Extending the Turn to Work:
New Directions in the Study of Social-Symbolic Work in Organizational Life
Submission Deadline: 1 May 2022
Brianna Caza, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Emily Heaphy, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Tom Lawrence, Oxford University
Nelson Phillips, University of California, Santa Barbara
Hannes Leroy, Erasmus University
Over the past forty years, there has been a growing interest in how actors intentionally shape the key “objects” of organizational life including emotions, identities, relationships, boundaries, and institutions. For each object in question, a stream of literature has developed that focuses on a kind of “work” intended to shape that object – emotion work, identity work, relationship work, boundary work, institutional work, etc. This “turn to work” emphasizes the purposeful efforts of reflexive actors – the “conscious, intended try” as Hochschild (1979, p. 560) put it – to create, maintain, destroy, or transform the objects that constitute organizational life. These traditions have been vibrant and productive, but many are in danger of exhausting the energy provided by their initial focus, as evidenced by recent calls for rethinking their assumptions and boundaries (Brown, 2020; Grandey and Gabriel, 2015; Hampel et al., 2017; Vaara and Whittington, 2012).
As a response to both the broad interest in these forms of work and the calls for their reconsideration, a general theory of “social-symbolic work” has emerged that highlights the connections among forms of work, providing an overarching explanation of how actors carry out this activity, and theorizes its effects (Barberá-Tomás et al., 2019; Claus and Tracey, 2020; Langley, 2021; Lawrence and Phillips, 2019; Mantere and Whittington, 2021; Pradies et al., 2020). This special issue will build on the growing interest in social-symbolic work and focus on integrating, extending, and challenging its diverse streams.
AIMS AND SCOPE
The aim of this special issue is to extend scholarship by exploring important new directions in the study of social-symbolic work stemming from three significant opportunities: 1) the opportunity to combine and connect relatively siloed theoretical traditions; 2) the opportunity to explore the potential value of focusing on social-symbolic work in the study of grand challenges and wicked problems in organizational life; and 3) the opportunity to explore how the changing nature of work, organizations, and institutions is reshaping social-symbolic work. In developing their ideas, we encourage submitting authors to study combinations of different forms of social-symbolic work, to work across levels of analysis, and to explore the connections among different social-symbolic objects, such as emotions, identities, relationships, and categories. We also hope to see new theory and research that crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries to address grand challenges and new emerging problems in social and organizational life. There is also an opportunity for authors to investigate new forms of social-symbolic work that are emerging in response to the changing nature of work and society. We touch on each of these and provide sample research questions below.
Topics of Interest and Possible Research Questions
Combine and connect theoretical traditions in the study of social-symbolic work
The first opportunity that motivates this special issue is to connect, combine, and enhance the theoretical traditions that examine different forms of social-symbolic work, such as emotion work, identity work, institutional work, and strategy work. There are two broad aspects to this opportunity: to explore how actors combine forms of social-symbolic work, such as emotion work (Barberá-Tomás et al., 2019; Grandey and Gabriel, 2015), identity work (Caza, et al., 2018; Cornelissen et al., 2021; Sveningsson and Alvesson, 2003), and institutional work (Lawrence et al., 2011; Lawrence and Suddaby, 2006); and to examine how actors connect different social-symbolic objects, either within categories (e.g., connecting different emotions) or across categories (e.g., connecting emotions to identities or institutions).
The first aspect of this opportunity is to examine how actors combine different forms of social-symbolic work in ways that potentially cross levels of analysis and involve networks of different actors. This might involve sequencing different forms of work (Leung et al., 2014), performing different forms of social-symbolic work in parallel (Gawer and Phillips, 2013), or integrating forms of work together to simultaneously shape multiple objects (Trefalt, 2013).
Potential Research Questions
This opportunity provides the basis for research questions such as:
- What are the challenges of engaging in multiple forms of work simultaneously? What sorts of resources and practices are necessary to carry out multiple forms of social symbolic work simultaneously or in sequence? For example, what distinctive resources and skills would an actor require to engage in a sequence of identity work and institutional work?
- How do actors carry out social-symbolic work at different levels of analysis simultaneously and what are the effects of this strategy? For example, when do actors carry out individual level identity work and organizational level identity work simultaneously, and how do they do so?
