that the heterogeneity of resources used in identity work has been neglected because identity work projects have been understood in an unnecessarily narrow way. When we conceive of instances of identity work as embedded in lifelong projects of self work, involving ever-changing casts of individuals and collective actors in addition to the persons themselves, and involving relational and material dimensions in addition to discursive resources, that we begin to see how important heterogeneous sets of resources are to such work.

(p.102) If we go back to the example of Maria Patiño, the work done by individuals and collective actors drew on a broad range of discursive, relational, and material resources ranging from medical tests and financial resources to Patiño’s body. Simply looking at the discursive resources would have missed much of the broad range of resources that were drawn on by the various actors who performed the broad range of work done in the reconstruction of Patiño’s self.

Embedding identity work in the concept of self work raises a second important issue regarding resources. Although resources are critical to self work, there exists a starkly unequal distribution of resources useful in identity work in modern societies and across different societies. To engage in identity work requires access to skills, social networks, and material and symbolic assets, as well as time, energy, and security. Thus, although the ability of people to shape their own identities is often taken for granted, conceiving of it as self work highlights the challenges associated with such work in the face of an unequal distribution of resources. Although the mass production, mass consumption, and legally enshrined personal rights that characterize contemporary, developed Western societies create the generalized possibility of thinking of oneself as an individual, this possibility can be frustrated by a lack of critical resources. Self work requires “a surplus of personal resources that [people] can invest in reflecting on themselves and in building an autonomous identity”; inequality is not only a matter of material gains and losses, but “of unequal access to the new resources of individuation” (Melucci, 1996: 500).

The profound impact of a lack of resources on identity work can be seen more clearly if we consider it in relation to the discursive, relational, and material dimensions of identity work. We will start with the material dimension, as it may be the most obvious. To the degree to which identity work requires material objects, especially those associated with consumption or production, then poverty and unemployment may dramatically undermine one’s ability to engage in identity work. Economic inequality is also associated with an inequality in the time and space available to people to engage in the discursive and relational dimensions of identity work. To put it simply, the ability of a wealthy, married professional to engage in identity work far outstrips that ability in a single-parent worker on minimum wage whose time, energy, and wealth are consumed by meeting her family’s basic needs.

But the reality of the unequal distribution does not stop with the material dimension. Identity work demands discursive and relational resources, the availability of which depends on the context and the kind of identity work in question. The symbols and narratives, for example, of what it means to be a lesbian and how to live as a lesbian are more readily available and well developed in San Francisco than in Jeddah. Similarly, the willingness of others to participate and support this effort—the relational dimension—is also more (p.103) developed and readily available in some societies and some parts of societies. To continue the example, for someone to be able to easily and publicly connect with others who are constructing their identities in similar ways, and receive their support and help, makes the work of constructing a lesbian identity much more likely to succeed.

Situatedness of Identity Work

The question of situatedness is clearly important in research on identity work, where organizational, occupational, and technological dimensions of people’s situations feature prominently. Perhaps the most common contextual dimension on which discussions of identity work focus is people’s organizational and occupational affiliations. Studies of identity work have, for instance, emphasized the distinctiveness of identity work in occupations such as Amway representatives (Pratt, 2000), the priesthood (Creed et al., 2010), eBay business sellers (Curchod et al., 2014), and sex workers (Brewis and Linstead, 2000).

Less considered, despite its significance, is the historical context of identity work. A classic example that illustrates the importance of history on identity work comes from the early days of the Ford Motor Company (Meyer, 1981). Ford’s use of identity work as a means of social control stemmed from problems it was facing with employees, including an annual turnover rate of 416 percent and daily absenteeism between 10 and 20 percent. In response, Ford established a profit-sharing plan for employees, but made it available only to those it deemed to be living a moral life, including men who lead “a clean, sober and industrious life,” and women “who are deserving and who have some relatives solely dependent upon them for support.” To support these rules, Ford established a Sociological Department that investigated workers’ home lives and actively intervened with training and advice intended to lift standards of morality and living conditions.

