Sub-theme 47: Social-Symbolic Work and the Unexpected in Organizational Life

Thomas B. Lawrence
University of Oxford, United Kingdom
Nelson Phillips
Imperial College Business School, United Kingdom
Stephanie J. Creary
University of Pennsylvania, USA

Call for Papers

Our aim in this sub-theme is to explore the complex relationship between social-symbolic work and the unexpected in organizational life. 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, Wrzesniewski, & Ellis, 2013; Whittington, 2006), or the self, including identity and emotions (Brown & Toyoki, 2013; Creary et al., 2015; Zapf, 2002).
The concept of social-symbolic work is tied tightly and in numerous ways to the unexpected in organizational life. First, a critical feature of social-symbolic work is the unexpected consequences that invariably accompany it. Although social-symbolic work is defined by its intentions – shaping social-symbolic objects – its status as social-symbolic work does not depend on achieving these aims. The complex combination of intentions, situations, tools and skills, and creativity and routines creates a great deal of uncertainty in the causal paths through which actors work to shape social-symbolic objects. Second, social-symbolic work itself often represents an unexpected dimension of organizational life – the ability to shape social-symbolic objects. A common thread across forms of social-symbolic work is that it highlights the role of actors in socially constructing elements of work and organizations previously understood as either “natural” or beyond the control of individual actors. Third, social-symbolic work is often motivated by negative unexpected events in the external environment. Specifically, these events can lead individuals and groups to engage in social-symbolic work to shape the social-symbolic dimensions of their own selves and those of others, organizations, and institutions.
In keeping with the Colloquium theme of “Surprise in and around Organizations: Journeys to the Unexpected”, we are interested in exploring how social-symbolic work is involved in producing and responding to the unexpected in organizational life.
The concept of “social-symbolic work” is an umbrella term that includes institutional work, organization work and self work (Phillips & Lawrence, 2012), and thus we are interested in all of these kinds of work and their connection to the unexpected in organizational life. We are especially interested, though, in research that focuses on one or more of the following topics:
(1) Research that examines how social-symbolic work involved in producing or responding to the unexpected in organizational life affects individuals and society including:

  • How does work on organizational identities affect the social identities of individuals?

  • How does work on organizational boundaries affect broader social arrangements?

  • How does work on organizational practices affect broader societal activities?

(2) 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?

(3) 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 unexpected in organizational life, and so we 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. Finally, while we welcome theoretical explorations of social-symbolic work, we want to especially encourage empirical investigations that connect social-symbolic work to the unexpected in organizational life.



  • Brown, A.D., & Toyoki, S. (2013): “Identity work and legitimacy.” Organization Studies, 34 (7), 875–896.
  • Creary, S., 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.
  • Elfenbein, H.A. (2007): Emotion in organizations: A review and theoretical integration. Academy of Management Annals, 1, 315–386.
  • 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.
  • Khan, F.R., Munir, K.A., & Willmott, H. (2007): “A dark side of institutional entrepreneurship: Soccer balls, child labour and postcolonial impoverishment.” Organization Studies, 28 (7), 1055–1077.
  • 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’. Tom has had a long-standing commitment to EGOS, first attending in 1992, and co-convening sub-themes at the EGOS Colloquia in 2006, 2008, 2012, and 2017.
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’, the ‘Journal of Management Studies’, ‘Management Science’, and the ‘Journal of Business Venturing’. He has published four books, is the Editor-in-Chief of ‘Innovation: Management and Organization’, and is the Division Chair of the OMT Division of the Academy of Management. Nelson co-convened sub-themes at the EGOS Colloquia in 2007, 2012, and 2017.
Stephanie J. Creary is an Assistant Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, USA. Her research focuses on the role of inclusionary strategies (i.e., drawing on “both/and” perspectives) in shaping experiences of becoming, relating, and the dynamic interplay between these two phenomena in organizational life. Her work has been published in the ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion’, and ‘Judgment and Decision Making’. Stephanie co-convened a sub-theme at the EGOS Colloquium in 2017.