35th EGOS Colloquium

Enlightening the Future:
The Challenge for Organizations


University of Edinburgh Business School

July 4–6, 2019

Edinburgh, United Kingdom




Sub-theme 63: The Politics and Ethics of Social-Symbolic Work

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

Call for Papers

Our aim in this sub-theme is to explore the ways in which forms of social-symbolic work combine to produce or repress the open and reasoned discourse that was at the centre of Enlightenment ideas, a concern that is especially critical at a time when public discourse around the world has become increasingly fragmented, polarized, and dark.
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).
Social-symbolic work has a complex and precarious relationship with the Enlightenment. Whereas traditional Enlightenment ideals were oriented toward achieving truth and perfection through rational means, the study of social-symbolic work has highlighted the many ways in which such aims and means are no longer possible, or perhaps even desirable. A common thread across studies of social-symbolic work is that they highlight the role of actors in socially constructing elements of society, organizations and the self previously understood as either “natural” or beyond the control of individual actors, and the contingencies that drive these efforts. Whereas historically, emotion was understood as an irrational and often maladaptive response to the environment, more recently scholarship has shown how emotion work in the form of “emotional expression” can be an important, positive contribution to resolving conflicts and creating more effective relationships (Elfenbein, 2007). Thus, the study of emotion work moves us away from “real”, “authentic”, or “true” feelings to an interest in how emotional repertoires are used to construct our selves and shape the world around us.
This does not mean, however, that we are arguing for the abandonment of all of the principles and ideals of the Enlightenment; instead, we need to regroup and reorient our understanding of Enlightenment ideals to fit with a world in which social construction is not only an accepted scholarly idea but a dominant issue in public debates. We suggest that a social-symbolic work perspective points to an understanding of enlightenment informed at least in part by Rorty’s ironic liberalism – a standpoint that demands an end to cruelty while privately acknowledging the contingent nature of all knowledge (including definitions of cruelty). More directly, a social-symbolic work perspective on open and reasoned discourse reflects a commitment to people’s efforts to shape their selves, their organizations, and their institutions in myriad ways, while recognizing the arbitrary historical conditions that underpin those efforts and, of course, the efforts of others. The first set of issues on which this sub-theme focuses, therefore, concern the degree to which social-symbolic work occurs as enlightened or repressive set of practices, so that the social construction of selves, organizations, and institutions either embodies irony and liberalism or, in contrast, superstition, jingoism, and a belief in absolute truth.
The connection between social-symbolic work and open and reasoned discourse also exists as a more direct one – the achievement of open and reasoned discourse is itself a product of the social-symbolic work of many actors, working in concert and in conflict. As has been extensively explored by Habermas (1985, 1987, 1990), open and reasoned discourse represents a challenging precarious accomplishment, but one with potentially powerful effects. Thus, a second important set of issues around which this sub-theme is organized is how, why, and when do actors work to construct or suppress open and reasoned discourse in and around organizations.
In keeping with the Colloquium theme of “Enlightening the future: The challenge for organizations”, we are interested in exploring how social-symbolic work is involved in producing or destroying open and reasoned discourse in organizational life. We are interested in all kinds of social symbolic work and their connection to open and reasoned discourse in organizational life defined broadly.
Our interests in this relationship are wide-ranging, but a few areas that could be of particular interest include:
Research that examines how actors engage in social-symbolic work to shape public and organizational discourse:

  • How and when does social-symbolic work on social structures produce, repress, or destroy open and reasoned discourse in organizational life?

  • How and when does social-symbolic work on strategies and boundaries produce, repress, or destroy open and reasoned discourse in organizational life?

  • How and when does social-symbolic work on the self produce, repress, or destroy open and reasoned discourse in organizational life?

Research that examines the intended or unintended consequences of social-symbolic work that shapes public and organizational discourse:

  • How does producing, repressing, or destroying open and reasoned discourse affect individuals’ social identities?

  • How does producing, repressing, or destroying open and reasoned discourse affect broader social arrangements?

  • How does producing, repressing, or destroying open and reasoned discourse affect broader societal activities?

Research that explores specific contexts in which the interplay of social-symbolic work and open and reasoned discourse are most evident and important. Topics might include:

  • Social-symbolic work in and around “safe” and “challenging” spaces in universities

  • The social-symbolic work of social media organizations grappling with the proliferation of hateful speech and “fake news”

  • The social-symbolic work of government and civil society organization to provide opportunities for open and reasoned discourse in the context of incendiary issues and social divisions

  • The social-symbolic work of extremist organizations seeking to undermine open and reasoned discourse online, in organizations, and in public spaces

We recognize that there may be few existing studies that are explicitly focused on these relationships, especially in connection to open and reasoned discourse 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 ideals of the Enlightenment.


  • Brown, A.D., & Toyoki, S. (2013): “Identity work and legitimacy.” Organization Studies, 34 (7), 875–896.
  • Creary, S.J, Barker Caza, B., & Morgan 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.
  • Habermas, J. (1985: The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Habermas, J. (1987): Toward a Rational Society. Student Protest, Science and Politics. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Habermas, J. (1990): The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Twelve Lectures. Cambrige, UK: Polity Press.
  • 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’.
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. Nelson’s 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’.
Stephanie J. Creary is an Assistant Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, USA. Her research investigates approaches to identity and boundary management that draw on “both/and” inclusionary and non-dualistic perspectives to utilize multiple identities, experiences, and perspectives in an enhancing way. Stephanie’s work has been published in the ‘Academy of Management Review’, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion’, and ‘Judgment and Decision Making’.
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