Summing Up

Our discussion of the different elements of identity work suggests that conceptualizing identity work as self work provides an opportunity to extend current concerns with situatedness by incorporating a broader conception of context. Our discussion of motivations suggests that the situation in which identity work occurs may involve broader social networks than have been typically considered. Similarly, our suggestion that identity work research pay closer attention to the unintended effects of such work brings in less obviously affected actors, such as families, friends, and communities. The points we made in relation to practices and resources also highlight the need to enrich our analysis of context to include people’s access to social, economic, and material resources that facilitate or constrain their ability to engage in identity (p.104) work. Although we have not focused on it here, recent writing has begun to move research in ways consistent with this expanded view of identity work. Brown (2017) notes the emergence of discursive, dramaturgical, symbolic, and psychodynamic views of identity work that extend and challenge dominant conceptions associated with social identity and social categorization perspectives. Embracing this broader set of approaches to the study of identity work would help integrate more diverse sets of motivations, practices, resources, and effects, and provide creative links to other types of self work.

The directions we have suggested point to a richer, more deeply embedded examination of identity work. But they also point in the opposite direction—to the need for more comparative studies that cut across contexts and are thus able to systematically establish the causal roles of different situational elements. Identity work research has been dominated by qualitative methods that have provided detailed accounts of what identity work looks like in specific situations, by specific sets of actors, and with specific sets of effects. Less progress has been made, however, in integrating across these situations to provide a theory of variation in identity work, its motivations, and its consequences (Brown, 2015). Thus, conceptualizing identity work as a form of self work may provide a significant opportunity for the development of a more comprehensive theory.

Career Work

Our examination of the careers literature from a self work perspective will be relatively exploratory in contrast to our discussions of emotion work and identity work, both of which have more developed streams of research that are more immediately consistent with the approach we are developing here. At the same time, we believe the study of careers represents a tremendously exciting opportunity for the study of self work in part because of this gap, and because the traditional concept of a career is being challenged by a profoundly dynamic, challenging work environment, where we have moved from organizational to boundaryless careers (Arthur and Rousseau, 2001) and more recently to a workforce increasingly dependent on the gig economy in which careers are composed of sequences of tasks rather than long periods in conventional jobs (Davis, 2016; Kwok, 2017).

Career Work in Management and Organizational Research

Where the study of emotion work and identity work provide well-developed bodies of research to support our review of those areas, we anchor our discussion of career work more broadly in the study of careers, and highlight the (p.105) threads in that literature we believe can contribute to a move to studying career work. The study of careers has a “long and chequered history” (Evetts, 1992: 1), which we draw on, first reviewing traditional approaches to the study of careers as objective sequences of employment and as subjective experiences. We then turn to research on careers that has emphasized their social construction, including the symbolic-interactionist tradition of the Chicago School, and writing that has drawn on institutional and structuration lenses. Finally, we turn to writing on careers that is focused on the recent changes in labor markets that have led to “boundaryless” careers and the gig economy.

Careers as Objective Sequences and Subjective Experiences

Two approaches dominate traditional career research, the first of which defined a career as “sequences of work experiences over time” based on the simple idea that “Work gets done. Time passes. Careers…unfold” (Arthur and Rousseau, 2001: 3). This definition is explicitly general, intended to apply to all people who work. In the sociology of occupations and professions, early research on careers focused on organizational career structures, so that careers were understood as organizational phenomena, existing independently of the people who traversed those structures. Within this tradition, one approach was organization-focused, conceptualizing careers as organizational “frameworks which link together posts and positions with different functions and at different levels,” and which included dimensions such as salary progression and professional development. A second approach focused on employees as the units of analysis, defining a career as “the succession of posts and positions through which employees have moved during their working lives,” within an organization or a profession (Evetts, 1992: 4).

For researchers, it was attractive to conceptualize careers as a sequence of stepping stones within an organization or profession toward ever greater responsibility and compensation, especially when it seemed that such an image corresponded to most working people’s experiences, or at least with the idealized versions of those experiences. But that image no longer holds, and in fact was always problematic. As Evetts (1992: 7) argues, a significant consequence of the objective approach to careers was that it produced an “assumption regarding what is the ‘normal’ career and hence what are ‘abnormal’ career patterns” that marginalized many women’s careers, as well as the careers of the many men who for reasons of choice or circumstance moved across organizations and occupations in “abnormal” ways, or entered and exited the workforce in a rhythm inconsistent with the idealized continuous progression over many years.

(p.106) The second long-standing tradition in the study of careers has focused on people’s subjective experiences, exploring the “perspectives and understandings of career builders themselves” (Evetts, 1992: 9). From this perspective, a career is defined as an “individually perceived sequence of attitudes and behaviors associated with work-related experiences and activities over the span of the person’s life” (Hall, 2001: 12).

