Sub-theme 48: Social-Symbolic Work: Aspirations, Efforts and Struggles

Thomas B. Lawrence
University of Oxford, United Kingdom
Nelson Phillips
Imperial College London, United Kingdom
Stephanie J. Creary
Cornell University, USA

Call for Papers

Our aim in this sub-theme is to explore the complex relationship between social-symbolic work and the aspirations, efforts and struggles of individuals and groups to construct the good organization. Social-symbolic work represents the reflexive, purposive, skillful actions of individuals and groups intended to shape or maintain the social-symbolic facets of organizational life (Phillips & Lawrence, 2012). It can involve efforts to shape broad institutional structures, including categories and practices (Khaire & Wadhwani, 2010; Zietsma & Lawrence, 2010), social-symbolic features of organizations such as strategies and boundaries (Drori et al., 2013; Whittington, 2006), and the self, including identity and emotions (Brown & Toyoki, 2013; Creary et al., 2015; Zapf, 2002). Social-symbolic work plays critically important roles in how organizational actors construct the “good organization”, both in the sense of what is understood as good and the features of organizational life through which conceptions of good are enacted and delivered. The notion of a good organization is itself, of course, a social-symbolic object which actors work to shape – whether “good” is a matter of economic achievement, moral purity, or social integration is a matter of significant debate and contest in many organizations.
In keeping with the Colloquium theme of “The Good Organization”, we are interested in exploring the roles that social-symbolic work plays in the social construction of definitions of good, as well as the achievement of organizational routines, processes and structures that are linked to such definitions. In this sub-theme, we are interested both in what kinds of social-symbolic work seem to be effective in shaping “the good organization”, including both the definition of good and its organizational enactment, and in the efforts of actor to affect the good organization independent of their “success” or not. A critically important issue in the study of social-symbolic work is the observation and explanation of unintended consequences, and so we are as interested in the side-effects and counter-effects of social-symbolic work aimed at the good organization, as we are in that social-symbolic work that successfully creates links between certain actors and the good organization.
We are interested in all kinds of social-symbolic work and their connection to the good organization, especially in research that focuses on one or more of the following topics:
Research that shows how different forms of social-symbolic work combine to affect the good organization, or how different forms of social-symbolic work affect each other. So, for instance, we are interested in relationships such as between:

  • Practice work and identity work: How and when does social symbolic work performed to change or maintain practices require organizational identity work? When does work on the organization’s identity impact practices and therefore require practice work for its success?
  • Emotion work and boundary work: How and when does boundary work result in the need for emotion work? When does emotion work create the need for boundary work?
  • Strategy work and career work: How do career work and strategy work interact?

Research on the unintended consequences of social symbolic work in organizations. Topics might include:

  • How and when does social-symbolic work in organizations have unintended consequences within the organization?
  • How and when does social-symbolic work within the organization have unintended consequences in society more broadly?
  • How and when does social-symbolic work within the organization have unintended consequences on individuals?

Research that focuses on the skills, resources, and identities are required to succeed in the performance of social-symbolic work within organizations. Topics might include:

  • What kinds of skills are required for actors to succeed at social-symbolic work? How can these skills be learned? Can they be taught? If they can be taught, by whom?
  • What kinds of resources underpin successful social-symbolic work? How are they marshaled? Where do actors find them?
  • What identities allow actors to legitimately engage in social-symbolic work? What identities are expressly excluded from this activity?

We recognize that there may be few existing studies that are explicitly focused on these relationships, especially in connection to the good organization, and so we would encourage submissions that only partly address the questions and issues we are raising in this call, with the understanding that selected presenters will be expected to revise their presentations to more closely connect with the focus of the sub-theme and the Colloquium.
We welcome theoretical explorations of social-symbolic work, but want to especially encourage empirical investigations that connect social-symbolic work to the “good organization” – to the aspirations, efforts and struggles of actors in and around organizations to define “good” at the level of the self, the organization and the institutional.


  • Brown, A.D., & Toyoki, S. (2013): “Identity work and legitimacy.” Organization Studies, 34 (7), 875–896.
  • Creary, S., Barker Caza, B., & Roberts, L. (2015): “Out of the box? How managing a subordinate’s multiple identities affects the quality of a manager-subordinate relationship.” Academy of Management Review, 40 (4), 538–562.
  • Drori, I., Wrzesniewski, A., & Ellis, S. (2013): ”One out of many? Boundary negotiation and identity formation in postmerger integration.” Organization Science, 24 (6), 1717–1741.
  • Khaire, M., & Wadhwani, R.D. (2010): “Changing landscapes: The construction of meaning and value in a new market category – modern Indian art.” Academy of Management Journal, 53 (6), 1281–1304.
  • Phillips, N., & Lawrence, T.B. (2012): “The turn to work in organization and management theory: Some implications for strategic organization.” Strategic Organization, 10 (3), 223–230.
  • Whittington, R. (2006): “Completing the practice turn in strategy research.” Organization Studies, 27 (5), 613–634.
  • Zapf, D. (2002): “Emotion work and psychological well-being: A review of the literature and some conceptual considerations.” Human Resource Management Review, 12 (2), 237–268.
  • Zietsma, C., & Lawrence, T.B. (2010): “Institutional work in the transformation of an organizational field: The interplay of boundary work and practice work.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 55 (2), 189–221.
Thomas B. Lawrence is a Professor of Strategy in the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, UK. His research focuses on the dynamics of power, change and institutions in organizations and organizational fields. It has appeared in such journals as ‘Academy of Management Journal’, ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Administrative Science Quarterly’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’, ‘Organization’, and ‘Organization Studies’.
Nelson Phillips is the Abu Dhabi Chamber Chair in Strategy and Innovation at Imperial College London, UK. His research interests include various aspects of organization theory, technology strategy, innovation and entrepreneurship, often studied from an institutional theory perspective. His work appears in journals such as the ‘Academy of Management Journal’, the ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Organization Science’, ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’, and ‘Management Science’. He has published four books, is the Editor-in-Chief of the ‘Journal of Management Inquiry’, Editor of ‘Innovation: Organization and Management’, and is the Division Chair of the OMT Division of the Academy of Management.
Stephanie J. Creary is an Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations at the School of Hotel Administration in the Cornell College of Business at Cornell University, New York, USA. Her research lends insight into the multiple social, professional, and organizational identity dynamics that shape the myriad boundaries in organizational life and change people's work lives for the better. Her work has been published in the ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion’, and ‘Judgment and Decision Making’.