- How can our understanding of forms of work be enriched by understanding the effects of other forms of work? For example, how can theories of institutional work be enriched by considering the emotion work with which it is sometimes interwoven? Who takes on this emotional work during periods of intense institutional change and how does this impact the identity work of certain groups of organizational actors?
A second aspect of this opportunity is to build synergies across disciplines and levels of analysis by exploring how actors connect different social-symbolic objects, such as identities, emotions, careers, relationships, boundaries and institutions. To date, the literatures on social-symbolic work have focused primarily on social-symbolic objects as discrete phenomena (e.g., only emotions), but these objects exist in ecologies of other social-symbolic objects (and actors and actions). The meanings, uses, and values of social-symbolic objects are tied to those of other social-symbolic objects. Connections among social-symbolic objects may become apparent unintentionally, or be the result of purposeful, reflexive efforts of interested actors.
Potential research questions:
- How do actors draw on existing social-symbolic objects to create new objects? For example, how do actors use existing identities, institutions, and emotions to fashion new identities? Or, how do actors translate social-symbolic objects taken-for-granted in one context into legitimate objects in another social or cultural context?
- How does work performed on one social-symbolic object shape other objects, either intentionally or unintentionally? For example, how would work done to craft an organizational strategy affect the organization’s boundary or its identity? Or, how would individual-level identity work shape emotions, careers, or relationships?
- How does the social and material context (e.g., workplaces, the natural environment, organizational fields) in which social-symbolic objects occurs affect the connections among different social-symbolic objects? For example, what role does the built environment play in facilitating or undermining the work of actors to connect work practices and technological categories?
Explore the role of social-symbolic work in addressing grand challenges and wicked problems
The second opportunity that motivates this special issue is rooted in the shift in management studies that has occurred over the past decade toward examining complex social and organizational problems, as exemplified by research on societal grand challenges (George et al., 2016; Grodal and O’Mahony, 2017). This new focus for management studies has captured the imagination and energy of a wide range of scholars, both established and emerging. An important obstacle for management scholars to overcome in addressing these complex problems, however, is the narrowness of many of our theoretical traditions; we often emphasize conceptual precision at the expense of practical utility. While focusing on individual forms of work has been a productive research strategy, it is can be overly simplistic and unrealistic: in the complex world of organizations, we are more likely to encounter combinations of different forms of work, and more complex requisites, practices, and outcomes, than are reflected in the existing literatures (Grimes and Vogus, 2021; Lawrence and Phillips, 2019). This special issue will offer scholars an opportunity to make progress on both these fronts by developing integrative frameworks and empirical investigations that leverage the conceptual foundations embedded in literatures on social-symbolic work without being confined to single, narrow traditions. We thus expect contributors to explore complex social problems, such as sustainability and inclusion, in ways that reflect and address that complexity while developing coherent theoretical accounts and models.
Potential research questions
- How do actors use or combine forms of social-symbolic work to tackle complex or wicked problems like sustainability, climate change, or social inequality?
- What barriers exist that make it difficult for actors to address grand challenges or wicked problems through forms of social-symbolic work? How, for instance, do politics and culture interrupt or interfere with attempts to address grand challenges through forms of social-symbolic work?
- How are forms of social-symbolic work used in organizations and workplaces to address wicked organizational problems? For example, how are different forms of social-symbolic work used to make our workplaces more diverse and inclusive?
- What unintended consequences emerge from actors’ efforts to address grand challenges and wicked problems through forms of social-symbolic work? For example, what unanticipated societal and cultural effects might accompany efforts to use institutional work to address complex social problems?
- When and how do actors seeking to solve grand challenges combine multiple forms of social-symbolic work? What sorts of societal and organizational problems require multiple forms of social-symbolic work?
Explore the changing nature of work and institutions
Third, despite the explicitly social focus of research on social-symbolic work, such as identity work and institutional work, research in these traditions has not paid sufficient attention to the embeddedness of social-symbolic work and social-symbolic objects in broader social and cultural contexts (Hampel et al., 2017; Langley, 2021). This opportunity includes at least two important strands. One strand emanates from the dramatic (and potentially traumatic) events and changes that occur in societies and communities and which form the context for social-symbolic work. The past year has forcefully reminded us of the dynamism of social and organizational life, usually discussed by organizational scholars in terms of technologies and trade, but clearly also the result of biology and politics. The health and political crises that have marked this past year have highlighted the importance of attending to new forms of social-symbolic work and new social-symbolic objects that rarely gain the attention of organizational scholars (Langley, 2021). Additionally, scholars have noted how less acute and more slowly evolving changes in society, technology, and the economy have altered how work and organizing is done, often in ways that require more conscious agency on the part of individuals.