A key idea in this tradition is that of a “vocation,” which suggests an image of careers as long-term commitments that require training, and are sometimes driven by external or internal “callings” (Inkson et al., 2014). The psychological approach to understanding careers initially conceived of both people and jobs as relatively static, and thus emphasized the importance of “fit,” which led to the rise of an industry devoted to assessing fit based on identifying job requirements and psychometric testing of individuals. Only relatively recently have psychological approaches to career research and counseling incorporated more fluid conceptions of careers and people, with insights from social-learning and information-processing theories pointing to the possibility of people shaping their relationships to employment and careers (Mitchell et al., 1979; Peterson et al., 1991).

The Social Construction of Careers

In contrast to the objective or subjective phenomena described above, the symbolic-interactionist approach conceptualized careers as a distinctly social phenomenon, and one imbued with agency. This approach applied the concept of a career not only to paid work, but to any context in which “one’s life touches the social order” (Hughes, 1958: 64). This approach to studying careers was established by the Chicago School of Sociology between the 1930s and the 1960s (Barley, 1989), and applied to a wide range of lived experiences beyond formal employment, including sex workers (Weitzer, 2009), female crack dealers (Dunlap, Johnson, and Manwar, 1994), hit men (Levi, 1981), and graffiti writers (Lachmann, 1988). In this tradition, the notion of a career describes “the progress of an individual through a linked set of role learning experiences” (Evetts, 1992: 10) and is rooted in Goffman’s (1959b) concept of a “moral career.”

In the interactionist approach to careers, the concept of a “career strategy” evolved as a central explanatory tool. A career strategy describes the moves that an individual makes to “maintain, protect, develop and enhance their own positions and interests in particular situations” (Evetts, 1992: 11). The concept of a career strategy shifts the idea of a career from something emanating directly from organizational or occupational structure to a set of perceptions, choices, and behaviors on the part of individuals. This represents an important distinction, which highlights the roles of individual agency and meaning in the construction of careers: it highlights the “meaning-building, (p.107) self-actualizing, and liberating potential” of career work (Tams and Arthur, 2010: 634; see Hall, 2001). Managing and shaping one’s career can involve, for instance, asserting idiosyncratic definitions of what it means to achieve success, which can provide both freedom and energy. Thus, the symbolic-interactionist approach opens the door to a social-symbolic work perspective by focusing on the meaning and agency of individuals, but stops short by adopting an objective understanding of social structure and an apolitical understanding of human agency.

A related stream of writing on career work as a product of social construction evolved as organizational scholars adopted institutional and structuration lenses to explore the careers associated with a range of occupations and occupational categories, including scientific and technical occupations (Barley and Kunda, 2011; Duberley, Cohen, and Mallon, 2006a), and traditional professions like law and medicine (Duberley et al., 2006b; Hotho, 2008).

Key to this approach has been an integration of the social context into an understanding of careers, moving away both from careers as objective features of organizational structures, and from careers as the subjective experiences of individuals. In contrast, this stream of work, drawing on structuration theory, describes careers in terms of the ongoing interplay of structure and agency. Barley (1989), for instance, highlights the ways in which people draw on institutional resources to enact career scripts, which in turn can shape those same institutions.

This stream of work provides the strongest foundation for a social-symbolic work perspective on careers, as it has the potential to conceptualize careers and the notion of a career itself as socially constructed through the efforts of interested actors. Thus, as with emotions and identities, the study of careers has evolved in ways that allow an understanding of careers as social-symbolic objects that can potentially be reflexively examined, shaped, and leveraged by interested actors. Tams and Arthur (2010: 630) describe efforts to shape careers as “career agency,” which they define as “a process of work-related social engagement, informed by past experiences and future possibilities, through which an individual invests in his or her career.”

Boundaryless Careers and the Gig Economy

A major shift occurred in the study of careers with the introduction of the notion of a boundaryless career (Arthur and Rousseau, 2001; Tams and Arthur, 2010). The boundaryless career emerged in contrast to the notion of an organizationally bounded career that “saw people in orderly employment arrangements achieved through vertical coordination in mainly large, stable firms” (Arthur and Rousseau, 2001: 1). Arthur and Rousseau (2001) suggest that there exists a wide range of boundaryless careers, including those that move “across the boundaries of separate employers,” are validated by a market (p.108) “outside the present employer,” or are “sustained by external networks or information.” Common across all of them, however, is “independence from, rather than dependence on, traditional organizational career arrangements” (Arthur and Rousseau, 2001: 3).

More recently, scholars and popular commentators have argued that even this boundaryless notion of a career has become a quaint relic of a bygone economic era, as changes in the labor markets of developed countries have led to careers that involve contingent and precarious forms of work, including work in the gig economy, in industries subject to automation and offshoring, and in project-based organizations (Barley et al., 2017). In this context, careers are composed of sequences of tasks rather than jobs (Davis, 2016).

