Constructing Organizational Life

How Social-Symbolic Work Shapes Selves, Organizations, and Institutions

Thomas B. Lawrence and Nelson Phillips (Oxford University Press, 2019)

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Lawrence and Phillips COL CoverWinner of the the 2021 Academy of Management’s George R. Terry Book Award. This award is granted annually to the book judged to have made the most outstanding contribution to the global advancement of management knowledge during the last two years.

“This book is a marvelous treatise … It is a systematic, formal, methodical discussion of principles and evidence of the purposeful, reflexive efforts that make social constructions real. … If we consider this book as an evocative treatise, then reflexive readers may discover that somewhere in their own thinking, they assume that portions of organizational life consist of social-symbolic work. The logic of this book may help readers articulate that assumption. This reviewer’s own experience was one of pleasure at becoming immersed in a well-formed logic imposed on a field the reviewer thought he knew.”, Karl E. Weick, Administrative Science Quarterly

“The volume (structured in three parts) offers one of the most significant and enlightening contributions to organization theory that I have read in recent years. … Overall, this is a hugely impressive scholarly contribution. The authors cover all the bases: they build up their theory by proposing a clear integrative model, they elaborate and contextualize it in a fine-grained way through extensive reference to the literature and multiple examples. Finally, they enrich it theoretically, provide methodological tools for empirical research and offer practical applications. They do all this in a very accessible writing style, with multiple guideposts at the beginning and ends of chapters, and useful inserts and exhibits that summarize various aspects of the argument as they go along. Make sure your doctoral students read this, and recommend it to your colleagues!” Ann Langley, Organization Studies.

Across the social sciences, scholars are increasingly showing how people ‘work’ to construct organizational life, including the rules and routines that shape and enable organizational activity, the identities of people who occupy organizations, and the societal norms and assumptions that provide the context for organizational action. The idea of work emphasizes the ways in which people and groups engage in purposeful, reflexive efforts rooted in an awareness of organizational life as constructed in human interaction and changeable through human effort. Studies of these efforts have identified new forms of work including emotion work, identity work, boundary work, strategy work, institutional work, and a host of others. Missing in these conversations, however, is a recognition that these forms of work are all part of a broader phenomenon driven by historical shifts that began with modernity and dramatically accelerated through the twentieth century.

This book introduces the social-symbolic work perspective, which addresses this broader phenomenon. The social-symbolic work perspective integrates diverse streams of research to examine how people purposefully and reflexively work to construct organizational life, including the identities, technologies, boundaries, and strategies that constitute their organizations. In this book, the authors define social-symbolic work and introduce three forms – self work, organization work, and institutional work.

Social-symbolic work highlights people’s efforts to construct the social world, and focuses attention on the motivations, practices, resources, and effects of those efforts. This book explores eight distinct streams of social-symbolic work research, drawing on a broad range of examples from the worlds of business, politics, sports, social movements, and many others. It provides researchers, students, and practitioners with an integrative theoretical framework useful in understanding social-symbolic work, a survey of the main forms of social-symbolic work, a rich set of theoretical opportunities to inspire new studies, and practical methodological guidance for empirical research on social-symbolic work.

  • Clear and concise reviews of distinct research areas in social-symbolic work for those entering management and organizational research
  • Directs readers to additional resources such as articles, books, and videos for further study
  • Uses accessible examples from business, non-profit organizations, government, social movements, technology, sport, and many others
  • Provides the historical backgrounds of key concepts for those new to the subject or studying across areas of social-symbolic work