Sub-theme 18: Boundaries as the Key: Organizing for Inclusion and Exclusion

Stephanie Schreven
University of Dundee, United Kingdom
Gazi Islam
Grenoble Ecole de Management, France
Lotte Holck
Copenhagen Business School, Denmark

Call for Papers

“[…] my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal.
I shall feel the affections of a sensitive being and become linked to the chain of existence and events
from which I am now excluded
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein, p. 158

From before the sociological writings of Emile Durkheim, inclusion and exclusion have been basic concepts for understanding inequality across societies, communities, cultures and organizations. Thus, inclusion and exclusion go hand in hand with social stratification, division and hierarchy. However, boundaries, the key mechanism that enables and maintains inequality, are often overlooked.
Indeed, today, many embrace inclusion as a moral imperative, a “superior approach” (Oswick & Noon, 2014: 26), not to resolve inequality but to promote diversity. Pioneers in diversity research, such as Nkomo (2014), argue that the emergence of “[i]nclusion has been driven by the need to close the gap between the promise of diversity and the current ability […] to leverage the advantages of diversity” (584–585). With the management of diversity as a focus, boundaries become a blind spot. As a result, it is unclear if inclusion by itself resolves inequality in favour of equality. In fact, calls for inclusion as a solution to social problems may paradoxically displace concerns with equality and other forms of social justice (Molé, 2010).
And whilst anti-discriminatory regulation has made explicit discrimination and formal exclusion largely a thing of the past, evidence suggests that inequality patterns or regimes (Acker, 2006) persist in most professions and most workplaces, which remain “key sites in the production of social inequality” (Tolbert & Castilla, 2017: 4; cf. also Acker, 2006; Cobb, 2016). Thus, the existence of subtle discrimination indicates the need for more sophisticated frameworks to understand contemporary forms of social exclusion in and around the workplace.
Furthermore, to embrace inclusion as the hegemonic solution to social problems stemming from inequality is to place it beyond question and debate, which also to de-historicizes it. This is ideologically and politically suspect. For instance, inclusion is often studied through a “methodological individualism” prism (Kalev et al., 2006: 591), which considers the individual as a ‘naturally’ given unit of ‘inclusion measurement’ and corresponding actions (Janssens & Steyart, 2019). This renders inclusion activities unsuitable for addressing structural inequalities or subtle discrimination in organizations and society (Van Laer & Janssens, 2011).
Then, the intent of our sub-theme is to critically investigate discourses of inclusion, starting from its relation to exclusion, as every act of inclusion implies exclusion and vice versa (Dobusch, 2014). In particular, we are concerned with boundaries that sustain the dichotomy between inclusion and exclusion and determine who is included and who is not. As an allocating mechanism, they are key to securing power, privileges, belongingness, rights and other advantages to those included, while maintaining inequality and the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’, insiders and outsiders in the process. Yet, while a key mechanism for maintaining inequality and supporting Othering, boundaries also offer a lever for critique in the name of equality, fairness, and justice. A truly emancipatory approach to inclusion, therefore, calls for a study of the terms of inclusion and the political nature of social boundaries that, for instance, result in taboos and stigmas.
For instance, a currently prevalent inclusion discourse stemming from neoliberalism seeks to burden the disadvantaged with the obligations and the responsibility for structural inequalities, such as poverty that are not of their making. Such responsibilization forecloses appeals to equality, fairness or social justice as grounds for inclusion. Another price paid for neoliberal inclusion is increased surveillance and policing, and the erection of a boundary, in the face of otherness, between those ‘deserving’ and those ‘undeserving’. In this light, rather than negotiate the terms of inclusion, alternatives that cross, suspend, or remove boundaries can be more significant for social and democratic change in favour of less inequality and more equality.
The unmaking of boundaries can of course also have unanticipated, or undesirable results. For instance, increasingly many employers have become more diverse in their hiring practices through the recruitment of minority groups. Yet, many are paid less and have fewer career opportunities than their male, white, heterosexual, etc. colleagues. Minorities may then be symbolically included and enjoy recognition, yet without redistribution they are socially and politically excluded at the same time. Furthermore, many minorities groups continue to work in low-paid jobs that stop them ever from being included in the professional-managerial class (Fraser).
Then, our sub-theme invites contributions that focus on the making and unmaking of inclusion and exclusion, the impact on inequality and the implications for Othering by means of boundaries and their intersection. Specifically, we invite contributions and creativity on the following, but not exclusive issues:

  • How do social practices such as social closure (Weber) implicated in HR policies, but also diversity training etc. draw, negotiate or reinforce boundaries around and across workplaces?