One manifestation of these changing conditions that has gained considerable popular attention is the “side hustle,” where people are engaged in a primary form of work, often in paid employment, and at the same time are engaged in an entrepreneurial venture that stems from an interest or passion. This is a common story in the world of pop-up and underground restaurants where amateur and moonlighting professional cooks create temporary restaurants, often as a strategy aimed at eventually opening a more traditional restaurant (Demetry, 2017).

The possibility of multiple parallel careers challenges traditional notions of careers, and highlights the value of conceptualizing careers as social-symbolic objects, rather than as some kind of sequence of work activities or even the subjective experience of those activities. These dynamics are evidenced even in more traditional kinds of work, where increasingly mobile careers lead people to craft “portable selves” that are “endowed with definitions, motives, and abilities that can be deployed across roles and organizations over time” (Petriglieri et al., In press). These portable selves rely on trans-organizational institutions as career anchors, which provide a basis for both “agentic direction and enduring connection” in the face of uncertain, highly mobile employment trajectories (Petriglieri et al., In press).

Career Work as Self Work

Careers from a social-symbolic work perspective relate to sequences of work over time but are not objective descriptions of those sequences, either as lived or as formalized by human resources departments, and neither are they purely subjective phenomena; instead, careers as social-symbolic objects represent relationally situated, materially enacted, narrative accomplishments. These narratives focus on sequences of work and their significance for individuals, their personal and professional networks, the firms that employ those individuals, and the communities in which those individuals and firms are situated. From this perspective, career work involves the social construction of (p.109) people’s “careers.” By mapping research on career work to the process model of social-symbolic work we introduced in Chapter 2 (see Figure 4.1 for a simplified version), we can identify areas of connection between existing careers research and a social-symbolic work perspective, as well as opportunities for new research and theory.

Motivations for Career Work

As with emotion work and identity work, we begin by considering what we know about the motivations that animate career work. And, as with those other forms of work, this turns out to be a surprisingly complex question. We start with the familiar case of a person engaging in career work in relation to their own career, which has been explored primarily in terms of the psychological mechanisms that might trigger and drive such behavior. Despite this seeming a rather obvious activity in relation to careers, and a long-established topic in management writing (Whyte, 1956), systematic consideration of the motivations for “career self-management” has only recently emerged as a significant consideration in the study of careers. King (2004) constructs career self-management as a form of control-seeking behavior that emerges in response to a perception of impediments to desired career outcomes, which are rooted in “career anchors” (Schein, 1996). The desire to gain control of an important part of one’s life conditions one’s self-efficacy in regards to the career domain, such that people “are likely to use career self-managing behavior to a greater extent where they feel competent to do so” (King, 2004: 123). This image of the motivations for career self-management provides a useful starting point for understanding why people engage in career work, but is limited by its conception of careers as a subjective experience, rather than a socially negotiated social-symbolic object.

If we think of careers as a facet of the self, then the motivations that might drive career work become more complex. Rather than people only engaging in career work to gain career outcomes through future work experiences, career work would also involve the social construction of one’s career as a discursive object that makes interpretable both previous and future work experiences. So, people would be motivated to engage in career work not only when they want to shape future work experiences, but when they want to re-narrate previous work experiences. One could, from this perspective, easily imagine the career work of retired people, or the career work of people looking for jobs and thus wanting to re-narrate the meaning of their previous work experiences.

Moreover, as part of the self, there are a range of people who might be motivated to engage in work that shapes the meaning and evolution of a career, including the focal person but also including people in relationships with that person. Spouses, children, and parents, as well as our bosses, subordinates, and colleagues, may all be motivated to shape a person’s career. (p.110) In organizations, managers will often be motivated to construct careers from employees’ already experienced and possible work experiences, so that the paths through organizational life are more meaningful and rewarding, and employees are in turn more likely to stay and work hard. More generally, careers, like identities, represent bridges between people and social structure that make people’s lives meaningful and at the same time provide stability to social structures.

Practices of Career Work

Moving to the question of practices, an important contribution of conceiving of career work as self work could be that it encourages the integration of what have previously been understood as separate sets of practices associated with careers. The careers literature has tended to divide “doing the work” and “talking about the work” as separate and sometimes loosely coupled parts of a career. Where the earliest writing on careers emphasized the pattern of doing the work that evolved over a person’s life, equating that pattern with the person’s career, more recent writing has focused on an interpretive view of careers as narratives told by multiple people about an individual’s working life. Those two conceptions have, however, remained quite separate, despite the move in other parts of the social sciences to undermine what might be understood as an arbitrary and unrealistic divide.

