Sub-theme 66: Social-symbolic Work for Inclusion: Constructing Inclusive Organizations and Institutions

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

Call for Papers

Inclusive organizations and institutions are critical to fostering equality, promoting the inclusion of stigmatized groups, and learning from diversity (Ely & Thomas, 2001; Roberson, 2013; Shore et al., 2011). Our aim in this sub-theme is to explore how social-symbolic work is used to address (or undermine) inclusive organizations and institutions.
Scholars have defined inclusion both as an outcome and a process. For instance, in defining inclusion, Shore and colleagues (2018: 177) proposed, “inclusion involves equal opportunity for members of socially marginalized groups to participate and contribute while concurrently providing opportunities for members of nonmarginalized groups, and to support employees in their efforts to be fully engaged at all levels of the organization and to be authentically themselves.” Taking a more process perspective, Woods (2002: 38) proposed: “Inclusion, on the other hand, is about organization. It’s about operationalizing diversity. Inclusion describes the way an organization configures opportunity, interaction, communication and decision-making to utilize the potential of its diversity.”
Inclusive outcomes and processes can be elusive. First, preferences for inclusion can differ within and between individuals. For example, in the workplace some people want to be known and understood at work for their multiple work and non-work identities, while others want to be known and understood only in terms of their occupational selves (Ramarajan & Reid, 2013). Challenges arise when preferences for including or excluding different identities at work differ and, particularly, when power differentials between individuals including and excluding identities are salient (Creary et al., 2015). Second, inclusion can be bounded by structural or legal factors. For example, citizenship can afford nationals the opportunity to access suitable employment, healthcare, and other social opportunities but lack of citizenship can exclude non-nationals from similar opportunities (Andreouli & Howarth, 2013).
The relationship between social-symbolic work and inclusion is complex and critically important. Social-symbolic work represents the purposeful, reflexive efforts of individuals, collective actors, and networks of actors intended to shape or maintain the social-symbolic facets of organizational life (Lawrence & Phillips, 2019). 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), or the self, including identities and emotions (Brown & Toyoki, 2013; Creary et al., 2015; Zapf, 2002).
Social-symbolic work has at least two important connections to the issue of inclusion. First, the concept of inclusion begins with the assumption that there are people who can and perhaps should be included in organizing processes, but whose inclusion has traditionally been rendered problematic – either intentionally or unintentionally. Thus, the first connection between social-symbolic work and inclusion is through the work done to construct selves – identifiable, interpretable assemblages of bodies, identities, relationships, and abilities that are located in relation to each other and to organizations, and whose inclusion may be taken-for-granted, problematic, or of some other status. For scholars interested in inclusion, the social construction of selves is therefore a critically important process that needs to be empirically examined, theorized, and situated in relation to the social construction of other key objects.
The second key connection between the concepts of social-symbolic work and inclusion concerns the efforts of actors to construct, shape, re-shape, and disrupt organizations, institutions, and their relationships to inclusion. For scholars interested in inclusive organizations, understanding how actors construct organization and institutions is key to understanding how and why some organizations and institutions are more inclusive than others, and how organizations and institutions that aren’t inclusive can be made more inclusive by interested actors carrying out social symbolic work.
In keeping with the Colloquium theme of “Organizing for an Inclusive Society: Meanings, Motivations, and Mechanisms”, we are interested in exploring how social-symbolic work is involved in constructing inclusive organizations and institutions, as well as how social-symbolic work may lead to exclusion. Our interests in this relationship are wide-ranging, but a few areas that could be of particular interest include:
How, when, and why actors engage in social-symbolic work to shape equality and inclusion:

  • How and when does social-symbolic work on the self promote equality and inclusion in organizational life?

  • How and when does social-symbolic work on strategies and boundaries promote equality and inclusion in organizational life?

  • How and when does social-symbolic work on social structures promote equality and inclusion in organizational life?

The intended and unintended consequences of social-symbolic work aimed at addressing inclusion in organizations and institutions:

  • How does social-symbolic work aimed at creating inclusion affect individuals’ identities and relationships?

  • How does social-symbolic work aimed at creating inclusion affect the organizations involved in and connected to that work?

  • How does social-symbolic work aimed at creating inclusion shape broader social structures, such as beliefs, norms, and categories?

Specific contexts in which the interplay of social-symbolic work and the complexities of inclusion are most evident and important. Topics might include:

  • Social-symbolic work aimed at creating inclusion in and around public companies

  • The social-symbolic work of dominant groups grappling with the inclusion of marginalized groups, or of marginalized groups working to overcome their exclusion

  • The social-symbolic work of actors encountering resistance to their efforts to address exclusion

We recognize there may be relatively few studies explicitly focused on these relationships and so we encourage submissions that 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, we especially encourage empirical investigations that connect social-symbolic work to issues of inclusion and exclusion.


  • Andreouli, E., & Howarth, C. (2013): “National identity, citizenship and immigration: Putting identity in context.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 43 (3), 361–382.
  • Brown, A.D., & Toyoki, S. (2013): “Identity work and legitimacy.” Organization Studies, 34 (7), 875–896.
  • Creary, S.J., Caza, B.B., & Roberts, L.M. (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.
  • Ely, R.J., & Thomas, D.A. (2001): “Cultural diversity at work: The effects of diversity perspectives on work group processes and outcomes.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 46 (2), 229–273.
  • 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.
  • Lawrence, T.B., & Phillips, N. (2019): Constructing Organizational Life: How Social-Symbolic Work Shapes Selves, Organizations, and Institutions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Ramarajan, L., & Reid, E. (2013): “Shattering the myth of separate worlds: Negotiating nonwork identities at work.” Academy of Management Review, 38 (4), 621–644.
  • Roberson, Q.M. (2013): The Oxford Handbook of Diversity and Work. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Shore, L.M., Cleveland, J.N., & Sanchez, D. (2018): “Inclusive workplaces: A review and model.” Human Resource Management Review, 28 2), 176–189.
  • Shore, L.M., Randel, A.E., Chung, B.G., Dean, M.A., Holcombe Ehrhart, K., et al. (2011): “Inclusion and diversity in work groups: A review and model for future research.” Journal of Management, 37 (4), 1262–1289.
  • Whittington, R. (2006): “Completing the practice turn in strategy research.” Organization Studies, 27 (5), 613–634.
  • Woods, S. (2002): “Creating inclusive organizations: Aligning systems with diversity.” Profiles in Diversity Journal, 4 (1), 38–39.
  • 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.
Stephanie J. Creary is an Assistant Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, USA. Her research investigates strategies for managing identities in asymmetric relationships in organizations. Stephanie’s work has been published in the ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion’, and ‘Judgment and Decision Making’.
Thomas B. Lawrence is a Professor of Strategy in the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom. 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, United Kingdom. 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’, ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Organization Science’, ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’, ‘Management Science’, and ‘Journal of Business Venturing’. Nelson is the past Division Chair of the OMT Division of the Academy of Management.
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