Potential research questions:
- How are recent problems – such as a pandemic or the risks of climate change – constructed through social-symbolic work? How can we use theories of social-symbolic work to understand and theorize about these new social-symbolic objects?
- How are nonstandard forms of work (i.e. gig work, temporary work, micro work, platform work, portfolio work, shared economy work, multiple jobholding) created and maintained and through what forms of social-symbolic work?
- How does the place in which work is happening – office spaces, coworking spaces, virtual spaces – impact the forms of social-symbolic work that are utilized?
- What interpersonal relationships and social networks are critical as new forms of work develop, and what kinds of social-symbolic work do they require?
A second, related, strand to this opportunity revolves around the ongoing dynamics of power, embedded in cultures and social structures, and profoundly affecting social-symbolic work and social-symbolic objects (DiTomaso, 2021). Despite many calls to attend to power in the literatures on “work” (Brown, 2017; Hampel et al., 2017), there remains relatively little empirical attention to the interplay of power and social-symbolic work. Critical research on identity work, relational work and emotional labor provides important examples of the potential value of such scholarship (Alvesson and Willmott, 2002; Fletcher, 1998; Mears, 2015; O’Brien and Linehan, 2014).
Potential Research questions:
- How should we theorize power in social-symbolic work? How do power relations shape social-symbolic work? How does social-symbolic work affect power dynamics?
- How does a lack of power or dependence affect access to or the effectiveness of particular forms of social-symbolic work?
- How do various forms of social-symbolic work influence the experience of workers at different hierarchical levels? Which kinds of social-symbolic work construct workplace experiences characterized by dignity and resilience, or by oppression and abuse?
SUBMISSION PROCESS AND DEADLINES
- The deadline for submissions is 1 May 2022
- Submissions should be prepared using the JMS Manuscript Preparation Guidelines (http://www.socadms.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/JMS-ManuscriptPreparation-Guidelines.pdf)
- Manuscripts should be submitted using the JMS ScholarOne system (https://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/jmstudies)
- Papers will be reviewed according to the JMS double-blind review process
- We welcome informal enquiries relating to the Special Issue, proposed topics and potential fit with the Special Issue objectives. Please direct any questions on the Special Issue to the Guest Editors:
- Brianna Caza: email@example.com
- Emily Heaphy: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Tom Lawrence: tom.Lawrence@sbs.ox.ac.uk
- Nelson Phillips: email@example.com
SPECIAL ISSUE SUBMISSION EVENTS
Special Issue Information Session:
13 October 2021: 17:00-18:00 (London); 12:00-13:00 (New York); 9:00-10:00 (Los Angeles)
A one-hour online session will be held to provide interested authors with more information about the aims and scope of the special issue and to answer questions. This session will be scheduled to facilitate broad participation as well as recorded and made available to interested authors who are unable to attend the session. Attendance is not a precondition for submission.
Special Issue Digital Workshops:
7 February 2022: 17:00-19:00 (London); 12:00-14:00 (New York); 9:00-11:00 (Los Angeles)
8 February 2022: 9:00-11:00 (London); 16:00-18:00 (Singapore); 18:00-20:00 (Melbourne)
Interested authors will be invited to submit a 500-word extended abstract to one of two online special issue workshops. These workshops will take place over two hours. In the first one-hour session, we will introduce the special issue and explain what we are looking for in terms of submissions. In the second hour, groups of authors will attend one hour breakout sessions with a facilitator to discuss their proposed papers and the fit with the special issue as well as receive feedback from other authors. The digital format will ensure that attendance is possible for as many authors from around the world as possible. Attendance is not a precondition for submission.
Special Issue In-Person Revision Workshop
October 2022: Exact dates, times, and place TBA
In the interest of providing opportunities to develop their contributions to the Special Issue, the guest editors of this Special Issue are planning to hold a conference and manuscript development workshop in the fall of 2022 (details will be provided at a later date). Authors who receive a “revise and resubmit” (R&R) decision on their manuscript will be invited to attend this workshop. Participation in the workshop does not guarantee acceptance of the paper in the Special Issue and attendance is not a prerequisite for publication.
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