The divide is arbitrary and unrealistic in two ways. First, it suggests that doing the work has no significant narrative component: “doing” work seems to involve an unreflexive actor engaging in routine or creative tasks without considering or shaping those tasks as part of a larger story of their work and self. This separation is denied by the growing literature on how people “craft” their jobs, which highlights the integration of discursive and practical dimensions of working lives (Wrzesniewski and Dutton, 2001; Wrzesniewski et al., 2003). Second, it suggests that telling stories about one’s career is divorced from doing the work—that doing the work may at best serve as a narrative resource. In contrast, the concept of self work suggests that these two elements—doing and talking about work—are deeply integrated, with each not only informing the other but partly constituting the other. Such an understanding of career work is rooted in our conceptualization of the self and self work as simultaneously discursive, relational, and material.

Effects of Career Work

Examining the effects of career work as self work points to a complex and heterogeneous set that includes both “objective career outcomes,” such as mobility, income, and status, as well as deeper facets of the self, including a sense of “personal agency” that might be tied to “the daily practice of doing one’s craft…or from making subjectively meaningful and empowering career (p.111) choices” (Tams and Arthur, 2010: 638). Indeed, a strength of careers research has been a sensitivity to the consequences of people’s careers for their broader lives. Conceiving of career work as self work pushes this sensitivity further and in new directions by highlighting the ways in which efforts to shape a career can have consequences that extend not only beyond the person’s relationship to employment, but beyond the person to include their networks and the network of actors connected to the employment situation, such as colleagues and customers.

Resources for Career Work

Although the issue of resources has not traditionally been central to research on careers, it has become a pivotal issue in research on the careers of women and visible minorities. Beginning with Kanter’s (2008) groundbreaking study of the careers of men and women in a large corporation, the impact of identity on people’s careers and their access to the resources necessary to forge a successful career have been studied across a variety of contexts and with attention to a range of resources (Sullivan and Baruch, 2009).

One important resource that has been investigated with respect to gender and race has been the availability and impact of organizational mentors. In an early study of these dynamics, it was shown that MBA program graduates who were able to establish mentoring relationships with white men gained nearly a US$17,000 salary advantage over those graduates with mentors who were not white men. Not surprisingly, this valuable resource was more available to white, male MBA students than to African American, Hispanic, or female students. The impact of race and gender also influences the dynamics within mentoring relationships, such that the degree to which mentor–protégé pairs perceive themselves as similar increases their mutual liking, satisfaction with the relationship, and frequency of contact (Ensher and Murphy, 1997). These studies illustrate not only the importance of specific resources for successful career work, but also the unequal distribution of those resources in ways often beyond the control of those trying to shape careers.

Embedding the study of career work in the broader concept of self work would, we believe, further energize research that attends to the role and distribution of career work resources. Conceiving of a career as part of a self highlights the importance the resources connected to the three dimensions of self work—discursive, relational, and material. Unlike some types of self work, the discursive dimension of career work, and thus the role of discursive resources, has been significantly under-researched. For instance, because careers have primarily been understood as either objective employment sequences or the subjective experience of those sequences, the resources needed to narrate a career have been left relatively unexamined. This is a shame because the ability of people to tell the story of their own or another’s career can have significant (p.112) consequences for their work situations and more broadly. Moreover, the discursive dimension of career work depends not only on rhetorical and narrative skills, but an actor’s discursive legitimacy and the opportunities they are given to tell a story.

The Situatedness of Career Work

Unlike the study of either emotion work or identity work, careers research has been explicitly organized around changes in the economy and society that have affected how and whether people can engage in career work. The evolution of the study of careers has closely followed the changes that have occurred in the economic landscape, beginning with the focus on careers as organizational ladders to be climbed, through the emergence of boundaryless careers, to studies of the gig economy in which careers are composed of sequences of tasks rather than jobs. These changes have radically changed the meaning of a career and the resources available to people to construct their careers.

Conceiving of career work as self work pushes us to explore these changes not only in terms of people’s economic activity, but their broader conceptions of self including their relationships, material living conditions, and the narratives they construct in order to make sense of their lives for themselves and others. We can imagine that for the growing proportion of the population engaged in the gig economy, the boundary between self and career will be increasingly less meaningful—separating who I am, how I live, and what I do is highly problematic for a person who works on a task-by-task contract at home or from their car. These shifts highlight the distinctive nature of career work as a form of self work: perhaps more than any other kind of self work, career work exists at the intersection of the self, society, and the economy.