  • What are the political stakes around discourses of inclusion, in terms of “inclusion IN what” and “inclusion FOR what ends”?

  • How do wider social discourses and ideologies such as neoliberalism, consumerism and meritocracy impact on organizational practices aimed at upholding or removing exclusionary boundaries?

  • Under what circumstances does resistance to exclusionary practices create new classes of excluded groups and new minorities?

  • What are the historical, social, psychological, affective or aesthetic forces sustaining or suspending boundaries promoting exclusion, inequality or misrecognition?

  • What may be appropriate and effective responses to methodological individualism and its common corollary, tokenism?

  • How can organizations spearhead the crossing, suspending or dissolving of (intersecting) boundaries rooted in established social, community and cultural practices?

  • What would organization that practice genuine equality look like and how desirable would they be? Are there any prototypes for such organizations?

  • Does leadership have a role to play in challenging boundaries and promoting equality, and if so, what kinds of leadership?



  • Ancona, D.G., Goodman, P.S., Lawrence, B.S., & Tushman, M.L. (2001): “Time: A new research lens.” Academy of Management Review, 26 (4), 645–663.
  • Acker, J. (2006): “Inequality regimes: Gender, class, and race in organizations.” Gender and Society, 20 (4), 441–464.
  • Cobb, A. (2016): “How firms shape income inequality: stakeholder power, executive decision making, and the structuring of employment relationships.” Academy of Management Review, 41 (2), 324–348.
  • Dobusch, L. (2014): “How exclusive are inclusive organizations?” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, 33 (3), 220–234.
  • Janssens, M., & Steyaert, C. (2019): “A practice-based theory of diversity: Respecifying (in)equality in organizations.” Academy of Management Review, 44 (3), 518–537.
  • Kalev, A., Dobbin F., & Kelly, E. (2006): “Best practices or best guesses: assessing the efficacy of corporate affirmative action and diversity policies.” American Sociological Review, 71 (4), 589–617.
  • Molé, N.J. (2010): “Precarious subjects: Anticipating neoliberalism in Northern Italy’s workplace.” American Anthropologist, 112 (1), 38–53.
  • Nkomo, S.M. (2014): “Inclusion: Old Wine in New Bottles?” In: B.M. Ferdman & B.R. Deane (eds.): Diversity at Work: The Practice of Inclusion. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 580–592.
  • Oswick, C., & Noon, M. (2014): “Discourses of diversity, equality, and inclusion: Trenchant formulations or transient fashions.” British Journal of Management, 25 (1), 23–39.
  • Shelley, M. (2013/1818): Frankenstein. London: Scholastic.
  • Tolbert, P.S., & Castilla, E.J. (2017): “Editorial Essay: Introduction to a Special Issue on Inequality in the Workplace (‘What Works?’).” Industrial & Labor Relations Review, 70 (1), 3–15.
  • Van Laer, K., & Janssens, M. (2011): “Ethnic minority professionals’ experience with subtle discrimination in the workplace.” Human Relations, 64 (9), 1203–1227.
Stephanie Schreven is a Lecturer at University of Dundee School of Business, United Kingdom, where she teaches on inequality, diversity, organizational misbehavior, and business in society. Her research is concerned with workplace inequalities, specifically social closure, and revolves around the politics, ethics and aesthetics of expertise, professionalism and scholarly knowledge production. For instance, she researches alternative knowledge claims, such as those involved in conspiracy theories and hoaxes, and also leadership with an interest in (female) authority. To date, Stephanie’s research has been published in ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Organization’, and ‘Ephemera’.
Gazi Islam is a Professor at Grenoble Ecole de Management, France. His current research interests include the organizational antecedents and consequences of identity, and the relations between identity, group dynamics and the production of group and organizational cultures. Gazi’s work has been published in journals such as ‘Journal of Management Studies’, ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Leadership Quarterly’, ‘Organization’, ‘Human Relations’, ‘Organizational Research Methods’, and ‘Journal of Business Ethics’.
Lotte Holck is an Associate Professor at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. Her research is on the organization of work and collaboration in different organizational settings and cultural contexts. With this as a general framework, her research focuses on human resource management and development, pursuing a critical approach exploring the impact of demographic, professional and hierarchical differences related to diversity and inclusion in organizations. Lotte applies longitudinal ethnographic studies using qualitative methodologies of participatory observations, interviews and interventions. Her research appears, among others, in journals like ‘Organization’, ‘Scandinavian Journal of Management’, ‘Personnel Review’, and ‘Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management’.