Summing Up

Conceiving of career work as a type of self work provides the opportunity for exciting and important new directions in exploring the agency people bring to their careers and those of others. It pushes us to examine how careers are shaped to fit with, enhance, and compensate for other parts of people’s lives. It also highlights the importance of seeing a career as a social-symbolic object that affects and is affected by a whole network of actors, including but also well beyond a person’s work relationships. Career work, from this perspective, is an artful endeavor that depends on skills and resources that allow people to narrate notions of success and achievement, embed it in supportive relationships, and support it with material resources. And, as highlighted by writing on boundaryless careers and the gig economy, career work is a matter of significant public importance, as we move to economic and technological conditions that challenge how we have traditionally constructed careers, and the economic rewards and social accolades that have accompanied those constructions.

(p.113) Conclusion

In this chapter, we have focused on research on how people work to construct selves—their own and others. Research on management and organizations has examined a number of forms of self work, including emotion work, identity work, and career work. Unfortunately, little attention has been paid to their relationships to each other or their potential standing as members of a broader theoretical family. Studies of these forms of self work have provided important insights into organizational life and revealed previously overlooked opportunities for agency on the part of marginalized members. But left isolated, they each paint a monochromatic image of agency in relation to the self that could be made far more vivid and realistic if expanded and integrated. In the chapters to come, we consider social-symbolic work aimed at organizations and institutions, and the streams of management and organizational research that have examined each of them, before circling back to explore how all those forms of social-symbolic work might be integrated theoretically and studied empirically.

Key Resources

Emotion Work

The study of emotion work revolves around two compelling texts by Hochschild, “Emotion work, feeling rules, and social structure” and The managed heart, in which she lays out the core arguments regarding the possibility of people managing their emotions, both displayed and expressed, drawing on the dramaturgical notions of deep and shallow acting. In Bryman’s book, The Disneyization of society, he explores the broader connections between emotion work and what he describes as performative labor in the context of Disney theme parks and a range of other societal contexts he describes as being subject to the process of Disneyization.

Bryman, A. 2004. The Disneyization of society. London: SAGE.

Hochschild, A. R. 1979. Emotion work, feeling rules, and social structure. American Journal of Sociology, 85(3): 551–75.

Hochschild, A. R. 1983. The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Identity Work

As with emotion work, the study of identity work is tied closely to a single individual: Goffman’s The presentation of self in everyday life and Stigma provide a foundation for all modern scholarship on identity work. In the first of these texts, Goffman adopts a dramaturgical perspective (like Hochschild) to consider the everyday performances of people in ordinary work situations, as they work to present themselves to others and (p.114) manage the impressions they create. In the later book, Goffman extends his analysis of identity and identity work to focus on negative identities, and the work both of the stigmatized individual and those around her to shape and manage that tainted identity. The study of identity work was reinvigorated by Snow and Anderson’s examination of “Identity work among the homeless” in Austin, Texas, which provided a broader understanding of identity work that included material and relational, as well as discursive/performative dimensions.

Goffman, E. 1959. The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Anchor Doubleday.

Goffman, E. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Snow, D. A., and Anderson, L. 1987. Identity work among the homeless: The verbal construction and avowal of personal identities. American Journal of Sociology, 92(6): 1336–71.

Career Work

Coming to an understanding of career work involves reconceptualizing everyday understandings of what we mean by a career. It involves a shift from representational descriptions of a person’s progress through jobs, responsibility, and pay, to careers as social constructions. This shift is central to a new wave of writing on careers that reflects changes that have occurred over the past couple of decades, beginning with Arthur and Rousseau’s edited book on The boundaryless career, which provides an array of resources for understanding careers outside of traditional corporate ladders. Although not referred to as “career work,” managing careers as social-symbolic objects is also a key facet of current writing aimed at individuals wanting to better understand and manage their own careers. In Working identity, Ibarra presents a model for career reinvention that suggests knowing how to do something is the result of doing and experimenting. Career transition is not a straight path toward some predetermined identity, but a crooked journey along which we try on a host of “possible selves” we might become.

Arthur, M. B. and Rousseau, D. M. (Eds.) 2001. The boundaryless career: A new employment principle for a new organizational era. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ibarra, H. 2004. Working identity: Unconventional strategies for reinventing your career. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.